WHY THE YOUNG NEED THE OLD
In this series of articles it has been my goal to advocate for a multi-generational approach to structuring and being a part of our churches. I’m convinced that one of the greatest focuses of the church moving forward needs to be a deepened commitment to meaningful, multi-generational relationships. (For More on this, take a look at the last two articles in this series God’s Heart for Diverse Unity and God’s Heart for Crowded Dinner Tables).
At nineteen years old, in the second half of my sophomore year in college I was asked by a small country church in Robinson, TX to come and serve as their new Youth Pastor. To say they took a leap of faith on me is an understatement. But I had already felt a call into ministry and I was big and loud and fun, so the position seemed like a natural fit. I’ll never forget my first few Sundays at the church. I looked around and there was one other person that seemed like they were remotely close to my age, and she was in the choir. I soon found out she was the Music Minister’s wife (to be fair the Music Minister was close to my age too, but he was far more mature than me and so I assumed he must be much older). I had more in common with the teens I was hired to minister to than I did the bulk of the folks in the church. When I got back to the college campus I heard my friends talking about the church services they had gone to. Big, loud, college-aged services filled with folks my age. I felt jealous and worried that I was missing out. Little did I know that it would be them, not me, who was missing out.
What unfolded over the next five years forever shaped and molded my life. While there were not many young adults, the church did have what my church had growing up: loving, relational older adults willing to invite me into their hearts and lives. I had men who taught me how to do carpentry, work on my truck, catch a fish, be a husband and a father, and serve the church. I had women who mothered me through college, encouraged me, taught me how to make pot roast, fattened me up with homemade pies, kept me out of jail (true story, thanks Linda Vranich!), and coached me through my first years of marriage. When Amy and I had our first child, it was these men and women who surrounded us, blessed us with an abundance of supplies and support, and babysat him so I could attend seminary. While I never got to attend a big, dynamic college worship service that oozed with cultural relevancy, I discovered the deepest truth of the multi-generational church, love is always relevant.
Now that I am a parent and raising my own children in the church my thoughts on multi-generational relationships have moved from simply valuing and being thankful for older believers in my life, to becoming convinced that my family desperately needs older believers in our lives. I’ll give you 4 reasons why the young need the older generations to invest into them:
In Psalm 145 David exclaims, “3Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. 4One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.” How does a generation come to know the greatness and faithfulness and worthiness of God? Older generations are to pass it onto them. One generation is to “commend” God’s works to another as they tell of His mighty acts. But how does a generation “commend?” Traditionally, over the past century, the chosen method of commending God’s works has been through Sunday School. We recruit older teachers, find good curriculum, and teach the Bible to the younger generations. This method has proven wonderful in passing along Bible knowledge and will serve the kids well into the future. Bible knowledge is certainly a primary ingredient for faith development. But is it the only ingredient? I’d answer, no.
The young need more than knowledge of how God moved in Biblical times, they need to see God’s mighty acts in the lives of believers today. The word translated “commend” in Hebrew literally means “to boast loudly.” Our kids are surrounded by a culture that boasts loudly of its pathways to happiness and life. What is going to counter the pervasive messaging they receive daily? My sons will never meet the athletic superstars they admire, but they will know John Pewtress, a sweet man in our church who runs basketball drills for them in his driveway. My daughter will never meet the actresses she admires on Disney, but she knows Miss Margarita who sews with her on Wednesdays. And in the lives of these saints, over the fostering of real relationships and admiration, my kids will hear the loud boasting of God’s goodness and faithfulness in every season. Yes, parents are the primary influencers of faith in the lives of their children, but the church is the larger Family of God in which there are a multitude of influencers and examples. For faith to truly take root and grow, the younger generations need the older generations to commend the greatness of God in real and personal ways.
If you don’t know Dr. Kara Powell and the Fuller Youth Institute, then allow me the pleasure of introducing you. Her work completely changed my approach to youth ministry. The Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA set out to understand what factors were most important in a child’s church experience in order for them to retain their faith into and through college. If you don’t know, the numbers of teens raised in the church that leave the church in college is staggering. According to David Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Re-Thinking the Faith, seven out of ten teens raised in the church are leaving and re-thinking faith. The Barna Group puts that number closer to five out of ten. Either way it is extremely worrisome. And while the causes for why a teenager leaves church once they approach the college years are no-doubt varied and nuanced, The Fuller Youth Institute set out to learn what actually works in helping teens retain their faith. And the answer was surprising.
