by Joy Engelsman
What does it take to become intentional about intergenerational worship?
The first step is to take an objective look at your congregation. You probably have a good idea of the balance of age groups in your congregation and how well each is represented in worship. But you might be surprised at what you can learn if you ask some of the following questions.
Who worships at our church?
- Assess the current generational makeup of your congregation. Go through the church directory, calculating the number of people or percentage of your congregation in each age category. Evaluate how well represented these groups are in worship. (In some cases, entire age groups will be absent from corporate worship because of their own age-specific events that happen concurrently with worship.)
- Put pictures of the youth group, kids in the nursery, retirees, widows, and so on, on your planning
bulletin board. Keep their faces in front of you. Attend their group events. Pray for them as you plan worship. Learn their names and find out what their passions are.
- Create a grid of several (eight to ten) people in your congregation who represent various age or stage-of-life categories. When you select songs, dramas, readings or sermon illustrations, imagine how that piece will “play out” with each of the people on your grid.
- Take note of a particular age category that has low representation in your worship. It might seem convenient to focus on the larger categories, but this defeats the purpose of intergenerational worship. The absence of a certain age category in worship is like a hole in the family fabric; our task is to look for ways to re-engage that group.
What do the various generations value? How do they think? What are their gifts?
- Study intergenerational materials (see recommended resources, p. 9 and p. 45).
- Read what the other generations are reading; watch what they are watching. Subscribe to their magazines; watch a movie with the youth group.
- Take what you read seriously but with a grain of salt. Keep in mind the characteristics of generational groups, but remember that these groups are made up of individual people with unique personalities, styles, opinions, and desires.
- Ask people about themselves. Get to know them. Don’t rely solely on books about them.
- Discover hidden talents. Who plays the saxophone? Who’s involved in community theater? Whose art project was selected for the school arts festival?
What do we do in our worship service?
- Analyze your worship services. What are the usual elements of your services?
- Which elements are “open” and which are “restricted”? Are there some that can only be performed by an ordained person or a paid professional? Is it a long-standing tradition that the pastor reads the Scripture text and that a paid organist plays the postlude? You may have to break with tradition in order to increase intergenerational participation in worship.
Who participates in worship leadership? Who is engaged by the worship pieces?
- List worship leaders by age categories. How well does this list match with the demographics you discovered earlier? Does one age group dominate your worship leadership team?
- Now that you have a good idea of how intergenerational your worship already is, you can create strategies to increase the participation of various age groups.
Who could do what?
- Merge the list of “hidden talents” you discovered in getting to know people with the list of worship elements that are open to new leaders.
- Add new names to your “worship participants” list and keep them in age categories for the time being. When planning a service, attempt to pull leaders from each age group.
- One way to safely introduce new participants into worship is to pair new leaders with experienced leaders. Ask a young piano student to play the melody line of some songs on the synthesizer while the piano or organ is playing. Ask a new reader to be part of a choral reading before giving him a solo part. This allows new leaders to share their gifts, builds their confidence, and prepares them for future leadership.
- Simply put, asking a wider variety of people to carry out the tasks of leading worship will establish an intergenerational face on your worship service. But you’ll want to go much deeper.
What else could we do in worship that would allow us to use the gifts and garner the spirited interest of our age groups?
- Involve all ages in designing and creating visual art for worship. Look for a way to balance one generation’s need for images with another’s need for words.
- Replace some songs with more prayers or Scripture readings. This may be especially helpful if the generations in your congregation are at odds about musical style. Songs may become a weapon in style “wars”; prayers and Scripture are less likely to rub one generation or another the wrong way.
- Create oxymorons! Juxtapose two things that don’t readily go together. Ask a high school student to sing an ancient chant, ask the 75-year-old bass to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
- Invite people from all generations to comment on the worship service. Ask how the songs, prayers, art, and so on helped them worship (but avoid asking like/dislike questions). Give people a voice and follow up to let them know they were heard.
- Recruit people from all generations to serve on your worship committee or as worship planners.
- Consider the content of your worship. How does the congregational prayer engage the concerns of thirty-somethings? How does the sermon apply to high school students? Were the songs meaningful to retirees?
Remember that simply putting a variety of ages in the same room together doesn’t create intergenerational worship. Inter implies integration—a mixture of ideas, talents, opinions (that’s the good part!) that can result in a generic product with no discernable features (that’s the bad part!). Generational emphasizes the distinctive personalities of each age group. The job of the worship planner is to balance the concept of “inter” with “generational,” mixing the groups without sacrificing their personalities and without compromising unity.
What Possible Obstacles Might We Face?
You’re probably already doing many of the things suggested in this article. If so, you’ll recognize some of the frustrations that may arise:
- Increased work for worship planners. Adding more people to the list of potential leaders for the service will mean more phone calls to recruit them, more time spent in training them, and more explanation of the service.
- Challenges in negotiating schedules. If you are used to scheduling meetings or rehearsals with working adults, you’ll find that high school students have an entirely different schedule—particularly if they are involved in extracurricular activities. Retirees, on the other hand, often have wide-open schedules —so wide open that they take extended time off for travel and are sometimes unavailable for worship leadership.
- Lack of societal models or support. Churches who are committed to intergenerational worship are being counter-cultural. Our culture emphasizes generational differences, not unity. In fact, some might argue that the generations are encouraged to fear each other or compete with each other rather than admire and respect each other.
- Disappointment from current leaders. Be sensitive as you ask your current worship leaders to serve less often in order to make room for new leaders of different ages.
- Temporary increase in conflict. As new people with diverse opinions gain leadership, their ideas are bound to conflict.
- Lopsided view of intergenerational worship. Involving children in worship is becoming more common, but a thoroughly intergenerational worship planner will look at both directions on the age continuum.
- Thin resources. There are some excellent resources for children, but few for senior adults. Resources for young adults tend to assume that they are involved in a church of their peers.
Yes, good intergenerational worship requires extra work, research, time and energy to work well. But the unity that results in the family of God is worth it!
- Brad Berglund. Reinventing Sunday: Breakthrough Ideas for Transforming Worship. Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 2001.
- Dan Kimball. Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004.
- Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., and Sue A. Rozeboom. Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003.
- Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter. A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
- John Witvliet. Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003.