Some years ago, Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, launched an investigation into the spiritual formation of young people. A growing number of young adults were seemingly abandoning their faith soon after high school. Powell and her team hoped to find the silver bullet that would diagnose and arrest this problem.
Reporting her findings in a YouTube clip, Powell admitted that they had not found the silver bullet. They had, however, stumbled upon some “silver shavings” that helped explain the mass exodus of young people. The research discovered a significant commonality among young people who remained in the faith: intergenerational relationships. Simply put, statistics suggest that the fewer intergenerational relationships teens have, the more likely it is that they will walk away from the faith as young adults.
Powell noted that many churches put great effort into developing excellent youth programs and ministries, but the more divorced those ministries are from the life of the church and relationships with older people, the less effective they ultimately are. Teens may have a lot of fun and gain a good deal of head knowledge, but high performance ministry divorced from intergenerational discipleship has little staying power.
Nobody who is acquainted with biblical teaching on discipleship will be surprised with these silver shavings. The Scriptures uphold the wisdom that comes with age and exhorts young people to seek out the wisdom of the more mature. One place where this interplay between youth and age is seen is Psalm 71.
No writer is assigned to this psalm, though many consider it to be a companion of Psalm 70 and therefore probably written by David. Regardless, hear the psalmist’s words about youth and maturity: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (vv. 17–18). The psalmist recalls the teaching he had received as a young person and now longs for the opportunity to pass his wisdom to another generation.
The consistent biblical vision of God’s kingdom in one in which young and old interact with one another. Zechariah prophesied a time when “old men and old women” would “again sit in the streets” of God’s kingdom while “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing” (Zechariah 8:3–5). Joel prophesied a time when “old men” would “dream dreams” while “young men” would “see visions” (Joel 2:28). Psalm 148:13 exhorts “old men” and “children” to praise God. Titus 2:3–4 specifically exhorts “older women” to “train the young women” (Titus 2:3–4). Paul exemplified this principle by surrounding himself with young men into whose lives he could pour.
The multigenerational health of the church depends on intergenerational discipleship in the church. Here are some benefits of intergenerational relationships in the local church.
First, intergenerational relationships provide mutual perspective. Older saints have walked through experiences that younger saints are only now facing or have yet to face and can offer crucial perspective. Older saints have seen the church go through a great deal of turmoil and blessing and can help younger church members in continuing times of turmoil and blessing. At the same time, younger people can sometimes bring fresh perspective to which older generations might be blind.
Second, intergenerational relationships provide mutual encouragement. Older Christians have much encouragement to offer based on their experiences with the Lord. Young people should be encouraged that older saints have persevered with their walk in the Lord while older saints should be encouraged with the zeal and growth of younger Christians in the church.
Third, intergenerational relationships provide opportunities for prayer. It is often easier to know how to pray for those in our stage of life than those who are not. Intentionally building relationships with other generations affords us opportunity to know how to better pray for one another.
Consider today how you might be more intentional with intergenerational relationships. Young people, learn from the wisdom of the aged. Older people, appreciate the insights of the youth. Together, move toward the biblical visions of being taught from your youth so that, in your old age, you can instruct the next generation.