Earlier today I read an article in Leadership Journal on how intergenerational connections help young people develop a faith that endures the transition from living at home to going to college or entering the workforce. Because this is something I would love to see characterize our church, I thought it might be helpful for me to elaborate on the subject. So over the next few days, I’m going to write up a 3-part series looking at why we should help our children build these connections, who we should help them connect with, and finally, how we go about initiating those connections.
I know how important connecting with other generations can be because I benefited from those types of relationships when I was a teenager and young adult. I love my parents, and I had (and still have) a good relationship with them, but as important as that relationship was in terms of helping me come to and mature in my faith, my relationships with other adults were also a vital part of that process.
Adults that influenced my life (both spiritually and otherwise) ranged from the youth pastor (just a few years older than I was) who poured his life into those of us in youth group to the senior citizens group that seemed to adopt me as a surrogate grandson, praying for me, supporting my missions trips, and becoming teary-eyed when I left New Jersey to move to Louisiana. (In fact, the seniors invited me to speak at their monthly meeting while I was still in college, giving me one of my first experiences in intergenerational ministry.) Relationships with those closer to my parents’ age also were important in my development, whether it was the pastors at church or those with whom I served in various ministries.
I think you see something similar in Scripture with Paul and Timothy. The foundation of Timothy’s faith was laid at home, apparently by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5), but the relationship and ministry experience that he shared with Paul were what developed him into a pastor and leader. Paul became a spiritual father to Timothy, to the point that he refers to him as his “child” (1 Timothy 1:2, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2, 2:1). 1 and 2 Timothy are essentially Paul continuing to speak into Timothy’s life and ministry through the means of epistles.
So what makes these intergenerational relationships so valuable? Why should we help our children form them?
1. Intergenerational connections are part of a biblical model of discipleship. If you read the New Testament, you aren’t going to find a whole lot of examples of “youth groups.” In fact, you aren’t going to find any. That’s not to say that youth ministry is unbiblical. Like the Leadership Journal article, I think there is benefit to separating out teenagers at times for age-specific instruction, fellowship, etc. However, the New Testament (and specifically Titus 2) tells the older men to model godly behavior for the younger men and the older women to instruct the younger women. The inference is that as Christians were living life together (working, ministering, worshiping) the older generation would have enough of a relationship with the younger generation that they could model and instruct them on what a godly life is to look like. We also have the examples of older men training younger men in Paul and Timothy or Barnabas and John Mark in Scripture or the disciples and their disciples in early church history. The Bible leaves room for youth ministries to be created. What it doesn’t leave room for is the creation of a youth sub-culture and sub-church that operates separately from the larger church body. The church is to be a unified whole, which necessitates intergenerational connections being formed.
2. Today’s young people want intergenerational connections. In their book, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (the Millennial generation includes those born in between 1980 and 2000), Thom & Jess Rainer report that according to their study, [emphasis is mine]
“Three out of four Millennials would like a leader to come beside them and teach them leadership skills. [They] value a leader who is willing to take his or her time to teach skills that otherwise may not be learned. … They are looking for true mentors in the workplace. They don’t want merely disseminators of knowledge in educational institutions; they want men and women who are examples through their lives as well as their words. They will avoid institutions that treat them like one of the masses; but they will flock to institutions that have transparent and servantlike leaders.”
The study also found that today’s young people value the advice and input of their parents (89% receive advice from their parents, and 77% seek out their parents’ advice on a regular basis), and that that respect for their parents carries over to other older people (94% said they have great respect for older generations). Whether they will admit it to you or not, chances are that your teenaged or young-adult children desire adult role models and mentors that will help them navigate the upcoming transitions in their lives.
3. Intergenerational connections reinforce and build upon what the parents have taught at home. I’ve encountered many parents that are hesitant to allow other adults to speak into their child’s life. Sometimes it’s based in insecurity, with the parents acting out of fear that another adult will replace them as the primary influence in the child’s life. I’ve also seen parents who feel insulted when their child ignored their advice 100 times and then listened to it when it came from someone else. I don’t want to diminish those feelings because I can understand them, but if we remember back to when we were teenagers, I’m sure we all did the same things to our own parents.
