YVQ15 | Gathering or Dividing?

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Writer E. Waldron Barnett

The discourse of generations as a set of competing agendas and separate cultures has grown in credibility, fluency, and popularity. Gen X are renowned as whingers for their cries as the sandwich generation, and point the finger at Boomers for their economic woes; Boomers are accused of being narcissistic; Millennials are accused of being self-obsessed and unreliable, while Gen Y throw up their hands in exasperation at the property hoarding of the previous generations. We’re not sure what to call the next cohort—Founders, Navigators, Regenerators, Bridgers; apparently an MTV survey found 544 names for the post-Millennial generation.1 While we might not agree on the specific labels and reject some of the most heavy handed stereotyping, the sociological idea of defining people circumstantially and characteristically by their age remains a recognised point of reference in social commentary. 

Contingent on this rubric of social definitions, ‘Generational ministries’ has also arisen as a popular umbrella term in the past decade.2 It seeks to provide a unifying framework for the collection of age segregated ministries which evolved alongside the secular generational designations during the twentieth century: Youth Ministry, Sunday School, Early Childhood Outreach, such as Playgroup ministry, Young Adult groups, and most recently—as the ‘Boomer’ generation have begun to reach retirement—Seniors ministry. Each of these so called generational streams of ministry has its own history, developing in response to particular social catalysts and political crises. The unique, anachronistic, and independent circumstances of each of these streams is an important historical reality to grasp. 

How did we let pursuing relevance lead to a class system of haves and have-nots?

For many Christians, despite sincere desires to shape and structure life around Biblical patterns and Gospel models, the templates of separate age-based ministry programs seem integral and intrinsic to a healthy church community life of vital and relevant worship, discipleship, and mission. 

Churches have enthusiastically embraced the notions of appropriate forms of communication for different age-groups, the prevalence of stage theorisation as a comprehensive framework for human flourishing, and the normativity of homo-sociality which shapes so many of our gatherings, and plays through our explanations of why things work or don’t work in churches. 

Commonly I hear of families who leave a small church because there are not other young people the same age as their children. 

Commonly I observe congregations who have intentionally configured their gathering practice, venue, and resources around the perceived preferences on one generation.

Commonly I hear the humans in our faith communities labeled and defined by their age. ‘Great to see the youth with us today.’ ‘The children were really good in church.’

I am unashamedly eager to subvert these approaches, question their fitness, call for a revision of our language, and propose a reconsideration of the ways in which we conceptualise and practice the community life of faith together. 

Why might that be?

There are three closely related reasons. 

The first is theological—because God. We are in dark danger of allowing the rule of sociological labels of division to supplant the reconciling reign of the Risen Lord of the cosmos as our foundation. Below, I examine in more detail why ‘Generations’ is a problematic term for a church that looks to Biblical foundations.

The second is anthropological—because humans. The rubric of relevance, appropriate forms of communication, fitness of transmission to various sectors of the sociological spectrum belong to the world of delivery, of provider and recipient, of producer and consumer. 

All around us, political, economic, and social forces fuelled from deep seams of Western individualist philosophy seek to divide and define humans. The world is busy designating ‘target’ demographics and developing ways of persuading the will, co-opting the identities, and creating limits and rules that artificially re-order humans into ascending and descending stacks of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. 

But surely already our Gospel-appraised spirits are troubled by this dis-ordering. Haves and have-nots? The Gospel will not have it! 

The third reason is pragmatic—because time and space and stuff. Faith communities and churches are struggling practically under the burdens of resourcing, connecting, and administering programs and ministries conceived and delivered generationally. 

This culture of division has led to tensions between what have become operationally competing expressions of ministry; for leaders, for budget, for air-time and profile in church life, for agency. In a faith tradition grounded in a core theology of reconciliation, these divisions should be theologically embarrassing. We might at least be honest enough to confess they are ethically suspect, integrity compromising, credibility corroding. No wonder a move to unify these age-segregations has arisen. Addressing these divisions theologically, anthropologically, and pragmatically has great merit. 

As they are now being drawn together under ‘generational ministry’ there is an attempt to align the strands in a co-ordinated and cohesive strategy. This strategic coherence is both to be commended as a noble effort, but also treated with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Historically various age-based expressions of ministry have operated from contrasting, and at times contesting and conflicting philosophical foundations. It is easy to recognise that coherence isn’t achieved readily simply through structural re-ordering, and that churches would be naïve to think the cultural distinctives of these ministries are blended harmoniously into a homogeneity simply by creating one department and appointing a staff member as ‘generations pastor’ to lead it. 

