By Tori Smit
If I could attribute one tagline to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, past professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary, it would be “Our faith is communally constructed.” It is through rubbing shoulders with one another, telling stories of our faith to each other, and by experiencing God’s incredible love in Christian communities that our youngest members grow into faith, our oldest members pass on their faith, and our families learn to practice their faith together.
It stands to good reason that if we desire to maximize these opportunities for communal construction that all the ages of our community of believers need to be together more often than not. In fact, that’s how we started out.
The Early Church
When we look at 1st century churches, we are reminded that Hebrew multi-generational gatherings, Jesus’ counter-cultural welcoming of children, slaves and outcasts, and Greco-Roman household codes all influenced the way in which early Christian house churches gathered. House churches were generally small, confined to one or two rooms in a flat-roofed building or the somewhat larger home of a wealthy member of the community. In either case there were no playrooms or kids’ areas to send the kids off to. At most fifty people would be able to fit into the space available. Scripture reveals that all ages and classes of people were present and actively participating in all of the activities of the church: meals, worship, study and fellowship.
The early church strove to live into Jesus’ teaching that all people were equal under the authority of God. Dr. Margaret MacDonald, dean and professor at the Atlantic School of Theology, reminds us that against all cultural norms Paul even addressed children and slaves, the lowest members of society, directly in his letters. Written to be read out loud to the whole community of faith, we can imagine the children popping up their heads and listening attentively to Paul’s words that were written and spoken specifically for them.
The presence of children became even more pronounced as the house church moved past the first generation of members and began to prioritize their survival and growth through the education of their children. Since the church’s beginnings all ages have consistently met intergenerationally for ministry and worship. That is, until our very recent past.
The Protestant Reformation and Forward
With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther advocated for all classes of children to be taken out of the workforce and attend school, marking the beginning of the end of an intergenerational society. In 1780 Robert Raikes pioneered the Sunday school movement in Gloucester, England, to get poor children off the streets on their Sunday day off and teach them literacy using Scripture as their textbook for reading and moral living.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the church became highly committed to age and stage education. Developmental theorists defined a public school system that separated children into developmental groupings and the church readily adopted their model as the best way to educate children in the faith. Following World War II Boomers led the demand for generational exclusivity, with new para-church movements that separated young people out of the wider body of the church and into exclusive age-defined clubs. The Sunday school followed suit with its heyday of graded classrooms and separate worship services that were considered more appropriate for children’s enjoyment and learning. Doing things intergenerationally was perceived as an admission of failure and “smallness” for churches that couldn’t compete on this playing field.
Yet more recent research and a rereading of developmental theorists reveal that social interaction between generations is crucial for cognitive, moral, psychosocial and faith development. Sociologists of religion agree that intergenerational faith communities play crucial roles in spiritual commitment and life-long faith formation.
In 2007 the commissioners to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada were challenged to consider whether the Sunday school model were still viable. At the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), commissioners agreed to adjust to the paradigm shift towards intergenerational ministry and transition to an emphasis with resources for life-long faith formation, including intergenerational ministry.
So what does intergenerational ministry look like? There are a number of definitions for intergenerational ministry out there. I tend to use this definition by Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross in Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship:
Intergenerational ministry occurs when a congregation intentionally brings generations together in mutual serving, sharing, or learning within the core activities of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community.
More than anything, I appreciate the word intentionally. Without intentionality our assumption that we’re doing great intergenerational ministry just because we come together for potlucks and seasonal events will fail us. Intentional intergenerational ministry requires a commitment to a philosophy of interpersonal interactions across generational boundaries in which a sense of mutuality and equality is encouraged between participants so that together our faith can be communally constructed.
Tori Smit is a diaconal minister with the Presbyterian Church in Canada, presently serving as the Regional Minister for Faith Formation for the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda (CNOB). Tori holds a Doctor of Educational Ministry degree through Columbia Theological Seminary, with her dissertation focus on, Will Our Faith Have Children? Planting A Fruitful and Sustainable Ministry with Children in Congregations with Ten or Fewer Children.” A journal length summary of her dissertation can be found in InterGenerate: Transforming Churches through Intergenerational Ministry. Tori is married to the Rev. Dr. John-Peter Smit, Regional Minister for Congregational Health with CNOB. Together they have two adult children and two very spoiled cats.