Bridging the generational divide

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously lamented that 11 a.m. Sunday morning was one of, if not the most, segregated hours in America.

While the argument can and certainly is being made that this is still the case, I have come to believe the issue extends beyond racial lines. This form of segregation is admittedly much less offensive than racial segregation, but it is present nonetheless, and I would argue it is creating problems in our culture at large. I can say without reservation that it is creating problems in our local churches. The issue is generational segregation.

Several years ago, as I was working on completing my doctorate, I began considering how to bridge the divide between the generations in my church. As a pastor at the church, I had good relationships with the youth in my youth group through our weekly meetings, through chasing them down at school and through supporting them at their various events.

I also had a good relationship with many of our senior adults through attending their events at the church, joining them for game nights and periodically preaching in the general church services.

I was curious as to how these various generations could be present in the same building for several hours every week and still fail to have relationships with one another. While discussing this with one of my professors, he asked me a very simple question that turned the proverbial lights on for me. He asked, “How are the classrooms arranged in your church?”

I began describing the layout of classrooms for our weekly gatherings, and suddenly, I realized that it was quite possible to come into our church, go to the meeting space for your age group and leave to go home without ever so much as seeing someone from a different generation. Ironically, the least segregated hour in our church, generationally speaking, was during our worship service at 11 a.m.

It became abundantly clear to me that we lacked meaningful intergenerational relationships because we lacked time and space in which relationships could be intentionally developed.

It’s not something that is unique to the church. Go to a local high school sporting event sometime. Pay close attention to the seating arrangements. You will notice pockets of people sitting with other people of their same age and/or life stage. I’m not at all intending to say that this is wrong, per se. I am, however, suggesting that it may be part of the reason that we have so much intergenerational misunderstanding and frustration.

There is a generational divide because we have divided the generations. Sometimes, the segregation is pushed on us by our culture and community. At other times, we chose it for ourselves.

The question then becomes, “How do we bridge this relational divide?” The answer is much simpler than we would like to think. We must create shared space in which connection can be developed. Or perhaps we simply need to take advantage of opportunities where space is already shared to engage one another in productive ways.

We will never understand one another until we get to know one another. While generational categories can be helpful, they are broad generalizations that are often used as weapons to attack that which we don’t understand. You can’t truly know a generation through sweeping statements, and you will almost certainly struggle to appreciate them.

To borrow a popular colloquial term, we need to prioritize space in which we “do life” together so we can truly come to know and understand one another. Only then will we be able to respect and value members of the generations of who they are and what they bring to our communities.

Ironically, the church is in an ideal position to create just such spaces. It is one of the few places that has multiple generations present in the same location at the same time. The “11 a.m.” hour, along with most times our churches gather, provides a time and space in which generations can interact with one another and foster relational connections.

If we are willing to approach one another with the same grace and compassion that Christ has approached us, perhaps we can begin to undo some of the division we see in our world today.

The truth is we need one another. Young, old and everything in between, we all have something to share for the benefit of the greater whole. In the end, isn’t that what we all want? We all want to know that we matter, that our lives have purpose and potential.

What better place to create such a life-giving intergenerational experience than the place that claims to hold the key to life-eternal for all generations?

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