One of my favorite cartoon characters when I was younger was Eeyore. To be completely honest, he still is. Eeyore is perpetually down in the dumps. He has an incredibly pessimistic view of himself and a gloomy outlook on life in general. He believes no one notices him or wants him around. But there Eeyore is, in the middle of the Hundred Acre Woods, playing an incredibly important part. He has something to add to the story. He is clearly loved and wanted by those around him. The bulk of the negativity concerning Eeyore comes not from others, but from Eeyore himself. In much the same way, the negativity surrounding senior adult relationships with youth finds its origins in the senior adults themselves.
The relational issues between our youth and senior adults was not rooted in the adults’ perception of the youth, but in their perceptions of themselves.
At the outset of our journey into intergenerational ministry, I sat down with six senior adult participants in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of the relationships between the senior adults and the youth of First Baptist Church of St. Albans. The intent of the interviews was to gauge both the quantity and quality of relationships from the perspective of the senior adults and to determine their willingness and desire to develop relationships with youth. It did not take very long to discover that things were not what I had anticipated. The relational issues between our youth and senior adults was not rooted in their perception of the youth, but in their perceptions of themselves. At every turn, the senior adults were underestimating themselves.
Underestimating Existing Relationships
In each and every instance, the senior adults underestimated their existing level of connection and familiarity with youth. Each senior adult was asked to estimate how many relationships they believed they had with youth in the church. In most cases, the numbers were in the single digits. They were then given a photo of the youth group and asked to name as many youth as possible. Without exception, each senior adult estimated significantly fewer relationships with youth than the number of youth they could identify by name. What’s more, as they named various youth, they were able to describe in great detail certain interests and abilities of these youth and interactions they had with them. Most of these connections were just beyond casual acquaintances, but each senior adult was able to identify several youth with whom they had a deeper connection.
Many senior adults have relationships with youth from past interactions. They may not have ever played a formal role in a youth ministry, but they have served in other areas of ministry that have put them in close proximity to young people. These same senior adults who believe they have no relationships with youth have served in the nursery. They have spent time working as children’s Sunday school teachers. They have participated in Vacation Bible Schools. Too often, people forget that the youth of the church were not born as teenagers. They were at one time babies and young children, many times working their way through the various ministries and programs of the church en route to the youth ministry. While the relationships may have gone dormant for a season, the connections remain and have great potential for growth.
Underestimating Their Abilities
Life takes a toll, and as we get older, we are often not able to do all of the things we once could. This fact was not lost on the senior adults. For them, their perceived inability to do things physically was a major factor in why they believed they did not have relationships with youth. Here are a few quotes from some of the interviews:
“Physical limitations are a big issue for us. The mind is willing, but the body isn’t always able.”
“It’s hard for us to keep up with youth.”
“We just don’t have the energy. Youth are much more active than we are.”
While it is certainly true that youth engage in various activities from time to time that are less than ideal for more mature people, senior adults are more than capable of doing what is necessary to build relationships with people of all ages. Senior adults may not be the best option for chaperoning a lock-in (who is?), counseling summer camp, or full-court basketball, but they are more than capable of sitting across a table from youth and sharing a meal. They are able to send a friendly card or possibly an email.
However, senior adults are often much more physically able than they give themselves credit for. On Saturday, December 10, we held our Third Annual Snow Ball. The Snow Ball is the event that started it all for us at First Baptist Church. It is an intergenerational dance involving music from across the generations. For three hours, senior adults and youth from First Baptist Church come together to eat food and dance together. They may not be able to do it every weekend, but for one Saturday each December the senior adults not only “keep up” with the youth of the church, they set the pace.
Underestimating the Willingness of Youth
It is one thing to underestimate ourselves. It is another thing altogether to underestimate ourselves for someone else. Yet, that is precisely what is happening with many of our senior adults. Over and over again senior adults indicated that they did not pursue relationships with youth because of what they believed the youth thought of them. They believed the youth viewed them as “old fuddy duddies” and didn’t want to talk to them. Others noted that the youth seemed intimidated by the presence of “older people” and probably didn’t want them around. Another assumed that “youth just see old people as elderly.”
None of these assumptions are flattering and none of them came from the mouths of teenagers. These are thoughts that senior adults had about themselves that they attributed to the youth. With such negative thoughts about the perceptions of young people, it is no wonder that senior adults are under the impression that youth are at best disinterested. In the end, senior adults often don’t pursue relationships with youth because they believe such relationships are unwanted.
They need someone to invite them to join the adventure that is ministry with youth. They need us to invite them to be a part of the process of investing in the lives of teenagers.
One senior adult man in our congregation shows that this simply is not the case. He walks around the church with a pocket full of “Jesus Pills.” If you look for them in your local convenience store, you will more readily know them as LifeSavers. It is not uncommon to see this gentleman standing in the front of the sanctuary with several young people gathered around him. He gives out his “Jesus Pills,” hugs several of the kids, and off they go. It seems like a small thing, but those kids love and appreciate that man and he truly loves and appreciates them. Youth are open to relationships with senior adults who are willing to pursue relationships with them.
Let’s think about Eeyore again for a second. He has an incredibly negative view of things, but the Hundred Acre Woods would not be the same without him. In spite of his gloomy outlook, his friends see the value in him and continue to include him in their adventures. He has something to add to the story. We as youth workers have the chance to do the same thing for the senior adults in our church. They have much more to add to the story than they know. They need someone to invite them to join the adventure that is ministry with youth. They need us to invite them to be a part of the process of investing in the lives of teenagers. It’s amazing how telling someone they are wanted and welcome results in them living like they are wanted and welcome.
Jeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in West Virginia 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.