Growing an Intergenerational Church

Growing an Intergenerational Church

Throughout much of Christian history, the intergenerational church was the norm. However, in the last several decades we have built a church with distinct silos, separating ministry with children, youth, and adults. Diana Langdon takes a look at what we have to gain if we reconnect the generations, and what we have to lose if we don’t.

Often when we talk about ‘intergenerational ministry,’ the first thought that comes to mind is the good old ‘all-age service.’ But these, at times, can be a token nod to ensure we include the children once a month and, unfortunately, they can end up being a ‘service with something to upset everyone,’ rather than a wonderful celebration of the family of God. Being an intergenerational church is much more than that.

It is important to realise that simply having all ages represented in a church, with programmes and ministries for all generations, does not mean it is an intergenerational church. That simply means it is a multigenerational congregation. “Intergenerational ministry occurs when a congregation intentionally brings the 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”1 (italics added). It is about being intentional.

Understanding why we are where we are

Throughout much of Christian history, the whole body of Christ—that is, all generations together—met together for ministry, worship, and other activities; intergenerationality was the norm.

However, in the last several decades, all but the smallest congregations have separated out the generations for learning, and frequently for worship, fellowship, and service. How and why did this happen?

With the Reformers’ desire for everyone to be able to read the Scriptures, and advancements in free public education for all, children were separated into different age grades to allow age-specific teaching—with Sunday schools following in their wake.

Christian educators started to implement teaching approaches that focused on the cognitive learning processes of children in age-appropriate groups, using the five senses, body movement, visual aids, and active involvement to enhance learning. Churches slowly moved away from a spiritual model toward a more educational model of community worship.

Fast forward to today, and any good book on church growth will tell you that offering an exciting, entertaining hour of children’s ministry is simply a good church growth strategy. Parachurch organisations have focused so successfully on one age group, and churches have followed a similar strategy. We have wholeheartedly embraced age-segregation, and this silo approach is what characterises many Christian faith communities in the 21st century.

The problem

So why does research show that the church is losing approximately 50% of our children as they transition from childhood to adolescence—as they move from one silo to another? What’s the problem with the current paradigm?

Disconnection. We have disconnected the generations from one another, and in the process have left our young people struggling to develop a true sense of community, identity, security, and belonging to the wider church (other than the age-related program they might attend).

We’re not saying that all activities of a faith community should be conducted with all ages present. There are powerful, valid, and important reasons to gather by age, or stage, or interest. Spiritual growth and development can, and indeed does, happen when teens gather separately, when seniors meet for mutual support and care, and pre-schoolers learn and play together.

However, frequent and regular cross-generational opportunities for worship, learning, outreach, service, and fellowship offer distinctive spiritual benefits and blessings.

Hayley Balmer, the Children's Pastor for the Anglican Parish of Tawa-Linden, shared how they were intentionally bringing the generations together in their 'electives.' Once a year, she gathers a group of adults and teens from the church who have a passion or skill they are willing to share with the children, and they put on a series of workshops. “It is an annual opportunity for the different generations of our congregation to form relationships as they engage in fun activities. In the past we have offered electives such as baking, sports, board games, flower arranging, K’NEX & LEGO construction, craft, knitting, chocolate moulding, puppetry, bead-craft, origami, gardening, photography, ukulele, dance, photography, first aid, carpentry etc.”

A church with an intergenerational outlook values the gifts every generation brings to the spiritual formation of the other generations. It creates frequent opportunities and experiences where the different generations can interact, serve, worship, and minister to and with one another. The church is meant to be a community with all members sharing responsibility for each other.

Closing thoughts

In her book Collide, Tammy Tolman talks about “a Biblical mandate to collide parents with children, children with grandparents, youth with children, youth with respected elders, singles with families, parents with grandparents, families with families, and everyone with God.”2 Growing an intergenerational church or faith community is not simply something to do, or a new program to add to the list of church activities. It is something you become, it is who you are, and it requires a new way of thinking as the different generations are led to intentionally collide.

It requires leadership, vision, purpose, and drive—and lots of conversation.

Story: Diana Langdon

Diana is Children and Families Ministry Enabler for the Anglican Dioceses of New Zealand. Diana runs Strandz, the hub of children and families ministry.  The original version of this article was written for Anglican Taonga magazine. Used with permission.

  1. Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 17.
  2. Tammy Tolman, Collide (New South Wales: Figtree, 2013)

Photo Credit: Angela/lightstock.com

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