People in industrialized countries worldwide are experiencing a God-given gift of longevity. Today, people are enjoying between 20-40 “retirement” years, a far larger expanse of time than retired adults enjoyed in the past. Globally, questions are emerging about increasing service opportunities for these older adults who enjoy time and often-extra dollars and could creatively gift these resources to the vast populations of hungry and starving children, youth, and adults.

Generally, many youth professionals and volunteers do not think of connecting intergenerationally except for ministry “to” healthy seniors (frail seniors are served but are not asked to serve, even though offering a service such as prayer for congregational youth as they face cultural challenges is well within their capabilities). Why? Is it because of negative aging imagery, or seniors who say, “I’ve served my time, let the younger ones do it?”

Youth need the models of parents, grandparents, and other elders, people who can work to serve the youth in every community. Psychologists tell us that just one caring individual can buffer a youth’s resilience in a negative environment. Yet, the church is mostly caught up in the old images of ministry “to” older people, which often results in serving healthy elders with entertainment type programs as opposed to ministry with, by, and for older people, which includes not only fellowship but also incredible kinds of older adult creative service ministries.

A closer look at the current generations of youth and older adults helps us understand the need to connect these generations in service to and with one another.

Millennial Generation
The majority of youth ministry professionals and volunteers generally work with the exciting 1984-2002 generation often called the Millennials, Mosaics, Bridgers, or Gen Y. This 80 million plus generation of people still in their teens is the largest generation in history.

Characteristics of this generation include a desire for strong families and honest relationships with solid connections and commitments to a group or groups. Historically, this generation is also the most demanding and tolerant, which impacts their choices in joining a church denomination. Those who are in church seek “authentic faith.” However, Millennials are also the least churched generation. Youth ministry professionals and volunteers who are on the cutting edge of ministry today are seen in innovative outreach ministries involving Millennials that take place on the outmost fringes of the church culture. Ultimately, the skills and abilities of the Millennial group are sorely needed everywhere.

Builder Generation
At the same time, there is another exciting generation, born before 1946, often labeled the Builders, GIs; Seniors, Suppies, (senior urban professionals), Rappies (retired, affluent professionals), Opals, (older people with active lifestyles) and the Silents (1930-1946).  Generational characteristics include being loyal, respectful, dependable, stable, and hard working. This generation enjoys groups, has strong family relationships, is active in service ministries, especially missions, and participates in Bible studies. This generation built America’s museums, schools, libraries, churches, and gave birth to the Boomers.

Millennial and Builder Connections
The two generations somewhat mirror one another in that both are called the “hero generations.” Because each of these generations received special treatment and parental protection while growing up, they display a unique sense of confidence and power which results in efforts to rid culture of intolerable dangers such as sexual deviance with children, efforts to eradicate marriage, the creation of powerful institutions, and the dominance of politics and economics. The Millennials especially have a deep sense of purpose for making a difference, seen in the desire for meaningful careers and commitments to strong family ties. It appears at this historical time period that the Millennials will rise to challenges and opportunities in a similar manner to that of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Opportunities for Intergenerational Connections
So why haven’t these two generations made a service connection? The opportunities are abundant.

Youth and family professionals and volunteers organize multiple servant events to reach out to others in their communities or in far-away places. Planning these events takes incredible amounts of time and dollars to organize and sustain for future events. Meanwhile, congregations abound with retired managers, business people, nurses, doctors, farmers, teachers, mechanics and other laity who could help to sponsor and serve in countless ways in the community or in other countries. THE GENERATIONS NEED TO CONNECT. Thankfully, both generations are full of connectors!

Do you know that three million grandparents are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, often without legal custody or enough money to feed, clothe, and insure their grandkids? These grandparents are learning again about school environments, and navigating the music, MTV, drug, and Internet cultures. Youth workers and mature teens could help grandparents with the how-tos of the various cultures that children/teens face.

