When I was a boy, I was invited to participate in the anniversary celebration for our Senior Pastor. I attended a fairly large church, so it was a big deal to me that I had been asked to participate in an event that was for the whole church and not just kids my age. On the Sunday of the celebration another boy and I were dismissed from Sunday school early. We were led to a special dressing room where we were provided with robes, wigs, beards, and staffs to make us look like Moses and Aaron. At the appropriate time, we were to walk out into the sanctuary, make our way onto the stage, and say our lines as we presented our Senior Pastor with a decorative copy of the Ten Commandments.
He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.
In the moments leading up to our performance, I quickly went from excited to terrified. The magnitude of the moment came crashing down on us like a ton of bricks. As we stood in the hall quietly and anxiously fidgeting with our costumes and props, an older, well-known man in the congregation noticed us and came over to encourage us. He asked if we were excited for to play our parts in the service and if we were nervous. We said that we were. He told us that he was nervous every Sunday as he participated in the ministries of the church. He explained that he too had a costume that he wore every Sunday and with a flip of his head he popped his toupee up on end. He prayed with us and thanked us for having the courage to be a part of what the church was doing.
A Real Partnership
All of these years later, that moment is still very precious to me. Mr. Sowers, the man who was constantly surrounded by children, the man who first invited me to come to church through the church bus that he captained, the man who, in my young eyes, was a big deal in the church, made me feel like more than just a child in a silly church program. He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.
Interestingly enough, it was children like me who made Mr. Sowers seem so important. He always wore suit coats to church and he had what appeared to be a bottomless pocket full of Jolly Rancher candies that he passed out whenever he was at the church. I believe the children of the church gave Mr. Sowers a sense of purpose and productivity. Being able to minister to children was in itself a ministry to him.
And the Research Says…
What I experienced with Mr. Sowers seems extraordinary and unusual. It certainly wasn’t the norm when I was a youth and it hasn’t been the norm during my time as a pastor. Most of the stories I hear concerning senior adults and young people involved conflict and misunderstanding. However, through a yearlong experiment involving senior adults and youth at First Baptist Church of St Albans, we discovered that it is possible to foster the development of intergenerational relationships between senior adults and youth like the one described above. We further learned that these relationships are indeed beneficial for all involved parties.
Here are our four key findings:
1) Shared space results in shared stories
The church is one of the last places in society that has regular access to multiple generations. With minimal planning and communication, opportunities for shared space and activity can be created. Through spending time together doing things like eating food, playing games, or simply talking, shared stories are experienced. Those stories represent connections that lead to various levels of mutual understanding and appreciation between the generations. To quote one of our participants, “These activities woke up the church to the value of our youth and created a desire for ALL generations to be involved.”
2) Youth provide energy and encouragement for senior adults
During our project, one senior adult said, “We’re hungry for new ideas and energy. The youth energize us and help us move out of our comfort zone. The youth have helped us to grow in our faith.” I believe the church has a fountain of youth and it is the youth, themselves. Many times, senior adults fear that they won’t be able to “keep up.” Amazingly, once senior adults spend some time with youth and engage them in various ways, they often walk away encouraged and energized. They are energized and encouraged to pursue and serve Christ in ways they previously believed beyond their abilities.
3) Senior adults are incredible advocates for youth in the church
As the patriarchs and matriarchs of many of our churches, senior adults hold a very special place of influence in the local church. They are often perceived to be the biggest givers of the church and hold many of the positions of power on boards and committees. When they begin to experience the energy and enthusiasm of the youth of the church, they begin looking for ways to engage that energy in the life of the church. They begin to see that youth have potential for the present as well as the future. One senior noted, “I find myself cheering for them to succeed and have a strong desire to see them take leadership in the church.” The more senior adults and youth spend time together the more the talents and abilities of youth become apparent and the more senior adults advocate for youth involvement and ownership within the broader church context.
4) Intergenerational ministry is about partnership
If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others.
“Youth are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today.” I understand and respect the idea this oft-quoted phrase intends to communicate. Youth are often treated as passive bystanders who are supposed to wait their turn. However, I believe this quote unintentionally communicates a less positive message as well. If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others. When generations learn to play nice with each other it becomes much easier to work effectively together. As one senior adult noted, “We won’t be here forever. We have to make room for youth to come along beside us… This church needs to be theirs too.” We each have a purpose in the body, so we each need a place.
Intergenerational ministry is an exciting and intimidating proposition. To one extent or another, in each of our churches, we are practicing it—but are we doing it well? What opportunities for intergenerational ministry exist in your church? What benefits might your church experience from greater involvement between generations?
Jeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in Indiana with their children Mikayla and JJ. He loves drinking coffee, playing music, and dreaming about what the church could and should be with fellow church nerds. Jeremy has an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, a D.Min. in Church Missional Renewal from Palmer Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA.