“Mrs. Mildred” died in her late 80s. I had not seen her for a long time until last year. Hearing that she was ill, I drove back to the town where I was born.
I knew Mrs. Mildred from our church there. She kept me from my earliest days, loved me as her own, and never forgot me as I moved away and grew into an adult.
On the day of my visit she welcomed me into her home as always — arms opened wide for a big hug and a warm smile of recognition on her face. I felt the love and care that I’d known decades before. It was a memory-filled visit that I will always cherish.
As a child, my family lived in communities that were not home to any extended family. Because of churches, however, we developed deep, loving bonds that have remained through multiple moves and life changes.
Through the advent of Facebook, we keep in closer contact than ever before and these relationships continue to flourish. I have grandparents, uncles and aunts, and brothers and sisters in many places with whom I share no kindred blood. Such bonding is one of the great gifts of being a “church kid.”
When I walked in the door, people knew my name and I knew them. I was loved, encouraged, chastened at times, and guided into a life of faith by a myriad of people.
As I said at Mildred’s funeral, I don’t recall a single lesson from Mission Friends or the particulars of many events at church. But I remember Mildred baking my dad’s favorite coconut cake for his birthday and how she taught me to shuck corn on her back steps.
I remember Mrs. Grace’s kind voice as we sang the books of the Bible.
I remember Mr. Jim talking about baseball with me during my short-lived career as a Little Leaguer. His advice? “Take up golf, son.” Then he gave me my first putter.
Today I see this story continuing. When our 3-year-old twins Caroline and Carter walk (no, run!) through the door of our church, they are met with loving smiles and encouragement. They already know many people in the church by name — beyond their nursery caregivers and their friends. They wake up most mornings asking, “Is this a school day or a church day?”
While loving teachers and playground time with their friends create a safe place to grow at preschool, they smile eagerly on days we can tell them, “Today is a church day.” They know they will be deeply loved and valued, and that people will want to be with them as they grow from squirmy, sometimes-irreverent kids into, well … squirmy, sometimes irreverent adults.
Recently, when mega-church pastor Andy Stanley spoke critically of families who take their children to smaller churches lacking what he considers a vibrant community of faith for their young people, I cringed. (And he soon apologized.)
The churches that helped raise me, and the church that is helping guide my own children, are one body: young and old, together. Sometimes it is awkward and messy. Sometimes your kid will cry or speak out at an inopportune time. But most often it is beautiful and holy. Where else in society will you find non-related people of all generations together like this?
For many years our church has sent intergenerational mission teams to serve God together. Watching those relationships blossom through shared ministry and then continue as we returned home is a great blessing.
There are times and places for age- appropriate study and activities. However, there are immense opportunities and beautiful joy that come from all ages being together. Investment in these relationships lies with all parties:
Church leaders must encourage and model it. Adults must recognize the power and beauty in knowing and being known. Parents must relinquish some of their anxiety about their child’s behavior. And churches must be diligent about being safe places for everyone, especially our children.
While not always easy, it is beautiful, lasting and reflective of God’s kingdom. Let’s each of us be “Mrs. Mildred” or “Mrs. Grace” or “Mr. Jim” to someone. Let’s continue to raise “church kids.” NFJ
—Tony Vincent is associate minister of Trinity Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.