Getting to the Heart of Intergenerational Relationships
In this first issue, Ashley, would you start with the question of why a discussion about intergenerational relationships is needed and set the context for the more specific questions to follow in the next issue?
At twenty-three, almost turning twenty-four, I was interviewed and hired for the position of women’s ministry director. Upon beginning my job, I came face to face with the question of what does it look like to have gospel friendships with ladies who are much older than I–friendships that tug both ways, friendships that allowed me to try to minister to them, while then leaning on them to help me grow up in all of the other areas of life? Furthermore, how could I get the younger generation of women to begin being involved and committed to our women’s ministry in such a way that brought older and younger into the same room, serving God for His glory, and building friendships with one another. After all, we need one another…but do we really understand one another? A discussion about these relationships is needed because at the outset, we do not understand one another.
When we attempt intergenerational relationships, we often feel the tug of many tensions, varying viewpoints, and differing expectations. Some of the tensions we can attempt to understand, others can cause the other side to have insecurities and frustrations. Getting to the heart of the assumptions and expectations that both the older and the younger have for what relationships and ministry should and needs to look like was my starting place and is now our starting place for this discussion. I desired to understand their hearts and saw this as fundamental if I was going to win them over to a young one. So to that end, I hope to provide a bit of fodder to help readers begin this thinking and dialogue process in their own churches. Let’s begin by delving into my generation . . .Generation Me.
Great Expectations of Generation Me: Today’s under 40 generation (born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) is known as Generation Me. In contrast to the Boomers, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self. Whitney Houston’s No. 1 hit in 1985 summarized it all–“The Greatest Love of All” is loving yourself. Elementary school teachers saw their most important job as helping kids feel good about themselves. Coloring books with the title We Are All Special dominated, and you got a sticker just for filling out your worksheet. It is quite typical for a sixth grade project to be called “All About Me.” The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue.
Generation Me’s expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities. Generation Me is not self-absorbed, they are self-important. They take it for granted that they are independent, social individuals, so they don’t really think about it. On the positive side, as long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals, Generation Me finds fulfillment in helping others. They want to make a difference. But, they want to do it their own way. Generation Me is driven by a longing for relationship, yet quite often, they do not know what healthy relationships really should look like. They long to be known; hence they share their lives openly on Facebook, via text messages, and through tweets. But what they did not expect was that even though they have hundreds of friends on Facebook, they still feel lonely; and they still don’t really know how to make relationships work in the hallway of church with people they don’t know. Positively, Generation Me wants to serve. They are far more likely to sign up for a service or missions project than they are to come to a lunch. They have a desire for depth of biblical teaching and content in their Bible study and discussions that truly engage the Bible. This generation, though they may have some lofty expectations, genuinely wants to be part of the church…Welcome to Generation Me.1
Great Expectations of the Boomers: Classical evangelicalism is what took shape following World War II. What stood out and what still does, is the commitment that Boomers have to doctrinal soundness. A commitment to right doctrine and theology was a pendulum swing from what had occurred in the 1920s (and in the 1970s for our denomination)–a move towards liberalism. The liberals declared that Christianity was about deeds, not creeds–life, not doctrine. The conservative opponents were the ones who said, “wait a minute, it’s about both deeds and creeds–it’s about doctrine and life.”
Boomers have a great sense of duty, which is something that Generation Me lacks and which puzzles and at times can frustrate the Boomers. The things that Boomers consider to be duty will be attended to and taken care of, which makes them very reliable within the church ministries. Boomers also have a sense of accomplishment. What they have worked for and towards over the course of many years are very significant and important to the Boomers. It can be easy for them to feel like the new ideas of the young ones means that the way that they have done things is wrong and that their sacrifice and accomplishment no longer matters. Likely if I polled the Boomer Generation readers, you would tell me that you know the value of a solid, biblical program and the power that it has to affect our daily living. When the Boomers and the generations above them hear of a problem in the church, often times the answer is more teaching, more content, plan a program, or have a retreat. Boomers, you see, value the some of the parts as greater than the sum of the individual.
You can already feel the tensions that will be present when you match a Boomer with Generation Me in thinking through ministry ideas! Generation Me’s individualism is difficult for the Boomer to understand, for they have seen important growth within the body and within community. Shared ideas, many hands, and group thinking are how they have known to form community and build commitment to ministry. Of course these ways are good. All are used by God and all instruct, encourage, equip, and edify His people. But, Generation Me will counter that programs do not automatically mean that the “life” and “growth” part of the equation is happening. And that’s where Generation Me comes in and takes on the other side of the equation with full-force.
Gospel Realities: The first reality that we find in every church is that the pews are filled with both age groups. God has designed our church bodies so that we cannot escape the tensions! Our women’s ministries are comprised of Boomers and Generation Me… and the two have to come together to do ministry!
How does the gospel speak to these very different viewpoints and help us to relate to one another?
The posture for intergenerational relationships and ministry involves sacrificial love and humility. Jesus lived a life of humility and sacrificial love. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:3-7). Paul’s answer to people who are desirous to pursue their own way and to achieve the goals they think are important, is to consider Christ. Women in ministry, mothers with daughters, ladies young and old, do we see this desire in ourselves–to pursue our own way and achieve the goals that we think are important? Consider the Son of God who laid aside everything that He had and took on the form of a servant, a dulos, a slave, for our sakes. There isn’t a quadrant of life that Christ didn’t enter into for our sakes to serve us. His life was not about Himself, His agenda, or His rights…though, He above all earthly powers, had genuine access to those rights. Christ counted us as more important than Himself–for us, sinners, Christ laid aside glory to come to this earth to save us. This is the gospel. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The gospel calls us to die for one another joyfully and willingly. This laying down of our lives for others comes with a call to mortify the temptation to demand that we be related to in the way that we want or the way that we think is best. Sacrificial love seeks to reach out and relate to another generation according to what they need, without insisting upon your own rights.
In intergenerational ministry, there is a tendency for both sides to want to do things “their way.” The gospel says that this is not an option. If you love the younger girls, you are willing to die for them. Younger ladies, if you love the older, you must be willing to step toward them rather than insisting that they change their ways first. We are to be like Christ, to do what He did. Are you willing to lay aside your agendas for your churches, for your women’s ministries, for relationships with other generations, taking on the humble posture of a slave and a servant? In humility and weakness and out of the great love that He demonstrates to us, will you go and do likewise, considering others as better than yourself? Can we set aside our own needs and desires for the sake of another? Is this our posture–humble and sacrificial–with the younger women, with the older ladies?
1 Some excerpts taken from Generation Me by Jean M. Twinge.