I get so excited when I hear about churches and ministries who want to join in on the intergenerational journey. And it is a journey because there is no destination to arrive to. This journey is more about who comes alongside you, the occasional detours you take, and really being led by the Spirit as the landscape changes.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to doing intergenerational ministry because it all depends on your own style of leadership, your church context, your geographical context, what is happening in these times we live in, and of course, the people in the congregation themselves.
I want to paint three broad brush strokes to give a framework to begin this journey.
Let’s define what intergenerational ministry is. Actually, let’s begin with what intergenerational ministry is not. It is not about being kid-friendly. What I mean by that is intergenerational ministry should not be reduced to just having coloring sheets, a play area in the sanctuary, and storybooks. It certainly may include that, but it should not be limited to that. It also isn’t about growing the church. This isn’t a new fad, technique, or method to bring more families into church. It certainly may do that, but that should not be the reason.
Being an intergenerational church is less about what is done and more about how a church behaves. Being an intergenerational church is a spiritual discipline—as it requires a person to look beyond their own needs and towards another person’s needs. Being an intergenerational church nurtures the ability to provide hospitality to others.
So when we worship together intergenerationally, it involves the heart as well as the head and broadens acceptance of those who are different. All that is required in an intergenerational church is for people to come as they are because it mirrors the complex, diverse, and beautiful image of God and God’s creation.
Therefore, no matter what age, how does your church encompass people with different learning styles? How about those new to faith? Do we expect or assume that people will automatically know when to sit or stand up in worship, how to find scripture in the Bible, or the rhythms of a call and response such as “peace be with you” “and “also with you”? Do we assume what is meaningful for me in worship and how we worship are the same for everyone else?
One of the best places to begin this adventure is space. Even God began with space. Remember the Creation story? It says, “when God began to create the heavens and the earth — the earth was without shape or form.” Before anything or anyone was created, God created and prepped the canvas first, creating Day and Night, then Sky and Earth, and later Land and Seas.
So consider your space or canvas. For most of us, a good place to start is the sanctuary itself. If your space is like mine, it’s filled to the brim with stuff. In my case, that would be 150 years worth of stuff – historic pews and chancel furniture, as well as traditions, patterns, and habits. Like putting new wine in old wineskins, it is hard to find room to create something new or different when there is no space to do so.
But you would be surprised how changing one thing can generate breathing space for imagination and creativity to blossom. To figure out what that one thing could be, begin by observing a worship service. How are people moving into the space? How do people respond to the music, the spoken word, and the prayers? Where are the obstacles and where are the invitations for people to participate?
For us, the answer was the pews. Our beautiful solid redwood pews that stretched from wall to wall really left no space other than sitting to happen. No space for strollers and no place to freely move. By simply removing a few of the pews and repositioning them, we found that we not only created physical space for strollers, but we also made it safer for those using walkers and wheelchairs to move.
This created the momentum we needed to generate interest, curiosity, and wonder into other ways we could better people’s lives and experience in worship. Well, I don’t know if you ever tried to change anything in worship, BUT people love it. Have you ever done that at church? Moved something – on accident and then someone will notice that the candle is a little off or the flower arrangement isn’t quite centered or where did the picture that was donated by XX family go?
This is more than about changing physical space, but it is also about our emotional space. When change happens so do behaviors. But this is a real opportunity. I am always amazed that we know change happens. It happens all the time in our daily lives. We change locations, homes. We change jobs and schools. We experience loss that can uproot our lives – loss of health, loss of loved ones, loss of security. We also add things to our lives – birth, renovations, new responsibilities. Heck, even our technology is constantly changing. I feel like not a day goes by and my smart phone or app is being updated.
And yet, we walk through the doors of the church and expect nothing to change. But how is that we expect the God who created us in all its imaginative diversity in a world that is ever-changing to never change? Some may say that it gives us security to know that in a world that changes so fast, we can always rely on a never-changing God.
But if that is so, then what we’ve created is an idol. We have limited God to our own limited imagination. An intergenerational church gives us the stamina and endurance to tend to our emotional space. This space, this sanctuary should be like a laboratory – a safe place where we can learn how to welcome people who are different from us; change our behavior when it is not an act of loving our neighbor; practice asking for forgiveness and forgiving when people mess up; and broaden our understanding of God through the eyes of the Other.
As a church, we are a welcoming people. I don’t know one church that doesn’t believe they are not welcoming. And yet we are surprised when we hear from visitors, ways that we have unintentionally excluded or unwelcomed them. A great detector of the sincerity and genuineness of our hospitality are children. They know right off the bat if this is a place that welcomes them just as they are.
If we can learn and unlearn . . . if we can practice and let go of our own needs above others . . . if we can sit with the change no matter how uncomfortable . . . in this space, then imagine how much better we will be able to do it outside these walls. Will lives be transformed? Will our city be transformed? More importantly, will we be transformed?
