I live in a three-story house converted into apartments, and my upstairs neighbor, like me, is in her 30s. So are my downstairs neighbors. The yoga classes I attend several times a week are all taught and attended by individuals in my generation. I partake in a moms’ group with—you guessed it—a bunch of 20- and 30-year-old moms. When my husband and I have friends over for dinner or attend parties, we surround ourselves with peers roughly our age. I also find myself gravitating toward people with a similar number of gray hairs as me any time I attend a community event. In other words, I live in an age bubble.
Except for one place.
Church encircles me with people older and younger than me. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find people in my age bracket: According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study, only 28 percent of Millennials report attending religious services on a weekly basis. My parish, in particular, is primarily comprised of elderly parishioners and families with school-aged children.
In this space I’ve cultivated some of my richest nonfamilial relationships, and they’ve been with people outside my age bubble. Every month I look forward to laughing as the teens in my parish’s youth group, which I lead, regale me with stories of their lives. I’ve become friendly with many of their parents, from whom I’m eager to learn parenting tips and tricks. One of my closest friends in the parish is a woman in her 70s. We regularly take walks and discuss everything from favorite poems to politics to theology. Having conversations with her is as comfortable and enjoyable as talking with my new-mom friends, but there’s an added depth: She shares wisdom from life experiences.
I’m not alone in seeing the benefits of intergenerational friendships. A 2016 report from the Stanford Center on Longevity argues that aging adults play critical roles in the lives of young people, especially the most vulnerable in our society. Research from the Generation to Generation initiative shows that age segregation contributes to social isolation among people over age 50.
Because most churches contain a wide age spectrum, they are poised to cultivate intergenerational friendships. But these relationships don’t always happen organically. Here are five practices for fostering meaningful connections across generational lines at your parish.
Encourage a broad range of participants at church events
At the parish where I work, we announce upcoming events via the bulletin, e-newsletter, pulpit, and website, leaving who attends to chance. But sometimes for programs that I especially hope will gather a significant turnout, I extend personal invitations through email, phone calls, and snail mail. Time and again this practice proves that nothing compares to the personal ask when encouraging attendance. If we really want a spectrum of ages represented at a particular event, we have to personally invite people from a spectrum of ages.
At any parish gathering, steps can be taken to foster meaningful connections across generations. For instance, placing name tags and markers on the entryway table will encourage introductions—the first step to forming new relationships—
and posting discussion starters around the room will nudge people into conversation. So will an announcement by the host inviting everyone to get to know someone new or, in particular, someone born in a different decade. Without gestures like these, individuals tend to cluster with familiar faces or people with whom they know they’ll easily connect. (“You have a toddler? So do I!”) Facilitating relationships outside of those that are most likely to develop naturally requires intentionality.
Facilitating relationships outside of those that are most likely to develop naturally requires intentionality.
Host events with an explicitly intergenerational focus
Although bringing together a crowd for any parish function has the potential to spark new, diverse relationships, hosting an event particularly aimed at cross-generational connection can be especially effective in laying the groundwork for lasting intergenerational friendships. For instance, your parish might host an intergenerational women’s retreat with a theme related to wisdom sharing through the years. Or you might start a seniors and seniors book group, in which high school seniors and senior citizens come together to share perspectives. Many parishes have an intergenerational model of faith formation programming, which, in addition to bringing together generations for religious education, opens the door to conversations about faith at home.
Bring the youth to the elderly and vice versa
Many confirmation preparation and youth faith formation programs involve a service component, such as preparing and serving meals at a homeless shelter, singing carols at a nursing home, or volunteering at the parish school’s after-care program. It’s worth providing an explicitly intergenerational service opportunity that aims to connect the youth and the elderly of your parish. For instance, you might start a leaves-raking or snow-shoveling brigade or a pen pal initiative between teens and homebound parishioners.
Activities like these simultaneously remind youth that they have something to offer the adults in their lives and the elderly that they are cared for and valued by their community. Additionally, for youth who are shy and have a hard time starting and maintaining conversation with strangers, these activities offer an approachable means for instigating an intergenerational connection.
Think outside the box when enlisting volunteers
When I recruit catechists, chaperones for retreats, and drivers for teen service opportunities, I tend to turn to the parents of the young people involved. But some of my parish’s best volunteers are college students who live at home and want to stay connected to their childhood church and recently retired individuals who have time and passion to meaningfully devote to their service commitment. It may be harder to initially identify these volunteers, but the payoff is always well worth the attention. Not only does widening the age spectrum contribute to a stronger volunteer pool, it also brings unique age groups together: Children and teens are used to interacting with their parents and their friends’ parents but not necessarily with the 20-something or just-retired individual.
This article also appears in the August issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 8, pages 17-19). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.