Bridging the Gap: Encouraging Intergenerational Faith Formation

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Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon,"

Said the old man, "I do too!"

The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."

"I do that too," laughed the old man.

Said the little boy, "I often cry."

The old man nodded, "So do I."

"But worst of all," said the little boy,

"It seems grown-ups don't pay attention to me."

And he felt the warmth of the wrinkled old hand.

"I know what you mean," said the old man.

-- Shel Silverstein

Meaningful contact between older adults and young people in North America has become increasingly uncommon. Only in rare instances do grandparents live with their children and grandchildren under the same roof—or even in the same town. And, because there is so little interaction between the generations, young people often don't understand the needs and abilities of older adults, and older adults often forget the positive emotional benefits of being around young children. Intergenerational programs and activities allow older people to share valuable experience that nurture meaningful and caring relationships. Church seems to be the final frontier that cultivates such natural interaction of the different generations. 

In Syd Hielema’s recent webinar he states emphatically, that, “when people form groups there is a powerful dynamic.” Such Intergenerational groups are life-changing in that they teach one another about each other’s passions and skills, whether it be technology based or skills of the trades; they learn firsthand that not all individuals are alike. All this takes place by just being aware of the dynamics of the group and the uniqueness of the individuals.

1 Corinthians 12:13 reads, “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be."

Through this awareness of powerful dynamics, unique and healthy mentoring relationships can be created in either direction and can lead to the influencing of the community through culture in many ways. For instance, youth may learn how to handle situations and emotions they face today by listening to an older adult talk about past experiences. Or they learn skills that would be lost if not passed down from generation to generation (carpentry, storytelling, quilting, etc.).

Likewise, older adults might have a lot to learn, too. Many older adults were born near the turn of the century and the changes in society (technology, gender roles, work environments, etc.) have been far-reaching and rapid. Also, values have changed and ways of living day to day have altered due to economic or societal demands; important for older adults to fit into todays lifestyles. Additionally, we are a more mobile society and many older adults no longer live close to their adult children or grandchildren.

However, for intentional generational formation to work, the people involved must all be committed to the basic needs for intergenerational programs. Planning and developing for intergenerational opportunities should be a two-way process considering the needs and emotions of all participants. For starters, making sure that the goals are agreed on and stated clearly amongst everyone from the beginning, is foundational. Also, consistency is important to both older adults and to students. Youth become confused, and their trust fluctuates when too many adults come into, and then leave, their lives.

The group should be aware of and acknowledge incorrect stereotypical notions of older people. Myths may include:

  • Older people are unable to accept change easily
  • Older people are insecure around youth
  • Older people are not willing to engage in youth activities

And, finally, the congregation should exemplify recognition of successful efforts within the body of people. Too many times we are quick to criticize or give advice. Rather, plan ways to acknowledge appreciation for volunteers and paid staff who contribute their time and effort and many times, resources, as well.

These thoughts may be a good start to bigger, stronger and closer relationships amongst different age groups. In our church, we make time to create holiday cards/ornaments, perform service projects and have soup lunches with the elderly. We invite the parents to partner with us on different activities and participate along side their youth and, openly communicate prayer and other needs. With young adults, we include them in several events throughout the year such as indoor soccer, skiing or attending a hockey/basketball game. All of these opportunities are aimed at inspiring connections with many different levels of faith formation at multiple degrees of generational age groups that will bridge those gaps that exist at each age group. 

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