In this season of Covid-19 churches are scrambling more than ever, to be a vital and meaningful presence in the virtual world. How can we connect to one another in meaningful ways while being separated from one another physically? In some ways, our church was prepared for this because we were intentional about building relationships across generational lines in 2019.
During a worship class for seminary in 2011, I had an experience which has stayed with me shaping the way I understand the importance of intergenerational ministry. I walked into the worship space at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Florida and saw a wall of pictures of former children and youth of the church who were now in some form of ministry. At first, my heart leapt with joy at the thought of this church’s investment in their young people. Quickly, the burst of joy was turned to sadness as I realized that the church where I was serving as the Assistant to the Pastor, The First United Methodist Church of Jupiter-Tequesta, had no pictures they could display if they had such a wall. I had deep hope that one day, this would change. In 2016, I was sent back to First Jupiter to serve as the Senior Pastor. When I arrived I found that most of the young families with children and youth had once again left. There was a pattern of young people coming and going with the rise and fall of youth leaders and pastors. I wanted this pattern to change. I reminded the leadership team, our elected leaders who govern, vision, and implement the mission and ministries of the church, of the covenantal vows made with every baptized child and youth.
During each baptism the congregation is asked, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?”[i]I then asked them to live into this covenant made by the church when the congregation responded to this question,
“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these personswith a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”[ii]
I reminded the leaders of this because I wanted them to hire staff for both children and youth. How can we nurture the faith of young people if we have no programs or leaders for them? The leadership team responded and two new staff members were added to the church. Young families began to emerge among us once more. Now, the questions are; how do we keep these young people regardless of who the leader is and how do we shape and form them in their faith?
All Generations Matter
We decided to focus on intergenerational ministries. We wanted to deepen the faith of all of our members, particularly our younger ones. Intergenerational ministry expert, James Frazier, argues, “The best way to be formed in Christ is to sit among the elders, listen to their stories, break bread with them, and drink from the same cup, observing how these earlier generations of saints ran the race, fought the fight, and survived in grace.”[iii]Yet, in many American churches a silo effect is happening. Generations are being divided up and put into same generation classes. Children and youth are shuttled out of worship and older generations are worshipping often times, in the same way their parents worshipped. As Frazier notes, “This lack of significant communication and relations between generations must be addressed if churches are to thrive—not merely survive—now and in the future.”[iv]Communicating and building relationships across generational lines will strengthen not only our churches, but our people as followers of Christ.
Biblical and Theological Support
Expressions of intergenerational community in the bible support the case that churches might want to consider intergenerational community as part of the communal story. The word “generation” is used throughout both the Old and New Testaments. According to Howard Vanderwell, “the phrase ‘in/throughout/among the generations’ appears more than 90 times.” [v]This suggests that God addresses communities not only of elders and adults, but, of all ages.
We see theological evidence for this as well. As a Wesleyan theologian, I look to the Wesleyan theological understanding of grace and nature of God to interpret how God is at work in the world, the church, and every individual. For John Wesley grace is central to his theology “because grace as Wesley defines it is most fundamentally God’s love for humanity made evident in Christ.”[vi]God loves us first and we respond by loving God back. Because of God’s great love for us, God’s grace is at work in the world. “Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life. By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”[vii]I draw upon the understanding of God’s grace being made real in worship as a reason to support intergenerational ministries and in this case, specifically, intergenerational worship. By having children and youth in worship, they have the opportunity to experience the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit and to be formed in the faith we claim.
Intergenerational Advent Worship
We decided to try an intergenerational Advent worship series. People of all ages participated in all aspects of worship. Children and youth served as liturgists, acolytes, music team members, ushers, sound technicians, and ran the IT screen. The children and youth not participating were given age appropriate interactive bulletins to participate along in worship.
However, some of the most powerful moments may have been during the lighting of the Advent Candle. Each week, rather than having one family merely lead the congregation in written liturgy, there was a faith witness time from four people each representing a different generation. Hearing people of all ages share their faith was a profoundly rich and meaningful experience for our congregation. The children had purity and depth of faith and the older generations had maturity and wisdom. Each adding a richness to our worship experience.
As a result, the children and youth felt seen and supported by the older generations who in turn, deeply appreciated the participation and the depth the children and youth brought to the service. Relationships were formed and deepened. So, when Covid-19 happened, we were somewhat ready. The first week, we held a drive in worship service. Families worshipping in their cars together. We had people of all ages participating and worshipping together. As the call to shelter in place quickly followed, we moved to worshipping online. While this has proven to be a bit more of a challenge, the older folks are trying to engage with this modern technology. Likewise, the younger ones are reaching out to the older folks. Both, are serving in the mission field, from a safe distance. The older women are sewing masks, the younger families are bagging food for the local elementary schools and food pantry. Together, we are worshipping and serving in new and creative ways. In the midst of this season of intergenerational ministry and Covid-19, one of our middle schoolers told me she is hearing a call to ministry. Be still my heart. Faith is being formed and the Holy Spirit is moving among us. If you would like to see our intergenerational call to worship during our Drive -In Worship service, please click on the First UMC Jupiter facebook link below.
[i]Book of Worship,96.
[iii]Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic of InterVarsity Press, 2012), 17.
[iv] Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship, 19.
[v]Howard Vanderwell, The Church of All Ages, Congregations Worshiping Together( Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2008), 24.
[vi]Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1998), 26.
[vii]Book of Discipline p. 49 ¶ 102.