Jonathan Thomas interviews Bernard Lewis (pastor) and Gareth James (elder) from Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Newport about the challenges of cultivating an inter-generational church.
What is your age and role within the church?
BL: I am 64 and am currently the only full-time minister at the church.
GJ: I am 36 years old, and I have been an elder since 2013.
In what ways do you seek to serve specific age groups within the life of the church?
BL: Our general rule of thumb is to respond to the recognised needs. We have always provided a crèche during the morning service, but recently we recognised that older children need a little help with focusing, so we have a pre-school/infant age group that go to another room for ‘Learning to Listen’. We provide older children with worksheets directly related to the message. We also have a children’s talk which is taken by a team of speakers old and young, male and female. During the week we have different meetings for infant, junior and senior age children. There is also a Toddlers’ group.
For adults, we have the monthly men’s meeting and women’s meeting which are both teaching-based and evangelistic.
GJ: The Friday evening kids clubs recently changed so that children aged 3-5 could attend. Previously there was a gap in what the church provided for children between toddlers age and kids club age. Both the kids club and the toddlers group have been well attended lately. They enable my wife to invite parents at the school gate which is an excellent opportunity. We hold Family Fun days 2-3 times a year. These are always well attended (50+ children) by a range of ages and provide fun activities for children as well as good food and the gospel message. Through all of these fun activities, our children are learning more about God, the Lord Jesus, the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. It is a thrill to see them growing in understanding and being so positive about the things of God.
How do you foster an inter-generational congregation to have relationships across age groups?
BL: First and foremost we worship together. Family is normally made up of at least three generations, and the church should be too. We’re helped by having several families in the church of three generations and one of four. Over the years I have asked older couples to take younger couples through discipleship programmes. That has always led to ongoing relationships.
In our congregation we have several members over 80 years old with no local family, so I have linked these older members with younger members.
Particularly in our teens’ group, older members of the church are invited to speak, and that has led to ongoing relationships across the generations.
All members, young and old, are encouraged to help at the Family Fun days, either to supervise games or to help with providing the food.
Do you feel your own family is integrated into the wider church community?
GJ: We are blessed that Emmanuel is a very welcoming place. Beth, my wife, grew up in the church, so she already knew everyone. However, when I started attending, I noticed straight away how keen people are to chat to new people and make them feel welcome. We are the youngest in our local group (by far!), but it is a wonderful place of fellowship with other believers regardless of age.
How do you encourage a culture of raising younger leaders?
BL: In 1990 I experienced a ‘Damascus Road’ experience! I was wrestling with a call to leave pastoral work and go to Papua New Guinea to train church leaders. God took hold of me and showed me 2 Timothy 2:2, ‘and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.’ I never consciously remember reading that verse before. I had on many occasions, but that night I realised that New Testament ministry must involve four generations – from Paul to Timothy to faithful men and then to others. That has shaped my thinking ever since.
About six years ago we realised that our elders were in their seventies, sixties and fifties although they had been appointed in their thirties. We consciously recommended that a man in his thirties be appointed as an elder. We have since seen men in their twenties and thirties appointed as deacons.
We have also provided the opportunity for younger men to study in preparation for ministry, two of whom now serve as ministers in other churches. It was not easy for a number of the older members to cope with the appointment of ‘such young men’.
In a church that has a history of prioritising the preaching the Word we have also appointed a man to work two days a week in ‘mercy ministries’. Running a CAP Debt Centre, he has encouraged twelve other members of varying ages to become befrienders alongside him.
How did you feel about being asked to be a church leader?
GJ: I have always been keen to be involved in as much as possible in the church. This comes from my university days when I was very much involved in the Christian Union. It also comes from having been part of a small church before moving to Newport. When Bernard asked me if I would consider it I told him I would be keen to be involved in church leadership and he was surprised that I didn’t have more ‘Welsh reserve’ about me!
What are some of the challenges of being a younger leader?
The main challenges of being a younger leader are the pressures and pull of family, work and church. My job as a head of Mathematics at a secondary school is very demanding, and as I am new to the role, I am still getting used to it. So, I have had to step back from further involvement in the church. Juggling all of the demands and giving due care to my wife, my work and my church responsibilities is the biggest challenge.
What is your hope for the future of the church?
BL: Alongside those ‘in-house’ situations we have also sent a young lady to work in Brazil and a family to work in Asia. They are focused on life-long service, but we have also seen retired people get involved in short-term missions.
My hope for the church is that we continue to see that we exist for the glory of God, the salvation of people who are now enemies to God and that we constantly review our approach to ministry so that we reach our current culture. Our congregation represents fifteen different ethnic groups, and is in an ethnically mixed area. I long that our church will be focused on reaching whoever is placed within our orbit. That will inevitably mean having to change and adapt our methods while never compromising our message. An illustration that I use is that a young couple has to wrestle with the changes that are forced on them with the birth of every new child. A family not prepared to respond to those changes is doomed to fail.