“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” –Brian Tracy
Peer relationships have been assumed to be the gold standard of youth ministries. But what keeps them in the church after youth group? In this most recent study of Adventist Millennials, conducted by the Barna Group, there were some fascinating findings. Here’s what the research revealed, as summarized in Ministry Magazine:
Several themes emerged that point the way for local congregations to create a positive environment for their youth and young adults. . . The first key is intergenerational relationships. For so many of our respondents, their relationship with the church was determined by their relationship with older members. These were even more important than peer relationships in many cases (especially as members transition from teenagers to young adults).
Story after story would affirm the poignancy of relationships between the generations and the impression it made on Adventist Millennials. Notably, local churches don’t need to figure out how to make intergenerational relationships happen: They are already happening. However, it is important to note that these intergenerational relationships can work both ways—both negatively and positively.
The Power of Relationships
Among the prominent themes that emerged from the qualitative research was the desire among Millennials to have constructive, positive relationships with adults in the church; Adults other than their parents or the youth pastor. It bears repeating that these interactions with adults are already occurring, however the key to longitudinal engagement of Millennials lies in the nature of these encounters.
Another theme from the qualitative research gives instrumental insights as to these vital relationships, and is summarized well in Ministry Magazine:
Nothing drives teenagers and young adults from the church faster than being rejected, and nothing draws them in faster than being accepted. Both are currently happening in spades in Adventist churches around North America.
It seems that older adults tend to look at specific struggles and assign a judgment of the young person’s heart or intentions. But the young people often told us that God was using these struggles to draw them closer to Him. . . a process the older adults couldn’t see.
Tracy shared her story of where her poor decision left her feeling judged by the church as opposed to feeling comforted—unfortunately she then felt defined by a single instance of sin. “In one of my past relationships I let my boyfriend take me too far. . . and I really can’t forgive myself. I am praying God helps me forgive myself. It is tough to overcome something that has gone against your beliefs and I was stupid enough to let it happen. Each day I pray I can overcome this.”
The stories and the surveys suggest what is needed is the patience to form solid relationships which exude forgiveness and acceptance—trusting God to make the necessary changes, and recognizing change also needs time. Never discard someone in the midst of a personal struggle, for it may be just what God is using to make them into who He needs in the church.
Forgiveness & Acceptance
It’s not uncommon for relationships between adults and next generations to center on the themes of standards, behavior, and judgment. And clearly the Bible articulates God’s sentiments on these important topics, including His administrative, transformative, and judicial roles. Without negating Scriptural wisdom, the research endorses the role of church members as “ministers of reconciliation,” especially in adult relationships with next generations.
Although in parental roles, it might have become habitual to relate with one’s children, leading off with rules, consequences, and discipline; Church adults are encouraged to lead with forgiveness and acceptance as they engage next generations, allowing rapport, trust, and respect to develop.
Just as important, the research also points to forgiveness and acceptance of church adults by Millennials. The opportunity for mutually beneficial relationships to grow requires vulnerability and humility on the part of all generations.
I imagine many of us have stories from childhood, teen years, and young adulthood where adult members of the church loved and embraced us. We may recall the profound impact forgiveness and acceptance had on young and older alike.
As a church leader/pastor/member, what might you and your team do to intentionally foster constructive, positive, intergenerational relationships undergirded by a culture of forgiveness and acceptance?