The first time I watched a video from Life Model Works I was full of anticipation. I only need to do three things and you guarantee I will grow? OK, hit me up! It only took five minutes for me to lose all my enthusiasm. Their first suggestion was that we needed to be in an intergenerational community. Ugh! This sounded like Christian code for going to church. I was already convinced that merely ‘going to church’ was very likely to be ineffective in helping me to become more of the person God created me to be.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. When the folks at Life Model Works talk about intergenerational community, they mean it. And they’re aware that it’s possible for a church to do more harm than good.
What does good community look like? Firstly, it is a place of honesty. One would think that this would be a key characteristic of churches, but it’s amazing how threatening honesty can be. I have worked in a church where a major abuse scandal happened but it was covered up. And I have been in many places where there was a cultural assumption that leaders don’t share their doubts and struggles because it might undermine the faith of the flock. I have a vivid memory of studying psychology of religion at university and reading about a remarkable piece of research (not quite vivid enough for a citation, apologies for that). A woman student had joined a local megachurch and befriended a number of female members. Over time, she had got to know them and asked them a series of questions about their faith. One theme emerged over and over again: the vast majority of the women were struggling with huge life issues, including addiction, abuse, mental illness, marital infidelity and the like, but had never told anyone in the church because everyone else seemed to be so together.
This might feel like an extreme example, but I suspect that many of us have experienced a version of this dishonesty in church, and it often starts at the top. I remember meeting with a couple who were leaving my church. They wanted me to know why. ‘The thing is, Simon, you’re just like us.’ I smiled. That’s what I was aiming for. ‘We look at you and we don’t have any hope that life is going to get better. That we are going to get better.’ Oh!
For many years I told that story as an example of the harmfulness of fake leaders and false expectations, but it turns out that I was half right and they were half right. Bare honesty without love, compassion and hope is only marginally better than denial. The most unhealthy community to be in is one where suffering and failure are denied. However, the folk at Life Model Works suggest that we need to go beyond our suffering and failures to share how God works through them. The reason we need intergenerational community is so that when a child is born, a relationship breaks down, a person is made redundant, a parent dies, or something even more traumatic happens, we are in community with people who have gone ahead of us.
But that’s not all. We need to tell our stories to the next generation, for their sake and ours. Sharing God’s work in the messiness of our lives is part of God’s work of transformation. This is a spiritual and psychological truth, that sometimes we only know how we’ve grown and what God had to do with it when we talk about it. Paul sets us an example in 2Cor 12:6-10. In the surrounding passage Paul is doing his usual (sorry Paul!) humble-brag to establish his authority as a leader, but in this section he goes much deeper, reflecting on what scholars believe was an unhealed illness or disability, possibly blindness. This admission of weakness and failure from an apostle might in our success-driven day seem like a lame move, but he is leading in this too, talking about his willingness to accept his condition and serve God nonetheless.
Right now I don’t get this quality of intergenerational community in one place. And while I am part of an intergenerational church, just being in a meeting with people doesn’t do it. So, I regularly seek out the company of an older couple who are part of my church, and while they clearly adore me (who wouldn’t?), they also ask me probing questions and listen to me telling my story. Their own story of faithfully working out their faith is a great encouragement to me. My wife and I meet regularly with two other couples who are a bit younger than us and still have children at home, and together we share our lives. While I still ‘go to church’, these are the places where I can feel my spiritual, emotionally and character muscles being stretched and strengthened.
I must admit that this is an activity I can get on board with, and something I was already doing. The other two activities stretch me much more. See you next week!
Image from Wikimedia Commons