What this means is that being an intergenerational church is a spiritual discipline. It takes daily practice so that it becomes more a part of our routine. It also strengthens our spiritual muscle so that we can endure the hardships that may come our way. It enables us to see our surroundings differently and also see things that would normally escape our attention.
It’s not easy changing emotional space, but a good place to start is by making a covenant. A covenant creates boundaries that allow people to risk the change and yet find security in the promise. It also creates a space for people to name the fears they have as well as others to state why this experiment is worth trying.
We may think that intergenerational church is about simplifying faith – breaking it down so that even the young ones can understand, but it is quite the opposite. Intergenerational church requires us to develop a complex faith by embracing both/and thinking.
Are the boundaries of our faith as bright and dark as the day and night or as wide and vast as the sky and earth, or as deep and dense as the sea and land? Is the space our faith resides able to hold all the colors and the varieties of contrast and definition? Or is our faith so rigid that we hold onto our beliefs even if they don’t make sense anymore or brittle so that it collapses with stress when tested or impermeable so that no new ideas or epiphanies may enter?
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we witness how Jesus stretches the limits of what we believe. Take the healing of the woman who had been menstruating for 12 years and a 12 year old girl who was dying. Jesus is in a situation where he is approached by an outcast woman so desperate that she breaks religious law and pushes her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ clothing and the daughter of a prominent religious leader who only has moments to live. Within a short period of time, one is healed and one dies.
Jesus tells the woman who despite her fear touched Jesus and was healed, “Your faith has healed you.” And to the religious leader who approached Jesus’ in faith that he could heal his daughter, was left in fear that it was too late.
Notice that nowhere in the story does Jesus interrogate the woman to see if she was worthy of being healed or reprimand her for breaking religious law and touching him when she was unclean. Nowhere does he mock the religious leader who are usually mocking him, but now wants his help when his daughter’s life is on the line. Nowhere does Jesus require a certain level of belief or quality of faith in order to approach him or be healed.
Both this woman who had been suffering for 12 years of continued menstruation AND this girl who was born the same year the woman’s suffering began were both healed the same year and brought back to life. One stopped bleeding and was restored to life. The other was brought back from death so that she could continue to menstruate and eventually produce life.
This is not a story of either the woman OR the girl being healed. This is a story where both the woman AND the girl are healed and therefore restored into community. What this means is that the incredibly creative God and immeasurably loving Jesus commands us to not settle for a simple faith.
The dangers of a simple faith are trying to fit a very complex world into a limited understanding of who God is and who we are. We are then prone to draw the line that it is either this or that; we are forced to choose sides; we require allegiances without questioning, doubt, or accountability. We dig in our heels and hold fast to our beliefs even when what we believe doesn’t make sense anymore or begins to crumble in order to protect our pride, our sense of certainty, or our fear of being outcast.
This world requires us to embrace a complex faith, a faith that doesn’t play the game either/or, but strives to hold both/and. Why? Because we participate in a system that is complex. We participate in a system that is ever-changing and requires every one of us to show up and do their part.
An intergenerational church fosters and nurtures that kind of faith – one where a belief in God cares about the whole well-being of the person.
And unfortunately, the Church as a whole has remained silent to these complex life problems because the faith we advertise out there has been simplified to promote this false narrative on who God deems good, worthy, and of value. It is no wonder that the Church is seen as irrelevant, blind, and worse . . . perpetrators of the very problems that were just mentioned.
If we are truly to be an intergenerational church, then the changes we make cannot be limited to just worship. How staff is structured, how and when meetings are conducted, who is chosen for leadership, how decisions are made, and what policies are in place must all align and support the practices of an intergenerational church. If the time and location of when decisions are made are not suitable for all then the power of the church is not equitable and decisions will be made to benefit the few.
The same goes with our daily life. Intergenerational church is not just about age, but the intersections we cross no matter what age we are at. Age is not the only thing that makes us different. We have children who have parents of different race, economics, education, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, language, and even citizenship.
When decisions are made out there that affect our well-being, security, and livelihood then you better believe it affects our relationship with God, each other, and our faith. It is impossible to ask people to leave their problems at the door because in here politics and church do not mix.
On the contrary, Jesus’ ministry was all about bettering the lives of people both physically and spiritually. Jesus’ ministry was about restoring people back into relationships with their community, with each other, and with God by healing, feeding, and showing them how to love the neighbor.
For St. John’s this led our congregation to become a sanctuary church for immigrants, advocating for immigrant rights and protesting the separation of children as well as deporting children back to unsafe areas. If we are not addressing the real-life problems that people and especially our children face daily, then the faith we practice is hollow.
I can’t promise that this journey is easy. It isn’t. But I can promise that it is worth it. It will surprise you. And you are not alone. This is a journey we all travel together.