Adaptive Leadership in the Third-Generation Church

Several years ago, I preached a sermon titled “The Three Chairs.” The sermon discusses the patterns of declining faith in three generations. It can be seen in Abraham, Issac, and Esau; as well as David, Solomon, and Rehoboam. The three chairs could be titled “Commitment, Compromise, and Complacency.”

    Recognizing a Trend

Sociologists and historians have observed an interesting trend within groups of people, communities, and/or families. It is called the “phenomenon of the third generation.” Commonly, there is deterioration within a community that tends to climax with the third generation. The first generation is characterized by growth. The second generation preserves the status quo, and they refuse to risk in order to keep what they have worked hard to achieve and obtain. The third generation, having only seen the preservation and maintenance of the second generation, never experienced and often never heard about the vision that drove the first generation. As a result, “third-gens” start to question their identity and whether they even belong, because they lack purpose and see no future in the group.

Leadership in the multi-generation church must acknowledge this phenomenon and actively strategize to hold on to the third generation. Many Barna Group surveys allude to the fact that young adults are leaving the church. Once they graduate from college, many young adults do not return to their roots, and some depart from the faith. “Third-gens” often don’t speak the language of the first generation. The vision has never been passed on. They are not part of the history. Therefore, they have nothing to hold them to the church.

    Turning the Tide

So what can we do? Where do we begin? First, we must identify our purpose as a church by asking ourselves tough questions. For example: Do we exist to perpetuate the gospel? Does our worship point toward God more than it points to our talent and our tradition? If we are going to be salt and light, traditions and opinions must be replaced with a focus on those whom we are trying to reach.

Second, we must evaluate the current status of the church. Who is attending and who is not attending, and why? What is the age of the congregation? Who is leaving the community of faith? Then, we must determine if our actions, traditions, and personal beliefs systems might have contributed to their exit.

Third, we must build mutual and genuine respect among the generations – showing honor to one another. Honor and respect cannot be demanded; they must be earned.

Finally, there must be an intentional identification of the strengths, gifts, and talents of the next-generation leadership. They need to be equipped, nurtured, and affirmed. The older generations must coach and mentor the emerging leaders in a positive manner-offering flexibility for differing opinions and styles-permitting a different way of doing and thinking. Then, we must provide opportunities for the next generation to exercise their gifts and talents in a nonthreatening and noncritical environment.

For the future church to thrive, we must close the gap and rekindle that first-generation passion within the hearts of generations to come.

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