One night I asked a friend to meet me at a yogurt place in town. Over our sweet treats, I began to talk about my struggle with being single, especially my struggle with loneliness—both struggles I didn't think I'd ever encounter. Luckily, my 50-year-old friend had much hope to offer me.
Our friendship began through a small group I led. The group members ranged in age from women late 20s to early 60s. We understood that loneliness and brokenness were no respecters of age, so we came together to build meaningful relationships.
Whether male or female, and regardless of age, we all crave the opportunity to laugh, cry, share hope, and develop relationships. Through the practical steps below, multiple generations can join together to find fulfillment personally and spiritually.
The way you present small groups to your church is the deciding factor for whether multiple generations will come together or not. At our church, we have a catalog that introduces the hosts, topics, locations, and times for small groups. At the beginning of the catalog, we explain what life groups are, emphasizing their purpose to help us meet new people, build relationships, and grow in Christ. Age is not mentioned in our catalog—it's simply not a factor. Instead, we encourage people of different ages to join together in groups.
We also present this value to our small-group leaders. When we train leaders, we discuss the value of having multiple generations in a group. We encourage them to invite people of all ages to their groups because one generation can speak truth and hope into another generation.
Justin Haigler, pastor of The Simple Church, leads a group that manifested not due to ages, but due to struggles. One of the group members, a 65-year-old man recently out of prison, looked at a 40-year-old group member struggling with alcoholism and gave him hope by sharing his own struggles with alcohol. It was a reality check for the young alcoholic. And this wasn't a small group focused on addiction. This conversation spun from watching an Andy Stanley video on wise decision making.
Outside the Box
It is natural for us to gravitate to what we know. To go outside the box is more difficult and can leave us a little uneasy. But bringing multiple generations together will require us to think outside the box.
Julie and Chip Mitchell have led a life group since the start of our church five years ago. Julie and Chip are married 30-somethings with children, and their group members consist of singles, older couples with grown children, and other young married couples.
While it's natural as leaders to invite people who are around our age, we must be willing to reach outside our comfort zones. Purposefully invite and reach out to people regardless of age. Julie and Chip admit they had to make a conscious effort to reach out to people of different ages and life situations. They and their group members, though, have reaped the benefits. Young singles enjoy being part of a family environment. Older couples have offered great advice to couples with younger children. Each generation has spoken into others' lives, offering wisdom for numerous topics including dating, finances, and relationships.
The First Meeting
As a leader, you want to present an environment that is welcoming to all. A great way to say "welcome" is through a cookout. The smell of burgers, hot dogs, or whatever else you throw on the grill can soothe a multitude of fears—and a cookout appeals to all generations. As host, this event gives you an opportunity to chat and get to know your group members in a fun and light environment. New group members have a chance to feel at ease and relaxed while getting to know others.
If a cookout is not your thing, order pizza and play a game. My first life group meeting was a fun night of games. The hosts had prepared a simple meal, and then we had fun together. I knew no one, but I laughed so much. And I needed laughter in my life. I had recently left my old lifestyle and started over completely. I had no family and no friends nearby. This night was perfect for me, and the fact that the group members' ages spanned from 22 to 49 didn't matter. We all enjoyed a good laugh. Instead of focusing on our difference in age, we focused on doing life together—which really is the goal of small groups.
Keep them Coming
Gary Smalley notes in The DNA of Relationships, "While we can choose how we will participate in relationships, we have no choice about whether we will participate in them …. You are made for relationships." Because a person is designed to crave relationships, he or she will find one regardless of age. Therefore, provide a safe environment in which relationships can flourish, and people will choose to build relationships without age being a factor.
Allowing all to have a voice encourages a safe environment. Many people are burdened when they attend a group, so giving them a chance to talk it out makes them feel comfortable. Valuing a person's generational views is also important. Although the view may seem out of date (or simply not make sense to you), pay close attention to it to see what wisdom you can gain. Taking the time to genuinely care is encouraging to any person.
Another draw to the group is the desire to learn about a given topic. The desire to learn to pray or be a better spouse transcends age. Group members will keep coming to the group because they realize there are others learning and growing in the same areas. Choose a topic that all group members will be able to learn from and contribute to so that everyone feels included.
Focus on Serving
One of my favorite components to small groups is serving together. As a group, you have the opportunity to change others' lives. When group members join together to meet needs in the church or community, it's very powerful.
I once led a life group that created a quilt to give to a local organization that counsels abused children. When children are extracted from the home, they are often only able to take a few items—what they can fit in a box or backpack. So when children come to the center, they have the opportunity to choose something, including a blanket.
I'm a 30-something passionate about quilting, so this was an exciting endeavor. My group consisted of two other 30-somethings with no quilting experience and five older women with lots of quilting experience. Instead of being awkward, it was a great way to learn more about quilting and one another as we spent hours working together. As we quilted, conversation naturally turned to our life stories, allowing us to learn from each other. We all gained practical wisdom. Best of all, we bonded around the fact that together we created a beautiful quilt that would bring comfort to a hurting child.
Focusing multigenerational groups around service can help you connect despite age differences. And there are many options. Consider feeding the homeless together, volunteering at a children's hospital, or visiting with the elderly. As you meet real needs in your community, you'll also develop a deep bond with one another.
Multigenerational groups can be successful, but first we must conquer our fears, market well, and go out of our way to make everyone comfortable. When we do, we'll all benefit from groups that foster deep relationships and shared wisdom among different generations.
—Peri Gilbert is the Small-Group Coordinator at The Simple Church in Bossier City, Louisiana; © 2012 by Christianity Today.
- How will you reach outside your comfort zone and invite people from other generations to your group?
- What can you do to make everyone feel welcome at your next meeting?
- How well do you value the opinions of others—even when you don't agree?