The Older People

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A while back I was sitting around a table listening to a bunch of people quite a bit older than I talking about faith. I’m used to hearing people my age and socioeconomic background talking about faith; I know their vocabulary, understand where their questions are coming from, can hear their arguments for and against certain perspectives, resonate with some of the things they get frustrated over in the church. It’s easy to talk and listen to people who are like me. It’s easy to spar about faith. It makes sense, it’s nice to be affirmed in my own position, to hear I’m not the only one asking my questions.

But as I sat their listening to these older people talking about their faith, understandings of God, commitment to the church, questions about living faithfully, and heart for having their children and grandchildren grow in faith, I was deeply humbled.

I was deeply humbled because generally they have questions that are impeccably relevant. It seems, on the whole, they’re committed to their church in ways the generation of movers and less-planted people could envy. Their faith is rooted, based on deep convictions, tried and tested through many deep, painful circumstances and yet still clung to in ways I can only pray and hope for mine to be in 30 years’ time. Their conviction and passion and heart for raising their kids and grandkids in faith and faithful living was instructing and inspiring. I came away with a true, deep sense that I need older people’s perspectives on faith.

In my education, there has always been this idea that intergenerational ministry has to happen, as it’s good for our faith development, helpful and for knowing the world more deeply, vital in developing empathy. And while I, given my psychology background, can affirm this with full gusto, I myself had not experienced intergenerational living and ministry very deeply.

For the many years I’ve spent chugging my way through school my schoolmates made up my primary community. We tended to ask similar questions, speak about faith with the same vocabulary, get frustrated over similar ideas, pursue interests and find joy in exploring the world together in ways that were more aligned than different. And it was good. We need a community of people with similar values and questions in order to be supported for growth at times.

And then about three years ago I joined a community that’s intergenerational at its core. Intergenerational ministry seems to be a value deeply embedded in its DNA.

As a result, I’ve learned much. I’ve been humbled so often. I’ve grown so deeply. In many ways, seeing the faith of a different generation, of a different culture, of a varying body of people has: revealed to me the flaws in my own convictions; shown me the places my passions are good or naïve or need more fleshing out because they’re a bit truncated; pointed out the ways the culture in our world has influenced my own faith (for better and worse); the areas I need to grow in order to be a more holistic leader and person are reveals, as are the ways I’m already on the right track. I need older people and their faith stories for me to grow in compassion, empathy, and wisdom.

There is so much about the church that us younger ones wrestle with, ask questions about. We have concerns we’re not always sure if older people are willing to listen to. There is so much about faith and God we want to know, or think we got the corner on, or really want to reject from other generations. And it’s obviously not all without cause. We stand in a different place on the horizon and can see some things that others who stood on the horizon further back cannot.

But I do think there is deep wisdom in continuing to learn from the other generations. From people who are not like us. From being forced to listen to how and why and what others say, if only to see God through a new lens, to learn how to live into our convictions more deeply, or to understand more deeply why we speak about God and church and faithful living the way we do. Or more simply put: to grow in wisdom and knowledge, not simply because they have something we don’t, but because in listening and wrestling with what they have to offer us, our personhood and our wisdom is defined more fully, poked full of holes, or grows and develops. We need older people, their experiences, understandings, ideas, questions, struggles, and gone-through-the-wringer faith. Even if we can’t swallow everything hook line and sinker, it is instructive and encouraging.

As younger people it seems we often have a tendency to gravitate toward churches and services containing mostly people of our generation. Whether this is because we’re trying to find community to hang out with on Friday nights, because it’s ‘safer’ as we know the language, or because we’re trying to find someone to spend all of life with, we need to be careful. There is wisdom in and a time for spending time in a community that is “like us” to help us understand what we’re passionate about, who we are, what we want, help us grow and become established in that. But it is also not the wisest choice long term.

We need community who has space for variety, for people with differing ideas and convictions and beliefs. We need a community with people who has gone before us, speaks of faith differently so our wisdom can grow. We need people in our lives who are older (and younger) to make sure we are growing into holistic and healthy people. We need people who can help us remember who God is and has been and will be—and that often most vividly comes from people with different experiences, older experiences, faith that has been aged over time.

I know it’s scary. I know it’s hard. I know it requires courage, humility, and strength to go to churches and services where people seem to almost speak a different language, where it requires listening and learning, where it requires hard work to not react to ways of articulating faith and questions you cannot get behind, where our hearts and ideas might go through the wringer or be rejected (by accident or on purpose). But do it! Your heart and faith and wisdom can grow should you be open to it. Older generations need us.

And vice versa. As older people, don’t think that the younger generations don’t need you. We do. We want you to speak into our lives, to listen to us, to allow your faith to grow as a result of our differing perspectives and the wisdom and questions we too have. I know it’s strange to enter a church filled with young people, but come, do so! Teach us a thing or two and also learn a thing or two from us.

I wish we didn’t have to talk about intergenerational ministry anymore. Every time the word is used it feels a bit like a broken record is playing. And yet, I still hear of churches making young people only services, or young people being upset/offended that young people only services become “all people” services. My heart grieves. While good for a time. Don’t get stuck into hearing and seeing only one generation (or one ethnicity or denomination or one [insert all other things]) live out and discuss faith. There is so much more! So many more ways we can grow. 

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