Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Psalm 90:1
Our God is the God of Abraham and Sarah, and the descendants after them. Scripture makes it clear that God works in and through generations. The word is used 80 times in the NIV and 108 times in the NRSV. Clearly God cares not only about this present time, but also the generations that preceded us and will follow us.
Currently our society seems to lack the kind of affirmation that the Bible has for the many generations, although we talk about generations a lot. Articles and references to the greatest generation, baby boomers, gen Xers, millennials, and future generations appear weekly. (Just recently, many of my younger friends were relieved when a new term came out, xennial, those between gen X and millennials.) Working across generations, just as in crossing other barriers, has some challenges but also great benefits. And according to scripture, it is what we are called to. We read in Ephesians 2 that Jesus came to break down dividing walls. There are many such walls, and generations can create such divisions. Jesus has already broken the walls between us, but we need to step through the broken walls and live in new ways with each other.
The generation gap is very real. Research on the values of each generation shows many differences: in leadership styles, life stage, self-care and rest, sacrifice and call, understanding suffering, and of course, use of technology. For younger people, technology is their native language; for some of us, it will always be a second language. In his book, Generational IQ, Haydn Shaw notes that each generation answers the same questions differently. He cites four areas of sticking points—work ethic, communication, feedback, and respect. Shaw believes we all need to grow in our generational IQ so that we can come to understand each other more.
Due to longer life spans, churches now may find that there are five generations in one congregation. How can we come to understand and appreciate the gifts of each generation? This requires effort and intentionality.
Full disclosure, I write as a baby boomer, having come of age during the Vietnam War. We were famous for saying “never trust anyone over 30” and now believe that 60 is the new 40. Much has been written about the boomer/millennial divide, the two largest generations in terms of numbers. Boomers have been writing articles about how to deal with overly-protected and fragile millennials in the workplace. However this challenge is a two way street. A recent LA Times article asks, “But what happens when baby boomers dominate your office culture? What are the best practices for handling their Luddism and fragile egos?” (May 25, 2016). I am no stranger to the challenges of these dividing walls.
Teams in InnerCHANGE (CRM’s Christian order among the poor), where I find my home, tend to be multi-generational. We started off as peers on the same team, but over the years have added succeeding younger generations. We have adopted the terms “elders” and “seasoned members” for those of us who...hmm...have been around longer. In InnerCHANGE, we work toward a posture that encourages respect across the generations. One of the questions seasoned members have to ask is, “Do we let younger folks make their own mistakes and learn, as we did in the early days of InnerCHANGE? Or can we share our past experiences and trust them as they move out in ministry, knowing it may not look the way we would do it?”
Here are five ways we’ve learned to “be together” on a team (or in a congregation, or in life!) across generations:
1. Think cross-culturally
The same posture and skills we need to understand another culture is needed across generations (cultural IQ and generational IQ). Here are some pointers: Listen, listen, listen, not assuming your way is better. Keep an open mind and heart to learn from others and value other voices. Gifts and challenges are part of each generation—we need to recognize the limitations of our own perspective and learn from each other.
2. Avoid stereotyping
While coming to understand generations is important, we also need to remember that everyone is a unique person and not defined only by their generation. I may be a baby boomer, but not all the values of my generation define me, and I resent being lumped with everyone else. If I were from the emerging generation, I would be getting very tired of avocado toast jokes.
3. Go beyond multi-generational to inter-generational
Multi-generational is not the same as inter-generational. We can exist together as various ages, but to be inter-generational, we need to be listening and getting to know and appreciate each other. Do we understand and value our differing life stages, and the roles that accompany those stages? I often find myself defending the emerging generations, who I find delightful. I also remember myself at their age and know that many of the criticisms are simply part of being young, and not so unique to them. All of us are important and needed.
4. Stay connected to your own kind
We all need relationships in our own generation. I don’t expect a younger teammate to understand what it is like to bury my mother and brother and be the oldest in my family. I need peers who understand my life stage and current roles. We can encourage each other to seek those people out, especially when we find ourselves alone in our life stage in a team or community group. I have appreciated the space my team has given me this season when my priorities shifted.
5. Embrace the differences
We need to not take ourselves too seriously, and learn to laugh at our differences. Life is more like a jazz band than a symphony. We can learn to dance together even if our steps are not the same.
There is an African proverb which reminds us that we are better together.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
For the sake of God’s work in the world, and for the sake of our own thriving, let’s go far together, embracing God’s faithfulness to all generations.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:5
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jude Tiersma Watson has been serving with InnerCHANGE in Los Angeles, CA, with her husband, John, since 1992. Jude is an associate professor of urban mission at Fuller Seminary.