The next time you are in worship or fellowship time in your congregation, take a step back and look around. How many generations do you see represented? Are people of different ages interacting with each other? Are there friendships that cross generational lines?
Multigenerational versus Intergenerational
If your congregation is missing entire generations, you already know that is a bad sign for its longevity. But even if you have multiple people from every age range present, there still could be a problem. Having multiple generations present but not interacting in meaningful ways is a multigenerational situation. This non-interaction can be a consequence of conscious ministry design like age-separated education, or it could just be that people stay in their comfortable cliques and don’t venture outward.
But what then is intergenerational ministry? Ministry is intergenerational when part of the focus of whatever you are doing is to engage people of all ages and to foster conversation and cooperation (relationship-building) between people from different generations. Intergenerational ministry can involve a worship service, a class, a fellowship opportunity, a service trip, or really anything you can consider ministry!
A Healthy Body
Intergenerational ministry builds a healthy faith community. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses an extended metaphor of a body to encourage the Corinthians to value one another and work together. One of his points is that every part of the body (and therefore every person in a community) is a valuable part of the whole.
A body is not just a group of parts, and a community is not just a group of people who happen to be around each other. As a body is a network of interconnected systems, a community is a network of relationships within a group of people. A collection of non-interacting groups is not a community. So, a stable, healthy, and long-lasting church is one that has a network of relationships which crosses boundaries of age (and every other potential division).
Faith Formation through Relationships
Intergenerational ministry fosters effective faith formation. When I use the term “faith formation” I mean:
Every action, experience, or relationship that nurtures a transformative relationship of trust with the triune God and shapes the way we see and interact with God’s world.
Our formation comes about through the things we do, the things we experience, and our connections with people as we do and experience these things. This, of course, includes a formal educational setting but also encompasses every part of life. And relationships are key. The Christian life is based on relationships: loving God and loving others. It is within these relationships that faith is formed.
Dignity of All
There are two key concepts in intergenerational ministry. The first is that each person—regardless of age—has something to learn. The second matches this, that each person—regardless of age—has something to teach. Children have something important to learn from seniors, but seniors also have something to learn from children. The same is true for every generation with every other generation. This could be information, a skill, or even a unique perspective. Each person is a unique creation made in the image of God, and therefore we are called to honor the dignity of everyone (1 John 4:20).
So, our faith is formed, and our communities are strengthened, through our relationships with people of different generations.
This background and rationale are all well and good, but how do we accomplish this? The good news—and bad news—is that the “how” is mostly contextual. What works in one congregation might not work in another. There is no concrete, ten-step “program” that works everywhere. It’s about building relationships. It might be a new paradigm for your congregation. While some congregations can jump into a new way of thinking and working all at once, most congregations benefit by starting small and growing from there. So, here’s a rough process:
- Choose an activity, be it a class, service project, worship service, fellowship opportunity, or anything else. It helps if the activity has a limited duration and has a history of congregational engagement.
- Invite people of different ages to participate (and sometimes a personal invitation is necessary). Design this activity to engage people of different ages.
- Build in interactions between ages through conversation and cooperation.
- Keep people connected both through the activity and after it’s finished so that those new relationships can continue to grow.
- Do it again. And again. This is not about getting to an endpoint. It’s about creating a culture of intergenerational relationships.
As you can see, you don’t need anything to get started other than people and your creativity. Resources, of course, are helpful. There are multiple products and programs available to help you get started, including several different faith formation resources created by my company Spirit & Truth Publishing.
[If you have any type of “about the writer” section.]
Gregory Rawn is the owner and publisher of Spirit & Truth Publishing, which creates both intergenerational and traditional faith formation resources, most of which follow either the Revised Common Lectionary or the Narrative Lectionary. You can find out more and contact the writer at SpiritAndTruthPublishing.com.