A few years ago, a graduate of the University at which I teach, named Madelyn, contacted me and asked if we could meet as she was passing through town. I was delighted, of course and upon meeting, we exchanged small talk for a few moments, catching up on the years that had passed since her graduation and reminiscing about her years at the University. Then, without much warning, Madelyn looked me straight in the eye and stated bluntly:
“I’ve decided not to attend church anymore. I just don’t fit in. I don’t understand what’s going on in worship and it’s frustrating. Don’t worry, I am a Christian and will continue to be—just not in the church, it’s not for me. I just wanted someone to know.”
Believe it or not, this is a conversation I’ve had with college graduates several times in the past many years—terrific young people who grew up in the church and who regularly referenced things they’d learned from the flourishing children’s ministries they’d grown up attending. These same young adults shared countless faith-building experiences they’d had as leaders of youth groups throughout their middle and high school years and most of them were active in college ministries at local churches throughout our University community. They were gifted leaders who spearheaded new efforts geared toward reaching and discipling their peers.
But these individuals were also similar in that they’d never regularly participated in the worshipping life of an intergenerational church. They’d been sent off to children’s church or youth services while their parents worshipped in “big church;” and, even in college, they were offered the option of sleeping in on Sundays and attending a collegiate service at night where the music and message were geared toward their specific demographic—their stage in life.
This all seemed great, until the generation-specific worship services were no longer offered for their post-graduate season of life. As Madelyn explained to me, “After college, I was suddenly expected to attend worship with the ‘adults,’ but I had no idea how to participate or fit in because it was all so foreign to me. I didn’t know anyone around me and they didn’t really know me either.”
While there is great value in offering ministries that are geared toward reaching and discipling people with age-appropriate tactics, the importance of intergenerational worship cannot be understated. The corporate worship gathering of the church should be the place where we collectively gather and respond to the invitation of God—to encounter His revelation. It is the place where, regularly, songs are sung, prayers are offered, creeds are professed, and the Word is proclaimed. Furthermore, in most churches, it is the place where people of various races, ethnicities, socio-economic statutes, and seasons of life (i.e. ages) gather together and are given a common language—engaging in a conversation which has threads connected to the past while also looking forward into the future. It’s the place where this diverse array of God’s children interact, not only with the Living God, but also with one another.
So how do we, as worship leaders, facilitate intergenerational worship? Here are a few suggestions for getting started:
1) Keep God’s story central to your worship planning – don’t allow worship style to dictate what you do in worship. This can lead to isolation of one generation or another based solely on familiarity with a particular, stylistic approach. Rather, center your planning on various ways of facilitating God’s revelation and the congregation’s response. Doing so allows congregation members to learn from one another and find commonalities in recognizing their place within the story of God verses a specific worship style.
2) Involve people of all generations in the leading of your services – from senior adults to young children, include representatives from each generation in leading singing, prayer, readings, dance, serving, etc. This way, those attending the service have someone they can readily relate to in the leadership of the service.
3) Encourage the horizontal relationship of your congregation both inside and outside the worship gathering. In the worship service, create space for people to greet one another (i.e. passing the peace, extending greetings, etc.) or even time for congregation members to pray and share with one another (sharing testimonies is a wonderful way to facilitate these relationships!). Outside of the worship service, create opportunities for intergenerational engagement whether that be through fellowship meals or intergenerational small groups. Provide opportunities for the congregation to live life alongside one another instead of always sending each generation to their own, age-appropriate activities. People are far more likely to engage in new or unfamiliar worship practices if they have relationship with those whom they’re worshipping alongside.