From the time I was 14, he called me “Missionary Heather.” His name was George, and he was an older member of my home church in small-town Ohio. He loved missions, and in his retirement years, he was actively involved in anything our church was doing related to local and global service: helping with Relay for Life, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, staffing the county fair gate to raise money for the missions team, or volunteering his time fixing up missionary airplanes. He did it all with a sweet spirit of joy, compassion and humility.
In the early ’90s, when the youth leaders at my church made plans to take our youth group on our first-ever youth service trip to Henderson Settlement in Frakes, Kentucky, George said, “I’m in.” I was shocked, because in my teenage mind, George was super old — too old to want to go on youth ministry trips. I thought he would reach his limit in doing ministry alongside a bunch of 14- to 18-year-olds and all the drama that came with it. But he made the long road trip from Ohio to Kentucky to sleep on bunks and do manual labor without complaint. He drove his old pickup truck packed full of suitcases and sleeping bags while middle schoolers drank too much Mountain Dew and argued about the music selections in the church van. He helped us all week as we learned how to paint a house. And he didn’t stop there. He came again the next summer and the next summer and the next summer.
From the time of that first trip, every time he saw me thereafter he’d greet me by saying, “Hello, Missionary Heather,” to which I’d reply, “Hello, Missionary George.” When I graduated high school, he brought a wrapped gift to my graduation party: a brand-new tool belt, a tangible reminder of our past service trips and my future service to the Lord. A few years later, I did become a missionary, raising funds to move 2,500 miles from home and work in outreach ministry to teenagers in a small town in Washington state. He was one of the first people to sign up to be a financial supporter of my ministry work. Whenever I came home and visited church, he would always give me a hug and encourage me. He was a faithful supporter of mine until he passed away in 2007. I remember calling my not-yet-husband, Clay, on the day I heard of George’s passing to tell him all about George and his impact on my life. Clay replied, “I bet George was proud of you.”
George comes to mind today in considering the dire need for multigenerational community in the body of Christ. Sociologist Christian Smith says the primary two spheres that influence American religious socialization are “individual family households and multigenerational religious communities.” People grow in religious maturation through the influence of their own family or through the influence of a multigenerational community of faith that brings them up in the faith. This connects to a description of the church by theologian Ray Anderson and psychologist Dennis Guernsey, who called the church a “family of families.”
If we consider the church as a multigenerational family of families, we are attempting to live out something very countercultural. We hear a lot of generalizing language in the news about the perspectives of baby boomers or millennials and differences in values, beliefs, use of technology, and so on. The separations are highlighted to accentuate trends of cultural change, but it also emphasizes separations that are already present among us. I mean, where can you go in the United States besides Thanksgiving dinner and experience multigenerational community? Maybe your workplace, school or multigenerational home. But because of how our schools and retirement communities are structured, many of us go through life rather stratified by our age group, working and living among others at a similar age or stage of life.
In “A Community of Character,” Stanley Hauerwas writes that the church’s role in this work is “to stand as an institution that claims loyalty and significance beyond that of the family” both in the present and eschatologically. Church can be the multigenerational institution that creates a significance and a sense of belonging outside of our own families. Yet what happens if the church becomes another agency that stratifies and silos kids, teens, college students, single adults, young marrieds, moms of young kids, empty-nesters and senior adults by age and developmental stage?
As a pastor of family ministries, my primary concern is for how kids, teens and young adults are missing out on the richness of church being a family of families to them when we aren’t living into multigenerational community. I am especially concerned with how it impacts young people to have kids, teens and adults filed into separate silos for the bulk of the worshipping life of the congregation. For young people, the separation can create a disconnect between them and older members in the congregation, and they miss out on needed mentorship. It also means the congregation misses out on the contributions of kids and teens in its worshipping life. Overall, the church loses its kingdom significance as it becomes a place that resembles the surrounding culture more than the body of Christ. One of the recurring questions for me over the past few years has been to ask, “What would it look like if the church practiced multigenerational community more faithfully?”
In practice, while multigenerational community sounds beautiful, it is incredibly challenging to implement. There are cultural reasons for the natural separations between old and young, differences in experiences, values and preferences. To captivate the hearts and minds of young people requires those in power to bring to fruition what Amy Jacober calls bilingual ministry: where the program is “relevant to young people and true to the Scriptures.” The church has certainly experienced a lot of tension over the years in seeking to implement something both relevant and true. Separations and chasms between the generations developed along the way, which created misunderstanding and led us back to our preferred groups. In her book “Disunity in Christ,” social psychologist Christena Cleveland writes, “To be fair, cultural isolation is natural and comforting; we tend to cling to like-minded group members and keep others at bay.”
