History and Intergenerational Relationships

We’ve all heard the old saying that those who don’t remember the lessons of history are destined to repeat them, and there is much truth in that. “Lest we forget” is a saying that remind us of the military keeping our country free by the sacrifice of many lives in wartime. Borrowing on that thought, I want to challenge and remind us of how important the past is to us as Christians and how that plays out through intergenerational relationships.

Here, I’m thinking, not so much of the distant past; such as the Old and New Testaments; especially the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Lord Jesus. Almost anyone would understand just how foundational those events are to our very faith. Rather, I’m talking about more recent history, and how it can give us focus, balance, and inspiration.

What I propose to do, then, is to reflect on the importance of recent history as both a teacher and a guide. Along with that, I hope to show how generational differences affect our understanding and our relationships, and how there needs to be more of a coming together between generations.

A few examples…

Here’s an example: I was talking with a friend who’s actually older than me about Free Will Baptist International Missions in the not too distant past. The comment was made that “the young people today don’t even know who Shirley Lauthern was.” Now Shirley Lauthern was the secretary to four of Foreign (now International) Missions’ General Directors, highly competent, the greatest multi-tasker I have ever seen or known, and a treasure both in her relational and professional abilities. Much of the internal strength and high functionality of the Mission is because of her 30+ years of service. Yet today, many do not know of her contribution, and consequently can’t acknowledge it, or learn from it.

We hear that all of us “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and build on the foundation of those who went before. So it’s a good thing to know about our history.

Another example: an elderly gentleman in our church passed away a couple of months ago. As his eulogy was read informing the public of his years of service in Nashville public schools as football coach and educator, the thought crossed my mind of how few really knew of his accomplishments among the recent generations.

Now, does someone in 2019 really have to know about Shirley Lauthern or the Nashville football coach of a generation or more ago to be effective, capable, and conscientious in their work today? No, but it sure could help to bridge the gap and achieve continuity. We hear that all of us “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and build on the foundation of those who went before. So it’s a good thing to know about our history.

Dismissing the older generation

Then there was the time (a good many years ago) some colleagues and I were discussing an issue, and I brought up what I thought was a good illustration from the past, from my own ministry many years before. One colleague–rather brusquely I thought–sort of cut me off with, “we don’t need to hear that; I’m not interested. That’s not what we’re here to talk about,” or words to that effect, basically saying that the past had no relevance to the present.

One more illustration to help set the stage: about a month ago John Havlicek died. “Who’s he?”, you say. My point exactly. Havlicek was 79. He played professional basketball for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s and 70s. He won 8 NBA championships and was one of the greats of his generation. Havlicek was the original Energizer Bunny, able to constantly move at high speed, seemingly never tiring, moving without the ball, and wearing down opponents. Yet today, he’s virtually unknown except by those of my generation and a few basketball history buffs.

Today in sports the priority is on athleticism, size, skills, speed, and one-on-one ability. In the past, the focus was on the learning the fundamentals, position, blocking out on rebounds, setting screens, floor spacing, as well as responding to coaching (teaching), playing intelligently, stressing teamwork.

Which is better? Both, I’d say. Havlicek said it like this (my paraphrase):

Today, we’d watch someone do an amazing crossover dribble, and then dunk over everyone. In my day, someone would move without the ball, take advantage of a screen, and get an easy layup.

John Havlicek

Intergenerational relationships take effort

There are two things I want to help myself and others understand:

1. The importance of learning the lessons history can teach us.

2. The older and young generations could come together with understanding, acceptance, tolerance, and mutual cooperation.

The examples I’ve given about how younger people don’t know the past, and so can’t learn from it, could be supplemented by other examples of how my generation doesn’t understand the way younger generations think and what shapes them. In a way, I think the greater responsibility is on us older ones to bridge that gap.

In a way, I think the greater responsibility is on us older ones to bridge that gap.

