We like people who are like us. Beginning as children, we’re corralled by different categories and compartmentalization. Age may be the biggest. From grade school to Sunday school to the workplace, we tend to intuitively gravitate to those who are the same age as us.
Many churches (surely unintentionally) feed this anti-intergenerational message: children go here for Sunday school, teens go here for youth group, separate Bible studies and classes for college, career, parents, and seniors. Quietly and subtly we come to believe that our friends should exclusively be from our generation.
Yet while having friends of the same age is normal and natural, we miss something special when we don’t have any friends who are of different ages than us, particularly in Christian community. Christians share a bond and identity that trumps everything else — job, race, and most definitely age. If there’s no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, there should be neither old nor young (Galatians 3:28).
Age should not build walls. Jesus should tear them down. When we put aside our preference for people just like us, we broadcast the beauty of our shared union with Christ.
And intergenerational friendship is not just beautiful, but necessary. We need intergenerational friendship. We need the balance, perspective, and experience of people who are walking through different stages of life than us (1 Timothy 4:12; 5:1–2; Titus 2:3–5). Teenagers, you need older Christians. Seniors, you need teenagers. Young moms, you need empty-nesters. Empty-nesters, you need twenty-somethings. We all need each other.
The Fruit of Fellowship
My friend Lisa is in her sixties. She has lived a full life, traveled the world, survived incredible heartbreak and sorrow, and is one of the most knowledgeable and capable women I know.
Rona is a friend in her mid-seventies. She has a bristly, even crusty, exterior, toughened by troubled circumstances and suffering, yet a marshmallow-soft heart.
My friend Christy is seven, and every time we meet, she exudes excitement and a contagious delight in life.
I can count her mother Dana as another friend, a young mom who has her hands tremendously full, yet still holds a deep passion for life and loves people deeply.
These four women are my friends, despite the fact that none are among my generation. But all of them are a part of my church and our relationship as sisters in Christ has produced the fruit of friendship. These relationships all look different, but all of these women have blessed me, loved me, and changed me.
There are at least three things I’ve learned from multi-generational friendships.
1. God is bigger than my generation.
I love to see what God is doing in my generation, but sharing friendship with those who are both older and younger reminds me that God is not exclusively working in (or worshiped by) my generation. He is bigger than Millennials.
This is a humbling reminder. While I would never admit aloud that I think young people are favored by God or somehow better, more genuine, or more compassionate than older people, some days I’m tempted to believe it. Then I spend time with an older friend, and I’m lovingly knocked off my mental high horse. Intergenerational friendships have a unique way of killing prejudice — with kindness. By simply being my friend, my faulty assumptions about other generations have been challenged, confronted, and banished.
The kingdom of God is diverse; this truth underscored Jesus’s very mission to earth. He came to save people of all ages from all nations and all tongues and tribes (Revelation 7:9). He came for young and for old alike. Intergenerational friendships teach me that the kingdom of God is a family, and I have a responsibility to love and learn from the whole family.
2. Everyone is always teaching.
These four friends in their different life stages teach me a lot. I learn from Christy’s buoyant and persistent joy and Rona’s aged life lessons. They bring unique ideas, solutions, and attitudes to our relationship, pushing the boundaries of my mental framework and making me more empathetic and generous. With their friendship, they remind me that we are all teachers.
Our lives are always preaching something: joy, self-control, humility, gratitude, peace, or pride, selfishness, slander, distraction, or anger. You don’t need to be a pastor or an “official” teacher or mentor to be declaring something. Your life does that loudly (1 Peter 2:11–17). What is it saying?
3. Experience produces wisdom.
While I do learn from my younger friends, I can safely say that I learn more from older Christians who have lived longer lives, made more mistakes, sustained more suffering, and gained more wisdom than I have. We can learn about faith, forgiveness, courage, contentment, and prayer (just to name a few things) from older people merely by taking the time to listen and be a friend.
Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Having friendships with older people has instilled in me a deeper respect for age and renewed humility. When they share their experience and knowledge with me, I’ve come to recognize that I will undoubtedly benefit by paying attention.
Unity in Diversity
A few weeks ago it was pie night. The ladies in our church gathered in a home, ate the most delicious pie and ice cream, and shared even sweeter fellowship. Our ages spanned almost fifty years, but there was a seamless and simple unity. We were just sisters in Christ gathered around a table, friends brought together by the bond of Christ.
As I think about nights like these, I realize something: That was a glimpse of heaven. Here were diverse Christians separated by age but joyfully united in fellowship. And really, that’s what intergenerational friendship is: a taste of heaven. Why wouldn’t we want to pursue that here on earth?