Intergenerational Ministry: God's Plan for the Most Effective Evangelism and Discipleship

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Editor’s Note: This week’s guest writer is John Vincent. He is the state director of Child Evangelism Fellowship of Oklahoma. As you will see from the following article, he has a heart for all ages.

Girl Eating a Peach Children often grow up too fast and too soon today in our society. David Elkind’s book, The Hurried Child, has the subtitle “Growing Up Too Soon.” He states that the influences of music, books, films, and television portray children as precocious and seductive. “Such portrayals force children to think that they should act grown up before they are ready.”

God has designed two loving, caring family units to forge security, value, and significance in the lives of children. His two family designs are the core and extended family (husband and wife, children and grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) and the spiritual family, the local and universal church.

Both family units can provide exactly what the modern, hurried and harried child needs: rich relationships across the ages. Age segregation leads to isolation. When children primarily have close relationships only with other children their age, they are robbed of meaningful intergenerational relationships.

Batting Practice When children are shown God’s caring, personal, focused love, they bloom and blossom as they experience his acceptance, security, and significance. Family reunions enriched me personally as a child and teenager. Caring adult men of our family not only played baseball with me, but they also talked personally with me. I was drawn to them by their “life stories.” As they shared past personal experiences and events, I learned lessons about life.

Children need to feel fully accepted, secure, and important. There are many children who suffer from loneliness. Surrounded by others their own age, they can still feel isolated and alone. These feelings become even stronger when they also have no contact with other age groups. The Lord designed marriage and families to counteract loneliness. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18).

The Lord also designed the family to provide for the lonely. “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land” (Psalm 68:5, 6).

God’s parent-child relationship is to be one of intergenerational mentoring. Parents are to model the message of whole-hearted love for God both by their lifestyles and verbal teachings.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

Intergenerational relationships benefit both the younger and older generations. The older adults can pass on the heritage of teaching God’s character and works to the younger generations.

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come (Psalm 71:17, 18).

Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts. They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty— and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They tell of the power of your awesome works— and I will proclaim your great deeds. They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness (Psalm 145:3-7).

Donald Keene Intergenerational ministry becomes a purposeful priority to older born-again Christian adults. Gerontology, the study of aging, defines this intergenerational purpose of life by the term “generativity.” Generativity is the growing conviction and desire of older adults to pass on what they have discovered to be the most important issues of life to the younger generations. The Psalmist Moses shared the brevity of life and the importance of using each day wisely for God.

Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).

King David reflects on God’s faithfulness as he passes this on to the younger generations:

The LORD makes firm the steps of those who delight in him; though they stumble, they will not fall, for the LORD upholds them with his hand. I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing (Psalm 37:23-26).

Father and Son Surfing King David also teaches children to fear the Lord. “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 34:11).

The Lord Jesus described his genuine believers in terms of his spiritual family. He called them children of God. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). He stated that his believers (children) are his spiritual family and closer to him than his natural family.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

At the cross he declared to his disciple John that Mary was to be his spiritual mother, and he was to be her spiritual son in a family relationship. “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27).

The Apostle Paul also taught that the local church is an intergenerational spiritual family. He viewed himself as a spiritual father to the churches.

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:14, 15).

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

He also practiced being a spiritual mother. “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, NIV).

Portrait of a Girl He organized the church as a spiritual family with adult believers practicing family roles.

Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:1, 2).

You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:1-8).

The Apostle James viewed the church as a believing, obedient spiritual family ministering across the generations to both orphans and widows. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

The Apostle John taught the process of spiritual growth in terms of the church’s family roles.

I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one (1 John 2:12-14).

The church as Christ’s spiritual family has a tremendous purpose in reaching children and their families with the Gospel. Just as families grow and multiply, so the church is to grow and multiply. There are many spiritual orphans (James 1:27) without believing parents and families. The church can reach these spiritual orphans with the Gospel and then incorporate them into the loving, caring spiritual church family. The intergenerational relationships of the church family befriend, mentor, and develop these children. The church can influence their unsaved parents who can then be saved and brought into the church family. The children will receive God’s love and acceptance, security, and significance through intergenerational relationships in both their family and the church family.

This type of purposeful ministry can give a local church great joy and satisfaction. Adults are encouraged to continue to grow and to serve in reaching children and their families and to invite and welcome them into the church family.

At eighty-five years of age, Caleb led an intergenerational ministry to claim his portion of the promised land. Older adults can serve to reach children by serving as loving spiritual grandparents. Charles Swindoll describes Caleb’s challenge and satisfaction:

Remember Caleb? He was eighty-five and still growing when he grabbed the challenge of the future. At a time when the ease and comfort of retirement seemed predictable, he fearlessly faced the “invincible” giants of the mountain. His story is told in Joshua 14. There was no dust on that fella. Every new sunrise introduced another reminder that his body and a rocking chair weren’t made for each other. While his peers were yawning, he was yearning (Day by Day, 218).

Bored Ballerina A mother wished to encourage her small girl’s interest in the piano and so took her to a local concert featuring an excellent pianist. In the entrance foyer, the mother met an old friend, and the two stopped to talk. The little girl wandered off unnoticed by her mother. The girl’s mother became concerned when she entered the hall and could see no sign of her daughter. Staff was notified and an announcement was made asking the audience to look out for the little lost girl. With the concert due to start, the little girl had still not been found. In preparation for the pianist’s entrance, the curtains drew aside to reveal the little girl sitting at the great piano, quietly picking out the notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

The audience’s amusement turned to curiosity when the pianist entered the stage, walked up to the little girl, and began playing. The pianist sat down beside her, listened for a few seconds, and whispered some words of encouragement. He then began quietly to play a bass accompaniment and then a few bars later reached around the little girl to add more accompaniment. At the end of the impromptu performance, the audience applauded loudly as the pianist took the little girl back to her seat to be reunited with her mother. The experience was inspirational for everyone, not least the small girl.

Intergenerational ministry in the family and the church family can guide and encourage children to trust in Christ, grow spiritually, and to serve Christ for a lifetime. Let’s get involved in intergenerational ministry that counts for eternity and God’s glory. The benefits abound for both the children and ourselves.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is there a need for intergenerational ministry to children today? If so, what are the needs of children that this ministry can meet?
  2. Have we become too age-segregated in our churches? Do we meet, fellowship, and serve too much only with our own age groups? Why or why not?
  3. What motivates you about this kind of ministry?
  4. What hinders you from becoming more involved in this type of ministry?
  5. What is the next step you feel the Lord is leading you to take concerning intergenerational ministry?

Credits: Girl Eating a Peach: Bruce Tuten / Creative Commons, Baseball: Mike Baird / Creative Commons, Donald Keene: Aurelio Asiain / Creative Commons, Surfing: Mike Baird / Creative Commons, Girl: Rolands Lakis / Creative Commons, Ballerina: Rolands Lakis / Creative Commons

John has served as a pastor for thirty-five years in the Midwest. His heart for strong intergenerational relationships began through close relationships as a child and teenager with his grandparents and their older adult friends. He has developed and led Heritage Family Groups of mixed ages in churches he has pastored.
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