There are very few places in our culture where multiple generations have the opportunity to be in active relationship with each other. Church, I would argue, is the blaring exception. This past Sunday in church we celebrated an infant baptism along with the four generations of her visiting family. We sent prayers with a young adult off to graduate school in a distant city. We mourned the loss of an octogenarian member and welcomed the newly retired visiting son of another member. And there it was, the circle of life gathered in the presence of God, witnessed by the faithful community whose lifetimes spread more than 90 years.
Recently, a friend shared her profound sadness that her daughter’s family had left the congregation where four generations of their family had worshiped. Even though the daughter still lives in the area, she joined a church that had lots of other children and offered appealing programs for them. This sadness that may friend’s family no longer worship with her has opened up a little anger that her own church isn’t as youth-focused. Perhaps you can empathize with my friend’s sadness, as can I.
To be specific, my own sadness is twofold: it includes a sadness for the daughter’s family where the children will have time to spend once again, with their peers—the same kids that they see every other day of the week at school and on their sports teams and in dance class and scouts. I understand the desire for our children to feel that they belong and have peer support. But so much of their lives are already consumed by activity with same aged kids. Where is the opportunity for wisdom to come in the diversity of life experience that comes with age?
But my sadness is also for the multi-generational church not understanding and building on this gift of diversity when three, four or five generations gather on a regular basis, sharing how God is alive and at work throughout our entire life span. I mourn that “we” in the church have not done a better job finding ways to nurture this support and belonging across the generations.
Last Fall, I had the opportunity to hear Vern Bengtson, professor emeritus of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California, speak at the International Conference on Spirituality and Aging. Since the 1970’s, Bengtson has been collecting data on faith and religious practice following multiple generations of families involving 3,500 individuals. Here are a few insights that have come from the data, pertinent to this topic of how we might come to think about the value of multi-generational congregations.
- Model faith. Over half of young adult children are affiliated with their parent’s religious tradition. There are a variety of contributing factors, not the least of which looks at the role parents play in modeling what they believe.
- Participate together. In a 2013 article in Christianity Today, “Religion Runs in the Family”, Bengtson points out that it isn’t enough to send children to church, it is more helpful to bring them, with you. Another surprising and significant factor in sharing faith from one generation to the next is if the father is warm and affirming and participates in the faith community himself.
- Life witness. Additionally, if the parents have not been helpful in faith formation, grandparents can also play a significant role. From their gathering of data over these 35+ years, Bengtson and his colleagues report that 40% of the grandchildren were in the same faith tradition as their grandparents. The grandchildren later reported seeing the evidence of their grandparent’s values lived throughout their lives.
- Relationships. A colleague shared that he recently visited three generations of a family joining his congregation in the coming month. The middle generation, the mother, explained that she valued a church where all really are welcome—that is the way this baby boomer raised her family. Her mother who is in her late 70s likes that she will be a part of a church where she is known. In her last church, the pastor did not make hospital visits or “do” funerals. And the young adult grandchildren like attending church with their mom and grandmother as it strengthens their relationships. They have seen the importance of sharing life between the generations and they look forward to continuing to grow as they experience and reflect on how it is that God is present in their lives, individually and through their collective experience.
We don’t have to be related to effectively nurture each other’s faith journey multi-generationally. What is important is that we model and give witness to each other through our own life experience. It is important that we support each other’s growth and pass along the wisdom of experience as we face the opportunities and challenges that come with each new day. Quite frankly, I don’t see many other places where this multi-generational opportunity takes place in our culture. So come on church, let’s celebrate and share this treasure that we have to share with the world!
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.