Crossing a generational divide is not necessarily an easy thing to do, yet it is necessary to live out Romans 12:4–5: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
There are a million different ways we could go about creating more unity in the body of Christ as it relates to intergenerational ministry. Here are a few that stand out to me from my own experience in leading youth and kids ministry as it pertains to enfolding the next generation into the multigenerational community of Christ:
Find 5 Adults for 1 Kid
The Sticky Faith research team at the Fuller Youth Institute told us years ago that intergenerational worship and ministry are key predictors of why and how teens continue with mature faith into adulthood. One metric thrown out by Chap Clark includes the idea of inverting the 1:5 adult-to-kid ratio to a 5:1 adult-to-kid ratio, meaning that every kid or teen who grows up in the church should have at least five adults who are intentionally invested in their faith maturation. This reminds me of the first time my husband and I went to a JV soccer game to support one of our high school students. We arrived to her game excited to be two of “the five adults” for her. We ended up joining her very large cheering section, which included parents, both sets of grandparents, multiple aunts and uncles, and other people I didn’t even know. This one student was blessed by a huge base of support of Christian adults who loved and cared about her. Good for her!
As a now-parent with a kid who has just entered kindergarten and a kid in pre-K, I’m starting to ask, “Who are my kids’ five adults?” Most likely, there are not going to be 20 adults from our family cheering our boys on at their JV soccer game. Our sons have grandparents, aunts and uncles who love them, but we live on the opposite side of the country. Our little family desperately needs the church to be a multigenerational family of families that can help form our boys in Christian faith. Our boys need caring adults who see them as more than pastors’ kids and know and love them as they are.
I got a glimmer of this on my older son’s second week in elementary ministry. Something happened in kids church that caused him to burst into tears while my husband was leading the morning lesson and I was making my rounds through the kids ministry classrooms. His small group leader for the morning jumped up to comfort him, and, by the time I returned, my son was sitting with him. My first thought was, “What just happened?” and my second thought was, “He has one of his five.” So one way in which the church can be more faithful as a multigenerational community is for more adults to show up in the lives of young people in our church ministries, being a spiritual aunt, uncle or grandparent to them. Since relationships take time, it’s more than showing up once or twice; it’s also about showing up again and again over time.
A few years ago, in the throes of young motherhood, I was experiencing the isolation that comes with being a mom at home with young kids, and church had become another place to watch my kids. Around this same time, another friend at church said, “We need a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers group).” Within a few months, we’d recruited some child care staff and raised some money and started a group. I loved showing up to our church for these meetings. Women from our neighborhood joined in with moms from our church, and in the moments when I risked vulnerability in sharing a struggle with the group, I’d often hear, “Me too.”
Something I was not expecting was the powerful impact of also sitting alongside “mentor moms,” experienced moms in our church who joined us for breakfast and conversation. Our mentor moms had been in our shoes and raised their children to adulthood. They showed up, listened to us, prayed for us, comforted fussy infants, and shared their wisdom. The mentor mom relationships became my first line of connection to people in my church outside of the nursery, and they were a source of hope and encouragement for me. The ripple effect of this is that these women who are mentoring me through MOPS are having a downline effect on positively influencing my kids.
Bridging the Divide
The running theme through all of this is asking how we can continue to pass down the tradition that was handed to us. Mentoring and multigenerational church community might not happen by chance. It might take someone stepping out of his or her comfort zone or stepping into another person’s sphere to bridge the divide. As youth and kids ministry leaders, my husband and I have often had the opportunity to do this through mentoring teens and young adults as they serve with us in youth and kids ministry. I guarantee you that there is an available spot in your church to participate in youth or kids ministry in a meaningful way. In recent years, I’ve also seen wonderful multigenerational communities develop when a teenager joined the worship team or church choir, or when a group of young adults joined a multigenerational team leading a church plant in a refugee community, or when a multigenerational group worked together on a service project or trip. All it really takes to make this happen is for someone to invite a person who’s older or younger than them to partner together on an initiative God has laid on their hearts. As the church, we are a body of people who continue a tradition that was handed down by the generation before us. May we continue in faithfulness as we seek to pass it down to the next, living out Psalm 145:4 (CEB): “One generation will praise your works to the next one, proclaiming your mighty acts.”
Heather Baker Utley is the co-pastor of family ministries at First Free Methodist Church in Seattle and an elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference. She is pursuing an M.Div. at Seattle Pacific Seminary.