I have always been a generational boundary spanner. I can easily make friends and communicate with people of all ages. Perhaps it’s because I’m an extrovert. Or perhaps it’s because I sort of span two different generations myself. Born in late 1980, I’d be labeled by some as a Gen Xer, by others as a millennial.
Being a boundary spanner can be of tremendous value, especially in a church like mine: a 135-year-old congregation with adults representing four different generations.1
It’s not uncommon for the boomers to look at me as an ambassador to “the young people” (my generation): “Meryl, we want more young women to come to this event. Could you and some of your friends be involved?”
Nor is it uncommon to also receive the older generations’ gripes, especially about “the young people” not stepping up to lead.
Sometimes I represent the interests of the younger generations to the older: “If you moved this event to a different time, more young people might attend.”
Being everyone’s emissary can be frustrating, especially when the sending parties aren’t all that interested in listening to one another.
Several months ago, about 50 members of my church participated in a workshop where we learned about four categories of church health: at-risk, stable, critical moment and healthy missional. The facilitator asked each of us to identify publicly where we thought our church fit and the direction we thought were heading.
As a budding ecclesial anthropologist—ever fascinated by church culture—I noticed a pattern: Older adults tended to see the church as healthier than younger adults. Honestly, I wasn’t all that surprised, but the pattern bothered me.
If we truly care about church health, we have to press in—start talking and, more importantly, listening. Each generation ought to ask of the others, “What can you see that I cannot? Help me understand.”
In this issue, we’re focusing on the millennial generation inside our churches and all they have to offer as, together, we witness to the gospel of grace. We’re attending to what current research and church leaders (both young and old) have to say about this generation.
True, millennials aren’t the only generation whose insights the church needs. But they will lead the church in the future, if they feel invited to help shape it. And they also represent our strongest, most direct bridge to those millennials outside the church walls, outside the body of Christ. We’re far less likely to bring the gospel clearly and winsomely to them without the wisdom of these cultural boundary spanners.
Generation by generation, we engage both our world and our faith in different ways. Yet we stand on the common ground of our love for Jesus and our commitment to the Scriptures. And that’s the best place of all to begin a conversation.
Meryl Herr, 35, earned her Ph.D. (Educational Studies) and M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After finishing her MDiv, she served as a pastoral fellow at Christ Community EFC in Leawood, Kansas. She now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where her husband pastors at First Evangelical Covenant Church. Meryl leans into multi-careering by working as a mom, writer, educational consultant and research consultant.