How and why to break down the barriers between the ages
When I read the story of Joseph and Mary’s anxious search for a “lost” Jesus in Luke 2 through my own cultural lens, I see parents who walk halfway to Brockville, a city 70 km from my hometown of Kingston, before they realize their kid is missing.
My reaction is to put in a quick call to Social Services to check these parents out! But in Jesus’ cultural context, the web of intergenerational community is so strong that Mary and Joseph simply trusted this community would hold her child.
The story has a happy ending, and I recount it now not because I want to draw into question the parenting strategies of Mary and Joseph – but because this story gives us a glimpse of the kind of web of community that the Church can be to hold our young people in prayer, practical help and love.
Often in the Church, instead of celebrating the gift of intergenerational community, we segregate our ministries by age and interest, thinking that if we do something that will attract the youth we’ll have a better chance of keeping them in the church.
While this model is commendable for its desire to connect young people with the gospel, it may inadvertently cut off our young people from the worshiping life of the Church. It’s no wonder then, that when these young people grow up, they have no sense of what it means to be a mature adult Christian living out a life of faith in the Church.
When we isolate teenagers from the adult world, we deprive them of the opportunity to learn mature, adult values through dialogue and meaningful relationships and mentoring. There are significant repercussions to this kind of isolation. In his fabulous book Family Based Youth Ministry Mark Devries argues that teens don’t learn what they need to learn to be healthy, mature adults from their peers or from the Internet.
If our teens wanted to learn to scuba dive, writes Devries, we wouldn’t set them down with a computer or with a bunch of peers to talk about how they feel about scuba diving. We would go with them, mentor them, drill safety guidelines into them, and carefully help them navigate something exciting, yet potentially dangerous. We would ensure they have all the tools they need to succeed and thrive.
Our teens will not learn the skills that mature adults need in order to thrive by talking with their friends or from Google. They require meaningful interactions, over the long haul, with mature Christian adults who know them, pray for them and who invite them to share something of life and ministry together.
Devries writes: “By denying our young people opportunities for this kind of involvement with adults, our culture sends many youth into the “adult” years relationally, mentally, morally and spiritually unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.” Our young people today are growing up in a fast paced, over-stimulating, over sexualized, consumerist culture. And they need us.
They need this web of support — this gift of being known and held — in God’s family. They need the Church, and after the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, the grey hair in our midst might just be one of the greatest gifts God has to offer to our young people today.
10 Practical ideas for nurturing intergenerational community in your church:
Get kids involved in the life of the church (not special “youth services” that cater to what we think the kids want, but with the everyday, worship life of your particular church).
Set up prayer partnerships between the children, youth and seniors (studies show that teenagers who are connected intergenerationally in the church — with both older AND younger members — are more likely to stay involved in a faith community after graduation).
Invite adults to mentor children in leadership roles in the church (reading, technology, serving, greeting, hospitality, altar guild duties, etc).
Regularly invite adults to children and youth gatherings to share their own story of faith (interviews work well).
Share skills and interests: invite seniors to teach youth skills such as knitting, handwork, woodwork, etc.
Invite tech savvy teens to put on a few workshops for seniors about how to use the Internet effectively (communicating with grandchildren will be a big incentive!).
Learn each other’s names and use them. Regularly encourage the whole community to greet someone who is of a different generation (perhaps during the passing of the peace).
Ask youth in the church: “If you needed help, is there one adult in the church family — not a parent — who you could go to?” If the answer is not yes, be intentional in setting up relationships between teens and adults.
Invite elderly parishioners to share how they have experienced God over a lifetime, including joys and challenges, and to share their thoughts on death (a topic children don’t get much chance to talk about).
Parents often ask their children, “How was Sunday school? What did you learn in church?” Equip parents to then share from their own experience: “This is what the sermon was about today…. This is how I think it might apply to my life this week….”
Rev. Valerie Michaelson is Pastoral Associate and Queen’s Chaplain at St. James’ Anglican Church, Kingston, Ont.