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Crossing the generation gap

1 September 2011 | by Sheila Stephen

Crossing the generation gap

I often receive email newsletters and blogposts from various Christian organisations. I have to admit that I sometimes delete them, when I run out of reading time. However, one caught my eye – Intergenerational Youth Ministry. I had planned to meet with one of the students from WEST to discuss possible subjects for his independent study in his final year and this looked like a helpful strategy to explore. I believe we need to do more thorough theological study in the area of youth and children’s work. Youth ministry can often be driven by the latest ‘cool’ trends and by pragmatism.

The article made a provocative statement, ‘without significant intergenerational relationships across the congregation, teenagers often fail to find their places in the church and eventually leave.’ Whilst it could sound like an essay title ‘discuss the following’, it certainly gave me much food for thought. Church structures may often discourage the very thing the article was seeking to promote – relationships across the age groups and across the social ties that often divide us. Perhaps the church splits up too often.

Dividing up the church

I reflected on the tendency to divide the church up into ‘need groups’ – youth, seniors, men, young women, older women, home groups. Are we actually minimising the opportunities for the generations to mix? And what happens when the generations are in the same place together, for example at coffee time after services? Do we stay in our cliques or do we mix across the generations?

I remember once teaching an older Sunday school class about church government (the subject was ‘Whose church is it anyway?’). I gave each child the task of finding one of the elders of the church and asking him how he became a Christian. Although daunted at first, the children enjoyed the experience and the elders enjoyed being asked and interacting in this way across the generation gap. The following week I noticed more of this interaction at coffee time.

In toddler groups the younger women often appreciate the listening ears of older women helpers and the security of their experience and guidance, if given non-judgmentally. The Titus 2 model of the older women teaching and training the younger women may be difficult to work out in practice, but should this principle govern our women’s meetings and conferences more than it does?

Here are some questions stimulated by the article mentioned above and some of my reflections. They are questions I might ask my students in a seminar about where to go next. Perhaps we can ask them of ourselves.

  1. Think about the youth activities of your local church. How are these divided up? And what is the justification for these divisions?
  2. What arrangements are made to introduce young people to church members who are older than they are?
  3. What arrangements are in place to integrate young people into the church as a whole?
  4. What opportunities arise for young people who are believers to serve alongside older people?

Sheila Stephen is the author of Preparing For Church, a series of lessons and worksheets to help the integration of children and young people into church.


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