Even if such a managerial move were to easily effect such uniformity, I am not convinced we should be happy about it. Cultural elision for the sake of corporate efficiency and administrative rationalisation is a familiar feature of nineteenth century colonialism and twentieth century globalism and capitalism, and is still the subject of prophetic critique. We do well to raise our eyebrows at how ‘logical’ and ‘strategic’ it appears in this current expression in generational ministries. 

In evaluating ‘generational ministries’ and ‘generations’ as a phenomenon taking shape in the discourse and delivery of ministry leadership this anomalous background is important to keep in view. If we exercise ministry under a ‘generations’ structure, what measures are taken to value and preserve the ethos, culture, and theological perspectives of each of the expressions? Who gives leadership to this area, and what is their base culture of ministry? Do we confidently and regularly articulate how our generational practice is an expression of our best theological claims, giving an account for how we order ourselves is faithful to the Gospel story we proclaim?

‘Generations’—The Name Shaping Ministry Form And Content

The language of ‘generations’ brings its own value content to the process of shaping the ministries drawn together under this banner. We do well to understand the ancestry of the conceptual spirits and philosophical materials that lie behind the labels we have adopted.3 The term ‘generations’ is essentially a sociological instrument for parcelling demographic sectors. It is applied ubiquitously in two separate contexts: social science research and business marketing. 

Social Sciences

In social science research, specifically in the field of developmentalist theory, age is a lens through which human existence is investigated and evaluated chronometrically. This is the bread and butter of Stage Theory thinking—a movement of sociology that has its antecedents in nineteenth century philosophical protagonists such as Darwin, who used a staged approach to charting adaptation in nature to express a principle of change (which he called evolution) over large spans of history. It is also found in the historical-political observations, reasoning, and projections of Marx, who construed political movements as an unfolding of stages of collective organisational development. These natural and political meta-narratives found individualised expression in the stage theorists of the twentieth century, Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Fowler, who each construed an aspect of personhood—cognition, psycho-social identity, morality, and spirituality—as a process of development through a set of normative stages. The categories of ministry we see gathered under the heading of ‘generations’ mirrors this way of dividing human life—chronometrically. So pervasive is this philosophical foundation in Western thinking that it appears a self-evidently accurate way of describing and categorising human life. 

However, we do well to know our own philosophical history and to see its marks on our minds and models of operating, confessing that this way of seeing is a divisive way. It is a way that attributes status and redistributes significance across human experience, creating asymmetries of value. In these schemes, developmental accruals of skill, facility, agency and individuality are held as the measures of health and flourishing. Failures to reach these stages are construed as disruptions to nature, as anomalies and are problematised, diminishing personhood. 

Business Marketing

A second way in which the sociological categories of ‘generations’ is powerfully employed is in determining marketing sectors. 

In contrast to developmental schemas of personal thriving, the Gospel affirms the least, the lowly, the vulnerable, the young, the fragile, the deformed as participants in the Kingdom, as prophetic revelators of the ways of Jesus, the grace of Christ, the movement of Spirit. We can appreciate sociological categories of developmental stages and the generational frameworks that are used to encompass these constructs as a unifying anthropological narrative that expresses the philosophy of our times, but this must be held up in conscious contrast to our theological narrative. 

In seeking to define humans—the honourable and worthy task of the (social) sciences—we create the side effect or by product of dividing humans. 

Orthodoxy, Tradition, Habits, And Innovation

As we have observed, a little bit of modern history uncovers the shallow roots of age segregation and thinking in distinct ‘generations’. We must examine how these economic, political, and philosophical currents find expression in construals of personhood, value, and function, and in the configuration of relationships among children, parents, adolescents, adults, second half of 

lifers in human community generally and in faith communities in particular.

A Worked Example: Children, Education, And A Culture Of Spiritual Need

For example, the flexible identity of children as ‘learners’ has become institutionalised to such an extent that the parameters of school and grade levels and yearly progress reports have become synonymous with childhood. Typically in churches we group children according to their grades in school. We define larger blocks of years and the programs and resources, curriculum, training, cohorts in terms of ‘preschool’, ‘primary’, ‘secondary’, and post-school designation. 

