In turning thirty this year, I have been labeled “old guy” by my students as a new form of joking along the central bald joke theme. I have taken to wondering about our usage of age in church for a while now, bolstered by my special education training. For teachers, especially those that work in special needs, age has little to do with our view of students. Some measurements still do include how a particular student’s ability aligns with their peers, but it is not as determinative as it once was. I do share from Canadian, and more specifically, British Columbian educational thinking, one that seeks to mold learning to the needs and interests of individual students as opposed to the slightly antiquated American standards-based approach.
Sir Ken Robinson, a figure well known in the education world, gave a 2010 TED Talk in which he asks, “Why is there the assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?” I wonder if we have the same problem in our church. More pointedly, in our separation of the generations into age-based Sabbath school groups, church events, and general community life.
Here are two examples that jump out in my mind. The first was during Bible class when I was substituting in a fourth-grade classroom. I had shared about Jesus dying for us as God to undo the result of sins, but also as a human facing the full result of sin. Two students in the front row asked me to clarify, then one stated Jesus must have been fully human to die, resulting in the other student disagreeing because Jesus had to have been fully God. When they both looked at me wondering who was right, all I could say was, “Yes, you’re both correct.” This started a debate on the nature of Jesus, in the fourth grade, I would remind you.
The second example comes from a group of boys in grade 6/7 who finished their chemistry work early. In my attempt at stalling to allow the rest of the class to finish, I gave them grade eleven chemistry problems. They were very excited and proceeded to not only solve the questions but prove the math concepts they employed.
These two instances have left me wondering, where does age fit into this?
One of John Roberto’s main themes in his book Lifelong Faith: Formation for All Ages and Generations is what he labels “intergenerational networking,” to have events and settings that encourage and facilitate the sharing of faith and life stories across the different generations in a church. I have previously written on mentorship, but my focus here is trying to find ways of overcoming our fixation on age as a main means of community building. Indeed, there are seasons of life, but when have the trees cared for the official beginning of fall to start dropping their leaves? Do flowers really take note of the calendar date stating when it is and is not spring?
When you go to church or camp meeting, what do you find? Someone nicely telling you how to find “your place” among the different age groups. We even host events where only certain ages are allowed to come. Why? Why do we so often use age as a foundation of who we are? People have asked me, “Why do the youth leave?” Because, in part, they have no chance to develop friendships beyond the over-simplified age box we have placed them in. We know kids need to form friendships with non-relative adults in order to develop fully into adults themselves and to have strong ties into a community. Sadly though, with our current ageist thinking, there are rarely, if any, chances to generate friendship ties beyond relatives and peers.
I recognize that my training and experiences as a youth worker and now teacher have given me a bias that age is not a very useful tool in understanding and supporting people. But what if we changed Sabbath school to topic-based groupings instead of age-based, for example? To have that nice greeter tell the newcomer: “This group is studying prayer, and that group is reading the Gospel of Mark,” and so on. If they actually got to meet and learn about each other, this age-less thinking would allow for youth to understand older adults and for the adults to relate better to young people. Yet what do we do instead? We continually reinforce our divided Bible studies and even, sometimes, separate worship services along outdated paradigms of age.
A far better way to view it, as John Roberto shares in his workshops, is to see people as resources of experiences. By “faith network” he means knowing to whom you can go, or send someone to, for support. Therefore, as pastors and leaders, we are to create environments of networking within our churches and training on networking outside of our churches. In taking the focus away from programming and didactic teaching, we can place it on intergenerational faith story sharing. This concept is also something we can learn considerably from First Nations peoples.
I know this to be a need not just as a special education teacher but because I left my former church in search of those who could help me through my divorce. I knew of no one among a church of 700 people who could walk alongside me, partly because people in their mid-20s “don’t get a divorce,” causing me to feel marginalized, like something was wrong with me. Instead, I was left to teach those around me about the mental process of divorce while learning it at the same time myself, which caused me, in part, to stop going to church. I would rather not anyone else go through something similar ever again.
I hope by shifting our church thinking away from age as the main means to build relations we can truly be the body of Christ. Age is not the most important aspect of a human. But this remains a real issue; even my current 6/7 students’ experiences echo my own when I was their grade. Let us go forth and break down the walls and stereotypes of ageism. Let’s stop using age as a determining factor for which group or potluck you are part of. One God and one baptism have no room for an arbitrary number to be involved. When we set ourselves free from an ageistic mindset, we also set the Spirit free in his good work among the willing, not just the aged.
Kevin R. McCarty is an Adventist teacher in beautiful British Columbia and an advanced graduate student at the Vancouver School of Theology.
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