Learning to listen across generations

by Joe Hackman, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.)

Salford listening
Joe Hackman and Sanford Alderfer from Salford congregation. Salford is focusing this year on learning to listen across generations.  Photo by Tim Moyer.

“Thank you for listening!” say several excited young children at the end of every episode of Salford’s Listening Project.  Our church has been doing a lot of listening these days.

Last summer we set aside several months for prayer and discerning what God might be calling us to for the next several years.  The discernment led us to something pretty basic:  learning how to get better at listening to God.

In the next several years we will be learning to listen for God in our personal lives, in our local community, in hospitality, and in difficult conversations.  This year we’ve given special focus to learning to listen to God in intergenerational relationships.

One young woman who recently joined our church told me, “The reason I’m drawn to this community is that older people are curious about my family and me.  They really want to know who we are and what we’re thinking.”

But trying to get different generations to listen to one another and for God’s movement in those relationships has proven to be a joy and a struggle.  Some of our ideas have flourished while others have not.

Salford’s Listening Project invites people from across generations to sit in our old sound booth above the church sanctuary to share and record stories of faith with each other.  In a recent episode, two women discussed a time when the church prevented a person in FBI training from serving as a youth sponsor because he was required to carry a gun.  For the woman in her 80’s, this was a time when church leadership took a stand and did not compromise on a core belief.  For the woman in her 30’s, who was a member of the youth group at that time, the same story created much hurt; she interpreted it as a low point in her experience at Salford.  Sharing the story and the different ways it was understood helped both women listen for God’s movement in both the joy and pain of this event.

Salford listening
One initiative for intergenerational listening at Salford included a month-long crossover Sunday school class for youth and retirees. Photo by Tim Moyer.

But intergenerational listening hasn’t always been a success.  After Easter we started an intergenerational Sunday school class called “Jesus through the Ages.”  We had willing participants (mainly Gen Xers and the Silent Generation) gather around tables and look at scripture passages together, led by a team of skilled facilitators.  But, try as we might, the class struggled to thrive.

Why?  We’re not completely sure.  But we learned that different generations have different expectations for Sunday school and how it should be formatted. We decided to cancel the class after July and encouraged folks to return to their regular classes—which are traditionally split along generational lines.

I remember a few years ago the theme for the Mennonite Church USA Convention was “Can’t Keep Silent,” and I sometimes think of the irony: our congregation believes God is calling us to listen right now!  The church is called to offer people a new way of life brought about by the presence of a countercultural, spirit-filled reality.  And in a world that is increasingly polarized by talking heads on radio, television, and Twitter feeds, Salford needs to do the hard work of learning to listen to God and to each other; this is a message of good news for our church and our world.