No wonder we have become sensitive to the articulating moments between these blocks as vulnerable to points of departure from community, as we hear anxiety over the trend of ‘haemorrhaging youth’ from our faith communities,4 and so we must assess how generational structures embedded in our churches might actually signpost the multiple exit ramps from community. 

The alignment of childhood with institutionalised education establishes the economic identity of the child as a consumer, holding parental and societal aspirations for future transformation into a producer/contributor. 

There are plenty of social commentators who argue against this model as an unhealthy social construction for the flourishing of children, for the balance of household economics, for the sustainability of parenting and the viability of community. 

Those considerations have obvious import in the life of the church—but our first objection to the diminution of children to ‘students’ must be theological. Where children are students in the faith community, they learn as consumers. 

A fair portion of current church culture is arguably still stuck in this identity. Those who have grown out of the student-consumer identity have grown out of the church, and not surprisingly, those who are left still behave as if their purpose in remaining in church is to continue consuming the educational product that church provides. Quite aside from this model being patently financially unsustainable, we are left to deeply lament the rending of the body of Christ, the failure to embody the reconciliation at the core of our Gospel story, the diminished activity of all of the gifted saints of any and every age as we are called to serve one another and a world in need together. 

‘Generations’—Good News And Many Ways

In the light of these historical, philosophical, and sociological dimensions of the term, there is plenty of positive content to consider. 

The broad notion of generations, although essentially derived from a divisive ground, has prompted some healthy reconsideration of how the generations relate to one another. 

The rise of the intergenerational movement—also ascending in secular fields where it is needed as much as an antidote to the isolation and alienation of modernity—has accompanied the language of generational ministry, and requires some definition. 

Faith communities notorious use terms like multi-age, multi-generational, all-age, cross-generational, and intergenerational in generalist ways. Most often these terms are used in relation to worship services that depart from the assumed norm of adult orientation. Those of us with even a smidgeon of sensibility to church history will recognise this as a novel and theologically problematic departure from the norms of church practice. ‘Church’ carries an essential ethos of gathering, and has maintained important distinctions from other kinds of events, like lectures or parties or workplaces, as places for all possible categories of humans expression to gather in resistance and suspension of any and all dividing categories. Not all categories have been gathered in the equality the Gospel declares at all times across the history of the church. The church has known divisions of gender, class, and race—and so now, age and generation has its day. Though these inequalities, distinctions, and exclusions are recordable phenomena, majority Christian theological witness refuses these cases as normative or representational. 

Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, as the norms of church as a gathering for all ages has been displaced by expectations of age specific programs, addressing life stage needs, capabilities, and interests, the notion that the act of gathering as a diversely constituted group actually functions as a theological and spiritual reality of ontological value, has been set aside. 

We note the shift in anthropological focus: those who gather in church come not as those bringing spiritual abundance in themselves, together to form a gathering which overflows in grace and gifts and service from within the corporate body, but rather presents as a graded set of humans in spiritual need. 

The shift to an economy of deficit rather than abundance constrains the release and movement of the people of God in gifted service together. It constricts the vitality of the life of mission, choking off the supply of the full resources that the Spirit would grant us. And it misrepresents the story of God, the very good news we share and are called to bear witness to. Salvation’s song is not the huddling of always hungry hoard with hands out to a God still withholding Heaven’s bread, but the commissioning of a creation called to a life in Christ coming into fulfilment in the liberated restored declaration as one of the ultimate uncontested risen Lordship of Jesus. 

So in the light of our primary theological allegiances, holding fast to a wholly transformative Gospel we turn again to the range of terms and practices that are gathered under the banner of ‘Generations’.

Multi-age: the presence of a random collection of ages addressed as one, united in one set of activities. In fact the most common form of gathering, in which whole communities as one recited the same prayers, sang from a common hymnody and confessed the creeds together. This is often enacted for purely pragmatic purposes, and because of its historical roots is considered an antiquated and unsophisticated approach. However, both in light of the fragmentation of community in our context and its sustained and sustaining life through centuries of Christian faithfulness, it bears reconsideration. 

