“It’s good to see you, honey!” says Emma as we sit down at the table. I bend down to give her a big hug as I reply, “It’s good to see you too!” Katherine and Emma, a pair of 80-somethings from the church I attend in Richmond, Virginia, have invited my family out to lunch to celebrate my older sister’s college graduation.
I’ve been looking forward to this meal for weeks—an outing with Katherine and Emma is always lively, sweet and full of laughter. In spite of the 60-year age gap between these ladies and myself, I find our conversations engaging and impactful. Among the many things I’ve learned through my friendship with Katherine and Emma are how to communicate across the generational barrier and why this is important in launching new forms of church.
Bridging the Gap
In order to communicate with people whose life experiences are so drastically different from my own, we have to find and stand on our common ground.
When I started describing a new dinner church ministry that my home congregation is planning, Katherine’s brow furrowed in concern. She said, “You know, back however many years ago people used to read the Church Herald, and that was how they would find out about where they could go to church. But nowadays people aren’t reading those kinds of print magazines anymore, so they don’t know where they can go.”
My initial thought was one of resignation: “Of course, these elderly ladies won’t approve of anything that strays too far from tradition.”
But then Emma chimed in with a few words of affirmation: “I think it’s just wonderful that the church is trying this new way to bring in people who don’t normally go to church,” and my thought paradigm shifted.
I understood then that even though Katherine and I had vocalized different dimensions of the story—I talked about the innovative approach while Katherine described the way things used to be—we shared an underlying concern that unchurched people be able to find their way into our family of faith. If we focus on the differences that divide us, the conversation goes nowhere, running in circles of mutual criticism or stops altogether. But recognizing the common interest at the root of both our concerns motivates us to listen earnestly to what the other person has to say.
If we acknowledge that we’re working to solve the same problem, we will easily find value in the solutions the other party offers.
Learning to Listen
Once we’ve committed to listening to perspectives from people in an older or younger generation, it’s important that we allow our differences to enrich instead of detract from conversation. We have to acknowledge the good each generation has to offer by seeking it with genuine interest. Katherine and Emma have 80-some years of stories to tell, and they have a much wider perspective from which to look at the stories unfolding right now.
My responsibility as a 20-year-old is to elicit those stories and perspectives, to say, “Tell me about the time you ran into government agents in China,” or to ask “What do you think about the new ministry we’re launching at church?”
It would be a mistake to assume that Katherine and Emma’s stories are outmoded or that their opinions are mired in stale traditions. Unless I hear those stories recounted and those opinions voiced, I have no opportunity to comprehend the nuance they carry and to value the expertise that backs them. Katherine’s and Emma’s thoughts add depth to a conversation not only because they are members of an older generation with greater breadth of experience but also because they, like each member of my own generation, are individuals with unique lenses of interpretation.
That they are marked by age and wisdom is simply an overt signal that they will bring to the table what I cannot. Because of their inherent differences in experience and approach, the perspectives of both old and young are essential to developing an effective strategy for launching new forms of church.
The wonderful thing about my conversations with Katherine and Emma is that they’re never one-sided. Actually, it was by noticing and appreciating the interest they took in my life that taught me to take an interest in theirs. At first, I had no idea why two white-haired ladies would care how my classes were going or what my summer plans were, but those were the kinds of questions they asked me every Sunday morning.
My curiosity was piqued, so eventually I started to turn the questions around, asking them about how they were keeping busy and what they had done in their younger years. To my surprise, Katherine and Emma unveiled tales of adventures I would never have guessed populated the histories of this former missionary union president and her secretary. Suddenly these women whose lives of quiet retirement seemed not to merit a second glance filled me with interest.
All it took to effect that change in my outlook was for Katherine and Emma to invite me into a conversation.
If you’re asking how to communicate across generational barriers, you’ve already taken the first, crucial step of wanting to do so. You have the interest, so act on it: engage your curiosity by starting a conversation.
As you’re listening and asking questions, remember why you care about the answers: this individual from outside your generation has a unique perspective that will surprise, amaze, and enrich you, and you are investing in a relationship you can cherish. In launching new forms of church, the range of perspectives brings much-needed nuance to your plans, and the relationships foster solidarity, a building up within the body of Christ, as you carry them out.
Kaya Prasad is FXUS's summer intern and a student at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. Her home base, though, is actually Richmond, Virginia. She's currently working on a Bachelor of Arts in Global and Community Development at Grinnell and hopes to pursue a career in local development work and Christian church mission and ministry.