Generation Gap

Our Need for Other Generations

One of my favorite films is Kiki’s Delivery Service by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. It’s been in regular rotation since my daughters were young. The animated film follows the story of a young witch (Kiki) who, according to witch tradition, must leave her family for a year when she turns 13 and prove that she can make it on her own in a town that doesn’t have another witch. She moves to a small city, finds a room above a small bakery, and becomes a delivery girl for a bakery, flying breads and other parcels around town on her broomstick. Along the way, she makes friends, overcomes obstacles, and, in the movie’s climax, uses her powers in a daring rescue. A great movie.

Throughout the film, Kiki meets older girls and women who could serve as visions of her future self. A slightly older witch girl returning from her year on her own, a single woman living by herself and dedicating her life to art, a young mother running a bakery, an elderly grandmother…these and other women enter Kiki’s life at various points, offering potential previews of the directions that her life could take. Some of them are role models and mentors, while others simply present a particular way of life that Kiki may or may not want to pursue. As the movie proceeds, she also meets younger girls, who look up to Kiki herself as a potential role model and cause Kiki to see herself in a different light.

We need to see ourselves in a continuum of younger and older friends and acquaintances, in order to understand our place in life and in others’ lives. Kiki encounters these women and girls from different generations as she goes about her everyday work in the film’s fictional city. Do we have the same opportunity to meet people from generations before and after us?

Generational Silos

My wife and I are currently looking for a new church home. One of our key criteria is finding a church where our kids (currently in elementary school) will be able to make friends and, as they move into teenagerhood, have a strong support group. During this process, we visited two churches that failed that test in very different ways.

At the first, a mainline Protestant church near our house, the pastor was surprised when more than one kid came down for the children’s sermon. There was a teen helping with the service, a baby occasionally crying in the back, and a six-year-old girl, and those were all the children present in a church of more than 100 people. When our son started getting antsy during the service, a nice older lady told us that there was Sunday School downstairs, but then she had to go find the Sunday School teacher so our son could have class. Out of the whole church, we were the only people in our 30s. The few 20-somethings appeared to be adult children of older members.

The second church could not have been more different: a non-denominational evangelical church, originally planted to reach out to students at a local university. It had originally been a mission, not a neighborhood church, and its history showed clearly. While my wife and I weren’t the oldest couple in the room, we were easily among the oldest 10% — and most of those older than us seemed to be volunteers of some kind. Twenty-something college students dominated the room. There was a Sunday school available for our kids, but none of the kids were older than 8 or 9, and I didn’s see a single middle or high school student. These were the young kids of pastoral staff, maybe a few graduate students. By the time anyone in the church had kids in middle school, they had already left the church.

Learning from Other Generations

A third church offered the support group we seek for our children, but at a heavy cost. It is far larger than either of the other two, in part, I suspect, because it creates comfortable silos within its congregation for each age group. Our children were shepherded off into peer groups organized by grade for their church experience – not as a complement to the service, but as a replacement for it. Middle and high school students even had their own separate building, as well as their own worship services led by their fellow adolescents. In the main church service, my wife and I were surrounded by – well, by people just like us. Some younger, some older, yet all more or less in our same socioeconomic demographic. Our children loved this church, especially our 10-year-old. I wondered how she would grow to understand the Body of Christ when her entire community was born within 12 months of her and her only option for older mentors were teenagers on the worship team.

Each of these churches contains generational silos. Whether by design or by demographic trends, each of them lacks the full range of generations needed for a truly flourishing community. There can be times when it’s appropriate or necessary to surround yourself only with members of your same generation, but when it becomes habitual or systemic, we lose the opportunity to see the connections between youth and age, between the various stage of life through which (if we are lucky) we will travel.

We need relationships with people younger and older than ourselves. Cross-generational friendships provide us with a fuller vision for life and offer us a better understanding of our own life, as well. In turn, we have the opportunity to help someone else gain that perspective. We can see options for how our life could play out – or the potential for how someone else’s life could – around us on a daily basis.

What we do with this opportunity is up to us. Simply being around people of different ages won’t automatically make us wise or give us insight into our life. If we don’t encounter other generations, however, or only encounter them in carefully controlled formal contests, we won’t even have the chance.

Photo credit: xflickrx via Flickr

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