When I was a teenager back in the 1960s, our youth group’s mission efforts were pretty much limited to local projects. We would pile into several family station wagons and caravan to the home of an elderly person on a fixed income whose home needed repair. Some of us would scrape and paint the home exterior while others trimmed overgrown trees and shrubs, washed windows and pulled weeds.
We were accompanied by our volunteer MYF sponsor and several parents who served as our drivers and chaperones. The adults always worked with us, showing us how best to use the tools even as they tried to keep us on task. Typically our mission events were limited to a weekend or a series of summer days when parents were available to help.
By the time my own children became part of another United Methodist church youth group, the MYF had become the UMYF. Church vans, mini-buses and rented trailers had replaced family station wagons as the youth program grew in size and scope. Instead of a volunteer sponsor, there was a paid staff person—a Minister of Youth Ministries—who led the group. They did many local mission projects, but they also served in places like rural Appalachia and Mexico, where the youth learned to build stucco and cinderblock homes.
Nowadays it’s not uncommon for lay persons to serve in mission fields as far away as Africa or India. Even so, the need for intergenerational mission opportunities has never been greater. With today’s churches becoming increasingly age-segregated, there are fewer inherent opportunities for interaction among the age groups. Unless a church is intentional in bringing the generations together in mission, each group misses out on the shared experiences of serving others as the body of Christ.
Russell Bowlin, a third-year student at Duke Divinity School with experience in leading youth ministries at several United Methodist churches, is troubled by excuses that adults offer for not participating alongside youth. Some adults, including active middle-agers, say they are just too old. Others talk about being out-of-touch with today’s youth. Russell believes that their common faith should overcome any objection. In fact, he says that churches rob their members of important conversation and shared wisdom whenever mission and ministry are homogenized by an over-emphasis on age-exclusive groupings.
Samantha Tashman, a program manager for Mountain TOP (Tennessee Outreach Project) affiliated with the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church, agrees about the importance of being intentional in bringing generations together.
She says: “When youth and adults are working alongside one another to help alleviate poverty in the Cumberland Mountains, the outcome is often life-shaping, life-changing and life-giving. What could be more important than empowering youth on a worksite to problem-solve, pray with the family or use a power tool for the first time? Likewise, what might adults learn if they pay attention to the lessons youth have to teach about being passionate and taking action?”
Bottom line, mission is not just for youth and their parents. Churches like First United Methodist Church of Winter Park, Fla., recognize the importance of bringing single adults, families with young children, empty-nesters and grandparents alongside youth and their parents in service to others.
Jensie Gobel, missions and outreach coordinator for the Winter Park church, works to design church-wide mission trips and projects so that persons of all ages and physical abilities can participate alongside each other. Children and adults sit side-by-side packing meals for Stop the Hunger. Teens and empty-nesters work together to repair and deliver bicycles for adults and children who need them. There are even opportunities for multi-age, overseas mission trips.
Ms. Gobel has witnessed the impact of intergenerational mission, affirming that it unifies the church and strengthens the community.
Just remember these two words. Be intentional.