Building an intergenerational culture in your church

Author: Mr Jonathan Richardson

Published on: 1 January 2017

For many it seems society is becoming ever more divided and more insular and we are losing the ability to communicate – especially across intergenerational boundaries. Toddlers, Teenagers, Generation X, 3rd Generation – all these terms divide up our communities, putting them in boxes that mean we plan activities by age – young people in schools, older people in retirement homes.

We talk about the ways we need to help older people. But, perhaps, the old can help the young. It’s the experience of life in a multigenerational, interdependent, richly complex community that, more than anything else, teaches us how to be human.

There is plenty of research that shows that having regular intergenerational interactions can benefit younger and older alike – and there are good biblical principles which shed light on how God would have us operate.

God’s commands for his people in the Old Testament clearly identify the Israelites as a relational community where the children were to grow up participating in the culture they were becoming. In the religion of Israel, children were not just included; they were drawn in, assimilated, and absorbed into the whole community with a deep sense of belonging.

In the book Best practices in intergenerational faith formation, the author states: “The call for one generation to share its faith and story with future generations is deeply  embedded in the Jewish tradition….From the first century onward, Christian faith communities have been intergenerational communities”.

So the church is one of the few places in society where there is, or at least should be, an intergenerational culture – but this can still be broken and divided by the way we approach activities – but it does not need to be this way:

“In those at either end of the life course – the young and the old – we find striking similarities. We live in a society that values adulthood, and in turn doing – productivity and ongoing activity. The young and the old share a different rhythm. It’s one that focuses not only on doing, but on the power of being. It’s the simplicity of playing with blocks or tending to flowers. The young and the old are most closely connected with the essence of living. They can exist in a moment that’s the grand sum of past, present, and future. Rather than time being the enemy – rushing time or stressing to fit as much into time as possible – time becomes a comfortable companion, a circle rather than a line.” (Susan V. Bosak)

The example we learn from the bible is that the older generation are a critical part of the faith journey of the younger generation – far from seeking to divide our groups into ‘age appropriate’ ones we maybe should be seeking to develop activities which are ‘intergenerational appropriate’ where the old can pass on wisdom and experience.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you’re at home or away, when you lie down or get up. Write them down, and tie them around your wrist, and wear them as headbands as a reminder. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

For many teenagers the worst people to try to discuss issues with are their parents, and for many in fractured families they won’t even have that option. Parents will know that young people tend to do the exact opposite of what they are told! But if young people can confide in older people then the wisdom of age can be passed on in a more accepted way. You could consider running a mentoring programme in your church or helping out with one of the many groups which go into high schools across the Diocese to run mentoring and lunch club activities. (Check for your area.)

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, released in 2014, found that we are more likely than other Europeans to blame young people for antisocial behaviour and are less inclined to intervene if we find teenagers causing trouble. Here again the church should have a response. What are we doing in our communities to build relationships and get to know people? I have seen numerous examples of the value of knowing people by name – a young person welcomed by name will feel valued and accepted rather than isolated. Passing a teenager in the street either when they are alone or in a group and acknowledging them by name will validate their identity. In many churches I have seen rotas with ‘young people’ allocated to tasks – this brings no sense of ownership or worth to the young people – try asking people individually and treating them as individuals – put them alongside an older person on the rota to foster friendships.

How about running an after school café where one month the young run it for the old and the next month the old run it for the young?

Run some craft workshops where older people can pass on skills – I have seen whole youth groups sitting knitting and crocheting following such an event.

Getting young people to record oral histories from people in the community can provide both education for the young but also a time for older people to reflect and remember.

With a little imagination and support just one older person in a church can have a dramatic effect on a whole community of young people. I heard of one lady who was so concerned about seeing young people, after school, getting off the bus outside the church in her village– many had nowhere to go and just hung around – that she approached a local youth organisation to help her open up the church and run an after school café. She raised funds and got her elderly friends involved – several years on it’s now a regular occurrence for groups of teenagers to be found playing cards and board games with older people.

Further reading:

Lois M. Collins. Young and old together: Why kids and the elderly benefit from close relationships

Susan V. Bosak. Benefits of intergenerational connections, Legacy Project

Roberto, J. (2007). Best practices in intergenerational faith formation. Lifelong Faith, 1(3), 5- 16.

The author...

Mr Jonathan Richardson

Children, Youth & Families Development Officer

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