Here’s an extreme example as to how different generations view “long term commitment.” What is a lifetime commitment? A Christian worker was asked, “Do you have a long term commitment to this ministry.” The answer: “We have a 5-year plan.” On the other hand, many years ago, missionary Carlisle Hanna went to India. 67years later, he’s still there. His stated philosophy? ”I went to die.”

“Carpe Diem” is a common phrase that means “Seize the day.” The idea here is to live for this moment, give it your all, now’s the time. That seems to be how many of the younger generations view life. There’s tremendous truth there, but looking back and learning from the past also has great value.

Different philosophies

Since missions has been much of my life, let me pursue this a bit further. History has shown different approaches to doing cross-cultural missionary work. Today we go with a cell phone, computer, and ways to stay connected from virtually anywhere. The Moravian missionary movement over 250 years ago saw God-called young men and women carrying their belongings in their casket, never expecting to return to their homeland.

[W]e need to understand where people used to be on these issues, versus where they may be now, and strive for biblical balance.

Consider the historical differences in the approach to balancing family and ministry. The older approach tended more toward leaving family behind for years for the sake of ministry. This was common in the early years of the modern missionary movement. Even more recently, children were sent to boarding school for years, only seeing their parents during semester and summer vacation. Today, the “Focus on the Family” philosophy of prioritizing children has been taken to the extreme in some cases. Kids are kings; all of family life revolves around them. Sacrificing children vs. idolizing children: extreme positions, to be sure, but we need to understand where people used to be on these issues, versus where they may be now, and strive for biblical balance.

Builders/Boomers vs. Millennials: “The Millennial and the job interview” is a hilarious YouTube video that shows the misunderstandings that can occur when people of different generations try to have an intelligent conversation about something as mundane and commonplace as a job interview. You may want to watch it both to laugh and to learn.

How do we prioritize and optimize intergenerational relationships?

So what should our approach be? I, as a 69-year-old retiree? You, as an 18-25-year-old, growing up in a world totally different from the one I grew up in? The 40-year-old dad, who feels befuddled when he looks and realizes he has a teen living in his house? The 80-year-old who doesn’t understand the younger generation, and may not care to? Here are some suggestions:

1. “It is what it is” – be realistic about the differences in culture, age, how things are viewed, and approaches taken. There are differences, there always have been, and there always will be.

2. Listen…and listen some more. We must strive to understand each other. My generation needs to listen to and learn from the current and recent generations.

3. Become a historian. I’m absolutely convinced that the younger generation will benefit by knowing what’s happened in the recent and more distant past, and why.

4. Come together in active cooperation. Wishful thinking? “Never happen,” you say? The church of Jesus Christ would be greatly strengthened if it did.

Final thoughts

The purpose of this has not been to rant and rave; to gripe about the lost youth of those of us of advanced, or advancing age, nor to criticize and condemn the younger generations. There is no time to waste on such foolishness. We need each other. There is work to do – together. For we believers, there’s a world that needs a Savior, whatever age we are. I would hope this would help us to be more accepting, more loving, and to be willing to learn from each other.

Steve Lytle

Steve and his wife Judy have spent the majority of their ministry in Panama with Free Will Baptist International Missions. They recently retired and are hard at work serving the Lord locally. Steve is serving the elder generation of Cofer's Chapel mainly but is also involved in visiting sick, hospitalized, and shut-ins of any generation at our church. Steve is also heavily involved in the church's Hispanic ministry as a teacher and translator.

3 thoughts on “History and Intergenerational Relationships

  • June 19, 2019 at 2:42 pm

    This is fantastic! Great examples and an even great lesson. We desperately need to listen and to learn from other generations.

  • June 19, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    The longer I live, the more I notice that the church tends to marginalize older generations. This is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. Older men and women are to teach younger men and women. Gray hair is venerated. In the business world experience is valued, so when someone has demonstrated faithfulness for 30 years in serving the church, those years of wisdom and experience should be considered a treasure.

    I like and respect young people and I make a point to talk to them and pray for them. I hope they consider me a friend and advocate.


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