the shape of leadership

The Power of Intergenerational Friendships

Overcoming age divisions in the church

Kristi Northup on July 3, 2018

Somewhere in our American code of culture, there is an unwritten rule that goes like this: People are happier when they’re with others their own age. This developed over the last century as schoolhouses began separating people into age groups, and it influenced the church as well.

Today’s churches routinely separate people according to age. We have spaces for infants, toddlers, and preschool, and we often divide school-age children by grade. We have middle and high school ministries, young adults, moms of preschoolers, everyone in the middle, and senior saints.

I’m not saying there aren’t certain advantages to this. We can tailor curriculum and activities to age-appropriate understanding, and it’s always easier to foster friendships when you have more in common. But in gaining these benefits, we’ve lost something fundamental: intergenerational relationships.

Along the way, we began to believe we don’t have enough in common with people who are different from us, or older than us, or younger than us. Unfortunately, our empathy grows dull when we develop friendships only with people like us. Healthy relationship is a key that unlocks understanding.

The apostle Paul implored us to develop intergenerational relationships. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, he gives young Timothy advice about how to treat those older and younger than him. Again, in Titus 2:3-5, Paul exhorts the older women to be an encouragement to the younger women, helping them grow in their roles as moms and wives.

People who give advice and direction can be mentors. Peers with whom we fellowship can be friends. But I’ve had a few people in my life I would describe as mentor-friends. As I learn from these individuals, rapport and mutual encouragement flow easily.

Conversation With Carolyn Tennant

Dr. Carolyn Tennant has been a mentor-friend to me. A former college vice president and professor at North Central University in Minneapolis, she has always pursued relationship with younger people. Now, in her retirement years, Dr. Tennant sees that her opportunity for relationships hasn’t diminished. In fact, it has grown.

She’s not just mentoring; Dr. Tennant is also developing close friendships. So I asked Dr. Tennant several questions on this topic that is dear to her heart.

What do you mean when you talk about intergenerational friendship?
“Mentoring and coaching can be mostly cerebral; we give strategies and information. But relationships require more — building of trust and mutual sharing. You enjoy each other’s company; you like being together. You laugh together, cry together. That has to be part of it. It’s a wonderful give and take.”

Our empathy grows dull when we develop friendships only with people like us.

Do you think people are looking for this right now?
“Oh, yes! This is a generation crying out for these relationships. They want to grow as a person so they can lead out of who they are at the core — the development of the spiritual life and character. They’re craving opportunities to ask the hard questions, to handle issues that are tripping them up.

“If a person takes care of these things when they’re younger, they’ll have an influential life because of who they have become.

“But intergenerational friendships aren’t just for them. They’re for me, too. I learn and get ministered to also. The younger generation keeps me from getting old in my thinking; they help the inner me stay young. It’s not just, ‘I’m the older person; you can listen to me.’ It’s a friendship that grows and is really good for both generations. It’s a wonderful give and take.”

What happens when we don’t have these kinds of friendships in our lives?
“We all get stuck in our ways. A lot of older people belittle millennials, and vice versa. But they don’t know anyone in those generations. To undo stereotypes is a difficult thing. We need to build more relationships between the generations in order for that to happen.”

How do we foster these kinds of friendships?
“We have to find opportunities to build enough of a relationship that a younger person will walk up and say, ‘Can we hang out over coffee?’ We need more open doors so a younger person can even reach out.

“How can we offer more occasions for people of different generations to come together, and for older people to be present, spiritually and emotionally, in places where younger people gather? Churches should purposefully forge more avenues.”

Do you think God cares about intergenerational relationships?
“Not only do I believe that, but I feel that the Lord even picks people out to match up. I’ve seen this in my own life. There can be intentionality, but there also has to be chemistry.

“I can think of different young people over the years who the Lord placed in my path. There was a natural connection, and then I kept in touch with them, including on social media. One young woman who has become my friend recently said to me, ‘Our relationship has changed my life.’ That really meant a lot to me.”

What is the potential impact of intergenerational relationships?
Recently, I heard about a prophetic word given by a 12-year-old boy in Paris, Kentucky: ‘The young lions will run with the old lions.’

“In revival history, it happened over and over that God used children and youth to bring revival. There’s a spiritual interaction going on. Intergenerational relationships prepare the way for that.

“The spiritual sensitivities and partnering of all ages are needed to see a breakthrough in our culture. Sometimes children and teens are more sensitive to what’s going on in the Spirit. Intergenerational relationships foster an environment that creates ready paths for the Spirit to move.” 

Stronger Together

I love the imagery of the young lions running with the old lions. Young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams. There's a passing of anointing that can happen from one generation to another. We’re stronger when we run together.


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