Your voice matters to young people, no matter your age. Here’s why.

Photo by Crown Agency.

Confession: I’m concerned we’re losing the voice of mature generations in our churches.

I recognize the irony of making this statement while working for an organization called the Fuller Youth Institute, but this has far-reaching implications for the health of our churches. While we elevate the voices of younger people in our churches, we would be wise to ensure we aren’t silencing older generations as a result.

As a church leader, when is the last time you intentionally sought the advice and perspective of multiple generations before you made a significant decision?

Karl Pillemer, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, argues that diminishing the voices of older adults is a relatively new way of thinking. Pillemer notes, “it is only for about the past 200 years that most people have gone to anyone other than local elders for solutions to life’s problems.” Because we believe every generation brings valuable perspectives to God’s movement in the church, excluding any generation means potentially missing what God has for us.

In my own research with nearly 500 grandchildren examining how their grandparents shaped their faith, it was impossible to deny the depth to which grandparents have the opportunity to raise faith maturity in their grandchildren. We found grandchildren were more likely to talk about faith struggles with others if grandparents had consistent conversations with them about faith, while grandchildren who witnessed grandparents serving were more likely to grow up knowing their life is filled with meaning and purpose. Older adults have a tremendous opportunity to deepen faith in young people.

Unfortunately, many of our churches have systemically removed opportunities for other generations to meaningfully connect with young people. The greater the generational distance, the greater the physical, relational, and spiritual distance. When we create ministry silos (youth ministry, married ministry, senior ministry, etc.), we diminish the role older adults can play in the spiritual development of younger people, thus removing opportunities for them to share life experiences or build substantive relationships. This practice of separating ministries exclusively by “age and stage” also removes the opportunity for young people to learn about the challenges associated with other life stages, which could lead to deeper empathy among multiple generations in church.

Leveraging all generations as your church engages young people

It’s easy to assume that focusing on young people can mean ignoring other generations. But this is actually the opposite of what our churches need to do. Rather than sidelining other generations as our congregations grow young, let’s help each generation leverage their voice to pour into the lives of young people. Because young people need the voices of older adults and mentors, just as we need the voices of young people.

The churches involved in our Growing Young research took creative steps to remove these age barriers and build meaningful intergenerational relationships.

Here are 3 simple ways you, or other adults in your church, can use your voice to benefit young people:

1. Share your life experience.

Your wisdom and experience as an older adult are critical. Maybe you made a series of decisions that caused you to begin your career, or you went through a series of difficult relationships prior to finally meeting your spouse. Maybe you had a significant faith experience when you were younger, and it’s been critical in shaping your faith today. When young people hear the life experience of those who are older, it gives them a view of where they could head in their own lives.

As you share these experiences, be cautious not to demand that young people walk the same journey you did. Instead, find common ground by focusing on how God has been faithful through each season.

2. Share your struggles and failures.

While it may be easier to share about the success you’ve had in life, young people need to know how you’ve struggled as well. Maybe you were fired from a job or wondered if God was real and present. Maybe you lost a marriage, lost a home, or lost a dream. Learning about your struggles and failures can allow young people to feel comfortable with you, and perhaps eventually to share their own struggles in life.

As you reflect on your own stories, balance vulnerability and propriety, making sure your focus is on God’s love and forgiveness rather than the failure itself. Be careful not to shame or judge young people if they make the same mistakes as you with phrases such as “I told you so.” Instead, use your voice to show love, grace, mercy, and compassion. When they open up about their own struggles or disappointments, offer in return phrases like, “Tell me more.”

3. Share your passion.

Sharing your passion about Jesus with a young person could be pivotal in their faith formation. Maybe you didn’t understand prayer when you were younger, but today you have a deep prayer life—let them know how you developed and grew in your practice. Maybe you had a mentor growing up who taught you what passionate faith looked like, or you experienced a deep sense of God’s presence in the midst of adversity.

Be open to sharing about your passion for Jesus. As you share, be mindful that even though their passion may look different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re not passionate themselves. 

Intergenerational is cultural

As a leader, you might foster intergenerational relationships by creating a pilot program or reaching out to a few key adults in your church. But overwhelmingly, we’ve found that intergenerational relationships are part of a broader church culture that nurtures a posture of warmth, empathy, and priority around young people.

Cultivating a new culture in your church is challenging, and that’s exactly why we created the Growing Young Cohort. In addition to creating opportunities for adults of other generations and young people to learn from each other, we help you define the reality of your church and recognize your greatest opportunities for growth. Then we provide the tools and coaching you need to make those culture shifts possible.

Learn more about the Growing Young Cohort here:

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