Around the Christmas dinner table, millions of families will be gathered across generations. It’s one of the things that makes this time of year so special. The great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, the matriarchs and patriarchs who have seen many festive seasons come and go, tucking into Christmas dinner alongside newborn babies.
On my husband’s side of the family, we’ve had a baby boom, with seven children born over the past seven years. Despite the joy of these new arrivals, there is a sadness that hangs in the air when we gather; my husband’s parents both died before meeting most of their grandchildren.
Although it’s mostly unsaid, when we are together we feel the weight of the missing generations above us: no great-grandparents or grandparents to anchor us in the past and help us get our bearings.
I write a lot about the importance of the Church being multiracial; a symbol of the yet-to-come countercultural kingdom of God. But another distinctive marker of a countercultural Church is one that is truly inter-generational; a place where people of all ages are represented and play an active role.
In the New Testament, the intergenerational church community is demonstrated through examples such as Paul’s young protégé Timothy, who grew in the faith because of his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice.
There are few places in society where you find different generations doing life together in this way, but there is great value in it. The wisdom that comes from those who have many years more life experience; the way that hanging out with children keeps older generations young.
I’m fascinated by schemes that play on the value of inter-generational community, such as the innovative SällBo project (derived from the word sällskap, meaning ‘togetherness’ and bo, which means ‘to live’) in Sweden.
SällBo consists of a refurbished apartment block that brings together 72 people of different ages and backgrounds in a bid to tackle the loneliness that six in ten Swedes say they feel.
Just under half those living in the block are under the age of 25, while the rest are pensioners. The different generations form relationship in ‘togetherness’ areas, including the gym and communal kitchens.
The older people gain a new lease of life through relationships with younger people and the young people – who also suffer from acute feelings of loneliness – benefit from having older friends.
There are practical, emotional and health benefits to inter-generational relationships. But there is also something deeply spiritual. James KA Smith’s new book How to Inhabit Time (Brazos Press) encourages Christians to develop more of a sense of “temporal awareness” or “spiritual timekeeping”.
Inter-generational friendships are one way to do this. Having friends who are generations ahead or behind you is like time travelling, providing a glimpse into the past and the future.
This helps us hold more of a God’s eye view of the Christian faith, and what it means to be a Christian in this time and place. Around the Christmas table this season, may we cherish these gatherings as an act of spiritual timekeeping, anchoring us to the past, rooting us in the present and giving us a glimpse of the future coming kingdom of God.