Doing Intergenerational vs. Being Intergenerational

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If there's one buzz word about what our churches deeply desire to be, it's "intergenerational." We all know what it means, right? And we all know when we've achieved it, right? Right?

As a youth pastor, as an advocate for children, youth, and young adult integration into the full life of the church, I have been asked how exactly a church becomes intergenerational.  And, as with most changes, there is no simple 4 step process, no quick fix.  You won't come out of an evening meeting and declare that "NOW we are an intergenerational church!"

(For the sake of this discussion, I'm focusing on integrating youth into the church, which is typically the way "being intergenerational churches" discussions go.  But the point that "intergenerational" is about all generations - young and old - being a valued part of the body of Christ needs to be discussed. That's for another time.)

I have heard it said (and I wish I could remember who said it) that "Intergenerational" needs to be something that the church values, and is not a church event.  I have fallen into this trap many times.  While there is no harm in putting your youth group and elderly in the same room with a heap of board games, it is an intergenerational event.  Young and old eat together, converse together, laugh together.  What a great intergenerational night. And I can now check it off of my programming to-do list.

Being a church that values intergenerational relationships sure sounds nice, but I think that we miss the mark when we reduce something we ought to value to a few gatherings on the annual calendar.  It's a great first step, but it is far from the final goal.

So, what are some concrete, practical steps that your church can take to get past your well-intentioned intergenerational events and become a church that values the whole body of Christ?

One thing that I have challenged churches in my region to do is to have at least two youth actively and visibly involved in the Sunday morning service.  While this may seem artificial, seeing our youth involved combats the stereotypes of youth that many of our congregants hold.  Let's be clear, though.  Our youth can (and should) get involved in babysitting, teaching Sunday School, and other "unseen" areas.  But what about:
           - on the adult church worship team?
           - read scripture (or even memorize and present scripture dramatically)?
           - greeters?
           - serve coffee (not just clean up crew)?
           - assist in the collection?
           - serve communion?

What about having two younger children? What about two young adults? Why not push that number up to three? Why not keep the ball rolling?  Oh, and once you've got that 15 year old on the guitar almost every week for a few months, she doesn't count anymore. She's involved. You have to find another.

Another way in which I have been challenging our churches is to consider the primary "segregating" factor for each committee, group, or team.  Each of these is geared toward a specific type of person or group of people.  The rule goes like this: If age is not the primary segregating factor, then you need to include a wider sample of age groups.

For example, the primary segregating factor for, let's say, your youth group, is that it is primarily for those who are in the 13-18 year bracket. Obviously the segregating factor is age-specific.  If you are 37 years old, this group is not for you (unless you're a leader, which makes you awesome, but that topic is also for another time).  Being an intergenerational church does not mean you have to eliminate age-specific programs or events.  Far from it.  There is something of immense worth when people of the same age gather together and explore faith in their age demographic.

Let's continue with other examples. Your primary segregating factor for your worship team should be those who are gifted with musical ability and willing to use them to lead others in musical worship.  Regardless of age!  Why do we still have "youth praise teams" leading our churches when there's a 5th Sunday in a month?  What about your committees?  The primary segregating factor to sit on a committee should be those who are gifted in leadership and desire to serve the church by leading.  But somehow 24 year old single men don't qualify for sitting on council because they don't fit the "responsible mature married adult" mold.

For this particular challenge, there are two issues to be addressed.  First, the primary segregating factor for your group or committee.  And second, the matter of competence.  I don't want a 14 year old who has been playing guitar for 2 weeks on the stage on Sunday morning any more than you do. But there are those that show competence, maturity and initiative to contribute and learn in so many areas that can be cultivated within our church - music, leadership, giving, hospitality, serving, visioning - the list can go on.  We miss a valuable resource when we reject a young person's involvement on a team simply because of their age.  And, to clarify, having a "youth advisor" position is a cop-out.  Everyone who comes to the table at a meeting comes with a certain vantage point.  The young mom on the worship committee does consider her family and children when making song selections.  That just goes without saying.  The elderly gentleman on council chooses his words carefully while he considers how those in his demographic will respond to decisions made.  A young person will, by virtue of who she is will come with that vantage point. Having a stated "youth advisor" position on a committee or team only stresses the stereotype that your team doesn't really value a young person's opinion as a mature, competent follower of Christ, unless it specifically pertains to matters of youth. Many are capable of offering valuable input simply based on their own merit, and we miss that far too often.

That's my short list of practical ways in which we can evaluate how we value our youth and young adults, and begin moving in a direction in which we show that they are valued.

What are some things that your church has done?

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There is a huge difference between being "multi-generational" and "inter-generational".  Most churches are, by default, multi-generational churches; that is, they are a congregation where more than one age group is present.  You've done a great job fleshing out the countors of an inter-generational church - thanks!

I agree with you that we don't want to fall into is "tokenism" - sipmly having a youth present for the sake of having a youth present. This means giving youth real and meaningful responsibilities in the life of the church, similar to the ways you've outlined above.

We had Syd Hielema lead our congregation in a workshop on "Becoming an Intergenerational Church" - I highly recommend Syd's workshop - he offers great insights into how generational dynamics play out in congregations and offers practical suggestions for making the cultural shift to becoming truly inter-generational.

Let's face it - becoming an intergenerational congregation is a shift in the cultures of many congregations, which means change, which means questioning and challenging some of our practices.  In light of the "mass exodus" of young adults from the church, I think most congregations are waking up to this reality and the necessity of making cultural changes.  The question is - are they willing to make those necessary changes?

I should add that one of the things our congregation is doing is hosting a few intergenerational events throughout the year (Games Night, Music Fest, service projects, etc.)  They are intentionally intergenerational in that the mixing and mingling of the generations is the priamriy goal of the evenings - all ages are engaged in the activity together and not simply in terms of physical proximity.

We've also shifted the focus of our high school youth minsitry from "large group activities" to one-on-one mentoring.  Every youth who "opts in" to the mentoring program is paired with a mentor with whom they meet once per month for prayer, discussion, etc.  The mentors receive training, are given the discussion topics that we are discussing at our youth Bible discussion nights, etc.

We are also in the process of expanding the mentoring program into our junior high and Sunday School programs - albeit, in a less intensive fashion.  Sunday School kids are partnered with a "Prayer Buddy" which conitnues into Jr. High where those students will begin to meet with their mentor a couple of times throughout the year.

I often hear people say that involvement by youth ought to include participation at or in council meetings.   I would suggest to be careful with that.   First of all, real participation in worship, in celebratory events, in sunday school, and in other activities, is always possible for everyone, from kindergartners to teens to young adults and to the elderly, whether in organizing, planning, teaching or participating.  But part of being a church is respecting the wisdom of older people who have been dedicated christians for some time, with life experience given to them by God.   Usually that wisdom gets reflected on council.   If that wisdom is not respected in a significant way, then young people who have been given that authority too early, will lose respect for it later in their lives when they themselves become older, knowing how unqualified and unwise they were in their earlier years.  There are many many ways of having a seamless intergenerational interaction between members of the body of Christ, but council membership is not one of them. 

Jason, I like the idea of the mentoring and the "prayer buddy" ministries that you are doing.  A great Biblical idea!