On a regular basis in pastoral ministry I find myself using the same phrase “They didn’t teach me that at Bible College!” I have threatened many times that one day I will write a book on that subject. I loved my Bible College experience but it was very limited in what it could teach you, especially in the area of leadership.
One of those leadership dilemmas that no one ever taught me how to deal with was how to lead and journey a group of people forward into promise, destiny, calling, their place in God. If I felt unprepared to lead a group of God’s people forward, think of how I felt when I stopped for a moment and contemplated just how diverse that group is. Church is like no other body of people. When we gather we cater for every age and sometimes we do that in one sitting with three generations present. I guess if someone asked me now “What do you wish someone told you when you started pastoral ministry?” I would have to say I would have loved someone to explain to me the need to understand the generations I am leading.
There are so many references in scripture about one generation helping another. Psalm 84 talks about passing through the valley of weeping and the rain covering it with pools. These pools are ditches that have been dug out by a generation who passed before who were thirsty and had no water. They realized they could not do anything for themselves to satisfy their thirst, so they dug ditches in the hope that those who came after would have something to drink. Isaiah 40 talks about eagles mounting up and renewing strength. This is an illustration which has a parallel in the natural of the experience of an eagle going through its molting process. At this point in an eagle’s life they hit a low period, which can sometimes even be fatal. During that time they cast off the old feathers and allow new ones to grow in. As these eagles are going through this renewal they cannot fly and catch food, but experts reckon at this point older eagles who have been through the same process fly overhead and drop down food, as if to spare these younger eagles on to not give up. These and many more illustrations in the Bible teach us that the generations need each other and really the bigger picture is that our faith is one that is to be shared. Right through the Old Testament the parents and grandparents are commanded to sit down and share with the generations under them the big story of God.
One area that probably causes the biggest upset in church between generations is worship! We all have our personal preference when it comes to music We all have songs that mean a lot to us, ones that we were brought up on. The danger in church is we can have whole sections of people unengaged when certain songs are performed. A modern song just hot of the press can engage a more youthful generation but leave an older one trying to keep up with the words and understand the tune. An old traditional hymn can bring a smile and light up an older generation on the inside but leave young people trying to work out language and what ‘fair flowers of paradise extend their fragrance ever sweet’ means. I can’t help but think at these times it is like a scene from the book of Ezra, in chapter 4 Ezra shares about a time when the temple foundations are rebuilt. The new generation rejoices at this new temple and the older generation cries because it does not have the glory of Solomon’s temple. Read the whole story in its context and you will see that probably both generations were wrong in their thinking. Surely confusion and even anger at times should not be our worship experience. So I wonder could this difficultly be dissolved if we can just keep communicating and sharing the big story of God.
One of the best books I have ever read is ‘Who Stole My Church?’ by Gordon McDonald. It is a fictional book about McDonald’s pastoral ministry over 40 years. He writes as a Pastor in his early 60’s who is progressive and trying to move the church forward. I don’t want to give the whole plot of the book away but the title comes about because in the midst of change an older lady says to him ‘It feels like someone stole my church.’ To help with the friction that was present in the congregation, McDonald started a small group for an older generation to discuss change in church and one of the issues covered was worship. The week they discussed worship the youth worship team came to their meeting and they were sat in between all the group members. The discussion began with the group saying to the youth worship team in a quite condemning manner “Why do you sing those songs?” This then gave the opportunity for the young people to share why some of the songs meant a lot to them and how when they went through a difficult time, maybe in school or a family break up, that some of those songs helped them connect with God. These answers shocked this more mature discussion group. The young people then asked the group about their favourite songs. They told stories about hymns that meant a lot to them and why, which in turn gave the younger people perspective they never had before. The night ended with them all praying with each other. Then the following weekend at the youth worship team practice the discussion group turned up with donuts and coffee for them all, and on the Sunday morning as the youth worship team led this discussion group were all there with hands raised worshipping God no matter what the song. The young people told the stories as to why some of the more modern songs meant so much to them. The band then in turn got some of the discussion group up on stage to share about those hymns they loved and the whole congregation sang them together. The book is fictional but at this point I was crying. This exercise brought great unity to the church and gave perspective.
It is a fictional book but as McDonald is a seasoned pastor so the characters and the difficulties may not be far from what he experienced or at least felt he would have loved to experience in the multi-generational congregation he led. It is all down to communication, sharing our individual stories and the big story of what God is doing. Communication brings perspective. Behind every face in our church whether old or young there is a story, and our lives would be richer if we could only hear them and try to understand each other. Again like no other body of people the Church is called to cater for all generations. We can do that through various departments and small groups and many other means but let’s never fool ourselves into thinking one generation would be better off on its’ own. We will always be ‘better together’.