Multi-generational: the presence of two or more generations addressed in parallel—often for pragmatic purposes. A popular genre of ‘family service’ utilised this model, providing tactile activities for toddlers, craft or puzzles for primary ages, adolescents are invited to lead music or readings or prayers, or perhaps coach younger children in their activities, while adults are addressed in much the same way as they are accustomed to. While the intention is that each group is served with what they need, it is often evident that the architecture of the service works on a clear blueprint of what is most familiar for adults, with accommodations for children. The facilitation of these gatherings mostly addresses the generations separately, and rarely enables interaction within the service between different ages. Such services often live a fragile life and suffer a great deal of criticism from almost every sector, not the least parents who find the expectations exhausting and unfulfilling, either personally or as a family experience. Singles express a sense of alienation, because there is no articulation of how those of various ages might be community for one another. 

Cross-generational: the deliberate intersection of two of more generations in ways which honour generational differences and value the various gifts each generation is to the other in mutual interaction. Sunday schools and youth groups are examples of this model. Adult leaders interact with children or young people. We all know that these ought to be mutual encounters, and many of us who have spent years in these contexts recognise that so called ‘leaders’ are as much discipled by the young as the other way around, though sometimes people who aren’t involved in those interactions in an ongoing, regular, and frequent way can lack imagination for how this might be the case. 

Intergenerational: the practice of facilitating, hosting and celebrating the shared life and connections of all and any generations together—in ways that disempower generational difference for the purpose of more wholly embodying the call of the Gospel to live as God’s reconciled people in the kingdom of God. This form of gathering intentionally erases the divisions of age and seeks to address the gathered community as a diverse group of humans, which is expressed in an infinitely complex and beautiful constellation of personhoods. Intergenerational community affirms our humanness as consisting of many many facets—personality, culture, intellect, education, tastes, age, abilities, interests, gender, faith—and resists the predominance of any one part of human personhood as a false claim. Theologically the predominance of any one part of personhood—as the Apostle states: Jew or Greek, Male or Female, Slave or Free—is an affront to the totality of Jesus as the one and incontestable Risen Lord of the cosmos, in whose name all tongues confess and knees bow. 

My observation of healthy communities is that they are dextrous and at ease with a number of ways of relating together. In small groups based around lots of different aspect of personhood, or theological tasks; in larger cohorts that can temporarily reconfigure and then easily regroup; as a whole gathering making welcome space for all. Here, relationship is understood as a gift that we have in abundance to offer one another in the hospitality of God. 

‘Generations’—Isn’t That A Biblical Term?

Perhaps you have been troubled by how deeply I have engaged in the world of secular philosophy, citing the voices of modernity—Darwin and Marx, and the stage theorists. Isn’t ‘generations’ a Biblical term—might we not be drawing on a heritage received through scripture, rather than secular conduits?

Naturally, as a Biblical scholar I would be thrilled to trace the trajectory of ‘generations’ thinking from scripture into the theological reflection, intellectual architecture, and operational culture of the contemporary church. 

Although ‘generation/s’ appears in the Bible a couple of hundred times, its meaning in the ancient texts and contexts is discontinuous with the meaning it is being given now. 

In Biblical texts the notion of ‘generational’ is inextricably linked to the system of patriarchy, and speaks to both a social system of authority and a theological framework for perpetuity of life beyond death. The ongoing proclamation of future generations is held as the future hope of life for the patriarchs of Israel, bypassing theologies of eternal life in a spiritual reality. 

Secondly, the language of generations in Biblical materials presupposes not a division of young and old but a unity of life as God’s people. Texts consistently promote the place of young and old together in faithful covenant keeping, law observance, sacrifice and festival celebration, and suffering in the wake of unfaithfulness. Our attention to the term generations ought not be re-worked to divide or put asunder what God has joined. 

Thirdly, the language of ‘generations’, whether drawn from ancient Biblical patriarchal societies or contemporary sociology, carries the implicit imperative of procreation as a key identity marker. A generation is defined not solely by age, but by child bearing. A generation is created with contemporaneous childbearing, and is bounded by the points at which that cohort themselves procreate. Needless to say this kind of focus on child-bearing generativity as an identity marker is ill-fitting in twenty-first century Australia. The age for becoming a parent varies greatly across the multiplicity of cultures present in our society, shaped by ethnic, religious, and socio-economic factors. Further, with the wealth and stability of Australian society, mitigating the need for high birth rates to maintain population, the occurrence of both men and women who do not procreate is relatively high. In many sectors of Australian life, not bearing children is unremarkable and in the scope of normative adult status. 

