Intergenerational Small Groups: Mix It Up a Little!
Intergenerational Small Groups: Mix It Up a Little!

By Jessie Clemence

I invite you to peek inside our kitchen on a small-group night. Four baby boys and a preschooler are strapped into various high chairs around the table. Three young fathers are trying to assemble dinners for their offspring while a mother nurses a newborn in the living room. The room smells heavily of tacos and mushed-up baby food. Four older adults work side by side with the young mothers, feeding babies and sneaking cookies to toddlers when their parents aren’t looking. A pile of Bibles is stacked on the coffee table for the upcoming study, but only the older people had a chance to do the homework before the meeting.

Chaos rules. And yet, so does love, companionship, and friendship. Welcome to our intergenerational small group, which has included members from 7 days to 70 years of age.Our Monday-night meeting became the most chaotic, wonderful, exhausting, and blessed time of our week as we met the challenge of sharing different life stages together.

This experience was completely different than any small group I’d ever been in. I was used to groups of college students when I was in school, or a young wives’ meeting when I was just married. These homogenous groups were fine and often wonderful places to grow relationships, but something about the intergenerational gathering of our most recent group pushed me out of my comfort zone in the best way possible. We had wildly different financial situations, time constraints, and daily challenges. Harmony wasn’t automatic—it took genuine effort to look beyond our own interests to care for the other members of the group, and this pushed me to a new place spiritually that I never would have found in a group of like-minded, middle-aged mothers.

Over the years, we built the kind of relationships that Titus 2 encourages—the older Christians teaching the young men and women to live Christ-honoring lives. I doubt Paul had a formal training program in mind. I think he was expecting these lessons to come out of natural relationships, where generations make time for each other, raise children together, and eat dinner in a loud, messy, toddlers-throwing-pasta kind of way.

I’m not kidding. Noodles were thrown. It was awesome.

 

Wait. You Want to Hang Out with Me?

Some unfortunate misconceptions keep generations apart. We might think the older generation wants peace and quiet, or that young children might be too stressful for them. At the same time, we assume younger church members are too busy with their careers and parenting to make time for mature members. But our small group found that nothing could be further from the truth. Layers upon layers of blessing flowed out of the combination of babies, teens, young parents, and grandparents.

One of those blessings was the realization that millennials really do want to know older members and learn from their years of wisdom. They asked things like, “How do I potty train this kid?” “How did you teach your kids Bible verses?” “Should we buy this car?” “Can you pray for our marriage?” They were hoping, rather intensely, that someone with experience could help them through these issues.

But the blessings didn’t flow only in one direction, because those young families blessed us in return. Take, for example, the time our 14-year-old daughter came up with some dubious plans for her future career path. I talked for days about how this was a terrible idea, but my advice fell on deaf ears. Fortunately, my child brought her ideas up with a couple from small group, and Katherine and Jay were able to talk her out of it in a matter of moments. They’re young and cool, which is the exact opposite of her boring old mother. I can’t count the times the young parents in our group spent time with our teenagers, and I’m thankful for every instance.

Our young friends would have been surprised to learn that we older members had begun to feel cutoff and slightly useless in our congregation, and our small group helped reconnect us to the church body. It’s a wonderful sense of purpose to set up a house for a meeting of toddlers and their parents. Even when noodles flew through the air and I had to scrape something unidentifiable off my ceiling the next day, it was still a good feeling.

It’s not that older men or women have all the answers, but we do have the unique ability to encourage young parents in some of the most exhausting days of family life. Honestly, I have no idea how my kids managed to get potty trained. I’ve blocked the terrible memories from my mind. But I remember how hard it all was, and I know how to lift a baby from the arms of a tired mama and tell her it’s all going to be OK. I can reassure her that her child is simply a 2-year-old; he’s not destined to be on America’s Most Wantedwhen he’s 20 based on his current behavior issues.

As our group grew closer together, we found the wrong assumptions and masks fell away. The young parents found it impossible to pretend they had it all together when their toddlers threw themselves on the floor and had giant tantrums over toys or blankets. Tempers flared between husbands and wives because exhaustion had stolen all of their patience. Honest confessions of resentment and bitterness spilled out of young parents’ lips during the prayer request time, and all that honesty just bred more honesty. I could remember back to when our kids were young and how furious I used to get at everyone and everything, and it was easy to offer grace and compassion from 15 years further down the road. Compassion bred more honesty, more pleas for prayer, and stronger relationships.

 

Practical Points to Make It All Work

If you’re ready to step into a group with multiple generations, here are a few principles our group learned as we built those strong connections.

Relationships grow best in a climate of encouragement and acceptance. Conversely, nothing kills a group faster than heavy-handed advice and criticism. Listen, encourage, repeat. . . these are the choices that open doors to deep, trusting friendships. Uncomfortable truths can be graciously broached, when the need arises, after trust is established.

Different generations have different financial situations, so tread thoughtfully. Asking open-ended questions to determine financial ability is best done up-front. (Try: “How do you think the babysitting should work? Would you like to hire a sitter, or take turns watching the kids?” “We need some input on meal planning. What works best for your family?”)

Flexibility is key. Mixing a diverse group is rarely a smooth operation, and that’s OK! In our case, almost every single lesson was interrupted by some sort of childish shenanigans. We chose to focus on the fact that our group supported one another in various ways all through the week—through prayer, babysitting, advice, and snarky jokes on our Facebook group chat. I’m sure other groups do a good job of balancing study and young children, but we never beat ourselves up for the times we didn’t.

 

The Next Great Thing

After three years together, our group morphed into something new. Two new groups were born from our large one; this change helped us meet new spiritual needs and open up additional locations for brand-new members. I’m not going to lie; I’m sad the season is over. But I also know God is always growing and changing us, and what he has next is also going to be great.

What does he have next for your small group? Look around and reach out to someone unexpected. Maybe that new young couple with the tattoos and the baby stroller needs you. Maybe that widow who always sits in the back row would love to meet with you and your noodle-throwing tribe.

Ask them to join you, and see where God leads you next!

 

Jessie Clemence is a Christian church secretary. Her newest book is I Could Use a Nap and a Million Dollars (Kregel Publications). Her website is jessieclemence.com.

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