Multiple generations

The church in which we participate in Bellingham, Washington, has a large bell in its steeple. The bell is rung to invite people to worship and it has an amazing story. The bell is currently at its third address. As the church grew and changed locations, the bell came with the congregation. It began its journey, after being forged in Pennsylvania, by traveling on a sailing ship around the tip of South America and up the West Coast to Bellingham. It had traveled 18,000 miles and crossed the equator twice before it arrived in Bellingham on the day before the first building was to be dedicated. The church members knew that the bell was coming and had prepared a tower and the 600-pound bell was hand carried from the ship to the church and hung in time to ring for the dedication of the church. The bell served as the community’s first fire bell and it was rung on other important occasions to announce news to the community.

We found ourselves in the church archives, researching the history of the bell in preparation for a time with children in yesterday’s worship service. The bell was chosen as a symbol for the “In Gathering” service. We ended up making a booklet about the story of the church bell for children to illustrate that was delivered in bags to the children of the church.

Several people were surprised to learn the story of the church’s bell. They had heard the bell, but didn’t know its story.

Telling the story of the bell got me to thinking about how the stories of the church are preserved and passed from one generation to the next. In the days when the church was founded, and probably for the entire time that it occupied its first building, the story of the gift of a church bell from a congregation in New England was probably common knowledge held by all of the church members. Over the years, however, the church attracted more members who had not participated in the time before the bell was installed. They took that bell for granted and didn’t wonder about its origins. Somehow, however, the stories of the bell were preserved and on the centennial of its arrival, a member of the church wrote up part of its story. That story was kept, but soon was relegated to a file cabinet as part of the historical record. There was enough information retained that we could come along as newcomers many years later and, with a little research, learn the story of the bell.

The ancient stories of our faith that we call the Bible, started their lives as common knowledge and circulated as oral tradition for many years before they were eventually recorded in writing. After a very long time they became so treasured by our people that it has become the responsibility of each generation to make sure that they are passed on to future generations. The process, however, isn’t one of following a straight line. It isn’t just a matter of each set of parents teaching their own children the stories.

Grandparents have become very important in keeping and telling our stories. If you read the stories of the origins of the people of Israel, it is remarkable how often God is referred to as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” At the core of the practice of telling the stories is the telling of three generations of faith. Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather. The sharing of faith has always been a multi-generational adventure for our people.

As we explore our role as ministers of faith formation in the congregation, we are deeply aware that grandparents are important keepers of wisdom and important teachers of children. This is not some brand new discovery that we have made, it is something that has long been a part of the church. Like researching the story of the bell, we just need to put forth a little effort to remember something that has been common knowledge in the church.

There have, however, been times when the church has not emphasized the role of grandparents. As families became more mobile and spread out, the emphasis was placed on parents and children. Often they lived long distances from the grandparents. Sunday School became an enterprise of the institution to pass on knowledge and information. In many cases parents were the primary source of volunteers for the schools.

What we are discovering, in this time of pandemic isolation and practicing our faith from a distance, is that grandparents have been working to bridge the distances that separate families all along. Because they have been nurturing relationships with their grandchildren over distance, they have some important skills for sharing the faith. As we sought ways to get packets of faith formation resources to children, we discovered that there were many instances in our congregation where it worked well to give the packets to the grandparents. We are learning that knowing grandparents is an important part of leading faith formation ministries. The traditional lists of children and parents need to be annotated with information about grandparents. Just as was the case in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - and also the time of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel - passing on our faith is a multi-generational effort.

In a time of rapidly advancing technology we often celebrate the innovation and intelligence of youth. Without diminishing that at all, it is important that we also appreciate the wisdom of our elders.

For most of my career I have resisted the popular notion that the best model of youth ministry is to have young ministers. Youth are attracted to youth. I have observed many congregations hiring young people to lead youth programs and cycling through them one after another. Their terms of ministry are short and they are replaced by a younger minister after a few years. What I have observed, however, is that the model of developing relationships between youth and elders forms a more effective youth ministry and a stronger long-term strategy for the church.

We have done our part of keep the story of the church bell alive for a few more years. Keeping it going for future generations depends not only on how well we teach it to our children, but how well we teach it to our grandchildren.