Occasionally someone asks if I’m planning to develop a Sunday morning service at the college and my answer is always a resounding “no.” Having gone back and forth between the parish and university for the past ten years, I know the value of having college students in our parishes and likewise the importance for students to be part of “families”: intergenerational Christian communities.
At its best, parish life not only nurtures a student’s spirituality at a pivotal time of growth, but gives him or her a sense of belonging, experience dealing with a wide variety of people and with conflict, volunteering, money, and other kinds of responsibility. It is easy in university life for students to begin thinking life is all about themselves, with recent university ads across North America encouraging the trend by advertisements such as, “It’s all about U.” In the parish, however, it is all about the community, it is all about God and the Gospel, but it is most certainly not about “U”!
On the flip side, students bring much-needed life and energy to our parishes. When was the last time you spoke with a student about his or her high hopes for the future and enthusiasm for the present which reminded you of the days when you thought anything was possible? Quite frankly, I can’t imagine how any of our parishes run without the vigour and excitement of students, channeled by wise mentors.
In fact, whenever we reduce our Christian communities to only one or two generations, we are in grave danger of looking rather like the hand or foot of Christ instead of the entire body. After all, those early Christian communities were encouraged to include, not only slave and free, men and women, Jew and Greek; but young and old. The truth is, if it weren’t for intergenerational worship, I don’t think I’d be a Christian today. I’ve sometimes heard retired people say that they have nothing to offer the church, but it is from them that I learned to pray, to read Scripture, to follow Robert’s Rules of order and to run a fundraiser. From small children I learned responsibility, how to put the needs of others before my own, and how to change a diaper.
Our intergenerational communities are a treasure not found in many other places today. Where else might we watch a wealthy business woman caring for the child of a single mom, a homeless man sitting with suburban teenagers, or a surgeon serving a clerk from Giant Tiger? We are people with nothing in common except the One who makes us family, the One who makes something out of nothing. One of the things I value most about my own community is that the people there are nothing like me. We have different opinions and even more varied lives. Yet these are the very people God calls me to learn from, be challenged by, and pray with. And when we pray together, I begin to see the world a little more as God must see it: diverse and full of hope, teaming with life which can only thrive when it works together.
Yet too often, our faith communities begin to look like the university- people my age with my own goals and interests. I fear that when we are all parcelled off into our own groups for worship, we end up serving a Christ that looks dangerously like ourselves: and Christ very rarely comes to us in the form of ourselves. Christ, teach the saints, comes to us in the form of the stranger, the one who stretches and challenges and grows us into God’s likeness. And sometimes the stranger is a lonely engineering student. How might we make more room for such strangers in our communities?