Having grown up in the church, I have a love/hate relationship with it. One thing that I realized that I hated in college (though I also realize it has benefits) is age based or stage of life based church groups. I had always loved being in a youth group as a teen, but once I was in college, I found college groups and beyond were different.
The Ghetto Effect
One of the things I hated about age/stage of life groups is that they often felt like a ghetto. They usually ended up being cliquey and because I went to a Christian school, I found that every group was just more people from my college. I wanted to try to escape my college bubble, but college groups seemed doomed to trap me in it. Things only got worse after college graduation. What group should I be in? I didn’t have a family of my own. I wasn’t married. I felt I had outgrown the college/young adult group at my home church, but there wasn’t anywhere else that I really fit. I wasn’t the only person in that conundrum either. Groups organized by age or stage of life are always going to leave some people in the lurch. It’s just not possible to have a group for every possible life/age scenario, and even if it was, your age and stage of life are going to change
Limited Thinking and Self Focus
Besides occasionally leaving people without a group, I think age/life stage based church groups are limiting to spiritual growth. I recognize that it is important to have some peers who are in the same place in life as you. I’m currently in a small group of other newly married couples and I love it. However, I would never want that to be my only source of Christian community. Why? If you and the only people you know are all in the middle of the same or similar struggles and stages of life, you tend to think that your problems are everyone’s problems. You universalize your experience and in the process inadvertently become self-focused. We need people older and younger and in different life stages as us to remind us of the various struggles that people face and the various joys that come and go in life.
The Alternative: Multi-Generational Relationships
The time in my life when I was most surrounded by older people (and younger people too, I was teaching an elementary aged Bible class at the time) was the time in my life where I felt most aware of what God was doing in my life and the lives of others. I was in a BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) women’s group. I was in the “leadership circle” as a children’s leader and was by far the youngest person in the group at 24. There were a couple of other women in their thirties, but most of the women were in their forties, fifties, and beyond. I loved hearing what lessons and applications they got out of our Bible study. I loved that they laughed at my jokes (as the youngest person there, I felt it my duty to bring some humor to the group). I loved the encouragement they constantly gave me, even as I was in a hard time in my life. I loved the fact that I was surrounded by women who were older and wiser than me. We all had things to learn and gain from one another.
At the same time, I had a work mom, a lady at my work who was around my mom’s age, who took me under her wing. I was dealing with the end of a relationship and the end of many hopes and dreams with it. She was there to encourage me and even speak words of hard truth. I knew that she prayed for me on a regular basis. She gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. I still cherish the words of encouragement that she gave me to this day. In both cases, I experienced a depth to my relationship with God that I had never had being in an age/stage of life group or class. The wisdom and experience that these women who had gone a little further down the path then I had gave me hope and deepened my faith.
There are never examples in the Old and New Testament of age or stage of life based groups. However, this idea of multigenerational relationship is in the Bible. There are many passages that talk about the importance of community and the importance of listening to your elders. Titus 2 is a clear example of this. In this passage, Paul urges everyone on to righteous living. In Titus 2:3-5, he especially tasks the older women, “to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” We could focus on how patriarchal some of that sounds to our modern ears (for the record, it doesn’t bother me a bit), but that’s not the point of the passage. The point is that Paul wanted Titus to have the older women of the church mentor the younger ones, to pass on the wisdom and knowledge they had learned from their years of life in practical household matters as well as spiritual ones.
This doesn’t need to be a super formal thing. It doesn’t necessarily require you starting a new program or event at your church (though all power to you if you want to do that). All it requires is you and the other person taking the time to form relationship. It helps if that happens naturally in a church, work, or family environment, but there are many other ways to make it happen.
Share the Love
Don’t forget that what we receive, we should also give. Ideally (though I realize that this is not possible in every season of life), we should have at least one person farther down the road than us pouring into our lives, and we should have one person behind us on the journey that we’re pouring into. This keeps us from getting too focused on ourselves or taking ourselves too seriously. These relationships can be hard to find, but they’re worth the effort.
So how about you, do you have someone going before you and acting as a friendly guide? Are you helping someone younger or who’s just starting down the road of faith? If so, thank God for these people and don’t take them for granted. If not, why not? Have you just not found the right people? What could you do to put you in a place where the right people could be found? Make sure to pray and ask for these relationships as well. You’ll be glad you did.