The Story

A new survey of Christian college students finds that many need intergenerational friendships.

The Background

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the largest college campus ministries in the United States, recently surveyed students on 127 college campuses to assess students’ well-being and attitudes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of the key findings show that students need more intergenerational relationships.

For example, limited social interactions and a lack of community as a result of the pandemic have led to a decline in the mental and physical health of Gen Z and college students across the country. According to the survey, more than half of students say that one of the greatest challenges they’ve faced in the past 18 months includes loneliness or isolation (58 percent). Almost half (47 percent) of students say their mental and emotional health has been harmed by the pandemic. Of the students experiencing health declines, 71 percent attributed this to isolation, lack of community, or lack of social interactions.

Forty percent of the students said that guidance from a more mature Christian in their life (mentor, pastor, chaplain, campus minister) has been one of the most helpful components of cultivating Christian faith while in college. More than one in four (25.95 percent) said the same about church participation.

Most students also desired discipleship resources that could be provided by older believers. Areas where students feel they need the most resources include Scripture study (59.81 percent), prayer (52.22 percent), dating and marriage (47.15 percent), evangelism (34.49 percent), understanding their vocation (30.38 percent), human sexuality/gender identity (22.15 percent), and racial injustice (20.25 percent).

What It Means

Intergenerational friendship can be defined as a friendship between an older and younger adult in which the age difference is 15 years or more. The friendship in the Bible of David and Jonathan was intergenerational, argues Chad Bird. Scripture says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18). Because of their mutual affection, we tend to assume that David and Jonathan were close in age. But Bird makes an argument based on the timelines presented in the Bible that Jonathan was about 30 years older than David.

How many close friends do you have that are 30 years older or younger than you?

If you’re like the average American, you are likely to have few or none. Indeed, many Americans do not have a large number of close friends. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) report having three or fewer, while only about one-third (36 percent) report having between four and nine close friends. Thirteen percent of Americans say they have 10 or more close friends, which is roughly the same proportion of the public that has no close friends (12 percent).

We also make few friendships in church. Only about one in five report having made a close friend at their place of worship (21 percent).

Intergenerational community is part of God’s vision for the church. But it takes some effort. Fortunately, we can build new friendships that cross generational lines by taking some simple steps:

Seek out those from other generations: Make a list of your friends, combining them by broad age group (20–30s, 50s–70s). Which age groups, whether younger or older, are missing? How can you find ways to change that by making new connections?

We often self-segregate by age groups, which requires that we make a concerted effort to seek out those who are younger or older for fellowship. Elderly Christians in particular need to make an extra effort to connect with younger people. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Americans over the age of 65 say it has been at least five years since they developed a new friendship. Many younger people may be intimidated by more mature believers, so older people in the church may need to make the first move.

Start small: Small-scale, individual actions of faithfulness may appear inconsequential. But when we add them up, their cumulative effect can be extraordinary. If you committed to spending an hour per week in fellowship with fellow believers who are younger or older than you, you’d likely have more engagement with them than they’d get from any pastor or college professor. You could have an outsized influence on someone’s life by simply dedicating that small time to an intergenerational friendship.

Speak and listen charitably: Our generational prejudices can cause us to be dismissive of those who are younger or older than us. To cultivate intergenerational friendships, we often need to be gracious and less critical, especially about cultural issues (such as musical taste or political priorities) on which Christians have the freedom to disagree. Be charitable with those of other generations.

Find the connection: As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’” If we search, we can always find a connection with a fellow believer. As the survey shows, many younger Christians need resources that older people can provide, such as on dating, marriage, vocation, and reading the Bible.

And if nothing else, every Christian can, as Joseph Rhea says, stand beside every other and say, “You know Jesus too? Tell me about it!”