The important thing to realize is that it’s not all that important if they heed godly advice coming from you or from someone else, as long as they heed it. Teenagers and young adults have bad advice coming from all angles from their peers. The more positive influences and role models they have giving them sound, godly advice, the better. Their friends will give them advice whether they ask for it or not, especially on topics they would be uncomfortable talking about with a parent. If your child has another adult they feel comfortable talking to and listening to, there’s a greater chance that they will make wise decisions. Even as a teenager I would go to my youth pastor and other pastors and role models for advice. It’s a credit to my parents that they trusted those people enough to let me do so.
On the other hand, this point assumes that there is something from home on which to build, that parents are laying the foundation like Lois and Eunice did for Timothy. However, the alternate extreme to the parents who don’t want additional adult influences for their kids are parents who take advantage of the other adult influences to abdicate their parental responsibility. As the Leadership Journal article described, parents being involved in the teen’s life is also vitally important. Intergenerational connections supplement good parenting; they don’t replace it.
4. Intergenerational connections give young people the opportunity to see faith lived out in a variety of circumstances and life-stages. Teens need to see what it looks like to successfully navigate college and prepare for a career. College students need to see what it’s like to hold down a job, prepare for marriage and start a family. Young couples and parents need to see what godly marriages and parenting look like. Everybody needs to see what it looks like to age gracefully and finish life well. The only way to truly get a glimpse into what future life-stages should and do look like is to share life with those currently going through them. Having positive influences scattered across various life-stages gives young people something to aim for and to emulate and helps balance out the negative examples they’ll see in the world and media.
5. It bridges the cultural divide. Have you ever been in a church (or even a family) where the older generation and younger generation just don’t get along? The people bicker about everything from clothing styles to music preferences to sermon length and content. The church ends up declining in numbers and energy. It’s depressing. And since the older generations are the ones with the money and track record, it’s often the young people who miss out on being part of that church. In some churches, the conflict never actually breaks out, but there is an underlying understanding that the young just need to fall in line. And of course the idea that the older generation is out to get them has been a key feature in youth culture since youth culture has been around (which, as a side note, is not that long).
This intergenerational conflict comes naturally. We don’t have to work at it. We do, however, need to work in order to avoid (or resolve) this conflict, and the key to doing so is understanding one another. And the only way for different generations to understand each other is to live life together and share experiences. Getting to know one other (and I mean, really getting to know one another, not just being acquainted enough to nod and say, “How y’all doing today?” as you pass each other) helps each person know where the other is coming from, gives each an appreciation for the other’s viewpoint (as well as an opportunity to communicate their own), and prevents the petty complaints that naturally arise from unfamiliarity.
6. It helps young people feel connected and involved in the church. Young people in general, but particularly this current generation, desire to be in a place where they feel connected to people. If our teens graduate high school without feeling like they belong at Community Bible Church, they will not continue to come when it is up to them to decide. Just bringing your child to church every Sunday is not enough to ensure that they come on their own later in life. Intentional steps need to be taken to ensure that church is a place where they feel comfortable, connected, and, above all, valued. Young people need to feel like they can contribute to the church, that their contribution means something, and that their continued contribution is valued. I’ll address this topic some more in part 3, but these intergenerational relationships are a way to help them feel connected. According to The Millennials,
The best connectors in religious institutions are relationships. The best way to get a Millennial involved in a service, activity, or ministry is through relationships. … If an employer, service organization, religious body, or any other group wants to get the best out of members of this generation, they can’t overlook their strong desire to stay connected with others.
Other benefits to these relationships are the infusion of youthful energy into the church, the reminder for the older generations of what it was like to be young (and either without God or newly in love with him), and a lessened workload for those busy with jobs and families as the young people take on responsibility for the church’s mission. Ensuring that our teens and young adults build relationships across the various generations in the church shouldn’t be seen as an additional burden. Instead view it as an integral part of fulfilling our mission to “be a community of Christ and reach our community for Christ.” In part 2, we’ll look at what type of people you should target in helping teens form those relationships.