A deepening pool of ink has been spilled over the “generational gap” problem. As Western culture ghettoizes within generational borders, how can churches best minister to these increasingly divided tribes? Blend worship? Accommodate with traditional and contemporary services? Target one generation and let the others get used to it or worship somewhere else?
It sounds like a church organization problem. But the real problem, and the real solution, isn’t organizational—it’s personal. The real problem is that, increasingly, we’re no longer making friends across generational lines.
I work at a robustly multigenerational church, and I’ve enjoyed the privilege of building relationships with a small group that includes a broad range of men, from brand-new fathers (like myself) to grandfathers. We meet formally once a month, see one another at worship services through the week, and get together as families every few months. We’re even starting to talk more between meetings. I believe we’re becoming friends, and I’ve been seriously blessed by these relationships.
Intergenerational community is part of God’s vision for the church (see Titus 2). It’s a beautiful one, and friendship is the key. When individual Christians believe it’s worth sacrificing for, our churches will begin reflecting that multigenerational beauty.
Benefits of Intergenerational Friendships
Here are a few of the things we gain by making friends across generations:
1. Wisdom. The most obvious gain is the wisdom that comes from perspectives other than our own. I’m sure every generation is different from others, but our current ones have grown up almost in unique worlds. The Great Depression and World War II. Vietnam and the Sexual Revolution. The end of the Cold War and the Digital Revolution. Each of these eras has reconstructed Western culture on a somewhat different set of beliefs and goals and presuppositions.
Spending time with people from other generations will expose different preferences and beliefs. This could lead us further into generational narcissism (“Boy, do these whippersnappers/geezers have a lot to learn!”). But it also can—and should—lead us back to God’s Word, because the conflict might expose blind spots in our generation.
I’ve benefitted from my older friends’ experience in marriage and parenting. Talking with the elders of my church, who range from young 40s through 60s, has helped me see what growing into responsibility and faithfulness to the church looks like. I have become wiser.
The burden of learning is definitely on the younger crowd, but each generation can gain wisdom from the perspective of others.
2. Wonder. God is at work in every generation, just as in every human being. He brought my grandparents’ families through the Depression and World War II, redeemed my parents out of the bacchanalian early '70s, and saved me from the bog of postmodern pluralism. God reached into the turbulence of each era to speak to us individually. He’s begun growing us all into the one image of Christ.
Learning the stories of God’s work in wildly different situations leads to wonder at his power and character.
Our church employs a widow in her 80s. Last year she recorded a testimony of how God has brought her through serious suffering with joy and hope. Her years lend her story gravity; her long experience with God suffused her words with glory.
Representatives of each age group can also reflect God’s nature in different ways. The young show strength and vigor and optimism. The middle-aged, familial care and seasoned experience. The elderly, wisdom and sobriety in the shadow of death. Just as we need every tribe and nation to display the manifold glory of God, so too we need every age if we are to see and celebrate his full nature.
3. Godliness. Intergenerational friendships can lead us to grow in godliness. They do this first by forcing us to love more maturely. The more I have in common with someone, the easier it is to love him.
Loving someone different from me requires me to love more deliberately. I’m going to have to ask more questions and listen better. To hear things I don’t understand and maybe things I don’t agree with. I might have to sacrifice things on my schedule or my style. But developing that intergenerational friendship will make me into a more maturely loving person.
My little group and I don’t have many natural cultural connection points. But committing to one another, making the relationship work, has taught me (and them, I hope) how to find common ground with others.
Intergenerational friendship will also help me develop humility. No matter my age, I must set aside my generation’s narcissistic tendency to think that we figured it out and everyone else had better listen up. My generation-saturated views—on politics, on entertainment, on church music—may not [gasp!] be the only ones a godly/rational/socially aware person can hold. I may find issues that, on biblical reflection, godly people can freely disagree on. Or mine may be flat-out wrong. Making friends with people of other generations teaches me godly humility.
And though there are more reasons we could list, intergenerational friendships will also help me grow in personal holiness. Like perspectival blind spots, generations can also have moral blind spots that others expose. Racism. Sexual immorality. Greed. Opening my life to the view of someone not saturated in my generation’s assumptions can expose lifestyle patterns that, on biblical reflection, don’t line up with God’s will. God can use these friendships to tune my heart more definitely to his will.
Costs of Intergenerational Friendships
If these are the benefits of intergenerational friendships, what are the costs? What does it take to gain these blessings?
1. I must be willing to push through discomfort. Cultivating friendships across generations will lead us into uncomfortable situations. There will be awkward silence and unfunny jokes. We may have to labor for that next connecting point. To ask about that opinion we don’t share. These can be work, and they’re not comfortable, but the labor will pay off.
2. I must speak and listen charitably. Each generation has its snide jokes about others, its instinctive eye-rolls, its hot-button issues. Cultivating intergenerational friendships will require me to set those things aside. To assume the best of people much older or younger than me, and to explore our differences with grace. This isn’t a squishy tolerance: we may find freedom to disagree, or one of us may turn out to hold an unbiblical view. But we must be willing to show patience for the other on the way toward that decision.
3. I must elevate Jesus above all else. C. S. Lewis said that friendship begins when one person says to another, “What! You too?” That is, when we find with delight that we share common ground with another. Friendship in a sense requires commonality of some sort. The further removed we are from another person—financially, racially, generationally—the number of potential connection points we have diminishes.
What’s worse, the Bible teaches that every tribal group tends to build up dividing walls against others. We have a natural tendency to make us/them groups, and generations are no exception.
But as Ephesians 2 teaches, Jesus breaks down every barrier that might divide us, including the barrier of generations. Every Christian can stand beside every other and say, “You know Jesus too!? Tell me about it!” We all are made in the image of God; all of us sin and struggle as part of the common human condition; and all of us know the same divine Savior, the triune God who embodies unity in diversity. Elevating that God together—sharing testimonies, sharing prayer, sharing worship and gratitude and hardship—will draw us closer to members of other generations.
The small group of men to which I belong has bonded somewhat over a common mission. But even more, we’ve bonded over common relationship with Jesus. We’ve grown closer by discussing God’s Word, by sharing our triumphs and struggles in life with God, and by wondering together at the grace of God displayed in Jesus Christ.