I recently wrote about why it is important for believers to be in community with believers of different generations and life stages. The article, because it was for a pastors’ blog, was geared towards how church leaders can facilitate multi-life-stage discipleship among church members. But that is only half of the conversation.
Though pastors should certainly lead their church and encourage members to fellowship with those who are not like them, it is not solely up to the pastors to foster discipleship among diverse groups. Members share in this responsibility. In fact, if church members don’t also see the importance in community among those who are different and take steps toward developing these relationships, much of what church leaders try to do will fall to the wayside.
The fact is, we’re all naturally inclined to draw near to people whose lives are just like ours—at least on the surface. If we’re married, we likely spend most of our time with other married couples. If we’re single, our closest confidantes are probably also single. If we have young kids, our default is to fellowship with families who also have young kids. It’s often just easier that way.
But there’s another—perhaps subconscious—reason we lean towards those who are most like us. In these groups, we can often hide, avoiding the challenges of communicating, fellowshipping, and serving those who are different. This can manifest itself in different ways.
Hiding Out, Avoiding, Withdrawing
Think about your situation, be it single, retired, empty-nester, etc. How easy is it for you to look at someone else’s circumstances—someone who isn’t in the same life stage—and think about how much better it might be if you were in their position? Maybe you’re single but you feel as if you’re lacking fulfillment without a spouse. Or perhaps you’re married and you desire children. Or maybe your marriage isn’t as fulfilling as you thought it might be, so you long for the days when you were single. You might look to those who have what you desire and feel envious or inferior. The idea that “the grass is greener” also promotes bitterness. Any number of these negative emotions naturally causes us to avoid those who have what we want.
Or, perhaps you intentionally avoid those who are different from you. A married couple may not hang out with a single person because your spouse might be left out of the conversation. Young adults may avoid spending time with senior adults because they have different interests. Those with children may not spend time with those who don’t have children because it’s simply too hard to balance conversation with entertaining the kids.
Or, perhaps we avoid those who are different because we think they can’t possibly empathize with us or understand what it’s like to be in our stage of life. Even if they’ve been in our position, we often find reasons why our situation is exceptional. Or, they’re too distanced from our life stage at this point that they can’t possibly know how it is now.
Regardless of our reasoning, we withdraw from those who aren’t like us and lean toward those who we believe can identify with us. But the danger of these thought patterns is the temptation to commiserate with each other—especially if we’re unsatisfied with our stage of life. Instead of exhorting and encouraging one another to find our identity in Christ, we (intentionally or not) promote attitudes about our life stages that aren’t always biblical or helpful. At its best, this type of group-think stunts the spiritual growth of each individual involved. At its worst, it becomes toxic and creates unnecessary conflict within a church community.
Instead of withdrawing from those who are in different life stages, however, we should seek them out. These are the people who can give us a different—and likely needed—perspective on our situation. There is great value to learning from those whose lives aren’t like ours. More importantly, we have the opportunity for spiritual development that can occur as we learn from those who are different than us.
Some Practical Advice
Listen to church leaders.
- Seek counsel from your church leaders on how you might be able to cross the boundary lines of life stages and find deeper fellowship with those in the church who are different from you. Be willing to listen to them and take action steps based on their guidance.
- Observe how they might be leading the church to grow in discipleship and encourage other members to follow their lead. Perhaps you can help start a new multi-generational Bible study or plan a fellowship event.
Intentionally join a small group of people who aren’t like you.
- The best way to start pursuing fellowship with believers who are different is to join a small group or Sunday School. If you’re able, join one that you know includes people of different generations and stages of life. Let location or topic be the determining factor—not whether or not the group includes people in your stage of life. Most likely, you already spend lots of time with people in your church who are like you. Let this be an opportunity to get to know those who aren’t like you.
- Remember, also, that small groups aren’t just about you and your spiritual needs. They are mutually beneficial. That means you play a role in other members’ lives just as they play a role in theirs. If the leader is younger than you, or the members are less experienced, or if everyone is in a different stage of life, remember that you are to build up the body just as they build up you. Encourage the leaders, make an effort to spend time with group members outside of your meeting time, and contribute to the discussion.
Guard your heart and be proactive.
- I’ve observed in various churches how easily bitterness can set in when people of different life stages don’t take steps to spend time together. We begin assuming the worst of “the others,” or we expect them to take the first step towards fellowship. This is often when we begin to commiserate with our peers, which only feeds our bad attitude.
- Instead, fight the temptation to complain and withdraw. Be proactive about spending time with those who are not in your stage of life. Don’t wait for them to come to you—perhaps you’re both waiting on the other to “make the first move.”
- Invite someone of a different life stage for coffee or over for dinner. Though it may feel awkward, people aren’t going to be mad at you for inviting them over! And don’t be discouraged if it takes more work to figure out a time to get together—some life stages are more flexible than others. But it’s worth the effort to spend time with fellow church members of any life stage.