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Five things I didn’t know about other generations

A transgenerational dialogue

By Matthew Johnstone and Carla Lesh

Ruling elder Carla Lesh and teaching elder Matt Johnstone both served on Hudson River Presbytery’s committee on ministry in 2013, where they had long and rambling conversations about the future of ministry in the face of dying congregations. Presbyterians Today invited them to pick up where they left off and share a conversation using BuzzFeed-style lists. In keeping with the BuzzFeed theme, be prepared for gross generalizations!

Five things I never knew about older adults (Matt Johnstone)

1. They like stuff.
I’m not talking about generation Y materialism here; this isn’t a competition for the fastest gadget or the coolest car. Rather, older folks that I know understand the value of physical objects. They’ve taught me that on a visit it is wise to bring something tangible (flowers or a basket of fruit), something that they can point to and say: “He visited. You can tell—I have the thing.” My elders also LOVE paper. They like cards and letters and signed copies of things. I once made a parishioner cry by sending a 50-cent card to her home. There is something that they consider permanent and stable about a paper version of something.

2. They like tradition.
My older members of the congregation have a very defined idea about how a pastor should look and act, and it’s an idea that derives from generations of pastors who consistently fit the bill. It includes a shined pair of shoes, ironed shirts and ties, sermons delivered from the pulpit, and never a shocking word. When I meet these and other subtle criteria, I am very well received. When I don’t, there is dissension. The same applies to the image of the “proper” congregant, and it’s an image universally applied regardless of age and context. At the top of the list is dressing “nicely” for worship.

3. They have a hard time with change.
Breaking news, I know! But until you’ve had a month-long, two-committee, one-congregation vote on whether to move the worship time an hour for three months or not, you don’t know how deep the inertia goes.

4. They like being early to stuff.
I had a parishioner who, for the four weeks of a new-member class, came every day 15–30 minutes early. I get sideways glances when I am two minutes early and a comment when I am precisely on time. I’ll grant the grumbling when I am late, which happens from time to time, but the extremes of the old couple in the congregation who show up, every Sunday, half an hour early to worship always baffle me.

5. They don’t know what to do with young adults.
In my experience, because of these and a few other problems around transgenerational ministry, many of the older adults in my congregation don’t like having younger adults around. Unless they happen to dress and act “respectfully,” young adults discomfort them. When new folks over 50 come to worship, they are welcomed with open arms. When members under 40 come to worship, they are eyed askance. When young adults have been placed in leadership positions, they have been hounded out by resentment.

Five life lessons I am learning from young adults (Carla Lesh)

1. Creative teamwork opportunities are endless and not limited to time and physical space.
So many ways to communicate! Texting, Facebook posting and private messaging, emailing, blogging, cell phones, landlines. I have to remember to find out the preferred technology. This is a switch for me from the days of asking if folks preferred to be contacted by email or landline phone. Now I enjoy sending and receiving the “digital postcards” by posting my current location when traveling. Following Matt’s journey from New York State to Colorado was a joy! It was also a joy to work together on this article via Skype and Google Docs.

2. Opportunities for church-life connections are everywhere, both in and out of the building.
It is a great blessing to have multiple opportunities for worship. The shared experience of attending a powerful film together builds community. I’m learning that following blogs and social media postings enhances and deepens the face-to-face conversations.

3. Don’t be afraid to try. Keep poking around until you figure it out.
The lightning speed with which younger folks zip through screen after screen to find answers as they figure out new forms of technology is awe inspiring. I still mourn the loss of the printed manual. When I have to turn on the device to learn how to turn on the device, I am on the path to frustration. I am treated with more respect at tech-related stores when I bring a 20-something with me as a “technology translator.”

4. Crowdsource on social media for ideas and advice.
It is a comfort to have a “talent pool” of folks to run ideas past. Social media provides access to the diverse opinions of my friends and colleagues.

5. What you do is not who you are.
In this tight economy, that is a valuable lesson I continue to work on. Many friends my age are thinking about early retirement after decades-long careers. I completed my graduate degree three years ago and feel that I haven’t started my career yet. My younger friends are helping me to think creatively about how to take my entire life and work experience into the future of my field. A friend told me her generation expects to change careers, not just jobs, every 7 to 10 years. That idea makes my diverse work history seem more in step with modern times.

Five hopeful signs for intergenerational ministry
(Johnstone and Lesh)

1. We like community.
Some older adults’ fondness for being early is not so different from the young adult desire to be constantly connected electronically in expectation of immediate response. Both are looking for community—just in different places. The phrase “we need to catch up; we haven’t seen each other in so long” is heard less as face-to-face meetings become continuations of online conversations.

2. We all like stories.
Some have noted that telling family stories, especially stories of obstacles overcome, creates a sense of resilience in children as they grow. In the same way, testimonies about our own walks of faith and church life create shared experiences and common values. Both groups could stand to learn how to hear others’ stories—whether it’s YouTube videos or sitting down for a good, old-fashioned yarn.

3. We both like stuff—just in different formats.
For older folks it’s physical stuff. For young folks it’s ephemeral media with friends who dwell together in the cloud. If we know this, maybe we can see how some forms of “materialism” are really just affection and community. As technology becomes more accessible, new platforms open up. Online petitions allow us to do “stuff” together, to share our concerns and work for society. We wrote this article, from across generations and a continent, using a cloud-based document solution—something that would not have been possible even a few years ago.

4. We all like to listen.
What face-to-face visits are for older folks, shared media is for younger folks. While a 20-something will literally sit for hours reading BuzzFeed or Tumblr, a 70-something will linger with friends for those same hours over a cup of coffee. We both find the power of listening in our daily lives, but we have different styles of doing so. We can learn to find the meaning in the ways others communicate, if we’re patient enough to sit with it.

5. We’re all trying to figure this God/Jesus thing out.
Churches are, if nothing else, the places where people learn about God, Jesus, and the Bible, and where people offer worship to God. There are many different preferences and theologies, but we are all seeking God in teaching and preaching. We must remember that even if praise choruses, gospel music, or high liturgy are not worship for us, they are worship for our neighbors.

Carla R. Lesh, PhD, was ordained as a ruling elder in 1984. She currently serves on the committee on ministry in New York State’s Hudson River Presbytery. Matthew “Gospel” Johnstone is an ordained teaching elder. He currently serves as interim pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Denver.

May 2014 cover

order the special issue Guide to Young adult ministry and read more articles like this one