"The programming is not the end-goal. The goal is mutual learning, growing closer to Christ, and deepening faith. In intergenerational formation, people of all ages make this journey together."
Back in October 2014, I attended the Lifelong Faith Associates symposium on intergenerational faith formation. About 100 practitioners from a variety of churches and denominations gathered to discuss intergenerational models of teaching and sharing the Christian faith. The following article summarizes much of what I learned at this outstanding conference. The three models described below are not the only ways to do intergenerational ministry, and this is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative list.
The Sunday School Question
One issue that I want to get out of the way: intergenerational formation is not about closing or "killing" Sunday school. Many people doing intergenerational ministry have taught or coordinated Sunday school, and they understand its benefits. That being said, these leaders are willing to ask whether a classroom model (grouped by age or grade) is the best format for every church
Intergenerational Model #1: Large Gatherings
Some churches that have transitioned out of the age-group classroom model host large intergenerational gatherings instead. All ages are invited to these monthly events, and organizers embrace the excitement and challenge of planning the large gatherings. I met representatives from several large Roman Catholic parishes that are fully committed to this model, and no longer offer traditional classes for children (sometimes called CCD). Instead, all families and children are invited to the monthly events.
The churches publicize the entire schedule in advance, expect wide participation, and even ask for registration and a small payment to cover food and materials. Intergenerational gatherings are often around two hours, and may include food, icebreakers, worship, music, and study. Some churches do include break-out sessions in which adults and children split up, briefly, for age-specific study.
Intergenerational Model #2: Small Groups
Many Christians are familiar with small groups, but intergenerational small groups are different in that adults, teenagers, and young children all meet, pray, and study together.
But how does the content work? Surely a 4-year-old cannot comprehend Bible study at the same level as a 44-year-old. This is true. But in an intergenerational small group, children are encouraged to participate as they are able, and to listen and be present. Additionally, the format is usually simple: sharing, scripture reading or devotions, and praying for one another.
The benefits, say proponents, far outweigh the drawbacks. Imagine a younger child praying for a teenager, while other members of the group lay hands on them. In intergenerational small groups, this is normal practice.
Intergenerational Model #3: Enhance Existing Programs
The intergenerational model that may translate well to many congregations is what I would call the "weave model.” This model looks at all the events and formation opportunities that a church currently offers, and asks – in a very practical way – how can this program become intergenerational? For example, do adults already make palm crosses before Palm Sunday? Invite all ages and create an intergenerational event. Does the youth group already deliver items to nursing homes? Invite older adults to help, and young children to tag along and participate.
Extreme Practical Planning
When considering any of the above models, there is a caution to keep in mind: intergenerational programming takes careful planning. For a leader, this means thinking up everything that could go wrong, and then stacking the odds in your favor. For example, a favorite Building Faith post explains how to ensure that multiple generations sit with one another at tables. As a leader, you can have all the best questions and activities in the world, but for the program to work you must create mixed groups.
The theory underpinning intergenerational formation proposes that people learn faith through the community of faith. Notice that this is not a one-directional movement of adults to children. ALL participants in the life of the church learn through the insight, experience, support, and prayers of the other members of the community.
An 80-year-old can learn quite a bit by reading the parable of the laborers in the vineyard with an 8-year-old. Teenagers often have powerful lessons to teach about service and mission. And of course, as it has always been, trusted adults teach and model Christian faith to children in worship, study, and charity.
As Maria Harris writes in Fashion me a People, “The doers of education are the community as community… [We] are realizing that the church does not have an educational program; it is an educational program” (page 47).
Focus on Relationships
A good framework for any church considering intergenerational formation is a focus on relationships. In other words, churches can create a plethora of opportunities for all ages to connect with one another in meaningful, faith-based, conversations and experiences. Yes, the events and the content must be well planned and well done, but the programming is not the end-goal. The goal is mutual learning, growing closer to Christ, and deepening faith. In intergenerational formation, people of all ages make this journey together.
Matthew Kozlowski manages, edits, and writes for Building Faith. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife Danielle and two young daughters. Throughout his career he has been a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, camp chaplain, Sunday school teacher, parish priest, and Alpha course coordinator.