When she was about seven years old, my youngest developed a unique relationship with an elderly woman in our church. Her relationship with “Miss Wanda” began when the two discovered they both had an appreciation for yard work, so Wanda invited my daughter to help her with some planting on the church property. As a thank you for my daughter’s work, Miss Wanda made a beautiful purple blanket for her. I wrote Wanda to say thank you and explained that not only did my daughter sleep with the blanket, but she used it for her dolls, as a skirt, and even as a cape. Here was Miss Wanda’s response:
Thanks, dear Katie. The purple blanket should be a good lesson for me…. So many times I have neglected to share, hug, speak, etc. thinking what I have to offer isn’t good enough. The purple yarn was supposed to be “shimmering lilac,” the pattern was yucky, and the project was ready for the trash can. And yet, here is your precious daughter who embraces it. Amazing!
What’s amazing is the beauty of this intergenerational friendship that remained until Miss Wanda went to be with the Lord. What’s amazing is the impact Miss Wanda had on my little one, and what’s amazing is that Miss Wanda admitted to learning a lesson from my young daughter and her purple blanket.
Why Intergenerational Relationships are Important in the Church
This kind of friendship is sweet, but is it really necessary to pursue intergenerational relationships within the church body? I believe it is, and here are two important reasons why
1. Scripture exhorts us to have intergenerational relationships
Titus 2 is explicit in the call for older women and men to teach and train the younger generation, and that teaching is going to be far more effective when there are relationships being fostered. I’m deeply grateful for the women in my life who are older than me and who keep me balanced and give me good perspective. These are the friendships I leaned into when I needed to know how to clean out and sell my parents’ house, and these are the friendships I cling to when I feel lost in raising teenagers.
And in the same way, just as Miss Wanda reminded me in her note, the younger generation has so much to offer those who are older. 1 Timothy 4:12 reminds youth to not let others put them down because they’re young, but to teach by example. My husband sat at the bedside of an elderly woman in our congregation who was near the end of her life. She pulled my husband close and said, “Pastor, I don’t like some of those new songs we sing in church, but the young people like them, so keep singing them because we need those young people.” What great perspective from someone who recognized the importance of intergenerational relationships within the body of Christ.
2. These relationships keep our kids connected to church
Unfortunately, there are some grim statistics of the number of kids leaving the church once they’re grown. According to David Kinnaman in his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Re-Thinking the Faith, only three in ten will be sustained in their faithfulness to the church. This is no doubt a nuanced issue, but what remains clear is that children and young adults who develop relationships with those outside of their own age group are more likely to stay connected to a church body.
I’m grateful for the example of youth ministers who deliberately seek to expose youth to the adults in their congregations. And equally important, the adults need to be on the lookout for these youth who are as much a part of the congregation as they are. Young people need to be prayed for, called by name, and shown that their interests matter. These kinds of relationships help youth become integrated, so when it comes time to leave the “nest,” they gladly come back to their church where there are familiar faces outside of youth group who they know love and care for them.
How to Foster Intergenerational Relationships in the Church
There are several ways these relationships can grow within the church body, but here are just three to consider:
1. Intergenerational missions and service projects
My oldest recently returned from a mission trip made up of adults and youth in the congregation. She was reluctant because of the age mix, but she ventured outside her comfort zone and boarded a plane to the UK. My daughter came home invigorated. The work done on the trip filled her soul, but beyond that, the connection to an intergenerational group from our church changed her. The adults had the opportunity to get to know my teenage daughter in a new way, and she had the opportunity to serve with a group of adults who were now a lot less intimidating. Consider a service project made up of different ages within the church and see the work that God does in and through the multi-aged team.
2. Volunteering in the church body
Service in the church is not limited to one age group. Along with some other teens, my son started helping in the children’s church room and has enjoyed this newfound area of service. I love the friendships budding as the young children get to know the teens in the church, and in spite of the fact that my son was surprised that “kids don’t always listen,” the experience of learning from the adults in the room and then ministering to the children is a beautiful picture of the generations serving together. In the same manner, the older generation can benefit from serving the youth. Empty-nesters, for example, can connect to those younger by doing things like hosting youth events in their home. Be deliberate in choosing areas to volunteer that allow opportunities to bond with different age groups.
3. Modeling intergenerational relationships
As parents, it’s essential that we’re modeling these relationships. Spending quality time with folks in our stage of life is important, but it’s equally valuable to venture outside of where we’re comfortable and develop relationships with those in different stages of life. Consider having an older couple for dinner and see what can be gleaned from their stories and experiences, or invite in a younger family and pursue ways to minister to them. These kinds of relationships are a small glimpse of what we will one day experience in the new heaven and the new earth when every knee will bow together and worship the living God.
I think about this amazing reality every time my youngest mentions Miss Wanda. It wasn’t long ago that she sat wrapped in her purple blanket and said, “Mom, I can’t wait to see her again.” That’s certainly one friendship I’m grateful ventured across the generations.