Has age specific ministry handcuffed the relational growth and development of youth and families?
I have been thinking about this question over the summer. Having been around the church in a vocational capacity for near 10 years, I've heard this oh so famous line from youth and young adults time and time again: "There is on one my age here." In fact, I believe there was a time or two that I uttered this same thing. It's interesting that one of our cultural norms has so drastically influenced our perceptions when it comes to friendship and relationships. Growing up in a small rural community, I didn't have the luxury of options; neither in the relational world, nor the task oriented world. I learned that in order to satisfy my longing for community, I must be willing to engage others relationally that I perhaps would have avoided had I had another option. At family gatherings, I would hang out with cousins younger and older than me (male & female) and spend countless hours building lifelong memories. In church, I learned that I needed to be able to engage others in conversation...seniors, peers, and other adults. Our youth group would at times combine Jr. High & Sr. High so that we had a critical mass to play epic games such as Mission Impossible.
All the while I never felt left out or stunted relationally because I didn't have a ton of relational options. Instead, I learned that each and every personal connection was a chance to learn and grow relationally. I remember my good friend Reuben, who was retired at the time that I met him. His hobby was polishing stones and creating hand made jewelry. One mother's day I asked Reuben to help me create something special for my mom. After school I would bike to his house and together we'd work on this project at co-habitants in the endeavor. In the end I received what I intended to from this connection (a home-made piece of jewelry...Happy Mom's Day), but I also experienced a by-product of this connection that didn't fully materialize until later on. I learned how to interact and connect with people 4 times my age. I learned that as a young boy, I have something to offer those older than me and those younger than me in a relational capacity.
I sometimes wonder if at the end of the day we're not ripping each other off when we constantly pigeon hole ourselves into age-specific categories. If we never give youth the opportunity to learn how to develop relational connections with people older and younger than themselves, it's no wonder after graduating high school they may not see a fit for themselves in the church world...because they don't know how to intentionally connect with anyone outside of their age group.
As we head into the future, I wonder if we somehow need to correct this navigation error in some capacity. When you think about it, up until high school graduation, the only "programmed" relational connections kids may have with people significantly older than themselves are with their teachers, their parents, grand-parents, aunts & uncles, other relatives, people at their place of work and maybe a smattering of people from their church (if they go to one). Most often, these connections are with people who are in an authoritative role of some sort...and you all know how we as humans tend to feel about those in authority (re-read Genesis 3 in case you need to jog your memory). Instead, we have got to find ways where youth, young adults, kids, seniors, and adults connect together as EQUAL partners in the mission of God. I believe this is the only way to demonstrate to young people that they have value in the relational church community as a whole. As a community, we need to be involved in the creation process of this kind of community for the betterment of not only ourselves, but the greater community as a whole. One such movement that is somewhat "sweeping the nation" right now is the idea of a community garden. The purpose behind the activity is to have neighbors connect with each other in creating a monument as a symbolic representation of community. The beautiful thing about gardens is that they need upkeep...and the relational connections made during the inception of the garden itself can continue to be fostered year after year after year as the community gathers to invest in the growth and maturity of not only the garden, but the community itself.
As a young person learning to develop relationally, I must lead the charge through my willingness to create and develop opportunities for myself to develop on a relational level with those outside of my "age group." Volunteer in kids ministry, hang out at a seniors luncheon, go to the mall during the middle of the day and have coffee with others. Stop and talk to your mechanic, be nice to the waiter or waitress, and spend time connecting with your kids. These are just a few of the ways I can think of to begin growing in this capacity. Great movements of change begin with one person defying the status quo and rising against the cultural norm because he or she has had enough. Well I've had enough of the old adage that says we need to function in age specific silos in order to experience life to the full. It's time for a change...who's with me?