After pushing his eyeballs back into their sockets, my retired pastor friend cautioned me against my foolhardy venture: "You can’t just combine their Sunday school classes! The senior adult has nothing in common with the teenager. They have completely different problems."
He is not alone in his convictions. I attended at least half-a-dozen SBC churches growing up, and the closest I came to interacting with anyone other than my peers at church was when Mr. Reaves once ventured over to our smelly middle-school churchyard football game to share tips on how to throw a spiral. Mr. Reaves—who remarkably resembled the weathered pigskin he was holding—mystified us by throwing multiple 40-yard spirals. Like Mr. Mertle from The Sandlot, he quickly became a legend among our group.
I'm convinced that passing technique only scratches the surface of what our malodorous group might have learned by sharing more time with Mr. Reaves. In response to my pastor friend, and others who share his concerns, here are 4 biblical reasons for pursuing intergenerational relationships in the church.
1) Intergenerational relationships remove the echo chamber
The internet was lauded in its inception as a "worldwide web," connecting people who would otherwise never meet; yet, it has proved more often to insulate, polarize, and confirm bias. Christians know such “echo chambers” are problematic. Proverbs 18:1 teaches that "whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment." 1 Kings recounts how Solomon's son Rehoboam "abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him" to disastrous consequences (1 Kings 12:8-16).
I witnessed the generational echo chamber lift in a discipleship group comprised of men ranging from age 25 to 75. An older member lamented loosening legal restrictions on urban mosques, a complaint that had likely garnered many enthusiastic head nods among his peers. Here, he sparked a helpful discussion on religious liberty, eventually abandoning his former frustrations in a remarkable display of integrity and humility. Likewise, a new believer in his 30s once expressed confusion after a church business meeting (welcome to the club, friend!). Baffled at our need for a formal and complex budget, he wondered aloud why we couldn’t simply split giving between poverty relief and overseas missions. While a "new believers" class might have shared his naiveté, an older man helpfully explained how the water bill contributes to the mission of the church. These interactions are not unique, but they are impossible if old and young are too busy yodeling into the mountains to notice other voices.
2) Intergenerational relationships provide opportunities for discipleship
Mrs. Toma has 5 kids, the youngest of whom is a freshman in college. My wife Caitlin has 2 toddlers. Mrs. Toma currently worries about how to pay for college, downsize their family home for the greatest market value, and redeem her newfound free time. Caitlin's worries mostly include getting vomit stains out of the couch and finding time to read the Bible without a child breaking a limb (or Mommy breaking a commandment) in the process. Though Mrs. Toma shares neither of these problems, she is uniquely equipped to dispense help (baking soda and concentrating on short passages during naptime...the woman is a wizard).
In his outline of church relationships to Titus, Paul explains that older women are responsible to "teach what is good, and so train the young women" (Titus 2:3-5). While assuming some similarities, Paul makes a point to emphasize the women’s differences. In other words, Paul's model of discipleship is designed around dissimilarity! The question for a potential disciple is not "who will I comfortable around?" but instead "who will I learn Godliness from?"
3) Intergenerational relationships help us care for one another
As a new student minister departing for summer camp, I imagined our teenagers as a troop of Hobbits, leaving the Shire on an epic spiritual quest. I would quickly discover our trip shared more in common with Lord of the Flies than Lord of the Rings. My adult chaperone, Mrs. Tammi, was a registered nurse. While I'll spare you the details, this is a remarkably helpful skill set for a week-long youth camp. Also, she was much more capable than I in managing our various Regina George v. Cady Haron disputes. I can’t imagine making it through that week without her.
Yet, removing the most qualified caregiver is precisely what often happens in an age-segregated church. Young parents crave date nights but struggle to afford sitters. Meanwhile, "empty nesters” anxiously awaiting grandkids will risk trampling one another for the chance to rock a baby to sleep or have a tea party with a toddler. This is only one example of the potential of intergenerational care. The college student has the most strength to help a young family move. The parent of adult children has the best counsel and encouragement for the parent of a wayward teenager. The teenager has the most availability to do odd jobs for elderly widows, and on it goes.
4) Intergenerational relationships testify to the gospel's power
At a 2015 summit on racial reconciliation, ERLC President Dr. Russell Moore noted with typical prophetic incision that in church gatherings, "we are signifying to the rest of the world, ‘here is a picture of the Kingdom of God,’ [yet] we gather with the same people we would gather with if Jesus Christ were still dead, and that’s blasphemy." College students will drink coffee together regardless of whether the tomb reads "full" or "empty." You don't need to believe that a two-thousand-year-old Jew is the Prince of Peace to go on playdates with other preschool families or eat catfish with other retirees.
To be clear, none of these relationships are wrong or unwise. Moore is obviously not calling on Christians to never share a meal or pew with someone of the same race. But if not wrong, neither are these relationships sufficient to most clearly display Christ as "our peace," the only one able to have "made us both one and broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:14). If generational reconciliation is a manifestation of the gospel's power, church ministries should be built on a much firmer foundation than the convenience of age-segregation alone. Again, Moore's words on race are apt: “What people will say is we’re trying to reach people with the gospel, and people would rather be around people like them. Sure they would, and I’d like to fight and fornicate and smoke weed and go to heaven.” Preference and convenience make helpful consultants, but terrible managers.
So, when my pastor friend told me that the teenager and senior adult had nothing in common, I beamed and enthusiastically responded, "exactly!" That they likely have more in common than either realizes is beside the point. We need not share the same melanin count, tax bracket, or birth decade, for Christ's church is bound together not by decorative ribbons, but forged chains. We share a common past: trapped in sin and guarded by the law (Galatians 3:23). We share a common present: members of God's family (Galatians 3:26). And we share a common future: heirs to the kingdom and promises of God (Galatians 3:29). We share Christ, and he is sufficient. May our churches realize Paul's thunderous declaration in Galatians 3:28 (adaptation mine) "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, [old nor young], for you are all one in Christ Jesus."