People today are often lumped into categories based on the year they were born, and assigned labels such as the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Sandwich Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials. Demographers and marketing specialists have created additional sub-categories within these groups, which can make tracking the interests, habits and values of a particular sub-group a science in itself.
Within the church, we are concerned about ministering faithfully to all age groups. To do so, we often separate members into groups based on age (older adults, middle adults, young adults, teens, children). While this approach is sometimes helpful, we must keep in mind the importance of providing ministry that is intergenerational.
We have a group of related ministries brought together under the heading of Generations Ministries, which is focused on helping Christians of all ages reach out with Jesus’ life-changing love to disciple young adults, teens and children. These ministries are most productive when they are intergenerational. By “intergenerational” we mean two or more different age groups growing and living in faith together.
Intergenerational ministry is imperative in our world where age-groups are routinely separated in many settings. Sadly, one such setting tends to be the church, where, according to one poll, about 75 percent of children raised in Christian churches leave the church when they graduate from high school.
Why? Part of the answer is that children and teens crave involvement. When young Christians are involved in ministry at a young age, they are much more likely to develop an understanding of their gifts, and to be committed to using those gifts within the church as they age. This not only blesses the church, but limits the aimlessness of teens and college students who grow up without this sense of purpose and belonging.
Intergenerational ministry events
Intergenerational ministry events provide times for adults and young people to engage in dialog with one another and to grow in faith by working, playing, praying and worshiping side-by-side. Such events are often family oriented, where family is defined in the broadest sense, including single and divorced people, to encourage positive interaction within the entire congregational family. One church that attempts to embrace the intergenerational concept sponsors “intergen-friendly” activities, including:
- Pen pal programs between seniors and children.
- Grandparents Day at the zoo (where grandparents come with their children and grandchildren).
- Family camps for all ages.
- Back to school parties with young and old answering questions about their own school days.
- Movie nights that feature oldies such as Laurel and Hardy, and Abbot and Costello.
- Short-term mission trips mixing seniors, singles and families. GCI offers short-term mission events that are cross-generational (see http://www.generationsministries.org/mission-trips.html).
Benefits, bonuses and blessings
Bringing generations together within the church provides blessings on a variety of levels:
- They affirm each person’s value in the total community (regardless of age).
- They foster a foundation of support of each other’s concerns, interests and activities.
- They break down stereotypes and barriers that stand between generations and give new meaning to “faith family.”
- They provide up-close-and-personal discipleship training as children, teens and adults engage in sharing faith, teaching, learning and praying for one another.
- They foster leadership regardless of age or stature.
- They take a pro-active, counter-cultural stance in the face of the countless ways society separates and pigeon-holes people into age-specific groups.
No one-size-fits-all approach works in planning inter-generational ministry events. But here are some tips that can help church leaders, parents and others in event planning:
- Use a planning team that has representatives from every generation. Capture the rich wealth of gifts, creativity, experience and passion present when people of all ages come to the planning table.
- As you plan, ask the following questions: Does each activity advance intergenerational relationships? Is each age group in your congregation justly considered and involved?
- Plan occasional events at times when those usually unable to attend can participate. For example, why not host a gathering over Christmas break when college students are home and when relatives and friends may be visiting for the holidays?
- Create an event environment in which each person, no matter their age, feels welcomed, accepted, affirmed and valued as integral contributors to the faith community and to the learning experience.
- If you need to segregate the group by age, begin and end the event with a total group gathering (this is a good idea for regular worship services where children or teens are excused to another room for age-appropriate learning during the sermon time).
- Let people of all ages share in leading the event.
- Use child-friendly language in teaching and in giving directions and explanations.
- Give attention to different learning styles and preferences.
- Plan opportunities for participants to share thoughts, feelings, faith, personal history, fears or dreams with someone from another generation. This is crucial because today’s younger generations are oriented toward participatory learning.
- Provide child care for infants or toddlers.
- In months with a fifth Sunday, set aside the regular church service for an event focused on bringing all the generations together in worship, celebration and fellowship.
This article is based in part on “Intergenerational Ministry: Breaking Down Barriers, Creating a Family Model,” by Lynne M. Thompson, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20051006002726/http://www.family.org/focusoverfifty/articles/a0025230.cfm
For more information about intergenerational ministry go to http://www.generationsministries.org.