We need to take a look at intergenerational faith formation. Sounds... deep/ exciting/technical/interesting/ daunting/vital/trendy. Why is this something to explore and what does it even mean? We caught up with Karen Warner to discover more.
Karen, what is intergenerational faith formation all about?
Karen: This is about the growth and deepening of faith in all of our lives, nurtured in relationship with those of all ages.
Why is this important?
Karen: We are designed to live in relationship with others. But we are not meant to journey solely with people who are like us – we all need people who are different from us to cause us to reflect on our beliefs, be challenged, and grow. Equally, we need those from generations above and below us to help us engage with God. We do need our peers as well - those going through and learning the same things as us - but I don’t think faith grows in the same way by just spending time with our peers.
Let me talk from my experience. As a child, I saw the faith of my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, as well as other children and adults in my church. Having other adults around who I looked up to, but maybe weren’t quite as close as Mum and Dad, meant I had people I could talk to about the things I was struggling with.
As a young adult, my small group leader was a retired guy who had lived a pretty colourful life. I learnt so much from his experiences and wrestles. He died more than twenty years ago, but his input into my life is still significant.
Now as an older adult, I interact with children and I am reminded why Jesus said, ““Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18: 16). Children have such trust and so few barriers between them and God. It feeds my faith. When I talk with children about faith, it causes me to really consider my own journey – they are going to ask the hard questions!
When I talk with an older person, say about a passage of Scripture, they can tell me about the reality of that passage lived out. I can see how they have wrestled with faith and held on through highs and lows. I am able to see that just as God has been with them, so he will be with me. Their wisdom and experience is so valuable.
And teenagers! When I spend time with teenagers, I see how fired up they can be to change the world: They haven’t learnt yet that the world might knock them! They often have an energy that reminds me to get out there and get on with it. My age group can get a bit jaded and cynical, so I need that refreshing!
Most of us are used to learning from someone older than us, or maybe more experienced. How do we learn from those younger or less experienced?
Karen: I’m not just talking about cognitive learning. Faith formation is also about an emotional connection. Faith isn’t just about our heads; we need our hearts to be engaged. One day we might come across something that completely throws us logically and I think we need to hold onto faith experienced. This is something we can learn from all ages. For example, if I spend time with a child, they are probably not going to explain the original context of a Scripture, but their prayers might well teach me about being open with God and trusting him. I heard a story the other day of a dad who was supervising the crèche. He watched as a two-year-old laid out all the dolls and put her hands on each one. It turns out that she was praying a blessing for each of them, just as her parents prayed for her at night. This dad was inspired to think about how to pray for and with his children. In these situations we have to ask what God is teaching us through children.
We are co-apprentices on our faith journeys – apprenticeships are often the more experienced teaching the less experienced. But with intergenerational learning, we can learn from everyone. Of course there are things we need to teach our children, but children can also show us so much.
Why is this something we need to look at now?
Karen: I think that more than ever our society has become really segregated by age. We have preschool, youth group, and retirement villages...people didn’t talk about going to retirement villages when I was growing up! Everyone lived on one street. There was Mrs Jones (who made amazing jam) and the North family (whose son was a ratbag) – we had shared experiences together. We are not naturally doing that anymore so we miss out. I think we have also become both independent and selfish as a society. We tend to look out for ourselves and what suits us best, rather than considering what those around us need.
These aspects are quite often replicated in our churches. Our times together are generally split into age- specific activities, and we can be more of an institution that caters for different preferences than a body moving together towards the same goal.
When I look through Scripture, I see those of all ages journeying life together. I see the church designed to live as an organism, and I see how Jesus called us to lay down our own preferences for each other.
We are not just buildings that put on slick operations. We are people that belong together and need each other, in order that we might journey the messiness of life together and grow in our faith alongside one another.
So should we be moving away from Sunday school, youth group, and other age-specific ministries?
Karen: I’m not saying we shouldn’t have Sunday school, or some age-segregated learning. Everyone needs time at their own level. But if this is the only way we learn and experience, then all of us will be spiritually poorer for it.
It’s not about making huge overhauls to all aspects of church life. It is more about a set of lenses through which we look at what we do, and encourage a culture where we expect to journey with one another.
On a corporate level, we need to be asking how we can make small tweaks to our times together, so that we are experiencing and learning together. What about having an all-age homegroup? How can we spend time together socially? Could we set aside a weekend to go away as a church and have some quality time getting to know one another? On a Sunday morning, what are the ways that we can engage everyone at some point in the service? Who could be praying, or serving communion, or welcoming people? Can we pair people up of different ages so that they begin to develop a relationship? How often should we have all-age services? This might be a bit messier, and might need some things to change (including the length of the service!) – but I find that when the heart behind it is explained, the understanding is there, and people can get excited. Ultimately it’s all about wanting to be with one another and making connections.
What impact could this have on our families and communities?
Karen: I would hope it could be of great impact! Let’s think about how we encourage a sense of belonging. Imagine you are new to a church. You turn up and see a church of all ages – there is a place for you. But not only this, those older than you are interested in your life, and those younger than you want to relate to you. You can be part of an extended family. There is something about this that witnesses to the heart of God.
Now consider you are a young family. Life is busy, sometimes other things come up on a Sunday. You might make it to church one in three Sundays (this is not uncommon). The issue with this is that when attendance is too irregular, it is difficult to make relationships, and faith really isn’t grown well. The likelihood is that your family will just drift to a different activity. But what might happen if children were rostered to help out with services? What might the conversations at home look like? “Mum and Dad, we can’t go out on the boat today, I’m praying at church... We need to find a different day to play football because I’m in the worship team.” Could our families be drawn back in because of the involvement of their children?
Next imagine you are a young adult. You have grown up in the church, and gone to Sunday school and youth group. But now youth group has finished and the only place for you to go is the main service...where you know a handful of people. You haven’t ever connected here; it has never been your place of belonging. It is hard to get stuck in and much easier to stay at home. What might it look like for our young adults if the wider church had always been their place of belonging?
On a practical level, there are young parents in our churches who need support. They need those who have gone before them to feed them ideas, cheer them on, and give them opportunities to have a break. This is something that has caused me to reflect on my journey and what I have learnt, and consider that perhaps the low points weren’t wasted! There are older folk in our churches who need some practical help. Here are opportunities for the younger generations to get to know the older generations, build relationships, serve each other, and grow.
Karen: Consider the relationships between the generations in your own setting. If you are a leader in your church, talk as a leadership team about how you can work together in this. I believe that faith is most fully grown in community, through observing and being part of lives of faith. We need one another wherever we are on our faith journeys. Ultimately, this is about the fact that we all belong at the feet of Jesus together.
Story: Sarah Vaine with Karen Warner
Karen is the Children and Family Ministries Team Leader for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand.
If you want to read more, try:
- Intergenerational Christian Formation – Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross
- Body Beautiful: Recapturing a Vision for All-age Church – Philip Mounstephen and Kelly Martin
To borrow these for free, contact [email protected]
1. Do you have faith-forming relationships with those older or younger than you?
2. How much intergenerational interaction is there in your church? 3. What could you do to explore this further?
4. If you have any stories of intergenerational faith formation please email [email protected]
Illustration credit: Andrés Carrió
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.