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Multi-Ethnic and Intergenerational: Bringing Two Conversations Together

Dwight has been working for Dunder Mifflin, an average tech company in an average suburban city, for almost 25 years. At the age of 59, he’s beginning to look forward to his retirement, when he’ll move with his wife to be closer to his children and grandchildren who live several hours away. Unfortunately for Dwight and his wife, with the recent trouble in the housing market, he had to pull some money out of his 401k early in order to keep their home. As such, Dwight knows he’s going to need to keep working for Dunder Mifflin until he’s 67 (rather than 65) in order to make up some of what he has lost.

Every year, his company hires a batch of new employees who are fresh out of college. They’re always those young Millennial types – educated, quick to pick up technology, and full of lots of ideas. While Dwight has viewed them as a bit of a threat to his job security in the past, the new hires have never really impacted him because they’ve never been assigned to his team.

But this year is different. The 25-year-old new hire Jim has been assigned to Dwight’s team. Jim has already been trained in all of the technologies that Dunder Mifflin is trying to begin using as part of one of their new corporate initiatives. Dwight kept his distance from Jim, because as long as Dwight kept hold of the inside-knowledge about the team that he had acquired in his 25 years with the company, he felt that his job would be secure. All of this came crashing down just a few weeks later when Dwight’s boss told him he would be let go at the end of the month. The real punch to the gut was when his boss told him that he would have to train Jim as his replacement before he left.

Dwight is now a 59-year-old man, 8 years away from retirement, who has just been replaced by someone 34 years younger than him who will be paid much cheaper than he was. Bitter and resentful, Dwight didn’t know where else to turn except the ministry team that he leads at his church. That Sunday, he strolled into his meeting at church with his head hung low. Halfway through the meeting, Pastor Michael interrupts and asks to speak with Dwight privately.

Michael lets Dwight know that the church is going to be intentionally moving in a new direction: “We just aren’t reaching the younger generation, and we really feel like the Lord is impressing on us that it is because we haven’t reflected the values that younger people have. Specifically, we haven’t intentionally pursued becoming multi-ethnic as God would have us be. We have decided this is going to involve serious budget and ministry changes on our part. Unfortunately Dwight, your ministry no longer fits into the direction of the church we are going. Thank you for your service to our church, but this will be the last Sunday for your ministry.”

While the story and timeline above may be fabricated, this kind of situation happens frequently today. Put yourself in Dwight’s shoes. What message did his company give him, that was only solidified by the church he belonged to? You’re getting old, so you’re just not as valuable to us as the Millennials are. Dwight likely would’ve been on board with his church’s new direction – if he was given time to process and evaluate how his gifts might serve the new ministries of the church. Instead, he was discarded by Pastor Michael even quicker than he was by his boss.

“How do we reach Millennials?” and “How do we become multi-ethnic/cross-cultural?” are two conversations that most churches today are having. Yet most of the time when I listen to these conversations play out, they are kept separate from each other. Reaching Millennials & being intergenerational is often a conversation taking place in a completely different orbit from the multi-ethnic conversation. I think this is unfortunate, because the reality is these two conversations are actually an intertwined mess of ideas, desires, frustrations and emotions. If we are going to successfully navigate either of these conversations, then we need to understand how they are closely related.

Our society is living in a unique time where because of increased age expectancy and rising costs of living, people are both living and working longer than in the past. Our workplaces now often consist of four or five different generations all working together. These different generations have a lot of misunderstandings about each other, and so it is common for them to be in conflict with one another.

These two conversations are actually an intertwined mess of ideas, desires, frustrations and emotions.

Similar misunderstandings and frustrations also occur in the church. Many church leaders recognize how difficult it can be to get different generations to agree about worship music preferences. But few church leaders realize just how deep the generational divides go and where they stem from – distrust, lack of respect, and misplaced assumptions. When it comes to the racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic conversation, church leaders and members must be made to understand how different generations tend to approach this conversation based on the shared experiences and values that define each generation.

