I have always loved the call story of Samuel. The story is found in 1 Samuel 3:1-21. Young boy Samuel lives in the Temple. Eli, an old and wise priest, can barely see and needs some extra care-giving and support keeping up with the chores and work in the Temple. Kid Samuel appears to be just the kid to do it. God uses Eli to help Samuel discern his call to be one of the greatest prophets in Israel. God uses Samuel to convey some really challenging news to Eli, and in the way that only God can, this sweet cross-generational relationship is used to form and change both of them in faith and life.
I return often to this story in my ministry work with children, youth and young adults. It’s an example to me of why it was always worth the trouble to make sure our young people are surrounded by grandparents and ancestors in church and faith and why it’s always worth the work to make sure the older saints of the church are surrounded by young voices; kids, teenagers, and young adults are often filled with visions and dreams we miss as adults.
What can this look like? What best practices make it work well?
- Cross-generational relationships require consistency and intentionality. Forming relationships of any kind, but especially cross-generational ones, take time. It often involves helping both generations translate language and communication means and social cues and practices.
Wally would come in twice a week for years to serve coffee to students in the coffeehouse run by a campus ministry I was the director of. Throughout his wife’s illness, and after her death, he would serve college kids coffee and snacks. He was a man of few words, but students got to know him and hear bits of his story as he poured them coffee and offered them treats week after week and semester after semester. They witnessed a man grieve his beloved and choose life still after her death. He gave young adults space to practice empathy and provided a listening ear to their struggles and joys too. And those young adults made his season of caregiving and grief less lonely. They provided him purpose. But, these holy connections would not have happened without carving out intentional time and space for these multiple generations to show up consistently over and over and over again.
- Incorporate play. Playing is almost always a universal human connector. In a confirmation program I was a part of, we would match up an 8th Grade small group with a Senior Care facility. These middle schoolers would go and hang out with the residents in the facility once a month. The most “successful” experiences? Ones where middle schoolers and older folks would play. Chair balloon volleyball. Cards. Carpet bowling. Arts and craft messes. BINGO. These playful encounters would lead to laughter, conversation, and joy. It seemed decades of difference in age was erased when play became front and center in the relationships and these games would so often cultivate deeper conversations of hope and meaning and faith.
- Practice blessing and praying together.This past February, I left full time congregational ministry to work at Luther Seminary in the Admissions Office. On my last Sunday, the tiniest humans in the congregation were charged with blessing me in worship. They gathered around me on the steps of the chancel and laid their toddler size hands on my back and hands and head and with their childlike serious and sweet faith they prayed over me and blessed my past and future ministry. I will never forget hearing their sweet voices and simple words of faith. They no doubt didn’t understand totally what was happening, but they did know they were saying “good bye” and reminding me of Jesus’ love and sending me away to work at a school to tell others about God’s love. A blessing by a colleague or other grown up is wonderful, but there is something holy and special about reminding our kids that the same Spirit that is in their Pastor and Mom or Grandpa lives in them too. There is something incredibly special about freely giving the authority of praying and blessing to our youngest or oldest disciples.
- Serve Together. Two saints in a congregation I served would often accompany high schoolers on mission trips. The two of them, in their 60’s, not only held a lifetime of professional experience, but also a lifetime of faith experiences that made them some of the best adult leaders I have ever encountered. They had the confidence and wisdom to not pretend to be 16 (thank goodness), they didn’t have the barrier or worry of a parent watching their kids navigate social systems and faith spaces, and they were comfortable in their own skin and selves. Regardless if we were doing arts and crafts in Roatan, Honduras or feeding people in Washington, D.C. they brought their whole selves to the service work. As they served beside our teenagers, they listened to our teenagers’ stories, showed a willingness to try to understand the challenges of being an adolescent today, and they carefully offered wisdom and advice only when appropriate. My favorite was to watch them show up in our daily sharing and prayer time. They offered vulnerable prayers for themselves, our group and the world. They expressed their longing for justice for all God’s children and listened closely to our kids’ dreams too. And when they prayed each night the teenagers listened so closely as if their prayers might mean more. They were living examples for our teenagers of an embodied, well worn faith.
For so many it feels like a season of ministry where church is competing against and losing to baseball practice and drama club and every other school and community and family commitment. It can be really easy to blame families for not coming to church anymore, or blame ministry leaders for not entertaining our kids enough or worse yet, to resort to despair that “the church is dying” and that kids and teenagers are just gone forever (as a side note, I have done all three).
But, I wonder about an alternative? What about thinking about a unique gift that faith communities can offer the world and busy families: intergenerational relationships and returning to the call story of Samuel as a model of faith formation.What if we lean into the promise that God uses people (of all ages and stages of life) to help us discover our own call stories, hard truths about ourselves, and the world around us? And that those relationships might be best formed and tended to in our churches? Lacrosse and Art Club and the PTA are wonderful, but they do not offer this unique gift and opportunity.