The other day I was talking with a fellow minister about the research and studies behind intergenerational ministry and she said,
“Look, I get it! I do. I think there’s merit to what you are saying and I think you are probably right. But let’s be realistic. The biggest reason that there is age segregation is because generations just don’t like being around each other. They don’t have anything in common and they just want to be where their friends are.”
I know that she is not alone in that sentiment. I’ve had others who have shared with me how difficult it is to force people to be together when they don’t really want to be. Older people like to hang out with older people and younger people like to hang out with younger people. It’s just how it is.
Or is it?
The idea of breaking population up by generations is a relatively new one. Naming generations didn’t start until the mid to late 20th century and has continued since (Source). Obviously generations existed before then but giving them an identifier, a name, was relatively new and some of the first people to pick up on it was advertisers and marketers. Now instead of hoping they reached the right audience, they could actually target a certain group by name.
The development of technology and social media created even more division by generation and marketers were quick to grab hold of those differences in order to reach the right audience through what is called generational marketing (Source).
In other words, our differences were intentionally magnified and our similarities were played down. It became easier and easier to fall in with the crowd that talked like us, acted like us, and was lumped together with us by the media, social media and marketers. It felt comfortable.
And soon our differences to other generations and our similarities to our own generation began to define our interactions. At the same time, our society restructured to make this even easier; everything from graded schools to retirement communities grew in popularity and we grew apart from each other.
Recently there’s been a return to cross-generational and intergenerational communities and contexts because of the research being done on the importance of multigenerational community. (Source).
As crazy as it seems to us, it’s actually quite normal and quite healthy for generations to spend quality time together. It’s actually how we are made and we benefit from it. But, because of the way society is currently structured, it feels uncomfortable and not fun. And because of that, we think that we don’t have anything in common and we can’t be friends.
But, that’s simply not true. It’s what we’ve become accustomed to but it’s not truth. The truth is we actually live better, more fulfilling lives when we are around each other.
Is it possible to reverse the trends?
Some amazing places are showing it is possible, like this intergenerational care home in the UK and these intergenerational communities in the US. They are built on the idea that we have more that unites us than separates us, more in common than difference. And I believe that can be done in the church as well. In fact, I believe it is one of the most important things we can do in our churches today. But how?
Realistically most of the generations that attend a church don’t even know one another’s names. They often don’t attend the same service times, they are in age-specific Sunday school classes that don’t intermingle with other classes, and they very often are in different parts of the church building.
The very first thing we can do is provide a way for generations within the church to learn each other’s names. Check out this cool resource that is a perfect way to create connections across generations: Pray for Me.
Create a Common Identity
As members of one faith community, this idea of a common identity should be relatively easy to create. Basically, using your church’s vision and mission, craft language that can be used across generations to say “This is who WE are.” Don’t just use the language in the adult classes or church service where children and youth aren’t present.
Make sure that everyone knows they are part of the church and identify with the mission. As silly as this may seem, tee shirts are a great way to make this happen. Magnify the similarities NOT the differences.
Allow for Interactions
If your church is set up in a way that doesn’t allow for generations to mix and mingle (separate services, classes, and spaces) then it will be necessary to intentionally create space for interactions to take place. Meals together, intergenerational worship, and cross generational events are some ways to allow for that.
It’s also vitally important facilitate and encourage interactions outside of the church buildings. Some ideas:
- Have the kids who play sports or dance post their game or performance schedules and encourage older folks to attend.
- Ask the older generations videotape themselves telling stories about their memories of being in church and share videos with the kids once a month.
- Create a Homebound Ministry with the youth who go and visit people who aren’t physically able to come to the church.
- Host classes where skills can be taught between generations, older to younger and younger to older.
- Find places in the community where teams could volunteer and serve and send intergenerational groups out to serve with one another.
Show Up in Unconventional Ways
If there is always an adult leading the call to worship, let a child do it. If a child always takes up the offering, have a college student do it. Move chairs and tables around so that people end up sitting with other generations and making new friends. Keep messaging that we have more in common than we think and help them discover common likes, dislikes, and activities. And when you find a commonality, celebrate it!
If there is an advertised “churchwide” event, then make sure the whole church is there, all ages, including children.
Regardless of what our society has convinced us of, this is actually what we want. Our soul longs for community and our physical health and well-being benefit from it in ways we are just starting to understand. So, yes, while it will take some intentional work and some consistent messaging, ultimately the end goal is worth it.
WE will be THE body of Christ.
For more information about
- Kids in Worship
- Determining which Type of Family Ministry model works best for your church
- Discipleship in Intergenerational community
- Encouraging the continued conversation through Practical Discipleship at Home
- Seminars, Workshops, Coaching
Check out to ReFocus Ministry or “like” our Facebook page. Join our conversation at theReFocus Family and Intergen Ministry group on Facebook.
About this Blog
Refocus Ministry was started by Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and church planter at Plowshares BIC. With years of experience in family ministry and children’s ministry, she is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. She recently graduated with a Masters of Arts in Ministry focusing on Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family, ChurchLeaders.com, and Seedbed
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I grew up in a church plant where, even though there were separate Sunday school classes divided by age, the age groups were much larger (due to small numbers) and everyone was expected to be a part of the worship service/sermon. I therefore was mentored unofficially by scads of adults, many of whom were even older than my parents (my dad was the founding pastor), and at a pretty young age I was already “mentoring” children younger than myself. I’m still in some contact with many of these people, both older and younger. I completely agree that intergenerational is the way to go.
Lately, though, sometimes I notice myself wondering when I see an obvious friendship between an adult and a child–and I mean wondering about the nature of that friendship. Maybe you talk about this elsewhere in your blog–I’m a newbie here. But of course the “wondering” I’m talking about in this case is not the good kind, but about pedophilia. I think it’s important that pedophilia be exposed for what it is, and that there be consequences for it, but I wonder if another reason people have such a hard time understanding the value of intergenerational community is that the only examples society shows us of intergenerational interaction anymore is the very dangerous kind. How do we protect our communities from this while still challenging them to pursue right friendships and support across generations?
Hi Jenn, thanks so much for your thoughts and for reading the blog. There is a lot packed into what you have written so I will do my best do answer as succintly as possible.
In terms of what churches can do, obviously common sense safety regulations need to be followed. When I worked at my last church, we followed the guidelines set out by the UMC in their Safe Sanctuaries program and I found those to be reasonable and protective while not restrictive to helping generations connect with one another. In this context, friendships across generations happen individually but in the environment of a group culture which provides that accountability.
Obviously, parental involvement is also important in not only the guiding of these interactions but also helping the child and adult find appropriate environments to grow and talk. This can be as easy as simply inviting these types of relationships to grow over the family dinner table, attending events with the family and being in relationship with the parents as well.
There sad reality is that even with very precaution we could put in place, these things will still happen and it breaks my heart. Not all children have vigilant parents who are talking about these things with their children and maintaining open communication. Not all churches have the staff and building space to ensure that there are always two adults with a child and windows in every door and a monitor in the hallway. And even if all of those things ARE in place, terrible things can happen. I know we all hate that.
What we CAN do as communities and parents is take all the precautions we can and model for our children how to have healthy and right relationships both within the church and within the home and work together to keep our children safe and spiritually resilient. We can be the body of Christ for them and for each other by being accountable and being involved. How that looks for each church and each family might be different but vigilance and involvement are key to awareness and safety for all.
Love this. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Actually reminded me some more of some of my childhood.