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Church For All Ages

Intergenerational ministry supports spiritual formation for the young and old.

Intergenerational ministry takes a lot of planning and preparing. It’s a challenge to engage all ages. Parishioners might find it distracting and disruptive to have children present, while parents might decide to just stay home because it is too difficult to “control” their kids and “get” anything out of Sunday morning service.

In short, it is difficult to do well. But is it worth it?

Some stories
Several years ago, a four-year old girl at my church picked up a gold flag we had at the front for anyone to use during our worship service. A woman was waving a green flag and this four-year-old started to wave her flag over the woman’s flag. Later when we were in Sunday school I asked the girl about it. She told me the green flag was the earth and the gold flag was God and she was waving God’s glory over the earth!

During a small group time, the eight-year-old daughter of the family hosting us joined our prayer time and prayed for God’s “healing and love” over an older woman who had just received a cancer diagnosis. It was a powerful moment as young ministered to old.

At our church’s food bank ministry, a family with four kids, ages three through seven would regularly come and volunteer together. The kids would often walk around the waiting area, talking with guests and passing out treats or pictures they had coloured. It was a blessing to both child and guest.

Engaging in worship and prayer together with all ages present is not something new, nor is it the latest trend in children’s ministry. A quick read of several key passages of scripture reveal that it was generally assumed that all ages would participate in the life of faith and worship. Jesus himself welcomed the little children and admonished his disciples for treating them as if they would be a nuisance. It seems clear that we should be bringing children fully into the life of the church; so, why is there so much focus on figuring out how to do intergenerational ministry?

The body of Christ
Last month at the Toronto Children’s Ministry Conference at Tyndale Seminary, Dr. Holly Catterton-Allen was invited as the plenary speaker. Dr. Catterton-Allen is considered an expert in intergenerational ministry, and her book, co-authored with Dr. Christine Ross, Intergenerational Faith Formation, is a foundational book for understanding the history of generational realities, the biblical foundations for intergenerationality, contributions from the social sciences that informed their research and an overview of practices in intergenerational experiences and worship.

In her book, Catterton-Allen writes that there is biblical, theological, theoretical, empirical, developmental, sociological and practical support for intergenerationality, but the problem is, “in the last several decades, all but the smallest congregations have tended to separate the generations regularly for learning, frequently for fellowship and service and sometimes (or always) for worship.”

She believes that intergenerational learning “is inherently more aligned with Christian theology than an age-segregated educational model,” and that “intergenerational ministry” teaches the essence of the biblical understanding of the body of Christ, and capitalizes upon the multigenerational quality of a congregation.”

The evening before the Toronto Children’s Ministry Conference, I attended an all-ages event at Spring Garden Baptist Church in Toronto. Catterton- Allen led the community in a scripture-reading experience that modeled this in a powerful way. By inviting several people, ranging in age from 10 through 70, to read a portion of 1 Corinthians 12, participants experienced the diversity of speakers, the value of the full body of Christ in worship and by learning together. Several commented on the power of that experience and the depth of meaning the scripture passage conveyed in a fresh way.

Filling gaps in spiritual formation
While the identification of age-related educational needs has certainly been valuable for generations of children and youth in their cognitive faith development, we are discovering more and more adults who are missing something from their own spiritual development. Having grown up during a time when children were kept separate on Sunday morning, they were deprived of both participating in who the church is, and who they are as part of the body. Today, they are stunted in their experience of being formed in the fullness of Christ.

Spiritual development is not fundamentally cognitive development, and the benefits of all ages together are lost when segmented populations worship and experience faith formation exclusively. Catterton-Allen summarizes that these spiritual benefits include “a deep sense of belonging and the blessing of participating in the spiritual journeys of those across the age spectrum.” Children and youth participate their way into faith. Their identity as Christians forms through the worship and faith formation in which they participate, beginning with impression and awareness. Experience comes before rational understanding so children are learning a lot even if they are not able to verbalize what it is they are learning. One pastor, upon moving to intergenerational worship, observed, “The question shifted from ‘What do I like for worship style and music?’ to ‘How can we design music, tell Bible stories, and do prayers to engage all ages within the framework of our church’s tradition?’”

Caring as a community
In Transitions, a resource on faith formation in children and youth from the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, the importance of community in the faith journey of a young person is emphasized. We read, “It’s clear, both biblically and anecdotally, that people need one another. It is part of our social needs. However, this isn’t just a community of similarly aged peers. Intergenerational friendships are vital in both the practice and journey of faith. They allow for a broader understanding of how faith is lived and provide a unique support that’s different from parental or same age peer relationships.

Interestingly, a 2012 Canadian study about why young people leave the church called Hemorrhaging Faith found that “being in a mentoring relationship was the key driver to establishing and maintaining intergenerational relationships.”

Intergenerational ministry creates the building blocks to meaningful and intentional relationships for individuals across all generations. In Sticky Faith by Kara Powell, Brad Griffi n and Cheryl Crawford, the authors reveal through their research that some of the factors that make for a “sticky faith,” that is, one that lasts into adulthood, include congregations that maximized intergenerational relationships and involvement in intergenerational worship.

In the classic Christian education book, Will Our Children Have Faith?, John H. Westerhoff asks, “These children learn the facts about religion, but will they learn or experience faith? How can we be communities that nourish and nurture the faith of children, instead of only teaching them facts?” It seems clear to me that through intergenerational ministry, where multiple generations have the opportunity to form relationships, worship and practise faith together, we will become communities that not only nourish and nurture the faith of children but of one another collectively.

All of this said, simply having multiple generations in the same space for worship and learning does not necessarily equal intergenerational ministry. Intergenerational ministry is about intentionally bringing multiple generations together for ministry, worship, service, learning, mission and spiritual formation, and this is not always easy to do. Some common challenges when trying to develop intergenerational ministry include:

  • Lack of vision.
  •  Token buy-in (“We should do this,” but not much motivation to make it work).
  • Uncertainty as to how to do it.
  • Getting everyone on board.
  • Parents who would rather drop kids off than participate with them.

There are always challenges when we stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones and try something new at church. We shouldn’t be discouraged by the difficulties that may pop up when moving towards intergenerational ministry. Because of this, I personally believe that the focus needs to be less about how to overcome challenges and more a matter of will. Will you choose to take up the challenge of critical reflection, planning and preparation required to engage all ages in ministry? Will you take the risk to imagine and discover new ways of bringing everyone together in ministry, worship, service, learning, mission and spiritual formation?

Intergenerational ministry is difficult to do well. It requires intentional planning, critical reflection and humility on the part of everyone. So is it really worth it? If your desire is to nurture an environment where anyone can come, hear from God, off er their praise and petitions, grow in a life-long faith with others and reflect the body of Christ in its fullness, then yes, it is most definitely worth it!

  • Tanya is an ordained pastor and serves as the Children and Family Ministries Associate for the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. She lives in Hamilton, Ont., with her husband and three daughters.

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