What do we mean when we talk about “generational discipleship”? It’s a term that I am hearing more and more frequently and it’s one that I myself use often in this blog.
Simply put, generational discipleship is the passing on of our faith from one generation to another.
In Scripture, it is the model we are given for how we instill within our children and grandchildren the faith that our parents and grandparents shared with us and we do so within the context of relationship, mentorship and community.
There are examples of generational discipleship all through Scripture.
The most oft-quoted verse about generational discipleship is probably Deuteronomy 6:4-9 where we are told to impress the commands of the Lord upon our children and to talk about them when sit and when we walk and when we lie down and when we get up…so basically, all of the time. And this command is given within the full assembly of Israel to all the people, so not just to parents but to the larger faith community.
We see this idea of generational discipleship play out in Scripture through so many intergenerational and familial relationships. Some examples include but are certainly not limited to…
- Eli and Samuel (I Samuel 3)
- Timothy and his mother and grandmother AND Timothy and Paul (2 Tim. 1:5)
- Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2)
- Naomi and Ruth (The book of Ruth)
- Moses and Joshua (Deut. 31)
- Mordecai and Esther (The book of Esther)
So how does generational discipleship play out in a faith community?
In 2017, The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships published an article whose findings explained that intergenerational relationships create essential learning environments for all generations. In other words, if generations are going to interact with each other in meaningful ways, there are some key essentials that need to be in place.
Specifically they find that three things are necessary for intergenerational learning:
- There must be space to learn about one’s own generation with other generations.
- All generations must act as learners and teachers at the same time.
- The learning must motivate participants towards in a particular way.
Often when our churches gather, these dynamics are either not in place at all or are difficult to find. Putting multiple generations into a place where they can interact in meaningful ways can be challenging because of differences in likes, dislikes, development and experience.
As a result, many churches opt for an environment that segregates the generations from one another and promotes learning within one age range rather than between the generations. It’s much more difficult to create an intentional space for both to give and receive.
While these things are challenging, they are not impossible to overcome. It might be easier in the short term to maintain age-specific environments, but it is clear that in the long run, generational discipleship will be hampered by the lack of meaningful intergenerational relationships and interactions.
So what can we do?
There’s no silver bullet that will magically erase these challenges or suddenly make it easier to engage generations in learning and living together, but there are some avenues to explore that will create the space for growth.
- Stated Purpose – If you desire to put generations together for anything from corporate worship to shared meals, be sure and let everyone know the purpose behind your action. Give a stated reason for creating a multi-generational space and repeat it often so everyone is on the same page.
- Be Creative in Connection – Connecting different generations doesn’t have to look the same as connecting same generations. It’s unlikely that a second-grader is going to go out for coffee with a senior citizen. But what if the oldest Sunday School class showed up to cheer on the kids in tee ball and soccer? What if the teenagers worked alongside their parents in serving their community together? What if intergenerational prayer partners were connected to each other? There are a lot of ways to interact with each other in meaningful ways!
- Give Generations a Voice – There’s nothing worse than feeling like you have nothing to give or that you are not heard. If we step back and notice that our church lay leadership, committees, service groups, etc., all reflect only one or two generations and those groups are the ones casting vision, leading and guiding the church, then there are multiple other generations that may not be feeling heard. Creating intentional space for all generations within your leadership structure can help flip that “top-down” mentality on its head and ensure that all generations have the space to give and to receive, to teach and to learn, so that all can grow together.
Since the separation of ages and the perception of differences mirrors that of our society, it’s easy for us to think “that’s just the way it is.” But it’s important to note that it wasn’t that way for centuries. And equally as important to note that the impact on the church is a substantial one. Why? Because our faith is primarily passed from one generation to another.