A few years ago, Thom Rainer and his son Jess Rainer wrote a book called The Millennials, which is a commentary on a study they conducted of over 1,200 Millennials across the country. Of their many findings, Rainer & Rainer show that ethnic and cultural diversity is an important value for the Millennial generation. Their study found that 68% of Millennials grew up in places of significant diversity, and 70 percent of Millennials agree that they have close friendships with people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. They conclude that Millennials are a success story because they cross barriers naturally and with little awareness of their ground-breaking behavior. Ethnic-cultural diversity is a reflection of the world that most Millennials live in.[1]

Now compare this to a recent study that came out in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This study was done amongst leaders in our churches to assess our willingness to pursue racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic/cross-cultural ministries. Several questions were sent out to these leaders as part of the assessment. The results were telling: almost universally across the board, the study showed that leaders who were 50 years or older tended to think that there was less present amount of racism than younger respondents, and they also felt further efforts toward reconciliation and cross-cultural ministries were less needed than younger respondents.

These two data points show us that there is a large divide in how important multi-ethnic ministries are to different generations. More than that, I think these results also tell us that different generations will probably approach the racial reconciliation conversation with differing sets of assumptions and ideas. For example, in my experience (White) folks from the older generations define racism in Jim Crow terms (personal prejudices, segregation, etc.). Because of this, they no longer see racism as a serious issue. Yet (White) Millennials seem to be much quicker to recognize racism today in more oppressive systemic terms, not simply personal prejudices. The result is two groups of people who talk past each other because the definition of their terms are different.

Or as another example, consider how someone who has been in a similar situation to Dwight feels about being told by a Millennial that they’re wrong about racism and the importance of multi-ethnic ministry. Or, consider how younger persons feel when they try to stress what is important to them to older persons, but are ignored or shut down. In both situations, biases and assumptions from outside the church become confirmed inside the church as well.

By no means am I trying to equate generational divides and ethnic divides. That would be grossly insensitive (and far from the truth). Nevertheless, it is important to see how misunderstandings across ethnic groups are also shaped by misunderstandings across generational groups.

Now here’s the twist in this already complicated tale: not only do Millennials value multi-ethnic ministry, but they also deeply value relationships with people in older generations (especially the Traditionalists!). This is where things get really complicated. On the one hand, older Baby Boomers and Traditionalists can easily be bitter, resentful and not trusting of Millennials. Millennials can often feel disrespected by Boomers and Traditionalists.

But on the other hand, Millennials deeply desire mentoring relationships with Boomers and Traditionalists. In a Christianity Today interview, author Naomi Schaefer Riley says that Millennials often leave church because the church isn’t much different from the rest of the world they live in. Older members of the church fail to trust Millennials with serious responsibility or anything of importance. She says that flashy ministry and worship may be successful at getting people in the door for a few months, but what Millennials really want is a place where they can really settle in and be a part of the life of the church.[2] This means they’re going to have to be given opportunities to integrate with the older existing members, otherwise their experience will feel shallow and uncommitted. Rainer and Rainer also show that as many as 94% of Millennials have great respect for older generations.[3] Since more Millennials have good relationships with their parents than previous generations – and because they have working relationships with older generations – they want these kinds of relationships to continue to grow in their churches as well.

Mot only do Millennials value multi-ethnic ministry, but they also deeply value relationships with people in older generations.

This means that if churches want to reach Millennials, they must not only intentionally pursue becoming multi-ethnic, but they must also intentionally pursue becoming intergenerational. It is important to qualify this statement by saying that there is a difference between becoming multigenerational and intergenerational. Many church leaders are recognizing that there is a difference between being racially diverse and truly multi-ethnic. Racial diversity may mean that you have folks with different skin hues sitting in your congregation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean their culture is truly represented in the life of the church. In a similar way, you may have multiple generations with their butts in seats on Sunday morning, but unless they’re actually sharing life together throughout the week you are not yet truly intergenerational.

Kara Powell is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and co-author of the book Sticky Faith.Consider what she says about the importance of being intergenerational in the church:

“For too long, we have assumed that we do good youth or young-adult ministry when we separate kids from the rest of the church. Of course, there are times when 6 and 16 and 66 year-olds need to be on their own with folks in their same life stage, but we have swung the pendulum too far. We have segregated (believe me, this is not a verb I use lightly) students and young adults from the rest of the church—and it’s hurting their faith.

Our Sticky Faith research shows that the more high school and college students are engaged in the overall life of the church, the stronger their faith. We’re seeing churches experimenting with countless intergenerational connections, ranging from short-term service to hobby mentoring (e.g., cooking, gardening, art) to intentional small groups. Plus lots of churches are taking the “adult” events they already do (e.g., women’s breakfasts, men’s dinners) and strategically inviting kids to join in.

