What It Takes: Ideas for Planning Intergenerational Worship

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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!

Excerpt

Recommended Resources
  • 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.
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Well, the further I get into this, the more I have to read and learn, just glancing over this article makes me more comfortable, seeing how we can and must work together older/younger, the greatest obstacle to getting into this is I suspect, fear. Fear of loosing what you have known to be good for so long, and this going so fast sometimes, I am sure I am right when I say that communication is the key. This is not only communication between the different age groups, but with God as well, I have over heard in my church, and read in forums on this web that we must not stop to consider others who go slow or are standing still.  My Bible study group is studying the booklet "Listening to God", we just looked at "listening to God through advice from other Christians", don't talk to just one person, discern if these persons have something personal to gain from you if you follow their advise. The second point, and in My view the most important one, If this advice is going to hurt someone else, this advice is not coming from God, ever. Thanks for putting this up, I hope to learn lots!

Question, I just noticed that this article was posted in May, 2010, or is it January? and nobody has commented, is our church so far behind that we are the only one looking at this, the rest of you reached the goal already? Generally I find, since my writings are still rooted in the old, (perhaps somewhat archaic, or threatening maybe?) searching for reconciliation with the new, if it is about defending the organ (tradition), there usually is ,not always, no reply, am I standing in your way? just wondering.

John. You are not alone in this observation. I can't figure out why we as church are so disengaged about genuine conversation on many subjects. I hate to draw conclusions about what is causing this. I do know that whatever the reason it is not rooted in scripture. Public discourse is even worse with Christians joining in the hate fest thinking the end justifies the their behavior. John,  you are asking questions, that need to be asked. I have tried to start conversations or give a opposing points of views, But people now seem to look at alternate views as assualt on them personally. God help us please

Ken

Yes Ken, and still, I have a seesaw going on with my daughter, she used to not sing a word in church, now she listens to a Christian radio on the way to her work and she is blessed by the songs, the words of them and sings along. She does like the beauty of some of the hymns, Amazing Grace at the top of them, but yes, she says that the younger generation just does not get any satisfaction from them, words are old fashioned, the beat of the music is not there, and yes she does agree that this generation wants it now and the way they want it, if not they'll go somewhere else. My concern in that is where, an other church or......... End of story is that I so hope that they can learn to appreciate some of the wisdom of these old songs, if it must be with new music? even the Bible is translated to appeal more to unchurched and church people alike. A pardigm in society is indeed taking place with the electronic side of things, life styles etc., it can not be stopped, and is it all bad? you and I and many others can join in conversation about it, it seems that the church must move, as it has done in the past. COMPLICATED! Wow, you are right, God, help us please, to understand, to guide, to love and to work, talk  and listen to each other.

Hi John, incidentally that's my middle name after grandfather, John VanderPol, Thanks for the honest note. You are spot on in describing some of the issue's. One observation I have discovered from my kids is that they due want relationship with Christ And at least for my children, they do have a relationship but it is different from the traditional approach. John I think the issue isn't that they don't believe Scripture's but it speaks differently to them because they see our world differently. Their form of worship is also different because they want their own method that is a more emotional driven. Our own lack of consistent passion looks hippocratic to them because of our nuanced approach to worship. We need more passion in how our churches interact with the community to show them we are not sunday christians, Or rule followers but excited about our faith like you are doing with your daughter. Your searching for common ground speaks volumes to her and validates her. Complicated ABSOLUTLY rewarding ABSOLUTLY humbling ABSOLUTLY required ABSOLUTLY. Thanks John you are good man. God bless you and your familly.

Thanks Ken JOHN VanderPol, my opa and my dad where also John (Jan), 4 brothers in our small town of about 1800 had a son with that name, so officially I was named Johannes-Ary, the called me Ary, which I changed to Jan when dad died when I was 14, which changed to John when I arrived in Canada and decided to stay. At least I stayed close to the original, my wife's dad was Marius, at his work they decided that they would call him Bill, lucky me! Ken, too bad you live so far away, would like to meet you, your replies are of enormous value in my search for my role in God's Kingdom in the future. We are having a regular ho hum budget congregational meeting tonight, yet, it, according to our pastor is going to be the most important meeting in the 5 years that he has been with us he said yesterday. The "steps into the future" committee is going to present something big, the ball has been set in motion, by God Himself one would think, and here I am looking for a way to fit in, and not so FAST please!, sometimes we don't have a choice it seems, will find out tonight. I played the organ and keyboard all at once during the collection which worked surprisingly well, that was good, on the gallery where the organ is located, it seats about 30 people was a young couple, with a baby, they left about 20 minutes into the service, the choir was looking after the Worship, so, very nice but mostly traditional stuff, one must think, is it because they didn't find the kind of atmosphere they were looking for, did we miss an opportunity to grow, us and them?, the signals keep rushing in to me, I am really flabergasted! Greetings, John.