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Preparing Students for College: Intergenerational Relationships

Generational distrust has been among us for quite some time now. It is rather comical when my grandparents describe how old and outdated their parents appeared to them while they were young and how keen they were to rebel. My parents can recall times earlier in life when they considered people older than 40 to be backwards in their thinking. They chuckle now, realizing that younger generations probably think this way about them in the present.

In being a part of a younger generation (I’m a Millennial) and working with Generation Z college students, I can attest that my parents’ suspicions are correct: younger people often distrust older people.

This distrust has manifested itself in the recent social media trend #okboomer. According to, “OK boomer implies that the older generation misunderstands millennial and Gen Z culture and politics so fundamentally that years of condescension and misrepresentation have led to this pointedly terse rebuttal and rejection.”

The generational gap runs both ways as younger and older generations tend to dismiss and misrepresent one another.

Not only is this generational gap exhibited by trending hashtags, but also by statistics. Younger generations lean more liberal in their politics, whereas older generations lean more conservative. It also appears that this ideological gap is growing as time goes on. More importantly, younger people are less likely to consider themselves Christians than their older counterparts and more likely to consider themselves agnostic or atheist. That means that, for younger generations, the Christian faith can feel more and more like something for older people rather than for them.

The solution to these problems seems, at first, to be counterintuitive: youth need to experience deep relationships with believers from older generations. Those who develop those intergenerational relationships and go off to college are much more likely to thrive in their faith while there.

Practice #3: Faithful College Students Form Intergenerational Relationships

According to Faith for Exiles by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, here are some statements with which students who thrive in college agree:

  • “The church is a place where I feel I belong.”
  • “There is someone in my life who encourages me to grow spiritually.”
  • When growing up, I had close personal friends who were adults from my church, parish, or faith community.”

As I spend time with churched students at the university, the vast majority of them have deep relationships with older members at their home church. These relationships tend to be those who have specifically taken the time to mentor and disciple them. Often, these students are still consistently encouraged by adults back home who pray for them and send them encouraging messages.

They serve as a continued resource for college students as they wrestle with the spiritual pitfalls of the university.

In my case, I developed great relationships with godly men and women who, week in and week out, volunteered to teach Sunday school, lead mission trips, and host Bible studies for our youth group. Some of these adults were in their mid-20s and 30s, others were my parents’ age, and still others were old enough to be my grandparents!

They were people who spoke encouragement into my life, answered my questions about faith, taught me Scripture, and provided wisdom for navigating the difficulties of junior high and high school. It takes a village, and the wisdom of this village carried me into college and equipped me for faithful living at the university.

As I consider thriving college students who grew up in the church, here is what seems to be true of them:
  • Their home church is a primary community where they are known and loved.
  • They have good relationships with adults at their home church, not just peers.
  • They were allowed to serve alongside adults in church.

How Can We Encourage This Practice in our Youth?

#1 – Create shared experiences for both youth and adults.

Growing up, I was greatly impacted by church experiences that allowed me to grow, serve, and have fun alongside adults. We embarked on several domestic mission trips in which adults and students experienced cross-cultural ministry together. I was a part of my church’s worship ministry during my high school years, which allowed me to serve (and even lead) the church alongside people who were five times my age. Families traveled together to Colorado on a yearly basis to go snow skiing and grow in community.

Instead of being sequestered to the youth room while the adults did “big church,” I was able to practice my faith together with people who had been following Jesus for several of my lifetimes.

I was able to truly befriend adults who are still mentors and sources of encouragement for me today. These experiences brought a level of authenticity to the Christian faith that resonated with me at a deep level. I was able to recognize that following Jesus wasn’t just for my parents, or for my peers, but it was for everyone. How can your church create shared experiences for youth and adults?

#2 – Pair youth with adult mentors.

One-on-one discipleship is an incredible tool for spiritual growth that, I believe, goes underutilized in many churches today. Instead of tasking the youth minister with the spiritual development of every 11 to 18-year-old in the church, what if we paired these teenagers with an adult mentor who can walk with them through the ups and downs of the Christian experience?

Each student comes with their own questions, their own struggles, and their own unique gifting and calling. Pairing these students with adult mentors who can be used by the Spirit to mold them into thriving young adults will produce good fruit for the kingdom and create lifelong intergenerational relationships.

#3 – Model and encourage vulnerability and authenticity.

It’s common for young children to think of their loving parents as superheroes who can do no wrong. They often perceive adults as giants who are physically and emotionally indestructible. (I recall a time in which I was volunteering at a local preschool when a half dozen preschoolers began climbing on me like I was a jungle gym. They were quite confused when I asked them to stop, citing the fact that I wasn’t strong enough to remain standing with all their weight pulling down on my limbs!)

For a child, then, there is something like a loss of innocence in first recognizing that our parents, our teachers, and our mentors are fallible people.

Though this loss of innocence is somewhat painful for both parent and child, it can also be healthy. Teenagers who are quickly becoming young adults can significantly benefit from adults (whether parents, pastors, or mentors) becoming vulnerable and sharing about the struggles they have endured and with which they are still wrestling.

Younger generations place a high value upon authenticity; when adults are honest and vulnerable it opens up a door for relationship and communication with youth.

When students recognize that adults mess up too, they are more likely to be honest regarding their own sin struggles and confess those to God and to godly mentors. These practices lay a good foundation for success on the college campus.

How can you and your church foster intergenerational relationships?

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