Recently, I was part of a video conference with several faith formation leaders from other denominations and the topic of our discussion was how to help our churches be intentionally intergenerational. Most churches span the generations –– even those with few children generally have more than one generation present in their congregations. Most churches are unintentionally multi-generational but few are truly intergenerational. Few churches really excel in bringing the various generations together to form lasting and meaningful relationships as they learn, play and worship together. This should come as no surprise to us, since our dominant surrounding culture does an outstanding job of separating the generations and pitting them against each other. Yet research shows that churched children and youth who form important relationships with other generations in their faith communities and who worship together as a whole church are far more likely to find faith and community important as they grow older than those who have not had this experience in their churches.
So what does a truly intergenerational — or some might call it pan-generational — church look like?
First, it is far more than a church with a family ministry. Family Ministry can be a subset of an intergenerational church’s ministry because families usually include at least two generations, but its name makes it exclusive, and intergenerational ministry is extravagantly inclusive. I once worked with a senior minister who insisted on calling our experimental forays into pan-generational worship “Family Worship.” So, of course, those without children assumed this particular worship service was not for them and spent their time elsewhere, dooming the concept of intergenerational worship before it began.
Second, intergenerational ministry is anything where the generations in your church do something together (learn, play, serve, worship) and actually talk to each other and spend time with each other. It’s much more than having different generations in the same space together –– they need to actually “be” with each other. The Women’s Ministry in a church I served had some finishing work to be done on some baby blankets they’d made. They had the wonderful idea to invite the youth group girls to help them do this one day after school. When I walked into the room to see how things were going, what I saw were the teen girls sitting at one end of the table and the older women sitting at the other end of the table. No one had thought about how to get the groups talking with each other as they worked. Multi-generational, yes. Intergenerational, no.
Last, any attempt to be an intergenerational church means that all the generations need to be included meaningfully in your weekly corporate worship. One of my denominational colleagues on the conference call was adamant that any church really desiring to put intergenerational ministry into practice cannot exclude all the generations from worship, ever. And I heartily agreed with him. In order to be truly intergenerational, churches must work to create worship that is meaningful across the generations and confront the biases that keep our children and youth out of our worship services. And our churches need to confront worship practices that stand as barriers to meaningful worship across the generations. Corporate praise and worship of God is the one act of faith formation the entire local faith community does together –– so to exclude any generation from that in any way is excluding them from one of the most important formative activities the church does.
For a lot of churches, learning how to be intergenerational is a culture change, so it will not happen overnight. But the 21st-century church cannot afford to ignore this large part of what it means to be God’s church.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
On a scale of 1-10, how intergenerational is your church? What kinds of things could you do right now to make your faith community more intergenerational? What do you think “worship that is meaningful across the generations” might look like?
The Rev. Dr. Ivy Beckwith is the Faith Formation Team Leader for the United Church of Christ. Ivy and her team want to hear your stories about the transformative ideas your church has implemented in the area of faith formation. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 216-736-3875.