Last week I spoke to a retreat of pastors and other church leaders who are working on innovative ways to help their congregants understand and live their vocation in the world. The retreat was part of The Soundings Project of Baylor University, which is being directed by Dr. Darin Davis, a professor of moral philosophy and the director of Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning. The church leaders came from diverse churches across Texas. They shared a common vision for finding new ways to help their members lead lives of purpose and significance.
As I listened to the creative work being done by the folks at this retreat, I was struck by how much they sought to serve their people in ways that matter. They didn’t want to invent flashy new programs that missed the genuine needs of their people. Rather, they sought to serve their people well, truly equipping them for their calling to serve God in the world.
Most of the churches involved in The Soundings Project were focusing on ways to help their members respond to God’s calling in their daily work as well as in their church activity. I found the vision of these churches to be fresh and exciting. It’s also right in the bullseye of the De Pree Center’s mission: To help Christian marketplace leaders respond faithfully to God’s callings in all seasons of life and leadership.
An Unexpected Focus on the Third Third
But I was particularly struck by the fact that a couple of the churches involved in The Soundings Project were focusing on helping their older members to live with significance in this season of their lives. I was greatly encouraged by this, as you might imagine. These folks had sensed the opportunity that animates the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. They see the older adults in their churches as disciples of Jesus who have extraordinary potential to serve God and people both in their churches and in their communities. These leaders see equipping the older adults in their church as an essential element of the church’s ministry, both now and in the future. Three cheers!
A Vision of Intergenerational Relationships
The church leaders who were focusing on their third third members were envisioning innovative ways to encourage them to be meaningfully engaged with and to become mentors of younger folk in the church and community. The leaders’ vision was not just third third focused; it was truly intergenerational. They believed that older adults could make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people, and that this would be good, not only for the young ones, but for the older ones as well.
The intergenerational vision of leaders at the retreat has much to commend it. It has, for example, a solid biblical in Scripture. You find it in places like Psalm 148:11-12, “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”
Additionally, support for intergenerational work comes from a striking combination of sources. I’ll mention three here, giving just a very short summary of what I’ve been learning.
1. Impact of Intergenerational Relationships on Younger People
There are many examples of younger people flourishing because of the investment of older adults in their lives. In his inspiring book How to Live Forever, Marc Freedman describes the impact of Experience Corps, a program that got older adults involved with elementary school students in underserved communities. Scholars carefully studied the impact of this program on students.
They wondered what happened when older adults spent considerable time with elementary school students? Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, for example, examined what occurred in several schools in low-income Baltimore neighborhoods. They found that the students’ academic work improved impressively. And so did their behavior. As Freedman reports, “Referrals to the principal’s office for behavioral problems went down dramatically, between 30 and 50 percent, in the Baltimore schools with Experience Corps members” (Freedman, p. 71).
The positive result of intergenerational relationships for students was heartening, but not altogether surprising. What we might not have expected is the impact of this experience on the older adult participants. This leads us to the second source of support for intergenerational relationships.
2. Impact of Intergenerational Relationships on Older People
The older people who participated in Experience Corps benefitted, not from the joy that comes from investing their lives in the next generations, but also in measurable physical and mental ways. Here is Marc Freedman’s description:
The Johns Hopkins researchers, along with colleagues at Columbia and UCLA, uncovered important gains in physical and mental well-being compared to a similar group of older people not involved in Experience Corps. Those with arthritis had less pain; others with diabetes required fewer medications to keep their blood sugar under control.
There was even evidence from Michelle Carlson at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health suggesting that involvement in Experience Corps had a positive impact on cognitive functioning. Linda Fried wrote in the Atlantic in 2014 that most volunteers who spent six months in the program dramatically improved their ability to solve complex problems. What’s more, these Experience Corps members “showed new activation in areas of the brain involved with complex problem-solving, compared with a control group with a similar level of education who did not participate.” (Freedman, pp 71-72)
The benefit of intergenerational relationships for older people has also been found by neuroscientists. In his book, Brain Rules for Aging Well, molecular biologist, and brain scientist John Medina writes:
The more intergenerational relationships older people form, the higher the brain benefit turns out to be, especially when seniors interact with elementary-age children. It reduces stress, decreases rates of affective disorders such as anxiety and depression, and even lowers mortality rates (Medina, p. 24).
So, if a church finds ways to help older adults become engaged with younger people, the outcomes will be positive for all ages.
3. Impact of Intergenerational Relationships on the Church
Several years ago, my colleagues in Fuller Youth Institute did a major study of churches. They wanted to know what congregational practices lead to effective engagement of young people in their church. Their research findings were published in popular form in the book: Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church.
Many of the discoveries made by the FYI researchers are not what one might expect. For example, it’s common for people to think that the best way to get younger people engaged with the church is by developing awesome programs for people in one particular age group.
FYI’s research showed that many other factors matter when it comes to helping your church grow younger. One of these key factors is referred to as “Warm Intergenerational Relationships” (Growing Young, Ch. 5) Churches that fostered such relationships were indeed “growing young.” So, one might argue that if you want you to church to grow young, you should also focus on those who are older and the intergenerational possibilities they present.
Of course, so much more could be said here. I’ve only scratched the surface of the subject of intergenerational relationships and ways the church can both foster and benefit from them. I expect I’ll have more to say about this later.
For now, however, I’d be satisfied if you’re intrigued if you find yourself wondering about the intergenerational potential of the church you serve. That sort of curiosity could be the start of something wonderful for folks, not just in the third third of life, but also from all generations.
This is the third article in a series on the Third Third of Life by Mark D. Roberts. If you are interested in reading the other articles in the series, here they are in order:
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative.
Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership.
With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
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