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Building an Inter-generational Church

Why can’t they consider doing it a different way? Why are they so inflexible? Why am I not being heard? Why do they often challenge what has already been established? Why can’t they just follow instructions like what we did before? Why are they not serving/leaving the church?

Do these questions sound familiar to you? The classic “battle” between the generations has pervaded many areas of our lives, from clashes occurring at home between family members to struggles at work between co-workers, and (not surprisingly) within the confines of the church among members as well. And the outcome? Disappointment, anger, soured relationships, and unfruitfulness. How then do we begin to tackle this seemingly persistent issue that seems to divide us and challenge our endeavour of building a culture of relational discipleship within the church?

Last October, Dn James Quek shared an article titled ‘Mentoring and the Generations’ (8 October, 2021) with the church leaders. This article by Graceworks outlines their research on each generation within the context of Singapore, revealing how each generation experiences and views church. And as they also share the biblical implications for relational Christian discipleship, their goal is “to improve the unity within our churches by increasing empathy that the different generations have for one another”. Allow me to share three reflection points for us to consider. (I would also like to encourage the church to read the article in your own time.)

Understanding our differences

Certainly, there are major differences between each generation. We have different upbringings and are influenced by the respective cultures we have been brought up in, and these in turn shape our values and the way we behave and relate to one another. Yet, it is essential for us to understand these differences in order to set the right expectations and bring about fruitful discipleship.

One piece of advice that was given to me when I was searching for a life partner a couple of years ago was to identify the love language of both myself and the person I was dating. I was told that this would be especially helpful in understanding how good a “fit” we were going to be. After all, imagine the discontentment that would take place if I were to show my love through gifts, when what she really wanted was words of affirmation or quality time! She would not feel loved, and I would feel unvalued.

This is the same for an inter-generational church, where we need to have a keen understanding of how each generation defines and conducts discipleship. Only then will we be able to learn how to engage with each other with greater love, grace and patience.

Be boldly uncomfortable

When was the last time you had a deep conversation about your life and faith with someone of a different generation in church? Perhaps, some of your more relatable encounters include reminding each other of what jobs you are doing, the cursory friendly greeting when bumping into each other, or even the awkward silences and smiles before one party has to “head off to their next destination”.

Why is this the case? May I suggest that one reason is that our human nature is comfortable among people who are able to “get us” and with whom we can “click”. However, as the article suggests, only seeking this out may cause us to miss the valuable lessons that each generation is able to offer for Christian living, be it the lived experiences of the older ones or the perspectives of the younger ones who may have greater learned expertise and be more attuned to the changing social and cultural landscape of this fast-paced, IT-driven world. We will be rewarded if we recognise the mutual support we need in order to navigate and journey through our Christian lives together.

Stepping out of our comfort zones will take courage and practice and perseverance. It could even leave us open to hurt and disappointment. Yet, as we boldly strive to do God’s will in building each other up in spiritual maturity, may we also take comfort in the Spirit’s enabling and God’s provision of strength to do so (Phil 4:13).

Guided by the Word

Lest we think that inter-generational discipleship is merely a “good-to-have”, the Bible reveals to us that this is what a church should be like. In Titus 2:1-8, older men and women are instructed to be role models to the younger ones. The apostle Paul himself called believers to imitate him, that they might grow in Christ-likeness (1 Cor 11:1). And like how one generation passes the baton to the next, we ought also to faithfully impart the knowledge of God’s Word to each other (2 Tim 2:2).

The article concludes that “a basic principle of relationships in the body of Christ is this: Value others above yourself (Philippians 2:1–40). This should include mutual respect, honesty and the commitment to ‘wash one another’s feet’ (John 13). The mentor is still the primary guide, but Jesus is the final mentor who guides mentor and mentoree through each other.”

Can we be more than merely a multi-generational church? May I encourage us to share in this conviction and strive side by side to build an inter-generational church, where relational discipleship takes place with everyone, young and old, involved.

– Dn Tan Jiayi

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