Is your church intergenerational – where young and old worship, pray, serve, eat, sing, play, and live for Jesus together? Or are the different age groups mainly confined to age-segregated programs and activities?
Professors Holly Allen and Christine Ross believe intergenerational communities are crucial and catalytical for the health and growth of children and adults: “No better place exists for the most number of people to learn Christian ways from more experienced members of the culture than intergenerational Christian communities … People of all ages benefit from each other with a sense of mutuality; in essence, they grow each other up into Christ.”
Denominational Director of Congregational Ministry Lesli Van Milligen adds, “For congregations to have sustainable faith formation for everyone from three years old to ninety-three years old, we have to lean into an intergenerational approach.”
So how do we “lean into an intergenerational approach”? Becoming intergenerational should begin with a theological rationale for an all-age approach. The primary identity of God’s people is a family (cf. Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 2:19, Hebrews 2:11) – all generations together. Yet in many local churches, the children, youth, adults and seniors are divided, not united. This is problematic. We shouldn’t be isolated from one another. Children and youth need spiritual parents and grandparents. And adults and seniors must be connected with children and grandchildren to nurture their faith formation adequately (cf. Psalm 145:4).When we're generationally interdependent, the potential for spiritual health and growth is enormous. Click To Tweet
The biblical paradigm unites young and old across generational divides (cf. Deuteronomy 4:9). Age-segregated silos should be anathema. To truly be a church family, we must actively bring all age groups together, i.e., foster intergenerational relationships by helping people interact meaningfully with each other. “Hear, O Israel …” (Deuteronomy 6:4) are three words in the context of the passage indicating that the whole faith community is tasked with reaching and equipping the next generation to love and live for God. Everyone, not just a targeted segment, has a part to play.
When we’re generationally interdependent, the potential for spiritual health and growth is enormous. Scripture Union Community Development Worker Lianne Smith says, “When we get together, we make space to hear from God, and learning from each other is a key part of growing in faith.”
[Note: This isn’t to suggest that all age-specific activities should be curtailed. It’s a sociobiological fact that different generations view and engage with the world in different ways. Developmentally and physically, every age group has different needs. We, therefore, require some age-specific events in local churches.]
There are fifty-nine “one another” statements in the New Testament. These statements indicate that an important activity of the church is age-integrated “one anothering.” So how do we do this? How can we deliberately provide opportunities for the young and the old to build each other up? Here are five practical suggestions:
To be fully part of a community of faith, children must be present, witness and participate meaningfully in its core practices and main events. While it requires a shift in thinking and expectations, all age groups can and should honour the Lord through praising, praying, reading the Word, playing musical instruments, and preaching/teaching, which they do together once or twice a week in the same space at the same time. Worship should never be commodified or owned by an age group. Let’s remind ourselves that worship isn’t about what we like but what God desires. And He wants us to worship Him together (age-integrated) in a spirit of unity (cf. Psalm 133:1).To be fully part of a community of faith, children must be present, witness and participate meaningfully in its core practices and main events. Click To Tweet
Something special happens when children, parents and grandparents serve the Lord together. Most importantly, it’s one of the ways faith is modelled and passed from generation to generation. Children’s ministry specialists Ivy Beckwith and David Csinos say, “Learning and formation occur … most significantly through involvement in the practices of a community.” So, schedule young and old to hand out bulletins, welcome visitors to the church, and collect the weekly offering together. And create opportunities for all age groups to feed the poor, visit the sick, host community events, proclaim the Good News, exercise justice, care for creation, help the vulnerable, and love their neighbours.
A great way to strengthen connections between age groups is through weekend church retreats. When a congregation spends quality time together, it brings them closer to each other and closer to God. So, plan at least one family camp yearly because intergenerational relationships flourish when people eat together, share stories, enjoy the outdoors, chat about life, and get close enough to see Christ in each other.
When we play together, we laugh together, learn together, and thrive together. Another way to connect the different age groups more frequently is to do fun activities together. Playing, eating or celebrating with each other creates delightful memories for children and grandchildren. You don’t have to make significant changes to make this possible. Include some children when you plan an activity for seniors. Invite parents to join the youth for one of their sporting events. Or gear occasions like picnics, talent shows or games nights for anyone or everyone.When we play together, we laugh together, learn together, and thrive together. Click To Tweet
When little children pray, it’s usually informal, conversational, unassuming, and natural. They begin where they’re at, share their thoughts, and are frank about their faults. When adults pray, it’s sometimes a stuffy sophisticated affair with unnecessary formality and wordiness. Praying intergenerationally helps us speak more honestly, interact more humbly, confess more openly, and relate more intimately. So get children and adults praying with and for each other.
No easy street!
Is intergenerational ministry easy? No! It’s messy, sometimes noisy or loud, bothersome, unpredictable, disruptive, and rarely comfortable. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. The Christian faith, rightly exercised, is inconvenient. It’s about being inclusive, speaking and listening charitably, putting our personal preferences to one side, considering the needs of others, and fostering mutuality – things that try our patience and test our sanctification.
Another reason why intergenerational ministry is difficult is that there’s no one-size-fits-all situation. Every congregation is unique. So age-integrated approaches in every church will differ because the capacity to combine the generations to learn, share, serve, and be the body of Christ will vary.
Furthermore, the issue is more than how we organize the church. Pastor Joseph Rhea says, “The real problem, and the real solution, isn’t organizational – it’s personal.” In other words, it’s hard for individuals to figure out how to make friends across generational lines.Proximity alone doesn't lead to the creation of a robust intergenerational community. Click To Tweet
Nor should we assume that gathering people of different age groups together for special events is adequate. Proximity alone doesn’t lead to the creation of a robust intergenerational community. Children’s ministry specialist Valerie de Abreu highlights this issue, noting that “We invite children to the party, but we don’t invite them to dance.”
We should also realize that bringing the whole church together is a culture, not a program. Becoming intergenerational requires the support of pastors, elders, and deacons. And without buy-in from senior leaders, a congregation will struggle to transition from an age-segregated to an age-integrated church.
Finally, intergenerational ministry is challenging because secular culture is increasingly divided by age and stage. One of the ways Satan tries to destroy families and weaken the church is to isolate people from each other. When we think and act intergenerationally, we engage in spiritual warfare. So, to become age-integrated, we must be willing to fight for what’s good and right.
Becoming intergenerational isn’t new. The Israelites did it (cf. Exodus 12:26-27, Joshua 4:21-22), and each successive generation should do it (cf. Psalm 78:4-7). Now the baton’s been passed to our generation. Will we take it and run with it?
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