According to their research, which you can learn about here, the greatest factor for creating what they call a “faith that sticks” or a “sticky faith” has little to do with youth group size, or worship style, or denomination, but rather with the number of meaningful adult relationships the students had in their church family. If students felt they had meaningful adult relationships with at least five or more adults in their church (emphasis on meaningful) they were far more likely to retain their faith into their adult years. In other words, the younger generations need meaningful relationships with the older generations in their community of faith if they are going to stay a committed part of a community of faith.
It’s my experience in almost two decades of working with teenagers that the biggest factor for how a child sees themselves is based on how they are treated and valued by certain communities. Identity is fostered in environments of acceptance, encouragement, and support. Watch a teenager who doesn’t feel accepted and wanted by his or her peers, and you’ll see a teenager whose attitude and behavior begin to deteriorate as the teen wrestles with their sense of self worth. Some of the most crucial internal conversations that lead to a lifelong sense of identity happen in the developmental years.
If there is any place in a young person’s life where they should feel known and extremely valued it ought to be in the family of God. This is what Christ specialized in. Whether it was the prostitute, the tax collector, the crippled man, or the fisherman, Jesus had a way of creating a sense of value in the hearts of those with whom He interacted. Every person was met with love. Every person was challenged to blossom into who Christ was redeeming them to be. This philosophy needs to drive how the church relates to the younger generations. They will blossom where they are valued.
One of the greatest ministry opportunities older generations have, is to know and love the younger generations in the church. I’m a firm believer in Maya Angelou’s sentiment, “They may forget what you said – but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I cannot remember a single sentence spoken to me by Mr. Bill Turner the sweet old man who greeted people at the door of my childhood church; but, to this day I remember the hugs he would give me, the candy he slipped into my hand, and the pocket knife he gave me when I grew to his height (he couldn’t have been much taller than five feet). Truth be told, I don’t remember many of the words of any of the folks in my church growing up. But I know exactly where Mr. Maxwell sat and how I rubbed his flat top every Sunday Morning; I can envision where Towrys sat and the sweet hugs she gave; and I can tell you where Mr. and Mrs. Silas sat and how I held their hand as we sang the closing song. Why do I have such vivid memories of these people whom I have not seen in twenty years? Because their love nourished my identity as a young believer. Younger Christians need the older generations to accept and value them every time they see them.
Wisdom and Support
It’s not just the kids and teenagers who need the older generations, every stage of life can benefit from those who have gone before. Just this week I had a long conversation with a mom of three who is desperately wanting older moms to come alongside her to impart wisdom and support. My wife and I now have a teenager in our house, and we find our friendships with couples who have navigated and are navigating the teenage years well to be invaluable to us. We are constantly taking mental notes and revisiting what we have observed from them. I have married couples in my church hitting the empty nest stage of life and need older couples to support them through the hard, but fruitful transition. I have new widows in my church who need the other widows to let them know that they can relate to their pain and that God will be faithful. I have addicts in my church who are wrestling with sobriety and need those who have been sober for decades to encourage them and impart wisdom.
In short, please tell me at which stage of life a person no longer needs wisdom? At which stage does a person have it all figured out? “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe” (Proverbs 28:26). I believe one of the unique strengths of the family of God is the very fact that it is multi-generational. Every stage has within the Family of God another generation from whom they can learn and glean support. I do not think we could have made it through this school year without the support and help of a few sweet retired church members who have the time and were willing to lend a helping hand. I’m constantly blessed by the wisdom and support we receive and I cannot imagine living life without it. Every generation needs those that have gone before to guide them along life’s challenging roads.
I’ll write some suggestions in the future about how to gear ministry in the church in such a way that fosters these kinds of meaningful relationships, but for now, let us recognize how much the younger generations benefit from knowing and being known by, loving and being loved by, supporting and being supported by older generations. When I take the time to reflect back on my history, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has blessed me with a long list of older men and women who have loved me, put up with my ignorance, pointed me to Christ, and nurtured me into maturity. I am praying that each of my children and each of your children and grandchildren will be able to say the same thing.
Questions for Reflection:
- Which older adults played meaningful roles in your life? Take time to thank God for their presence and time which they invested into you.
- Do you know the names of the kids and teenagers in your church? If your church is too large to know them all, do you know the names and stories of a few that you see regularly? How can you go out of your way to make them feel known and special?
- Which adults in your church do you know that are in a stage above yours? How can you foster a deeper relationship with them? What questions would you like to ask them? Which adults in your church do you know that are in a stage below yours? How can you foster a deeper relationship with them? What advice and support would you like to offer them?