On Bridging the Generation Gap: Listen More, Talk Less
The years were slipping by too quickly and I wanted them to stop.
But, with the wisdom that only an eight (and-a-half) year old can offer, she replied, “You shouldn’t be sad about turning 34; you should be sad that you’re not 35 yet. 35 is a good age. You can be President when you’re 35.” Our society has a complicated relationship with the years between 18 and 35. At 18, you become an adult. Sort of. You can enter the military, go to war, and die, but you can’t drink. So maybe you become an adult when you turn 21… unless you live with your parents and want to stay on their health insurance which considers you a dependent until you are 26. Then again, if you are trying to immigrate to the United States with your parents, you have to navigate the process separately if you are over 18.
Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that we consider the ages between 18-35 to be a time of continued development and maturation. Because despite the fact that you can vote at 18, even my daughter knows that you can’t be President until you turn 35. There’s a significant truth here. One that those of us in the church need to recognize. The years of our twenties and thirties should be years of development and growth, not necessarily leadership.
In this post at Her.meneutics, Pam Lau issues a call for older women to be more active in discipling younger women, to be transparent and open toward them, to find a way to meet them where they are. Part of her concern is rooted in the fact that Millennials are leaving the church at an alarming rate. She alludes to a 2011 Barna survey that reveals lower percentages of self-identified spirituality among Millennials and a growing gap between younger and older generations. But there’s a wrench in the data. According to Lau, “although 47 percent of young women do not see themselves as deeply spiritual, they still consider themselves leaders.”
Apparently a lot of us have not realized that we’re not old enough to be President yet.
So following Lau’s lead, I’d like to offer my own call. A call to my generation to recognize that even if we have reached an age where we can contribute to the conversation, we have not reached an age where we can dominate it. A call to recognize that true spirituality means listening to our elders and learning from them—not expecting them to hear us first.
Instead of waiting for older women to meet us where we are, we must be willing to go to the tea parties; we must be willing to go to the Bible studies—not because of the events themselves but because of the people we will meet there. We must extend grace and patience and love to cover the quirks of a subculture that may not entirely represent us; because if we do, we might just discover that under all the trappings and traditionalism, our parents and grandparents are people too. We’ll discover that they have loved and hurt deeply over the course of their lives, and because of it, they have something to offer us as we love and hurt over the course of ours--they have something to offer even if it comes wrapped in pink tissue paper and is accompanied by a card featuring kittens and a verse from the King James Version of the Bible.
So sit with them. Hear their stories. Listen. And listen well. In other words, honor your parents.
Usually when we think of dishonoring our parents, it immediately conjures up images of spoiled children throwing temper tantrums or--on the other end of the spectrum--detached middle-aged adults placing their aging parents in sub par nursing homes. But in the current cult of youth, in a generation defined by our narcissism, dishonoring our parents happens a lot more subtly. It happens when we presume that we understand why they made the choices they did. It happens when we abandon the Church that they have spent their lives building. It happens when we expect them to listen to us more than we listen to them.
And this is precisely what many of us are doing. We are quite literally holding the older generations hostage by insisting that if they don’t hear us—if they don’t do church our way--we will leave. I suppose I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been wondering how my own children will relate to me twenty years from now.
Will they find me hopelessly old-fashioned? Will they be angry with how I raised them? Will they judge me?
Will they love me? Will they respect me enough to listen to my advice? Will they honor what I have spent my life trying to accomplish?
I hope it’s the latter and I’ve decided that the best way to ensure that it is, the best way to ensure that they respect me when they’re 34 is by making sure I respect my elders when I’m 34. But this is not a patronizing, superficial respect that pats older folks on their heads and quietly winks behind their backs. It is a deep reverence and honor for the lives that they have lived. It is a deep reverence and honor for what Christ has done for them. It is a deep reverence and honor that believes that the One who exists outside of time can most certainly bridge something as artificial as a generation gap.
This does not mean that everything our parents have done is without fault or critique. Each new generation must make faith their own; each new generation must find their own way of embodying Christ’s call to be the Church. But as we navigate that process, we must remember that as shameful as it is for an older person to act foolishly, it is equally shameful for young people to foolishly ignore the wisdom that older Christians have gained over the course of a lifetime.