How can the church reach the emerging generation? This question anxiously flitters in and out of the evangelical mind, like the journey through a revolving door. However, no amount of reading will replace the experience of the subject at hand. In-person dialogue always brings previously unknown worlds to life. ‘Reaching’ the next generation starts with knowing them as real people, not just a demographic that we study in order to devise more successful ministry methods. As another year begins, church leaders would do well to consider how to provide opportunities for intergenerational relationships to flourish in the church. Turning to the arts can refresh the mind, if not provide new inspiration.

Argentina, 1985, a film by Argentine director Santiago Mitre, provides a case study. Our first thoughts of Argentina are likely colored by its beloved athletic heroes ― Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. However, behind the stars of the ‘beautiful game’ lies a nation with a fraught history. Argentina, 1985 was released nearly 40 years after the monumental ‘Trial of the Juntas,’ which it depicts. Mitre weaves together historical and political tensions, as well as the unlikely pairing between a hardened lawyer, Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), and his young and hopeful prosecutorial team. The film begins with an overwhelming sense that justice is a mere apparition and ends on a resounding note of hopefulness that a different narrative can be written by those who participate. Depending on our moment in time, one note may feel more amplified than the other.

Strassera leads the prosecution’s case against nine members of the recently removed military junta. They are on trial for the systematic murder of up to 30,000 people, ‘los desaparecidos’ — ‘the disappeared.’ The system through which victims simply vanished is horrifying. Well into middle-age, Strassera understands he is up against mass-murderers who can easily put his family in danger. The assignment is not one he takes willingly. Based on his lived experience through the seven year span of the ‘Dirty War’, there is a nagging feeling that no matter how much evidence is brought forth, all nine members will be acquitted because the system itself is corrupt. He would pursue the case alone, if not forced to take on the young Luis Moreno Campo (Peter Lanzani) as an assistant who recruits other young lawyers in the pursuit for justice.

Initially, Strassera is irritated at involving teenage-looking adults in his doomed mission. The last thing he needs is the responsibility to mentor aimless zeal while under the enormous pressure of determining the fate of his country. However, over time, his stance softens. As he gets to know his team, he benefits from their energy and dogged pursuit of justice. By shifting from a ‘let me tell you how to get there’ mentality to a ‘let’s go there together’ mindset, a beautiful dance between experience, ideas, patriotism, and passion come together and show a Straserra re-born. It is this version who leads his team to bring dignity to their beloved country marred by tragedy.

Although justice grounds the film, the dynamic between the seasoned lawyer and his green interns is its heartbeat. The young team of prosecutors needed hope that the history they were born into would not be the lasting narrative of their entire lives. And those like Strassera too, jaded and convinced that their best efforts could yield no fruit, needed reminders that the dominant narrative need not be the only one. Glimmers of hope without guaranteed success propelled the team. This on-screen dynamic is inspiring in a number of ways, one of which is how different generations interact and learn from each other.

According to a 2023 study, intergenerational friendships among young people are scarce in America. One exception to this norm exists in ‘religious institutions’, where friendships with those much younger or older is more common.[1] An article reflecting on the study’s results discussed various benefits of friendships across generations, all pointing to improving one’s mental health and well-being. It also touches on the history of how American society gradually became more stratified into distinct age categories over time.

Going through the highs and lows of life alongside people who have been down a similar road is one experience, but working alongside those of another generation is an entirely different one. The Book of Ezra details the process of rebuilding of the temple, with participation from the young and old:

“And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:11b-12)

The elders who had seen Solomon’s temple wept because they knew the resurrected temple would not be as glorious as before. The youth rejoiced, for their desire for a place of worship was one step closer to fruition. Though emotions were at opposite spectrum ends, sharing this monumental experience together was a unifying experience.

Today we live on the other side of the true temple, Christ, rising again, but there are still opportunities for members of different generations to serve alongside one another in pursuit of God’s glory. Sometimes, we miss such opportunities because of the way our ministries are organized around life-stages. Stratification of discipleship programs across specific needs (like young families, singles, college, etc.) can be beneficial, but their existence is more of a modern phenomenon. Taken to the extreme, they may allow people to stay in the comfortable presence of peers. By staying in such a space, subcultures develop, and it becomes hard, even barely possible, to cross lines to another space.

What do we miss out on when we stay in our generational lanes? We bypass opportunities to learn from wisdom, and sometimes we rob ourselves of hearing about the grace of God that we ourselves have not yet experienced. Age does not define maturity. Both young and old have much to learn from one another’s dreams, failures, and everything in between. What if more churches created intentional spaces where the youth and their elders, the married couples with children and the mid-life singles, could be in community with one another in such a way that did not ignore their life-stage but embraced it?

There is no perfect church, nor is there a perfect way to structure community life. But if you find yourself only surrounded by friends plus or minus a few years from you, it may be time to consider ways to expand beyond your generational zone to a place of discomfort, but a place where you and others can grow in Christ’s likeness. The church might just learn the lesson of Argentina, 1985.

[1] Per the study’s abstract, “Younger and older ties often came from different social settings (school, work, religious organizations, and neighborhoods) than same-aged ties, and there were also some cohort differences in the social settings that produced younger, older, and same-aged ties.”

Heidi Wong is the Executive Director for Exilic Church in New York City and also oversees its college ministry. She worked in management consulting and big tech prior to entering vocational ministry. She is a graduate of Cornell University and received her Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @kheidiwong.

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