Whole Church Involvement
Few would deny that the Church of Jesus Christ is for all ages, that no one demographic should have a monopoly. So why are so many churches in the UK missing whole generations of younger people? Can church be truly intergenerational or is the generational cultural divide just too wide? Should we give up on the Utopian ideal of an all age church and pragmatically plant new, targeted, consumerist churches aiming at young people, giving them the style of worship, contemporary venues and younger role models they seem to need?
Whilst this model can show rapid growth, new research suggests that young people stay as part of the church when they feel that they are a genuine, integrated part of the church family. So is it possible to be intergenerational and make it work for everyone?
There are many, many Biblical references to God’s People, the Kingdom and the Church being for people of all ages. Intergenerational worshipping communities are at the core of Biblical life, from the people of Israel who left Egypt and travelled together to the Early Church. Is it only in our era of individualism, separation and discrete generational cultures that we have lost touch with our all age communities?
Where there are age groups on the fringes of society that were seen as unimportant, Jesus raises them up; children (Matthew 19) and old people alike (Widow’s mite, Luke 21), recognising that age can give those in authority an opportunity to look down on others, marginalise and judge. Jesus gives us an inverted model, finding the denigrated young and old to be praiseworthy.
He also demonstrates a model of Discipleship that is life-changing and life-long, costly and difficult but with the ultimate reward when we reach the end of life’s race. Following Jesus from cradle to grave…
In Acts, the Early Church was founded on Peter’s sermon, quoting the prophet Joel;
“your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams”
There are many stories of the early church of baptisms into the church that were carried out for the whole family together; there was no distinction between the whole family and the individual.
Paul’s letters are full of talk about the unity in diversity of the Church, using images of bodies and buildings to express his vision. (eg 1 Corinthians 12)
In the Old and New Testaments there are many examples of youth and age working together to fulfil God’s purposes; Abraham and Isaac, Samuel and Eli, Samuel and David, Naaman and his young servant girl, Lois, Eunice, and Timothy, Paul and Timothy, Josiah and Jeremiah, Elisha and Elijah, Ruth and Naomi, Moses and Joshua, Miriam and Moses… the list could go on.
Age was clearly no barrier to God’s workings in the Bible, and in fact these partnerships show that He sees a definite advantage to joining forces – when wisdom and experience are combined with enthusiasm and energy, there is the Kingdom of God.
So how can we make it work?
There are some good All age resources out there eg Scripture Union’s Explore Together, http://www.scriptureunion.org.uk/Shop/nbsp›nbspExploreTogether/3696471.id
There are a number of Fresh Expressions https://www.freshexpressions.org.uk experimenting with different ways to make their church open to all eg St Andrew’s in Kettering run a service called CONNECT, an interactive, informal, collaborative sequence of sessions and services, with age specific and all together times https://www.facebook.com/C-O-N-N-E-C-T-210716188641/?ref=bookmarks
There are many different strategies and programmes, but when it comes down to it, it’s about sacrificial love, making compromises, listening to each other, making an effort to understand each other. It is about Discipleship, at its most basic, learning to follow Jesus in Community.
Though the picture can seem bleaker in rural areas, it can be where there are the most opportunities. Many young people, brought up in close-knit communities, grow up having links with older people via toddler groups, church/primary school links, Christmases and just seeing people around the village. Even though the young people may have changed beyond recognition from when they were small children, the 70 year-old who has been a constant in their lives, has only gained a few more grey hairs, and they are remembered… These “grandparent” relationships can be key for the survival of intergenerational church. It can be a very special, trusting, caring relationship, where coolness, trendiness and self-image issues are transcended. Encouraging older people to listen, talk, pray for and nurture the young people they know could reap great rewards. Churches are beginning to hold Grandparent or Godparent services, to re-affirm some of these special relationships.
Bus stop and corner shop chats, can also be some of the most fruitful – having an “eyes open” attitude is a great start.
If they can also foster a “have a go” attitude, you have lots of potential for cross generational work.
In Peterborough Diocese there is a pilot project called Golden Ticket https://peterboroughdioceseyouthmission.com/golden-ticket/ which takes the moment of opportunity when year 6’s in the local primary school are about to leave and go far afield to secondary school, by giving them a special invite at their Leavers’ Service to a church hosted party or event (leading into potential ongoing youth work). We have seen some really positive responses so far, with churches full of 60+’s successfully hosting parties for good numbers of 11 and 12 year olds, who they have known for years. Where the relationships were there already through good Community interaction, there was so much more chance of success… There is also a church youth group which has started with the express purpose of doing community work, such as cooking and serving a meal to the housebound, visiting the elderly etc.
There are so many ways that young and old can work in partnership, if they can find and foster an openness and a bravery to step outside of their comfort zones…
REFLECTION & LEARNING
The Cof E’s Report “Anecdote to Evidence” http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/FromAnecdoteToEvidence1.0.pdf gives evidential backing to the knowledge that churches who work across the generations, particularly with children, families and young people, are the churches that are growing.
Further research has been done into what keeps young people in churches. The soon to be published “Rooted in the Church” report will give statistical evidence to the idea that young people stay in churches when they feel that they are genuinely an integral part of the whole church family, not tokenistic or patronised.
It is work that is also being done in the US, particularly by the Fuller Institute https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/intergenerational-ministry-beyond-the-rhetoric
In your own church community, look around you – how can bridges be built between the generations? Perhaps you could link up young people with older folks who are struggling with modern technology, or you could ask young people to share things that they need prayer for and ask specific people to pray with or for them…
Look out to your community, what would make your church more welcoming for people of particular generations, what sort of compromises would need to happen on both sides. Who are the people in your community where intergenerational links could be made? Making hot snacks for the sporting communities on a Sunday morning instead of having a service? How can you get ideas flowing and imagination sparked by everyone whatever their age? Perhaps a sermon series on some of those Biblical young/old partnerships might help to bring about the cultural change that we all need.
“Here 2 Stay”, birthed in Australia, is an organisation trying to tackle the millennial problems of church decline by focussing on bringing the family of God back together with resources, thinking and reading about family discipleship, generational connections and more and they have put together a helpful reading list on Intergenerational issues, http://here2stay.org.au/readinglist/
The Church of England has some pointers for further thinking too https://www.churchofengland.org/education/adult-education-lay-discipleship-and-shared-ministry/learning-for-all-ages.aspx
Becky Wills is an Archdeaconry Youth Missioner for Peterborough Diocese, supporting parishes to grow and develop work with young people. She has been doing Church-based Youth and Children’s work for over 25 years in churches around the country from Cheshire to Durham, Birmingham and Kettering. She loves inspiring churches to engage with and deeply involve young people in the life of the church, bringing fun, freshness and riskiness into the heart of their community! She is married to a vicar, with two teenage boys, enjoys quality drama; films, tv and novels, is a fan of LFC & cricket, good food and travel.