In many traditional cultures, elders are older people who are revered as keepers of wisdom.
In North America’s current youth-glorifying post-everything-online culture, older people are sometimes viewed as those who have been left behind. Yet those who are in the first third of life still long for understanding, encouragement, wisdom and blessing from those who are in the last third of theirs.
Just recently, an 11-year-old urban boy told me the place he felt closest to God was in church with his grandparents in a rural Saskatchewan village, because “there were more old people in that little church and they knew so much about God.”
We all need to experience more of that kind of encouragement. In today’s reality, however, grandchildren and grandparents are often disconnected by geography. This can influence the ways we relate. We may enjoy intense visits followed by extended absences from each other.
Fortunately, technology has made long- distance face-to-face connections possible in many locations. Thanks to Google Talk, my sister in rural Manitoba regularly enjoys picture books with her granddaughter in Montreal, Que.
Congregational relationships can help fill in the gaps left by the physical absence of a grandparent. Many churches provide local opportunities for the development of spiritual grandparent/grandchild and senior/youth or young adult relationships through intergenerational games nights, storytelling events and service projects. On an increasing basis, interactions like these are helping young and old get to know and bless each other.
Ours is a time impacted by climate change, social change and religious change. It is characterized by a unique set of hopes and fears, by social upheaval and unanswered questions. As grandparents, great uncles and aunts, and older mentors of children and youths within our congregations, they need to draw from the mentoring relationships they experienced and adapt them for today’s context. This will help them to respond effectively to the unique challenges facing today’s children and youths.
With an older baby boom generation, we have more elders available to us. I believe that many of our older and wiser citizens are ready to demonstrate God’s call in their lives to serve as elders who encourage and relate to our youths. Consider the following examples as you reflect on the seniors you know:
- In Winnipeg, Man., Bethel Mennonite Church’s informal Prayer Allies program linked seniors with youths so they could pray for them, learn about their lives and greet each other in church.
- At the 2011 Mennonite Church Eastern Canada gathering, retired minister and area church leader Ralph Lebold made a point of commending young people for the many ways he sees them “extending the peace of Christ” in his video “letter to the churches.” Lebold lives out his commitment to young people; when he’s not busy serving in this wider capacity, he makes a point of enjoying the annual Grandparent-Grandchild days at Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp with his grandchildren.
Becoming an elder who encourages younger people from near and afar doesn’t just happen as part of the natural aging process. Seniors who grow into mentors tend their faith lives with a variety of spiritual practices. Commitments like prayer, sacrificial giving and Bible study help to deepen and mature personal faith, as well as develop the ability to bless and encourage younger people on their spiritual journeys.
As seniors reflect on how God has been at work in their lives and where they place themselves within God’s larger story, they become equipped to share their experiences. With practice, they can learn to do so in winsome and grace-filled ways that connect with younger people beyond differences in clothing styles, terminology, music tastes and other cultural attributes.
As seniors connect heart to heart with younger people, it is my deep conviction that we will have a growing number of them who, like my 11-year-old friend, like to worship God together with older folks.
Elsie Rempel is director of Christian nurture for Mennonite Church Canada.