Our elders have had time to think about things before, during and after doing them. That's why their advice matters. We younger folk simply haven't had that fully-rounded experience yet. And so it saddens me deeply that we separate our young people (those with questions) from our older ones (those with answers.)
I noticed this most acutely surfing through the MySpace forums last week. In the Religion/Philosophy forum, there's a pattern to how a discussion will go. Someone will ask a serious question (Convince an atheist that there is a God.) Three people will get caught up in the right way to spell "atheist." One will post a personal testimony and two others will post examples from the Bible of how people came to faith. They will be flamed and laughed at. Two adults will chime in with over-wordy posts trying to overwhelm the objections. And one profound question will be asked, and lost in the shuffle.
There's no direction to the discussion in the forums, and so there's never a consensus, a convincing. There's only distrust, pat arguments, and the instruction to "stop drinking bathroom cleaning chemicals." The same thing happened in the Careers forum. A resume expert posted offering to help anyone, for free, by checking over his or her resume and pointing out where it could be improved. The guy ran a business writing resumes, but didn't charge anything to look one over. He offered a lot of valid tips that answered honest questions, but also took a lot of damage from people who wondered what he was up to, slammed him for calling himself an expert, and worse, even though by taking the advice he offered in the forum, the complainers' resumes would have been three or four times better.
Somebody bring our elders back! Let's bring them into our youth groups, as small-group leaders, special guests, storytellers; anything that will expose our age-segregated youth to people who truly have been there.
To prepare youth to hear their elders' words, three suggestions:
- Use small groups and discussion times to discover what youth value about the elders in their own lives; grandparents, teachers, family friends, and others.
- Ask "Which adults in our congregation do you most respect and admire?" Once we've asked, we find those adults and bring them in.
- Help youth clarify the questions they really want to ask about life; write them down, journal on them, Bible study about them. The framework will help make discussion easier to start.
To prepare elders to share effectively with the youth, three more:
- Remind them to say "I don't know" when they don't; then find out together.
- Find out what they admire and would like to learn from the younger generation.
- Prep them to share stories students will relate to; how much did X cost when you were a teenager; what did your parents think of your music; did you ever cut school or sneak out of the house? It's all about finding common ground.
It takes time to reach out and connect across generations; make sure youth and elders both know and are willing to keep on trying. At first, it may feel forced and artificial. After a little while of insecurity, they will grow together and sharpen each other. Paul warned that "there will come a time when people aren't satisfied with sound teaching, but tell themselves what they want to hear." One part of the solution is to never let students be cut off from sound teaching and the example of those who live by it.