This article was originally published on The Thread at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Thread exists to equip, inspire, and educate Christian leaders and theologically curious individuals.
Churches have a recent history of separating the generations in what we might call the “silo” approach to community. Though there is value in age-appropriate learning and experiences, and there are benefits to developing peer-based relationships, we have gone too far in making this approach the default of the faith community.
Most churches are multigenerational. Then there are some that are intergenerational or “whole church.” The intergenerational church lives with more of an emphasis on growing relationships and less on just being in the same room at the same time.
If relationships are important for learning to love God and one another, then that is where we must start. Healthy relationships require an environment to take root, grow, and thrive. Getting relationships right is key to good ministry.
Shared experiences and mutual learning among the generations builds relationships and creates community—core components to a healthy church. In his book Will Our Children Have Faith? John Westerhoff writes, “Without interaction between and among the generations, each making its own unique contribution, Christian community is difficult to maintain.” We can see that the early church mixed generations, as described in Acts 2:42 where “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” I imagine that what is described here was lived out across generations, and that the “they” was everyone—young and old together, in the church and in the home.
The Generations in Faith Project from the Center for Ministry Development conducted qualitative (focus groups) and quantitative (surveys) research to determine the impact of intergenerational faith formation. Among the findings of things that intentional intergenerational community provides were
- Enhanced sense of belonging
- Learning to care for one another
- A welcoming environment conducive to promoting faith sharing
- Decreased isolation of all ages
- Affirmed value, regardless of age
- Support of families
- Increased opportunities for Christian role models
- Understanding and unity within a congregation
- Use of the gifts and talents of all ages
- Church leaders with collaborative and empowering styles of leadership
A young friend of mine recently shared in worship, “As a child of the church, I feel included and loved; and I thank you for that. I like doing things at (my church) because they include children in almost everything. I feel like I have a home here. It’s good to have friends my age here as well as friends younger and older. We help each other love and serve God.”
If there is value to each generation and to the body as a whole, then what does it take to be that kind of community?
Through many conversations with church people, I have found that most are able to explain what good intergenerational relationships feel like, but struggle to understand what it takes to grow those relationships. If this is a new way of doing church, learning and practice must come before any cultural shift. But, make no mistake, this cultural shift is our goal—moving beyond events and programming to natural mixed-age community and its ensuing benefits.
At GenOn Ministries, a nonprofit organization that equips Christian communities for discipleship through intergenerational relationships, we have defined intergenerational ministry as
- Bringing together any combination of at least two generations in planned and purposeful settings
- Empowering multiple generations to mutually invest in each other and in their faith community
- Intentionally encouraging Christian relationships among multiple generations
‘At least two generations’ means that a gathering could include young adults and empty-nesters, children and their parents, or teens and retirees. Not all generations always need be present. The goal is for all generations to know one another over time. Start slow and small.
Gatherings that are planned and purposeful provide context for relationships to develop and deepen, especially given that we naturally tend to socialize with those of similar age—just check out the “fellowship hour” after worship. Being purposeful in gathering an intergenerational group gives value and focus to overly busy people, and intentionally mixing in small groups means that we meet new friends of different ages.
When generations mutually invest in one another, the lines are blurred between teacher and student, a change from the typical church classroom, worship service, mission trip, and retreat. As intergenerational relationships deepen and spill into the wider faith community, transformation happens, moving the church from doing intergenerational programming to being an intergenerational community, thus bringing the cultural shift.
Intergenerational ministry is not an end of itself. We seek to build relationships among people of all ages because we believe that those relationships develop lifelong disciples of Christ and bring energy and vitality to the wider church community.
Becoming a more intergenerational church can begin by expanding what you are already doing well to include those younger or older. When planning an intergenerational gathering or program, be inclusive of all the generations you want to attend by considering location, day, and time, equipping a diversity of ages to lead, and strategically mixing ages for conversations and activities.
A few ideas for intergenerational programs and activities:
- Weekend retreat in a home, retreat center, or on a farm
- Bread or cookie baking for church visitors
- Drumming circle for a Call to Worship
- 5K walk/run
- Raking leaves for church neighbors
- Planting a vegetable garden
- Forming a ukulele or recorder band for worship leadership
- LOGOS midweek ministry
GenOn Ministries has created a Visioning Tool for Intergenerational Ministry. Download it for free from our online store with the discount code PTSTHREAD. The tool provides a basis for discussion about the current picture of intergenerational relationships in your church and guidance for how to deepen those relationships and be more intentionally intergenerational.
Liz Perraud is Executive Director of GenOn Ministries. GenOn equips Christian communities for discipleship through intergenerational relationships including training and resources for a LOGOS ministry. Liz has over 25 years of experience in the field of Christian faith formation.