One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts (Psalm 145:4).
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are called to teach the next generation. In Exodus, parents are told to remember what the Lord has done for his people in Egypt so that when their children ask, ‘What does this mean?’ they will be able to tell them (Ex. 13:14). In the Psalms, God’s people proclaim that they will ‘declare to the next generation the praises of God’ so that they, in turn, will be able to pass this on to the ‘coming generation, even children yet to be born’ (Ps. 78). Proverbs talks about training a child in the ways of God when they are young, so that they will be able to walk with him as they grow (Prov. 22:6).
The Law repeatedly and unswervingly reminded God’s people about the importance of continuously teaching children.
Impress them [God’s commands] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:7-9).
Later, in chapter 11, it is the responsibility of the older generations, those who have ‘seen with their own eyes all the great things God has done’, to tell this to the younger generations who have not seen. Only with this instruction will the next generation grow up to love and fear God, obeying his commands and decrees.
While these instructions often use the phrase ‘your children’, as we read, it becomes clear that the instructions address the whole community of God’s people. As the law is read out, the assembly of God’s people includes ‘the women, the little ones, and the foreigners who lived among them’ (Josh. 8:35; Deut. 31:12). These commands are given in the context of community with the inclusion of children.
Judges highlights the tragic consequences of one generation failing in their responsibility:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals (Judg. 2:10-11).
All of God’s people are therefore instructed to play a part in teaching younger generations about God and what he has done. We do this so that they can grow in knowledge and faith as they grow older, until one day they are ready to take the baton themselves.
Teaching the next generation today
In our 21st century Western society, the average child’s relationships are predominantly with other children, with the exception of immediate family members. It’s no surprise then, that the average adult tends to also socialise with people of a similar age. In this context, intergenerational friendships are becoming less common and harder to practice.
Yet, our churches, a meeting of God’s people, are a place where all ages gather together to worship the Lord. Picture a Sunday morning in your church. Where are the children and who are they talking to? What about the young people? Are they grouping together and talking amongst themselves or integrating with the wider church community? What about you? Where are you sitting? Who are you talking to?
It can be easy for churches to leave the ‘commending the next generation’ to the youth and children’s workers. Yet, those verses in the Old Testament remind us that all of God’s people have a role to play. Whilst parents remain the primary teachers of their children and with children’s ministry workers also playing a role, the call remains for the whole assembly of God’s people to teach the next generation. It’s here that we see the importance of intergenerational friendships.
Intergenerational friendships help children to see themselves as part of their church community and the wider fellowship of believers. Having friendships with older Christians outside of their immediate family provides opportunities for them to hear the gospel from Christians who aren’t their parents. Sometimes that slight detachment is helpful for them to ask questions, have discussions and to be challenged in their faith. Children can see God’s love acted out week by week when adults, for no personal gain, take an interest in them and their lives.
Maybe facing the group of young people is a bit daunting? Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve had a conversation with a child? Notice the different ways adults can witness to children in Deuteronomy 6. There’s a clear mix of formal and informal learning taking place, from written reminders, to simply talking about God as you ‘walk along the road’. Whether or not you feel a particular call to children’s work, these conversations and intergenerational friendships mean we can all work together to proclaim the gospel to the next, and future, generations.
In our churches, we’ve been able to witness these friendships develop. We know an older member who regularly prays for a list of ‘prayer children’ – many of whom are now ‘prayer adults’ with ‘prayer children’ of their own! Their lifelong interest in these children developed into friendships that continues today. We’ve seen friendships begin with a member deciding to learn a new animal fact every Sunday to share with an animal loving 8-year-old in the congregation. We’ve seen them grow in the 10-year-old who sits every week with a young man in the church because they both share a love of football. We’ve seen older generations intentionally look to reach out and support the next generation in a member who took each of the young people out for coffee and a chat so that they could get to know them.
Where to start? Begin with prayer and pray for them and their families regularly. Initiate conversation and be intentional about it, listening to their answers and asking questions. Try to build on that knowledge week by week until you start to get a sense of their personality, their lives, their interests. Find out what they’re learning in Sunday School and chat to them about it. Over time, these small conversations will develop into friendships. Through this friendship you will get the opportunity to be part of the teaching of the next generation as you share your knowledge and experiences with this child as they grow.
It’s important to be transparent with these friendships in order to protect and safeguard children and young people. Please, speak to whoever oversees the children’s ministry in your church, and review your safeguarding procedure in regards to mentoring and discipleship. Depending on the age of the child or young person, discuss with their parent/guardian and church leadership what your friendship should look like as they grow.
Who knows if the interest you take in a child or young person today could grow into a beautiful friendship? Let’s pray that one day our eyewitness accounts of God’s goodness will become shared conversations about the mighty acts of God.