Intergenerational ministry is an idea whose time has come. Leaders from all types of Christian communities—community churches, mainline churches, charismatic churches, Catholic churches, evangelical churches, missional churches—are asking the same question: “How can we bring the generations back together?”

Typically, three questions arise when church leaders begin to consider becoming more intentionally intergenerational in outlook and practice:

  • What is intergenerational ministry?
  • Why might we consider it?
  • How can we do this? That is, what would it look like?

What is it?

Intergenerational ministry happens “when a congregation intentionally brings the generations together in mutual serving, sharing, or learning within the core practices of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community.” [1]

Two key words here are intentional and mutual. Churches generally are multigenerational, that is, they often offer special (but separate) ministries for children, youth, young adults, middle adults, and older adults while offering relatively few cross-generational opportunities. To be intergenerational entails intentional cross-age interaction and experiences, with a deep sense of mutuality and reciprocity. Mutuality is characterized by collaboration and carries the idea of interdependence. Reciprocity implies that there is balanced give and take, that is, a sense that what we have to offer each other is of similar weight or importance. [2]

So, when congregations bring the whole church together for worship, service, learning, or fellowship, seeking ways to increase the levels of mutuality and reciprocity across the generations will be a central part of that process.

A group of young people and a middle aged man sit on the floor together, working on a computer.

Why should we embrace it?

The 2023 book on intergenerational ministry, Intergenerational Christian Formation, states the premise of the book this way: “intergenerational Christian experiences especially and uniquely nurture spiritual growth and development across all ages.” [3] Intergenerationality fosters relationships across the age spectrum, creating opportunities for children, youth, and adults to share each other’s spiritual journey. Everyone can learn from and encourage those ahead of them on the journey as well as those coming along behind.

Multiple studies support the idea that intergenerational spiritual practices are especially beneficial to adolescents and emerging adults. In fact, the major studies by Kara Powell, David Kinnaman, and Christian Smith, as well as the national Canadian study (Hemorrhaging Faith) essentially draw the same conclusion: that intergenerational relationships are crucial, that is, that our young people—children, teens, emerging adults—must have opportunities to engage with people of all ages for faith transmission to occur. [4]

Furthermore, these opportunities contribute to the spiritual growth and development of everyone participating, including the middle and older adults. [5]

How can it be done?

Churches across the U.S. and around the world are finding exciting and workable ways to bring the generations together for worship, service, story-sharing, and even for learning.

  • Inviting the youngest among us as well as the oldest to sing in the choir or on the praise team, to lead a prayer, and to read Scripture signals to all that the gifts of everyone in the church can be used.
  • Parents and other adults joining the teens for a service day, not just as chaperones but as fellow laborers, creates openings for cross-age relationships to grow.
  • Creating ways for children, teens, emerging adults, young adults, middle adults, and older adults to share stories of how God has moved in their lives indicates that God is at work in the lives of all.

Recently a church in Nashville, Tennessee began meeting in all-age community groups, spending time in the Word together, practicing the intergenerational disciplines of imaginative prayer and lectio divina, and setting aside time each week to pray for each household represented. Responses from the groups have been very positive.

  • A ten-year-old said last week, “I really like getting to be with my parents and all the other grown-ups and answer all the questions that they are answering, like I am just one of the grown-ups in the room.”
  • A leader in one group said, “Our senior in high school has really engaged strongly in the group. He lights the candle, likes the discussion time, and reads the closing blessing over the group. Last week he prayed over an older couple who had shared a specific need.”
  • Another group leader reported: “We chose lectio the first week. Everyone shared how the passage spoke to them. It’s amazing to me how God connects us even in that first time together. And we have five generations here!”

A few years ago, another cross-age small group met for ten weeks using Dwelling in the Word,

An older person and younger person walk away from the camera down a park path, with arms around each other.

a communal discernment practice that employs reading Scripture, reflection, and deep listening. [6]

The participants in the group ranged in age from ten to eighty-three. Each week they listened to a passage and asked each other specific questions (e.g., What captures your imagination? What do you think God is doing among us?). Then the participants would find a partner (often from a different generation) and listen to each other’s responses to the questions, then pray over one another.

When the group met to debrief their experience, participants responded to the question,What kind of church would be formed if everyone got to experience what we have experienced?” A seventy-one-year-old thoughtfully answered, “It would be a church that was stronger, more devoted, and a caring church. As we were discussing this, I got to thinking about Paul’s statement about neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and now we would have to add young or old, because this has enhanced our experience with God to have all of us here.” [7]

Brenda Snailum, an intergenerational specialist says it this way: “Everyone needs to be part of a ‘web’ or network of relationships that includes peers as well as members of other generations.” [8] She is convinced that the generations being together in spiritual settings is one of the best ways to grow each other up.

The process of becoming Christlike in one’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors—that is, Christian formation—does not happen alone. Intergenerational faith communities are God-designed places for Christian formation. Intergenerational ministry is an idea whose time has come.

References

[1] Holly C. Allen, Christine Lawton, and Cory Seibel, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together for Ministry, Community, and Worship (2nd  edition). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 18.

[2] Allen, Lawton, and Seibel, Intergenerational Christian Formation, 20.

[3] Allen, Lawton, and Seibel, Intergenerational Christian Formation, 22.

[4] Kara Powell, “Preventing Teenage, Faith Drift,” KaraPowell.com, August 13, 2018, https://karapowell.com/2018/08/ preventing-teenage-faith-drift/; Kara Powell et al., Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016); David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. Baker, 2019; David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011; Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Christian Smith with Melinda Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; James Penner et al., Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying, and Returning to Church (Richmond Hill, ON: Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 2012).

[5] Allen, Lawton, and Seibel, Intergenerational Christian Formation,see especially chapters nine, eleven, twelve, and thirteen.

[6] This small group endeavor was led by Wilson McCoy for his doctoral project research: “Forming the People of God: A Qualitative Study of the Formative Impact of Intergenerational Relationships Through Dwelling in the Word” (DMin diss., Hazelip School of Theology, Lipscomb University, 2016).

[7] McCoy, “Forming the People of God,” 99.

[8] Brenda Snailum, “Implementing Intergenerational Youth Ministry Within Existing Evangelical Church Congregations: What Have We Learned?”Christian Education Journal (series 3) 9, no.1 (Spring 2012): 169.

Holly Catterton Allen

Holly Catterton Allen (PhD, Talbot) served as professor of Christian ministries and family science at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was the founding director of InterGenerate, an international biennial conference for those who are passionate about intergenerational ministry. She is the author of Forming Resilient Children and coauthor of Intergenerational Christian Formation.

Books by Holly Catterton Allen

Intergenerational Christian Formation (2nd edition)

by Holly Catterton Allen, Christine Lawton, and Cory L. Seibel

In a revised and updated edition, this comprehensive, up-to-date text offers a framework for intentional intergenerational Christian formation. It provides the theoretical foundation of intergenerationality, then gives concrete, practical guidance on how worship, learning, community, and service can all be achieved intergenerationally.

Cover of Intergenerational Christian Formation (2nd ed.)

Forming Resilient Children: The Role of Spiritual Formation for Healthy Development

by Holly Catterton Allen

We can’t protect children from all hardships, but we can promote healthy development that fosters resilience. In this interdisciplinary work, Holly Catterton Allen equips educators, counselors, children’s ministers, and parents with ways of developing children’s spirituality so they can persevere when facing trauma and thrive in challenging times.

Cover of Forming Resilient Children by Holly Allen
As a bonus, if you purchase one of the books above, you help support The Pastor’s Workshop at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon affiliate, TPW receives a small comission from purchases through these links.

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