I believe the future of youth and young-adult ministry is intergenerational. It’s good for students and young adults, and it’s great for the church.”[4]

Likewise, Haydn Shaw, a leading expert on generational studies and author of books like Generational IQ, argues that churches basically have two options: 1) either intentionally pursue becoming intergenerational now, or 2) grow old together, and hand over the keys to the building to a new congregation before the church shrinks out of existence.[5]

If churches want to reach Millennials, they must not only intentionally pursue becoming multi-ethnic, but they must also intentionally pursue becoming intergenerational.

The importance of pursuing multi-ethnic and intergenerational ministry side by side cannot be underestimated. Yet what I perceive is happening in the evangelical church is exactly the opposite. As I’ve traveled from church to church, I’ve observed that congregations tend to “succeed” at one or the other, but not both. You may find a church that is beautifully multi-ethnic, but without a gray hair to be found in the congregation. Or, you may find a church that seems to represent multiple generations coming together, but that is predominantly mono-ethnic. Even in the churches that seem to have multiple generations represented, they are rarely to be seen together outside of Sunday morning. Most Millennials I talk to say that while they desire mentoring relationships with older Christians, they rarely (if ever) happen.

I’ve also noticed that church leaders tend to solve one problem by creating a new one. A friend of mine recently sent me an article which tells the story of one Pastor AD3 who, as the 21-year-old new pastor of a pre-existing church, came in and completely changed the culture and ministry of his new church with the snap of his fingers. I call this the bulldozer approach to ministry, and I don’t recommend it. On account of these sudden changes, the church went from 300 aging persons, down to 85, and then up to 1,000 congregants who are mostly under the age of 35. While this may sound like a success story to the world, it actually grieves the heart of Jesus our Shepherd. He commands his pastors to feed his sheep, not abuse them with our own agenda. Shepherds should never try to grow their flock at the expense of the sheep who are already in their care.

This is why the multi-ethnic and intergenerational conversation is going to look different for every local body. Young church plants may have an easier time becoming multi-ethnic because they can make it a part of their DNA (and vision statement) from Day 1. But often, they’ll have a harder time building bridges to older citizens of the community and drawing them in to be a part of the body. Similarly, existing churches may represent multiple generations well, while tending to really only represent one pre-dominant ethnic group. Such churches are going to have to labor hard to bring the older generations along with necessary changes in the church, to make them feel included and valued, even while shifting their focus to pursue cross-generational and cross-cultural ministry.

God’s vision for the church is that we would represent both cross-cultural and intergenerational ministry. Of course, there may be real and practical reasons why this may not be possible for some in this life (for example, the importance of ethnic-minority churches in some contexts should not be undervalued). While Christ has torn down all of the ethnic and other barriers which keep us apart – and thus reconciling us with one another (Eph. 2:13-16) – he also calls us into a household where the older and younger are in close proximity and relationship with one another (1 Timothy 5:1-16).

What does this mean for our churches? Any church that wants to be reaching Millennials must strive to become both intergenerational and multi-ethnic. These two values are increasingly becoming non-negotiable for Millennials, and will likely continue with the next generation. Here are a few suggestions for churches to move forward by keeping these two conversations close together:

  1. We must seek to build bridges and relationships not only across ethnic/cultural groups, but generational groups as well.
  2. When we engage in the racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic conversation, we must develop the intuition to recognize generational differences when they arise. Further, we must create spaces where these generational differences can be heard and explored. This means developing good listening and questioning skills so we can really understand where people are coming from.
  3. If we want to be truly counter-cultural, churches should strive to make their older members feel valued and like they have a place to contribute, even amidst changing tides.
  4. Pastors and leaders must commit to caring for the sheep the Lord has given them. While we may have a heart to reach younger and more ethnically diverse people groups, we must never reach new sheep at the expense of the sheep already in our care. This means change will likely happen much slower than we would like to see. But this will also result in less damaged souls, more sustainable ministry practices, and healthier churches in the long run.

[1]Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub. Group, ©2011), 85 & 96.

[2]Naomi Schaefer Riley, “It Takes More than a Swank Coffee Shop to Reach Millennials,” Christianity Today, July 9, 2014. accessed May 2, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/july-august/how-to-reach-millennials-church-growth.html.

[3]Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub. Group, ©2011), 88.

[4]Kara Powell, “Be Intentionally Intergenerational,” inYou Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 227.

[5]Haydn Shaw, Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015), 203-207.

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Multi-Ethnic and Intergenerational: Bringing Two Conversations Together

by Ben Hein time to read: 12 min
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