Intergenerational relationships, sense of belonging 'key' to keeping young people in church: experts

  | Watermark Community Church

Youth ministry experts have emphasized the crucial role intergenerational relationships play in keeping young people in the Church and connected to their faith amid a soaring rise in religious nones across the United States.

In a message delivered to hundreds gathered at City Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this month for the One Hundred Years 30th Anniversary Celebration and Gala, John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, warned that young people today are "untethered" from the truth and disconnected from meaning and purpose.

"Students today, just quite simply, need two things," he said. "They need, first of all, to hear the truth. The reason they need to hear the truth is that we live in a particular cultural movement where they don't hear the truth very often. … They've actually been detached from the truth from the very beginning. In other words, we live in a world that's detached itself from the source [of truth]."

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Stonestreet quoted a British survey conducted over a decade, which found that initially, 13 years ago, 90% of young people aged 18-28 believed that life had meaning. However, when the same question was asked 10 years later, only 10% of respondents reportedly felt that life had meaning, indicating a significant drop in the sense of purpose among young people.

John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, speaks at the One Hundred Years 30th Anniversary Gala in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 11th, 2024.
John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, speaks at the One Hundred Years 30th Anniversary Gala in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 11th, 2024. | One Hundred Years

"There's never been a generation so untethered from God," he said. "There's never been a generation so untethered from something fixed than this generation right now. Even in generations past, when we fooled around with ideas about whether God exists or not, we still lived in a culture where family was the norm and largely stable … and now we've seen that decline as well. We have left a generation of young people with their feet firmly planted in midair."

According to Stonestreet, there is a solution for a generation in "desperate need of truth": the reintroduction of truth through intergenerational relationships and mentoring.

"There needs to be something along with truth: a context, relationships, mentoring, intergenerational relationships, family relationships," he said. "When you have truth and relationships in a package deal, it is a powerful force. It is a force that can actually get around the challenge of being untethered from truth and untethered from meaning." 

Stonestreet's address brought attention to One Hundred Years' two strategic initiatives, the Youth Leader Collective, established in 1994, and the Pray for Me Campaign, a church-led program designed to foster prayerful support for children and students, formed in 2014.

Over the last decade, the Pray for Me Campaign has collaborated with more than 800 churches from various denominations in 47 states, creating over 160,000 cross-generational relationships.

The Pray for Me Campaign's framework is straightforward: a church organizes a launch event where a student selects three adult believers from different age groups to serve as their "prayer champions" throughout the school year.

These adult prayer champions are carefully vetted and approved by their respective churches before participating. They are provided with a prayer guide from the ministry, which helps them pray Scripture-based prayers for the students emphasizing biblical teachings from Luke 2:52 and 1 Timothy 4:12, focusing on key attributes such as favor, wisdom, love, faith, purity, speech and conduct.

"Do you know how few things there are in our culture that bring generations together? There's almost nothing that brings generations together," Stonestreet stressed. "There is a huge generation gap, and here in this community, for 30 years, somebody has been bridging that gap. They are poised and equipped to bring truth and relationships to keep bridging that going forward." 

Tony Souder, founder and CEO of One Hundred Years, shared how the traditional church experience is evolving for young people. While adults often feel at home among familiar faces, young churchgoers often navigate a very different landscape.

He pointed out a critical difference between how adults and young people experience church.

"You and I, as adults … walk through a sea of adults [at church] that we know will support us if things go south," he said. "Young people are walking through this same sea of adults, and they don't know these adults, and they don't have a clue that they're for them." 

This sense of detachment, he said, can lead to a lack of connection and support for younger members of the congregation. The fragmentation doesn't stop there. As children progress through different church ministries, they may find themselves in isolated hubs.

"They're in the children's ministry, which is a good hub where they feel a sense of belonging," Souder said. "Then they move to the youth ministry hub, which is also important. But then, guess what? They age out. What's happening is they aren't just aging out — they're aging out, out. They're leaving." 

According to Souder, prayer plays a crucial role in fostering intergenerational connections, which he said "lead to the flourishing of faith." 

"Prayer is the fast track that we need to use to be able to build the belonging that these young people need," he said. "When you start praying for someone, and they know you're praying for them, that relationship changes. You know that they care for you."

Throughout the evening, participants heard music from husband-and-wife duo Austin Cain and Franni Cash Cain of We the Kingdom, who shared how the Pray for Me Campaign impacted their own lives. 

"We met while we were doing youth ministry, and the first year there, they did the Pray for Me Campaign, and I got to see so many of the students' lives changed forever because of that, because of that sense of belonging and family," Cash said.

Joe Novenson, former senior pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, concluded the event by challenging attendees to think more deeply about the importance of relationships within the Church. 

"Tonight, very simply, we're inviting you to participate in a heart-deep restoration work for the body of Christ, to be pulsing by prayer, and truth from the older to the younger, from the very older to the very younger. Because it's our calling, it's not simply a great idea," he said. 

To learn more about One Hundred Years, click here.

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

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