In a country starkly divided over political and social issues, it can be easy to vilify those with whom we disagree. Being civil, let alone empathetic, scarcely crosses many of our minds.
Some of the current generational divides can feel just as polarized. From YouTube videos such as “Millennial International,” to the heated #HowToConfuseAMillennial Twitter war between Baby Boomers and Millennials, intergenerational ministry can feel nearly impossible.
In a world so divided, how can we, as ministers of the gospel, bridge the gap?
One possible answer is to leverage the power of stories. By experiencing others’ stories, whether through listening, sharing, reading, or watching a film, those from different generations can gain empathy for one another. For example, Pixar’s Up invites us to empathize with Carl, a retired widower whose love for life has all but vanished. At the outset of the film, it is easy to dismiss Carl as a stereotypical “grumpy old man.” However, the of his former married life allows viewers to understand and empathize with Carl on a much deeper level.
By engaging with stories, we can begin to relate to those who are not necessarily like us. Relating to others leads to empathy, and empathy has the potential to turn judgment into hospitality.
Why Stories Matter
- We engage others' perspectives.
Stories can provide unique windows into others’ worlds. It can be difficult to empathize with someone with whom you do not share common experience. When we listen to a story, we can step into another person’s shoes and gain a greater understanding of his or her lived experience. Our often-narrow mindsets, rooted in our own experiences, are challenged and expanded when we truly listen to the experiences of others.
- We open up to others’ pain.
Stories have a way of overcoming our natural defenses and making their way into our hearts. For example, snapshots of suffering often repel us, but stories of people on an embattled journey draw us in. Stories help us understand a person’s struggles in context—that we might see them as whole human beings rather than mere victims of pain.
- We humble ourselves.
If we listen closely, stories reveal how little we know about others. Rather than filling in the gap between our differences with judgment and superiority, we can learn to experience others’ realities from their perspectives rather than our own. We can gain understanding of why Carl struggles with joy, rather than dismissing him as another “grumpy old man.”
In a climate rife with division, storytelling—and story-listening—can be a bridge between generations.
Empathizing with today’s young people
Our Growing Young research revealed that churches thrive with young people when all generations learn to empathize with their losses and unfulfilled dreams. In order to hear young people’s stories, we must take a genuine interest. Taking a genuine interest in the lives of young people and remaining open to their journey’s looking different from ours is essential in the process of story-listening. We do not tend to finish books or movies we are not interested in, and we often will not have the opportunity to hear a young person’s story unless we demonstrate sincere interest.
So the next time you meet a young person, take interest, remain open, and you may hear a piece of her story and begin to build a relationship with someone you least expect.
Don’t know where to start? Download our free Conversation Toolkit from the Growing Young Church Resources page for tips, prompts, and questions to launch better conversations with young people today!
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