On the other hand, untold millions of grandparents have more time, money, and patience to care and nurture their adult children and grandkids than when they were rearing young children. Actually, grandparents and older parents gift much more to younger generations than they receive. Youth workers could tap these grandparents and their grandchildren for such intergenerational service community events as soup pantries, clean-up activities, community service, or camping events.

Additionally, it is projected that in 2008 there will be more step-families than intact families, which means that today there are six to eight sets of grandparents with untapped potential to serve as foster grandparents for single parent families or children who are wards of the state.

Furthermore, one of the largest hidden mission fields is found in single parent families in the 21st century. Single parent families often cause a rise in homelessness not only in urban areas but also in small towns. The hidden homeless are overwhelmingly white and most are single moms, many of whom are escaping from domestic violence situations, and then facing state cut-backs for low-income workers and a minimum wage of $5.15 per hour while rental costs rise. Small towns often do not have the same sorts of social services cities do; they have no shelters and few social workers. That leaves churches, community groups, and volunteers to fill the gap.  Some churches are banding together to provide shelters. Bethany Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake, IL, welcomes the homeless on Sunday nights while other congregations provide shelter on weeknights. Volunteers wash clothes, pack lunches and serve breakfast. Imagine the intergenerational opportunities this presents.

Along this line, only 5% of single parents regularly attend church. (McKenna)  Look again at the older adult-skill bank in your congregation  (the Rappies, the Opals and Seniors with time and talents). Imagine what might happen if a congregation became more aware of the needs of moms and children who are struggling.

Furthermore, you know that pornography is insidiously sweeping into our homes and into the lives of parents, children, and older adults. Imagine what might happen if grandparents, moms and dads, and youth became advocates along side Dobson-type groups in building safe and healthy lifestyles. Imagine what would happen if older adults joined the socially minded Millennials to oppose popular clothing advertisers who suggest that group sex for youth is the way to go. Youth counselors can connect savvy youth techies and savvy senior political types to begin a think-tank for combat strategies.

Finally, something as simple as prayer can change the face of any situation. Three public school teachers began praying for their school children that were struggling with so many challenges. After a period of time, they began to notice positive changes in the lives of these children. This private ministry is on going in classrooms around the country. Imagine what might happen if all the seniors in your congregation were praying that God would guide and bless the homes, schools, and communities of your youth.  The results could be incredible.

As aforementioned, the opportunities for service are abundant, and these suggestions are more than inconclusive. Both society and the church need the collective mental, emotional, faithful, service-oriented energies of these two special generations, and they would benefit greatly if these generations were connected now.

The Struggle to Inspire
Many youth professionals and volunteers are left with the impression that seniors aren’t interested in ministry. After all, they have contributed all their life and want a rest from their labors.

Perhaps this is the sentiment you have encountered from your congregation’s seniors. Or perhaps this is an impression you are projecting upon your congregation’s seniors. Either way, a very important question remains: why has God granted this extra period of years during this particular historical time period to this particular group of people? What could His purpose be?  To have these people spend all their time on themselves?

Most contemporary seniors are engaged, and they wish to stay engaged. They seek authentic service (beyond church maintenance) and have a strong desire to leave a “service legacy.”  They are also heeding the baptismal call of life-long service ministry and providing models for Millennials.  The 21st century requires new ministries to maintain both the “graying and the greening” of the church.

If people harbor negative aging imagery, they don’t have much to look forward to because aging begins after the first quarter of life. The senior years aren’t to be feared, but to be enjoyed. The older adults in your congregation are still eager to respond to the love God shows them by reaching out in love to the young, to the hurting, to the dispossessed. And connecting youth to seniors helps encourage positive aging imagery as Builders and Millennials work hand in hand in a service legacy for God’s kingdom.

Now that would be beautiful.

Single Parents: The Hidden Mission Field. (1999).  WinePress Publishing

One Church, Four Generations. Gary McIntosh. (2002). Baker Books.
Excellent resource for understanding generational characteristics and the complexities of intergenerational ministries.