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Bridging the (generation) gap

Speaker and author Missy Buchanan offers up lessons around an iconic bridge to the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network’s conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Tanya Nevidoma via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — To illustrate how older adults can build bridges to young people through intergenerational ministry, author and speaker Missy Buchanan selected an illustration that was brand new when many of her listeners were youngsters — the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Seize the Season: Using Your Late Years to Build a Bridge to Younger Generations” was the talk that Buchanan delivered Tuesday during the opening day of the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network national conference, which more than 100 people signed up to attend. A resident of Rockwell, Texas, Buchanan is both speaker and writer. Her most recent book is “From Dry Bones to Living Hope: Embracing God’s Faithfulness in Late Life.”

With a daughter and her family living in the area, Buchanan loves to traverse the iconic bridge connecting San Francisco with Marin County in California, especially as a pedestrian. On the day it opened for pedestrians only in 1937, officials expected 50,000 to walk across. Instead, 200,000 people showed up, some wearing roller skates.

“Bridge building is risky business. Is it worth it?” Buchanan asked, adding that “building bridges between generations is also risky business. Is it worth it?”

While the Golden Gate Bridge was under consideration during the depths of the Great Depression, many people thought its price tag was too high, that construction would prove too difficult, and that there were already ferries to take people from one side to the other.

Some people bring up similar concerns about intergenerational ministry, Buchanan said: it’s too difficult, we have more important things to worry about or we already have multiple generations in worship.

“What difference might it make,” she asked, “if older adults became intentional bridge builders?”

Missy Buchanan

Buchanan asked conference attendees if adults 60 and older at their church knew the names of up to a dozen children and youth, both first and last names. Do they regularly initiate conversation with them?

And how about those children and youth? Could they name up to a dozen adults at the church who are older than their parents? Answering those questions “should tell you whether you have an intergenerational focus going in your church,” Buchanan said.

She said intergenerational ministry goes beyond “just seeing one another at church. Proximity does not equal relationship.” We may giggle at what young people say during the children’s sermon, applaud them when they receive their children’s Bible and buy tickets to their spaghetti supper to support a youth choir trip. But “do we know that the tall boy is being raised by a single mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer?” Buchanan asked. “Or that little girl who struggles with dyslexia?”

In Sunday school, children may make cards for nursing home residents who once faithfully attended worship services. Do the children know about the lives of those people receiving the cards?

“At church potlucks, we fill our plates and then we sit with our own tribes,” Buchanan said.

After examining the numerous challenges, much of it around loneliness, faced by members of Gen Z, who were born between 1997 and 2012, Buchanan offered up this quote from Prof. William Willimon of the Duke Divinity School: “Growing up is too tough without some help from those with gray hair.”

“We can either complain about culture or we can impact culture by how we use our late years,” Buchanan said. “Let’s use our late years to build bridges. Our legacy must be what we invest in our young people.”

When you find yourself about to criticize youth and modern culture, “think about the uncertainty and fears you faced as a young person,” Buchanan suggested. “A humble spirit builds bridges between the generations … Sometimes a humble spirit means zipping it up and just listening.”

Or, as author Bob Goff put it, “Most people need love and acceptance a lot more than they need advice.”

Buchanan urged listeners to “think beyond our own grandchildren. They are a great place to start, and we pour our lives, time and resources into them. But we should never forget there are a lot of children and youth who have no older adults in their lives, or they aren’t a good influence. We must widen our circle to include more than our grandchildren.”

An added bonus that comes with inclusion is that it can deepen the faith development of the older adult as well.

“Our own faith formation is tied up in how we engage the faith formation of younger generations,” Buchanan said. “If we’re not participating in the faith formation of others, we will stagnate, we will stall and we will no longer grow.”

Buchanan asked viewers to “look beyond [young people’s] picture-perfect images on Instagram or Facebook. They are real people who need real hope. I pray that each of us will be willing bridge builders” who are “willing to sacrifice so we can encourage them along the journey. May God fill us with courage and stir us to jump into the frigid water to start building the bridge now.”

Buchanan was set to address the conference again Wednesday.


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