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The Multigeneration Family

What an interesting title: "The Multigeneration Family." Many may be thinking, "Isn't that what has always been? Haven't families always been multigenerational?"

That is true. But in past decades, these generations might have included only children and parents or children, parents, and grandparents. Now, with increasing lifespans in the United States, we are more likely to have children, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and even great-great grandparents. Each can represent a different age view and generation view of the world. This gives even more credence to making sure we aren't treating families as one mass with a common viewpoint.

As we approach the issue of families, it is important to restate why we as church leaders should pay attention.

All the leaders in the church are focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To do so, we, as leaders, are once again reminded of the Sadducees and Pharisees asking Jesus,

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied to them saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:36-39, NIV)

In all ways, as we seek to make disciples, we also help individuals as they come together in church, as they interact in their communities, and as they relate to one another in their families so they can live out these two commandments.

And as church leaders, we are to constantly ask ourselves, "With these actions and with these words, how are those with whom we work helped to love God and love others?" Paying attention to the ways the differing generations approach worship, small groups, faith practices, generosity, and service is one way we "love others as we love ourselves." If we were only worried about ourselves, then we would live by the rule, "It pleases me, so everyone else better get on board!"

As we consider the issues, challenges, and joys related to families, we are reminded of the following:

  • Men and women in the U.S. today are expected to live longer on average than they have ever lived. A variety of care issues emerge because of this. Those who live well into their 80s, 90s, and even beyond 100 may have increased health needs that necessitate family to care for them while at the same time caring for children under the age of 18.

    As these issues arise, some questions people may begin asking about the church are: "Do I have time for church involvement when I'm torn by so many demands for my time?" "If I've outlived many of my age group, what group do I belong to at church?"

  • While much about families in the U.S. remains the same, some shifts that continue to affect the growth of families involve couples who are not married but live together and function as if they were married, grandparents who care for grandchildren because their adult children cannot do so, and couples who have been married 25 years or more and, are divorcing causing their adult children to have to deal with a complexity of issues around holidays, family gatherings, and finances.

    Struggles with the church include: "My family isn't perfect. Will I be accepted?" and "Are only married couples accepted in church?"

  • With an increasing lifespan, more people spend a good portion of their life being single. When lived out in the church, the common image of family as couples with children leaves many who are single wondering, "Is church really for me?"
  • Today's culture is often separated by age as a result of the U.S. being an extremely mobile society. Adults in retirement move to other parts of the U.S., leaving children, grandchildren, and extended family in another location. Adults seeking employment move to other geographic areas. At the same time, as today's culture also becomes more urban, people are divided from one another by age groups. An unintended consequence of these divisions is that children and youth lack experiences with older and aging adults. As a result, young people may become afraid of older people, and older people may become afraid of younger people. In addition, rhetoric inside and out of the church may appear to place values on one generation over another.

    A question about the church becomes, "Does this church really want me (and my age group) here?"

  • Along with these issues, we must also recognize that all Christians -- regardless of age -- are on a lifelong journey of faith. We believe that a child can be a faithful child of God just as much as an adult can be a faithful child of God. Faith is nurtured both through experiences provided inside and outside the doors of the church with the faith community and through experiences in the home with those with whom we live.

As we consider multigenerational families, what might at first simply appear to be hindrances to how we do family ministry may actually give rise to opportunities. There are advantages for faith formation when we increase the number of generations who interact, and there are advantages to faith formation for families when we consider the tools available to be used for faith formation experiences. Consider these:

  • When more generations are interacting, great-grandparents can share stories of faith with great-grandchildren. Our oldest generations' stories and experiences of faith are less likely to be lost. Envision children, youth, and adults from as many as three distinct generations, sitting together talking about faith in the family and how they see God in daily life. This truly can bring to life what is recounted in Joshua 4. Instead of the stones being a spark for recounting God's power and hand in the lives of the people, we can hear the people themselves recount the words and experiences. The challenge is helping families realize the opportunities for sharing faith generation to generation.
  • For families separated by miles, members can stay in touch quickly through text, social networking tools, and face-to-face computer interactions, expanding opportunities for faith sharing and faith growth. Even though my young-adult sons no longer live at home, I am able to text them, reminding them I am praying for them during particular circumstances. I recently talked with a father who said that since his son had left for college, their email exchanges had been rich in faith discussion as the son encountered new experiences at school. And as a nation, National Public Radio's StoryCorps stories provide examples of families recording and talking with one another about important life events, many of which give witness to faith. Churches can capture that same sense of connection across generations by inviting church members to participate in similar recordings where they share faith expressions, favorite Bible stories, and experiences of how God has touched their lives.

As we consider the multigenerational family, we are challenged to expand our definition of family as simply parent-children entities. We can consider opportunities in the home for forming faith with as much intentionality as we plan faith experiences at church and in the community. We can expand suggestions for faith formation beyond sitting across from one another at a dining table to include those interacting by text message, through social media, or on Skype. Relationships are often a vehicle for faith formation, and we are all enriched by the number and variety of generations living together at this time in our history.

Bible verses marked NIV are from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.