Research of 400 youth group graduates’ faith journeys being conducted by Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary, indicates that “youth involved in intergenerational relationships in church are showing promise for stronger faith in high school and beyond” (p. 43, 2009). According to Powell, intergenerational youth ministry is not an oxymoron; rather, it is the future of youth ministry.
This article will consider key reasons why recent youth ministry practices focus upon separating the generations, key reasons for bringing the generations together, and how to introduce an intergenerational philosophy into your congregation.
Why Separate Age-Groups?
Several factors contribute to the age separation prevalent today when Christians gather for Christian education, fellowship, service, or worship.
Kara Powell attributes the rise of segregating youth from other generations to the success of the para-church organizations in the mid 20th century. Congregations observed the success that groups like Young Life or InterVarsity had in attracting youth and followed their youth focused model of discipleship (2009).
Australian Christian educator Allen Harkness (1998) believes that modernist and post-modernist trends have facilitated individualistic and person-centered Christian education rather than Christian education which focuses upon integrating the faithful into the greater community of believers.
The baby boom of the 1950’s and the tumultuous 1960’s drew attention to the differing values of youth and adults. The “generation gap” became an accepted way of life, and society responded to the gap by separating the generations in order to reduce conflict created by differing life-styles and beliefs.
Educational theories certainly play a role in separating the generations. Public and private school educators as well as those trained to be congregational Christian educators are well versed in Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory which provided the foundation for Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development and James Fowler’s faith development theories. Each of these theories is based on the premises that humans develop in stages generally related to the cognitive abilities possible for their age, and that persons will best develop in settings that focus on the needs of their age or stage. During the 1970’s and 1980’s these theories were widely practiced, and age-separation in the public and private sphere increased in order to better serve each persons at each stage.
Church growth theory may be another contributing factor to age-separation. Donald McGavran, Win Arn, C. Peter Wagner, and others espoused the idea that evangelism to homogeneous people groups, or people with similar cultural or life-style characteristics, provides fewer obstacles to acceptance of the Gospel. Thus, church plants focusing on young adults or upper-income Koreans are both examples of this principal. Multi-generational or multi-ethnic congregations are examples of the more difficult heterogeneous outreach method.
Why Integrate Generations?
Two-thirds of the pastors, Christian educators, youth ministers, and lay leaders I interviewed for my dissertation (Ross, 2006) believed that the generations have a lot to offer one another. Bringing the generations together melds energy and wisdom, provides more opportunities to share spiritual gifts, makes life more meaningful and purposeful, and enhances spiritual growth for all involved.
Dr. Holly Allen, Professor of Christian Ministries and Director of the Child & Family Studies Program at John Brown University, compared children who attended churches where they participated in an intergenerational small group and worshiped with their parents in an intergenerational worship setting with children who attended Sunday school, children’s church, and some type of other mid-week gathering, but did not participate in any intergenerational setting. The comparison revealed that children involved in intergenerational settings had a wider faith-vocabulary than did children from non-intergenerational settings. The most significant differences were that children from intergenerational settings referred to prayer more often and described God in more personal terms than did the non-intergenerational children (Allen, 2002). Intergenerational relationships certainly seemed to enhance the spiritual development of the children in the study.
Certainly, Piaget’s and others’ cognitive development theories enhanced the learning experiences for countless children, youth, and adults. However, educators often neglect to balance their age specific educational methods with practices that allow people of different stages to interact, which even Piaget believed was needed to enable an individual’s developmental advancement. And, in emphasizing cognitive development theories we often ignore social learning theories like those of Lev Vygotsky, which challenged Piaget’s theory that learning had to develop in successive stages. Vygotsky observed that higher mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people in a child’s life, particularly parents. Vygotsky would say that persons learn to be members of their community as they actively participate in that particular social community, learning alongside those who are further ahead in the journey (Allen, 2002).
The apprentice model of learning a trade by first watching an expert, then attempting the work under the guidance of the expert, and having so understood/internalized the work that they are able to do it themselves in their own way is a present day example of Vygotsky theory in action. Allen (2002) suggests that Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory better aligns with Christian faith formation than cognitive development theories. If novice electrical journeymen, doctors, and DCE students learn best by fully practicing alongside experienced mentors, then perhaps Christian faith-formation occurs best when younger Christians interact with practicing Christians further along on the journey. The apostle Paul certainly modeled such an approach with his child-in-the-Lord, Timothy (Acts 16:1-3; I Corinthians 4:17; 2 Timothy 1:5-7 etc.).
Another recurrent reason for providing intergenerational interaction is its Scriptural basis. Old Testament Israel incorporated children into community life (Deut. 6:7; 12:7; Joel 2:15) and the New Testament church followed the multigenerational practices. Parents bringing children to Jesus (Luke 18:15-17); Lydia and the jailor being baptized along with their households (Acts 16:15, 33); the youth, Eutychus, who fell out of a window while listening to Paul preach late into the night (Acts 20:7-12); and Luke’s report of children praying for Paul’s voyage together with adults (Acts 21:5-6) all indicate that children were taught to practice the faith within the day-to-day activities of the faith community. Intergenerational ministry leaders believe that theological themes such as “the family of God,” “the body of Christ,” and “the community of believers” (Romans 8:14-17; Romans 12:4-6) are best taught and fully practiced when all generations of the faith-community gather together.
People really do enjoy intergenerational activities! Written and verbal evaluations by the members of an intergenerational mission trip included the following comments:
“Our family learned to pray aloud together” (40ish Dad).
“I learned about the interests of the children in studying the scriptures and also the wealth of knowledge of the older generation. I think this was helpful in understanding how persons of other generations have a lot to contribute” (high school girl).
“It encourages a greater unity amongst church members” (70ish male).
“Now I look forward to going to church because maybe I’ll see the other team members and get to talk to them” (junior high school girl).
“I remember thinking ‘I wonder how this is going to work; how well we’d mix.’ I remember a few of the meetings at first were a little tough between all of us because we all wanted to be leaders. Now I feel like I have the adults’ respect because they’ve seen me work on the same level as them” (high school boy).
Every team member indicated that they would attend future intergenerational service opportunities, and other intergenerational activities offered by their church.
How to Introduce Intergenerational Faith Formation
Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? When introducing intergenerational to your youth and greater congregation, follow after the tortoise be slow and steady!
First, read and talk about intergenerational ministry until you are convinced it is a viable model of faith-formation for the 21st century. If you are not excited about its potential to enhance your ministry, don’t do it. Although you do need to start out slowly, “half hearted dabbling” will only convince you that it’s impossible for youth and adults to bridge the generation gap.