Intergenerational Ministry: Breaking Out of Our Silos

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Len VanderZee is a pastor in the CRC and, for the past six years, has served as editor-in-chief at Faith Alive Christian Resources. In this post he explains the thinking behind a new intergenerational curriculum.

It’s the subject of numerous books and surveys. You hear about it at classis and synod, in church council rooms and around family dinner tables. Why is the church losing so many of its young people? And the concern is valid. Survey after survey shows that too many young people leave the church, and even the Christian faith, as they move into the larger world of college and work.

It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause, but many have pointed to a trend in the last fifty years toward grouping church members according to interest, situation in life, and especially age. We segment children and youth into their own programs of education, fellowship, and even mission so everyone ends up in their own little “silos.” It seems like a good thing—reach them with their peers, teach them at their own level. Let them worship in a way they can relate to. How can that be wrong?

Well, for one thing, it seems contrary to the way the Bible teaches faith nurture. Look at Israel, for example. Most everything that happened in the spiritual life was intergenerational. The feasts that were so central in learning about God were all intergenerational events.

While there are important reasons for age groupings, when we “silo” our children and youth, there are several unintended consequences: 

  • Children and youth don’t feel like they are an integral part of the church’s life and ministry. They’re a part of “children’s church” or the “youth group.” They feel a sense of belonging to their particular silo rather than to the church as a whole.
  • They don’t have an opportunity to see their parents and other adults talk about and live out their faith close-up. They miss out on hearing the “faith stories” that abound in the church—the struggles and triumphs, the doubts and deep faith—that make faith real and ground it in practice.
  • Adults lose the opportunity to learn from young people’s faith. Anyone who has spent time around children and teens knows that they can be excellent teachers if adults are listening.

So how do we bring the generations together? How do we create an environment where everyone can experience the blessings that come from meeting God together as a community? We do it through intentional intergenerational ministry.

Faith Alive has spent the past year working on a new resource to help churches gather the whole congregation around God’s story. Called “WE,” this new curriculum is built around all-church events.

Each event starts with a meal, with people of different ages gathered around tables in groups of six to eight. As they eat, they get to know each other with the aid of simple conversation starters around the event’s theme. After the meal, the table groups watch or participate in a skit, a dramatic reading, or another creative interpretation of God’s story. Then the table groups respond to the story with an activity appropriate for all ages. WE also provides tools for further study at home between events that can be used by families, households, or individuals.

Imagine seven-year-olds and seventy-year-olds sharing their insights on the story of Abraham, or talking about times when God was especially present to them. We pray that this material draws generations together around God’s story and helps the church live out the biblical vision to “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:4).

I’m excited about this intergenerational approach and look forward to hearing from churches who try it out. To those of you who pre-ordered, your shipments begin to go out next week. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can download a sample event (on the theme of Hebrews 11) at we.FaithAliveResources.org.

What do you think of this intentional intergenerational ministry? How should we bring the generations together? Also, have you checked out WE? What’s your initial impression? 

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I love intergenerational ministry!! I totally agree that it's an important aspect of our faith, both in building deeper community and for spiritual growth.  I have checked out the WE curriculum, and as church staff we have been talking about using it this Fall.  It looks like a great way to connect all ages!

We enjoy being an intentionally intergenerational church.  It does present its own challenges as we try to help all the groups of people demonstrate hospitality and love for each other, but the rewards are wonderful.  It seems that our children and young people feel that the church (not just their groups--but the whole church) is their home.

We have also looked at WE and like it a lot.  For the coming year, we are creating an intergenerational program for our discipleship hour each Sunday.  For one year we are settig aside our age-divided Sunday School program. Instead, in worship, we will be preaching through the Old Testament--one book each week.  Following the sermons, we will meet in 8 intergenerational groups to reflect, discuss, create art, tell testimonies related to God's presence in that book. 

While it has created more work for staff and for Elders and Deacons who will help to lead, we believe that the outcomes of a more united  congregation and more caring relationships across the generations will be worth it.  We also believe that we will all learn and absorb this "race through the Old Testament" better when we do it together.