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My two adult children are both in their early thirties, married, with kids.

Whenever I visit them I leave with my head spinning, my heart full, concerned, admiring, and grateful.

This is my ode, not simply to my children, but to so many of their age, the much-maligned millennials, for the gift that they are.

Yes, of course, adult children and their kids and dogs and stories bring smiles and deep joy. But increasingly, I realize how much they influence, really teach, stretch, witness to, and bless their parents. It is, I suppose, the beginning of the gradual reversal of roles on the teeter-totter of life. Not yet do I need my kids to oversee my finances or accompany me on doctor’s visits. But what they give me — and again I’m really speaking more broadly than my children and I — is much more important than setting up Roku.

** The Whirlwind **

Looking in from the outside, their life is a whirlwind. The dishwasher breaks. The dog has a strange lump on her muzzle. A tire goes flat. The preschool reports a case of lice. Dance lessons. Swimming lessons. Birthday parties. Working from home. Zooming an important work meeting from an empty kitchen table that belies the chaos all around. In the midst of it, meals and baths and bedtimes must continue.

How to help, lighten the load, and be of assistance? When visiting, my most productive roles seem to be playmate, dogwalker, lawnmower, sometimes pancake-maker. Staying out of the way, trying not to disrupt their own peculiar rhythms, these too are important roles.

I want to tell them to slow down. Do less. Have less stuff. Don’t push so hard. Easy for me to say. My memories of their stage in life aren’t so long ago. I remember the expectations, the drive to succeed, the career pressure, the legitimate endeavors. It all feels inevitable and overwhelming.

(Excursus: I would add that it was during this stage of life that I did my best, most important work with a therapist. Finding time every-other-Friday in a crazy schedule seemed crazier still, but it was among the wisest things I did back then.)

“The days are long but the years are short,” declares a proverb. A deep sigh of relief goes up when the grandkids go to bed. Still, we don’t want to wish these precious times away.

All of this makes me quadruply grateful to the people in that stage of life who serve in any way in our church. I don’t want “church” to be one more thing on their already over-taxed to-do list. How can the church bless, not burden, these people?

** Influencers **

Yes, life is fast and furious for them. But even more, what I notice is the way adult children influence and change their parents.

When they come for a visit they mock our knives that were wedding presents nearly forty years ago, and the food processor entering its third decade. It can be annoying. But they buy me better knives and tell me about this product and that breakthrough that I should try. Mom and dad buy hybrid cars and are dedicated recyclers at the prodding of their adult kids.

I didn’t have a pair of blue jeans for two or three years because I couldn’t get my kids to advise me on what cut and color I should wear. So many adult children of good friends are talented, amateur mixologists, introducing their sheltered parents to all sorts of concoctions. Then there is the music and streaming services they share with us. What little I know about Fleet Foxes, Phoebe Bridgers, Chance the Rapper, or Ramy is all the gift of my children.

** Church? Meh **

As a pastor, I am especially keen to see the way these young people do/do not plug into church, their attitudes and values, and especially how they influence their parents’ faith — often unknowingly yet profoundly.

I heard a historian once observe that the primary social function of the Reformed Church in America is to be a bridge between an ethnic Dutch identity and contemporary American society. He said, only semi-humorously, that the generational progression usually moves from Christian Reformed to Reformed to Episcopalian to jogger. Some overachievers can make the entire four-generation jump in a single bound!

Very few adult children of my friends are involved in Reformed or Christian Reformed congregations. This may be somewhat due to the relatively small geographic footprint of these churches. Boston, Austin, Tucson, Portland, Atlanta aren’t places with a strong Reformed presence.

The adult children that are involved in local churches include a couple of Lutherans (ELCA), a couple of United Church of Christ, and a few Presbyterians (PCUSA). Episcopalians are the most numerous. Obviously, none of what I’m saying is a broad, scientific sampling. They are anecdotes from a handful of friends.

And of course, many adult children of my friends aren’t part of any church. I don’t know of any hostile atheists or those who have rejected faith flamboyantly. They are simply wary, uncertain, abstaining. Raised in very active church families, they know first-hand the demands and the hypocrisy of the church. Or maybe they just didn’t find a place to land that felt right, and now they’ve given up.

Whether active, marginal, or not-at-all active I see how much their now-adult-faith impacts their parents. I watch my friends change — almost always for the better — and I chalk it up to their children’s influence. As their adult children leave behind a church that they experienced as confining or shallow, I see their parents paying attention. Not infrequently, five or ten years later the parents make a similar move.

For almost all of these young adults, full acceptance of LGBTQ persons is a given, a no-brainer, as normal as breathing. In all likelihood this has something to do with a trajectory their parents set them upon. But I also see how these adult children have shared, explained, and changed their parents’ minds about things like the use of non-traditional pronouns, non-binary persons, and deeper understandings of racism. Mom and dad might have been inclined in that way, but just as easily might have been mildly skeptical, even resistant, without the witness and instigation of their children. Parents become energized by their adult children’s passionate commitments.

Thank you, adult children, especially millennials! Have forbearance for your parents’ old-school kitchen gadgets and gentleness toward their fashion faux pas. You are teaching them, witnessing to them. You are blessing us with a glimpse of a better future.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

15 Comments

  • Bev Vander Molen says:

    Amen Steve. I’m sending this as a thank you to my children and nieces and nephews.

  • Bob V E says:

    So very true. Thanks so much.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    So right on. Very true to our experience, with both my agnostic son and believing daughter, and how much both have taught us (and successfully challenged us).

  • Henny Vroege says:

    Yes, true. I, too, will pass this on to my adult children, with a thank you.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thanks, Steve. You hit the bullseye once again. Okay, Boomer!! 😉

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Accurate observations filled with beautiful insights – it’s as though you’ve had a full view of our family over the past 50 years. I’m sending this on to our kids as a statement of appreciation for the ways they have been a part of our continued growth.

    Thank you.
    Ron

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an obviously helpful article. From the comments so far, your article verifies the experiences of many parents and even condones or approves the departure of our children from classical Christianity. Kudos to our adult children. They’re thinking for themselves as they reject the superstitions of organized religion, including Christianity. Just as we can see through the hypocrisy of many cults, our children feel the same toward organized religion, including Christianity. Where does this leave the church of future generations? Kudos to our thoughtful adult children. May we listen carefully.

  • I will simply add my Amen and Thank You to the preceding comments

    • One more thought. Someone once said

      When our children our young we walk before them
      to show them the way.

      As they grow older we walk beside them
      as together we discover the way.

      And when they are adults they walk before us
      to lead us into new ways.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    “For almost all of these young adults, full acceptance of LGBTQ persons is a given, a no-brainer, as normal as breathing.” Another reason most Gen Y & Z are leaving the CRC/RCA nest and landing elsewhere (or nowhere).

  • Jack Roeda says:

    I just want to know whether they love Jesus the Christ

    • RLG says:

      And there’s the superstition, because if they don’t love “Jesus the Christ” they’re going to hell. Heaven or hell, you choose.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thank you all for your supportive comments. I’m pleased to think of the different adult children receiving this from you as a note of gratitude.
    Jack, your question puts a pretty fine edge on it all. My answer is that I don’t fully know. I think so. I hope so. My deeper trust is that Jesus loves them.

  • Marcia Carter says:

    Thank you, Steve! I really needed that final comment.

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