3 misperceptions about the generation gap
New Voices: By and about young adultsby Peter Epp
You know you may be on a vacation designed for a different demographic when a companion twice your age suggests: “Let’s get a picture together. We’re in the same age group: under 65.” Such was the case when Shanda, my wife, and I joined my parents and 33 other new friends on the California Mennonite Historical Society’s adventure “Seeing Poland Through Mennonite Eyes,” a 12-day excursion through Poland in search of historic Mennonite graves, churches, dikes and artwork.
If you asked the tour organizers, they probably wouldn’t say this trip was for older Mennonites. They’d just say that younger people aren’t coming. And while we could definitely make a few suggestions to bring the average age down (how about more karaoke on the bus rides and less time looking for distant relatives in overgrown graveyards?) the organizers may be right.
In my experience, our older generations want their Mennonite network—not just their bus tours but their worship services, small groups, Sunday school classes and Saturday morning breakfast clubs—to be intergenerational. For all the legitimate concerns we younger Mennonites have, there’s still much more we can know and do to cross the generational bridge ourselves.
And while these bridges sometimes feel overgrown, they can actually be uncovered pretty easily. Sometimes we just have to work through some misconceptions to find them. Here are just three of the misconceptions I was reminded of on this trip:
Misconception #1: Young Mennonites are disempowered.
First, I should admit that I do think there is more our corporate body, administered mainly by older Mennonites, can do to keep young adults in the church.
That said, on a day-to-day, side-by-side level, say, on a bus tour of Poland, you realize that young Mennonites have a lot of power. Before we left for the trip, most of our friends predicted, “Those old people are going to love you.” It was true; we often felt it. People wanted to know us and hear our opinions. And while I’d love to chalk that up to charm and good looks, I’m pretty sure it was mostly just our age.
Misconception #2: Our childhood perceptions are always reliable.
Nothing brings back childhood memories like going on vacation with your former elementary school principal. That’s right; for much of the trip, Shanda and I sat right in front of the same man I’d been sent to when I’d lamely written “F Word” on the school wall to try to be funny. But guess who is actually funny? My principal. And his wife. In fact, they were hilarious. I may have dragged my feet when asked to see him 20 years ago, but now Shanda and I were vying for seats by him on the bus and at supper.
As I thought about this shift in my perception, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other elders I still see through the limited lens of my childhood and how many other young adults do the same thing. The perceptions we collect as children are legitimate, but there’s no way they’re definitive, and we often operate as if they are.
Misconception #3: The generation gap is insurmountable.
From our first moments on the bus, I unconsciously did what I think many of us do in new situations: I listened to people’s conversations to decide who I liked. As is usually the case when I do this, I keyed on politics and hot-button issues, and in this case I didn’t expect to hear much I liked.
As the trip went on, however, two lessons I’ve already started learning were reinforced. First, “old perspectives” are not automatically closed-minded ones. In fact, they come from a lifetime of diverse experiences. Second, it may be easier to disagree with someone older than with someone your own age. I got along best with a man who sees my government differently from me. But when you’re already enjoying the surprise of feeling connected to someone more than twice your age, you’re suddenly more willing to live with that difference.
If I put these lessons together, I remember there’s much we younger adults can do to make our communities more generationally diverse. And while I heartily endorse the next Menno-tour of Poland as one way to do it, I also recognize that a Polish graveyard isn’t the only place you can uncover some long-lost connections.
Peter Epp teaches Mennonite studies in Gretna, Manitoba.
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