For the church to present itself as a generationally ordered sub-system puts it at odds with these sociological trends. Where the church is struggling to remain a credible participant in the discourses around gender, sexuality, and marriage legislation, a heavy emphasis on generational thinking perhaps further isolates us from the public square conversations. There is no theological reason for the church to hold to a normativity of procreation, particularly when both Jesus and the Apostle Paul are obvious examples of lives well lived in repudiation of imperative generativity. 

Here then we see three reasons to be careful in our use of the language of Generations:

One: keeping at least arm’s length from implicating ancient systems of patriarchal order that cannot be effectively or realistically implemented in our contemporary context, even if we wanted to, which we probably don’t when we consider the institutions like polygamy and slavery that accompany patriarchy. 

Two: avoiding the exploitative ethics of the marketing demographics which deliberately isolate age groups, destroying the connections that create the possibilities of shared resources and interdependence of wisdom and energies, wonder and experience, and create dependence on consumption in place of community connections and collective life. 

Three: recognising the subliminal narratives of family patterning and the distribution of theological constructs of enduring/everlasting life that inhabit the notion of generations, which run against the grain of most orthodox Christian understandings of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ as effecting the terms and provision of eternal life for the world, thus liberating humans from the imperatives to assure their own longevity through procreation, and replacing procreation as our hope with new creation. 

Recovering Lost Skills And The Art Of Being

Theology is foundational—it must be our starting point, and we should not move more than arms reach from our theological centre, keeping our bearing clear and true—but theology is not enough. Or rather, holding our theology clear in our heads or dear in our hearts is not enough; it must engage our gears and steer our anthropology—how we speak of humans—and our action. 

So there is much work to do in recovering clear articulations of our Gospel story that transcends human differentiation. There is much work to do in re-learning how to be together—to see one another as whole human beings, to be open to encounter on the basis of the full richness of human diversities, not only through the lenses of age alone. Our practice in community must be driven by our theology of being, of humans as bearers of the image of God together, and as all, young and old beset with the burden of life bounded in a world struck through with the knowledge not only of good, but also of evil. Our practices of relating, communicating, celebrating, confessing, peacemaking, healing and justice seeking as the followers of Jesus in community must be ordered by this theology that affirms the present, current, vibrant, essential participation of each member of the community of faith as a contributing constituent. We cannot be the reconciled people of God without reconciling our generational divisions and submitting generational identities to the Lordship of Jesus. ●


2 Gary L. MacIntosh, One Church, Four Generations: Understanding and Reaching All Ages In Your Church (Baker Books, 2002) stands as one of the earliest codifications of this idea. 

3 Social theory of Generations is first attributed to Karl Mannheim’s essay of 1923, ‘The Problem of Generations’. His exploration of the dynamics of social historical contexts on contemporaneous cohorts was not offered as a programmatic recommendation, and in fact was problematized from the start. He viewed generational questions as a helpful explanatory or diagnostic instrument to help unravel motivators and forces shaping political and social movements, especially in light of the upheavals in Europe in the early twentieth century. He strongly resisted the appropriation of his work on generationality by positivists. 

4 This phrase taken from the research of the Haemorrhaging Faith movement in Canada. For some Australian engagement with and critique of this research see

Originally published in YVQ15:GENERATIONS.

Writer E. Waldron Barnett. Beth has served in ministry with Baptist, Anglican, Uniting church, Scripture Union, and World Vision communities and currently teaches children & families ministry and mission at Stirling Theological college, is completing a New Testament PhD thesis on the constructs of maturity in Paul, and leads the staff team at the VCCE, providing intergenerational resourcing and professional development. She loves coffee, running, and veggies.

Previous posts:
March 2020(0)
February 2020(1)
January 2020(1)
October 2019(2)
September 2019(3)
August 2019(2)
July 2019(1)
June 2019(2)
May 2019(6)
April 2019(3)
March 2019(1)
January 2019(2)
December 2018(6)
October 2018(2)
September 2018(3)
August 2018(3)
July 2018(4)
June 2018(0)
May 2018(9)
April 2018(14)
February 2018(3)
January 2018(1)
December 2017(5)
November 2017(1)
October 2017(5)
September 2017(2)
August 2017(5)
July 2017(7)
June 2017(5)
May 2017(9)
April 2017(10)
March 2017(6)
February 2017(2)
January 2017(1)
December 2016(2)
November 2016(8)
October 2016(8)
September 2016(4)
August 2016(13)
July 2016(7)
June 2016(3)
May 2016(8)
April 2016(13)
March 2016(7)
February 2016(3)
November 2015(1)