One Sunday during the adult education hour, our church youth group interviewed three elderly couples, asking questions about their lives and their faith. As the couples took turns answering the teens’ questions, the atmosphere in the room was electric. People were visibly moved as one couple talked about the pain of having children who didn’t walk with God. They laughed together at funny stories of everyday life. They listened intently to hard-won wisdom collected over the years.
That day everyone in the room saw and heard tangible examples of godly living. Everyone, especially the teens, came to know the older couples in a way they hadn’t before. And the older couples were offered an opportunity to tell their stories to an audience who honored their life experience.
This, we all thought, is how it’s supposed to be. And this, it turns out, is how God designed the church to be.
The biblical pattern
Holly Catterton Allen writes, “In Scripture, coming to know God is typically presented as a family and community-based process. God’s directives for his people in the Old Testament clearly identify the Israelites as a relational community in which children were not just included, they were drawn in, assimilated, and absorbed into the whole community with a deep sense of belonging. Emerging from its Jewish heritage, the early church was a multigenerational entity. All generations met together, worshiping, breaking bread, praying together, and ministering to one another in the context of the home” (Shaped by God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults, ed. Robert J. Keeley, Faith Alive 2010).
In today’s churches, on the other hand, there are often very few opportunities for all age groups to come together to learn, grow and serve. On Sunday mornings, the babies and toddlers are in the nursery, the children are in Sunday school, and the rest of the congregation, while they do worship alongside each other, don’t interact much one on one. And when we’re not in worship, we break out into age groups to learn with people whose stage in life is similar to our own.
What we gain
While there’s much to be gained from Sunday school and youth groups and adult education classes, there’s equally as much to be gained from intergenerational ministry. When all ages come together regularly, there are three major benefits:
A sense of belonging When children and youth spend most of their time in age-group “silos,” their sense of belonging is tied more to that silo than to the body of believers. Intergenerational ministry cultivates a sense of belonging that is deeper, broader, and more lasting—and may even result in fewer young people leaving the church.
Examples of real-world faith In intergenerational settings, children and youth see and hear their parents and other adults talking about and living out their faith—sometimes in ways that would be difficult or uncomfortable for them to do at home. It takes learning out of a “teaching” model and transfers it to a “living out” model.
Role reversals Intergenerational ministry allows space for children and young people to participate on an equal footing with adults and take leadership roles when appropriate. It also provides valuable opportunities for adults to learn from the childlike faith that Jesus prized.
Where to start
So how do we move toward forming communities where everyone can learn and serve together?
John Roberto, an author, teacher, trainer, and consultant in lifelong faith formation, shares helpful ideas for infusing intergenerational relationship-building into existing programs:
- “Intergenerationalize” age-group programming—take a child- or youth-only program and redesign it to include other generations, such as an intergenerational service program.
- Integrate intergenerational programming into the age-group program plan and calendar, such as quarterly intergenerational nights.
- Structure age-group programs with an intergenerational connection, such as an educational program that includes interviews, a panel, and/or storytelling with people of different ages.
- Incorporate intergenerational dialogues into programming—provide opportunities for children and youth to experience the wisdom, faith, and interests of older adults through presentations, performances, and discussions. Then reverse the process and provide opportunities for the older adults to experience the wisdom, faith, and interests of children or teens through presentations, performances, and discussions.
- Develop mentoring relationships between youth and adults, such as prayer partners, learning-to-pray spiritual direction, service involvement, and confirmation mentors.
—excerpted from John Roberto’s Lifelong Faith e-newsletter, Spring 2009
For churches interested in becoming intentionally intergenerational, one resource to consider is a program called WE developed by Faith Alive. (See Suggested Resources for information.)
There are many ways for your church to weave intergenerational learning into your ministry. If you give them a try, you’ll find that building relationships outside of the “silos” of age groups can bring a whole new dimension of unity to your community.
Sandy Swartzentruber serves as associate editor at Faith Alive Christian Resources in Grand Rapids, Mich. She is the editor of the intergenerational “WE” curriculum and of Faith Alive’s faith formation blog called “Nurture” (www.nurturekidsfaith.org).