One of my grandmothers had a childhood straight out of Little House on the Prairie: she and her family homesteaded in both the western U.S. and in western Canada. She’d tell of living in a sod house out in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Of riding her horse to a Sunday school convention—an epic ride, replete with an ornery horse and a very high stream—where she (spur of the moment) decided to elope with my grandfather. My other grandmother, who was a city gal, had her own stories. Of working in advertising in the 1920s, for instance. And, better yet, of winning the property for her house in a dancing contest!
Family stories are important, particularly in shaping and normalizing the possibilities we imagine for ourselves. If everyone in your life goes to college, for example, you are far more likely to believe that that’s your path too. The flip side is that stories (or lack thereof) can also limit possibility—if no one you know has done something, it’s harder to imagine yourself doing so. Even though my grandmothers were born at the turn of the 20th century (in 1903 and 1904), their narratives always made me think I could do just about anything.
In many ways, what we do in church is pass on our family stories. The Bible, of course, is a kind of family album to which we’ve added 2,000 years of supplementary material from the lives of the great cloud of witnesses.
The way I have always envisioned Psalm 145:4 is as lovely, wise elders teaching me about God. As I’ve moved into middle age, I’ve even begun to see myself (particularly in my role as a professor) joining that group. But I wonder if it means something even more robust: that the church should be a place that, in a stance of humility and teachability, learns from every generation, including younger generations. And not just after a mission trip or on “youth Sunday.” There are endless stories, for instance, of why millennials don’t want to come to church. Could it be because we do not listen to them or value their stories as a deliberate practice of the church?
It’s fashionable these days to dismiss younger folks as entitled, narcissistic, and whiny. But as Christians, I’m pretty sure they want what all of us want—to be known and loved and challenged to live out their faith fully. And the fundamental fact is, whatever anyone thinks of this generation (or any other), God is at work in their lives. Right now. So they have amazing stories to edify and encourage. Let’s stop trying to figure out what would “appeal” to a particular demographic—as if church were about satisfying a consumer itch—and, instead, find ways to hear the “mighty acts of God” from every voice.
About the Author
Dr. Jennifer L. Holberg teaches English literature at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.