COVID-19 has dramatically changed our interactions. More time with immediate family, spouses and roommates also means no time in-person with co-workers, extended family or Bible study groups. The most obvious effects are felt by all, but one is less conspicuous: What will this mean for intergenerational friendships?
Intergenerational friendships aren’t as rare as people may think. Our team at Barna found that two-thirds of Americans (68%) say they have a close friend who is either 15 years older or younger. Millennials are most likely to report relationships with older peers, but these aren’t just mentors: 84% specifically use the term “friend” to describe these relationships.
Among the top places people meet friends of different generations are at work, within their neighborhood and in church. And in fact, Christians and churchgoers are much more likely than non-Christians and non-churchgoing adults to report having a close friend from a different generation. But now, with most Sunday services going remote, church leaders need to help ensure that older generations aren’t forgotten or left behind.
The fact is, Baby Boomers — those aged 55 to 75 years — need meaningful, intergenerational relationships just as profoundly as young adults. In the Christian community, we usually think of intergenerational relationships as older believers mentoring and cultivating young disciples. In fact, I wrote a book (Faith for Exiles) about these relationships as a massive factor in growing resilient young faith that lasts into adulthood.
But COVID-19 is showing us how important these relationships are for older Americans, too. Boomers need young friends more than ever, both for practical reasons, like running errands and tech support, and for social and community connections.
This is the cool part: Churches are uniquely positioned to facilitate these connections, even during social distancing. U.S. churches are one of the few remaining spaces in our society where people of every age regularly get together on purpose, which is the biggest reason churchgoers are more intergenerationally connected.
But our current circumstances make it harder, if not impossible, depending upon the level of COVID-19 restrictions in your state or region. In a recent survey of U.S. pastors, 49% told us it is very or somewhat difficult to reach older members of their congregation during the pandemic.
Three-quarters of these same leaders report they are offering an online service during the COVID-19 crisis. Churches that invested in digital capabilities before the health emergency—streaming virtual sermons, releasing podcasts, creating mobile content—have seen these efforts pay off as COVID-19 has swept the country.
Over the past decade, faced with declining numbers of Millennial and Gen Z churchgoers, many pastors have worried about getting young adults through their church doors. But now that most churches have gone virtual, they’ve been invited into the living rooms of these same young adults. Leaders I’ve spoken with in the past few weeks say the digital tools they’re using through COVID-19 have allowed them to connect with audiences they’d found challenging to reach before the pandemic.
To many young churchgoers, this recent shift away from in-person communal worship to the new “virtual church” has been an easy and even welcome transition. A Barna survey conducted just prior to the emergence of coronavirus in the U.S. found that Millennials were more likely than older adults to use their devices in church; one-third said they “often” replace church attendance with other forms of Christian content.
For many in the Boomer generation, however, the shift to virtual worship may be disorienting. Alienating older generations from the spiritual support network they depend on could have enormous consequences for a population at higher risk for symptomatic COVID-19, and also more at risk for high stress and loneliness.
As the weeks go by, we’re seeing this crisis take a spiritual toll. Providing financial resources to those who are struggling, supporting local healthcare workers, and distributing food and supplies to those in need are necessary, honorable and Christ-centered actions. But we must not forget about the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the people who once sat beside us on Sundays—and, God willing, will do so again in the near future.
More and better technology may be part of the delivery system, but the real goal is to facilitate relationships. Young Christians and church leaders, take the initiative and reach out to older believers. You are uniquely suited to answer God’s call to serve and connect with our older sisters and brothers during this time.