In his book The Perks of Being a Wallflower, author Stephen Chbosky wrote, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I’ve seen this posted as inspirational memes and quotes on people’s walls for years, but it wasn’t until I started really digging into generational discipleship that I saw how this concept plays out in ministry, especially in intergenerational relationships within the community of faith.
We all know that communication is more than just words. Communication takes many forms, from verbal to nonverbal, intentional to non-intentional, systemic to institutional. The way we do the things we do speaks volumes. The words we use pale in comparison to the actions we take and the method by which we take them.
In my last few years of observing how we go about discipleship in church, hearing the verbal communication of welcome and community and observing the nonverbal communication like methods and actions, it’s becoming clearer to me that one reason the church is losing the rising generations is due in part to the fact that they only accept the love they’ve been told they deserve.
Stripped of our words, what do our churches often communicate to the generations who attend?
My Space, Your Space – If we look at most church buildings, we will tend to find wings that are set apart by age, often down hallways or even separated by floors, much like school buildings or nursing homes in society. The common space, the sanctuary, can be a place where all ages gather but in many cases that doesn’t happen frequently.
My Service, Your Service – A lot of churches have at least two if not more services and often those services look and sound different (contemporary, traditional, blended, etc.). Frequently these services become equally age segregated simply by the fact that they are intended to reach specific age groups or worship preferences.
My Time, Your Time – When describing worship experiences, often people will say it is their time in the week to connect with God, to be renewed and refreshed, to have a personal experience. Distractions and discomfort is often minimized during the service time to allow for that so that even when we are together, we are essentially alone, but occupying the same space.
My Church, Your Church – Having served on two church staffs and having consulted and coached with many more, this is something that repeatedly comes up; namely, the idea that within a church there may be two or more distinct faith communities based on age, likes/dislikes and preferences, and that people in these groups don’t even know the people in the other groups. One church I worked with once described their church as “Five Churches under one roof.”
So what does this have to do with accepting the love we think we deserve?
Well, if we say things like, “We welcome all ages into our community,” but the proceed to navigate the children to one area, the youth to another, the adults to yet another, and the seniors to another, that verbal communication becomes muddied. It is difficult to enter a space that isn’t “ours” even if we hear that we are welcome.
If we say, “All ages are members of our church community,” but the youngest members never or rarely see or hear from the pastor or other adult leaders in the church or just other adults in the church except children’s ministry volunteers, do they feel truly part of the congregation?
Conversely, if the older members of the congregation never or rarely get to interact with or build relationships the younger generations, can either accept love, advice, encouragement or even just friendship from the other?
We use a lot of words to indicate unity and cohesion, but often our nonverbal communication speaks to separation and division, which, in turn, often falls along generational lines. And that makes it very hard for each generation to accept love and friendship from the other because it doesn’t feel “right.”
I wonder what would happen if instead we embraced the uncomfortable.
If we sang some songs we don’t necessarily love.
If we allowed for some distraction and discomfort during our corporate worship time.
If we intermingled with generations who say and do things we don’t understand.
If we prioritized relationships with the whole body over the comfort of those we know best.
I mean, it would be uncomfortable to be sure. But, as a friend of mine who attends a church who is working to become intentionally unsegregated on Sunday mornings shared, maybe that is the point.
Maybe it’s not supposed to be comfortable. Maybe it is supposed to take work, to challenge us to grow beyond what feels good, to be surrounded by a much bigger world that doesn’t look and act and sound like us. Maybe there is room for both times of corporate worship and times of age-appropriate teaching. Maybe an either/or way of doing church isn’t the only way of doing church.
And maybe, if we can find time and space for the both/and, the generations who are following ours may not agree with everything we say and do but they will accept the love of the church and the Lord because they know they are truly a part of the church, the community, the body of Christ.
I think at the very least these are ideas worth exploring, even if the questions we ask and conclusions we land on make us a just little bit uncomfortable.
This article originally appeared here.