Intergenerational friendships and the future of the church
Youth should not be set apart, but rather integrated into the life of a congregation through friendship.
Andy Root, while reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s Theses on Youth Work, reflects that we should not set youth in the church apart as privileged and special. Around these parts, it’s been said that overinvesting of the young prompts the renewal of the church. While these things may seem contradictory, in fact they are not.
As Amy Laura Hall always tells the students of the Duke Youth Academy, “Youth are not the future of the church. Jesus is.” It doesn’t matter what topic she’s addressing; this expression is part of her message to our young, eager theologians.
It’s her way of releasing the valve of pressure we’ve placed on young people to save the church. It’s her way of telling young people that they are not the sole bearers of the future; they are not responsible to convert and procreate so that the church will not die. It’s her way of naming Christ as the central figure of our life in the church.
In making youth ministry into a specialized industry and young people into the “hope for the future,” we isolate the young and ignore our own responsibility to participate in their formation.
We’d rather pay a person still young enough to take a pitiful salary to run a separate youth ministry than set about the difficult work of engaging the young in the existing life of the church. We’d rather refurbish the basement with hand-me-down couches and ping pong tables than share a welcoming space with everyone. We’d rather send our youth to camp a few hours away than invest in discipleship resources at home.
On their own, each of these things may seem like innocuous or well-intended investments in the young of the church, but over the long term they point to a tendency to “silo off” the formation of the young and demonstrate our inadequate grasp of what overinvestment looks like. Overinvestment can be financial and material resources, but those resources mean very little without investment of our very selves through friendship.
While leading a workshop this summer, I asked attendees to think about how they might foster opportunities for their older congregants to befriend the younger people of the congregation. A clever participant noted that the choir, with mainly older adults, meets right before the youth group gathers for a weekly meal then bible study. She wondered whether she could bring the choir members to the youth group dinner.
I think that’s exactly what Jesus would do. He was all about bringing uninvited and mismatched guests to the dinner party (See Luke 7 and 14).
Of course, even when we invite mismatched people to eat together, the people will err on the side of self-segregation, opting to eat with their own and avoid awkward exchanges. But over time and with some encouragement to mix it up, the potential for friendship exists at a much higher rate than if there were not a shared meal.
If the leaders in the church don’t model and prompt intergenerational friendships, they won’t happen. It is our responsibility to nurture a space for the older and younger and those in between to be together in normal, mundane ways. In these moments, no one is set apart as special. Yet, in these moments, each of us has the potential to see one another as Christ sees us, with compassion, love and friendship.
When we share the love of Christ with one another in the ordinary moments, sharing the Word, the peace and the bread in worship takes on new dimensions and power. In these friendships, we are all participating in the future of the church.