Thoughts on Intergenerational Church Life
During worship seminar session with LaMar Boschman today entitled “Future Worship”, LaMar presented the 4 different communications revolutions he sees having occurred in history: oral history, written communication (Gutenberg’s printing press), the electronic age (radio and television), and finally the digital era (the Internet, et al). One of the characteristics of this present age—the digital era—is that there is a coexistence of a multiplicity of diversities. To say this another way, lots of communities of interest exist alongside one another.
The church cannot meet the needs of these various communities through a single gathering where the whole congregation is gathered for a single event; it is a necessity for there to be individual ministry to—that is, care and feeding of—the communities. One of the large challenges this presents is that these communities often break intergenerational relationships and work against old and young working, living, and building, together.
In thinking through the idea it struck me that the key concept leading toward a solution to the overarching relational problem, and the intergenerational one in particular, is “motivation”.
If we raise our children in an environment where they are always “sent away” to do something on their own, then we should not be surprised when they choose to “go away” as they grow beyond childhood (c.f. Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”). It is simply being real when we recognize that children have different needs than adults, and that this results in ministry to children, teens, and adults sometimes splintering. We have two ways of approaching this problem: one is to erect programs and then send each age group off to its own area, the other is to offer a variety of ministry offerings and then let each individual choose where he would like to be.
There is little outward difference between the two different approaches to diversity in ministry; however, there is a large internal attitude and motivational difference. In order to make the diversity and resulting physical separation a positive instead of a negative experience (i.e., life instead of death) we must ensure that all the participants experience freedom. To envision how this works, consider Thanksgiving Dinner with an extended family.
A large family gathering, like the classic Thanksgiving Dinner at Grandma’s house, has a number of key elements relevant to our discussion: all age groups are represented and a variety of relational states exist between those attending—old people, little babies, girlfriends and boyfriends trying to make a good impression in front of their sweetheart’s relatives, single Aunts and Uncles who have never married, divorced Moms with or without their kids, grandparents who are someone’s in-laws, a close friend who everyone calls Auntie but who isn’t actually an Aunt, a visitor stranded away from home for the weekend who has been “adopted” for the event, and many others are in attendance.
This diverse bunch of individuals all sit and eat together—as a whole—and meet their need for sustenance. As dinner finishes, the group then splinters: the older Uncles all retire to the den and sit before the fire, some of the women and a guilt-laden male cousin clean up and wash dishes, the kids scatter in small groups playing games, etc. When the dishes are finished the clusters change again as the servant-hearted dishwashers disperse throughout the house and join other groups or start their own. As the afternoon wanes, people move from one group to another as they lose interest in the conversation or activity at hand; but, the groups do not largely change.
At some point someone will walk through the house shouting that an impromptu ball game is about to start in the backyard, or scrabble game is going to start in the family room, or a video is being put on. The groups move about the house and people go where their interest takes them.
No one is offended by the movement from group to group; although when little Johnny can’t sit still during a slow point in the movie, he’s sent off to find his Mom. No one feels excluded; although Uncle Jack left his reading glasses at home and finally gives up trying to read the scrabble board and so one of the cousins takes his place. If someone wants to organize an activity but can’t get enough other people to participate then he joins another group instead. There is variety, tolerance, participation, spontaneity, and organization; they all coexist and none of us expects it to be any other way.
The church is a family—a large extended family that shares all the elements the family gathered for our classic Thanksgiving Dinner; in most churches that’s where the similarity ends: we do not tolerate people moving from one sub-meeting to another, individuals aren’t allowed to spontaneously organize a hymn-sing in the choir room or a prayer time in the cloak room, adults are not welcome in the Sunday school room, children are not supposed to return to the main meeting until the teaching is over, and sister-Susie will be scolded if she decides to sing a different “special” during the offering and she hasn’t consulted Pastor’s wife ahead of time.
I do not envision chaos. There must be some order; but, neither does there need to absolute control. At Grandma’s house, if cousin Billy came upon the half completed Scrabble game then he would need to wait until either someone let him take over their place or another game started if he wanted to participate. Similarly in the church setting, if Sarah came into the craft room halfway through the construction of little boats, she might not be able to construct one this week (she could be directed to do something else).
Chaos must not be allowed to disrupt the flow of activity, but neither must order itself become more important than the people it serves: if each individual respects the others around them (e.g., Sarah respects that the craft is half over and that including her now would mean the others could not complete their boats; or, Billy respects that to include him now would mean restarting the game). The role of authority in this setting is to ensure that this respect of persons is upheld.
Gathering larger groupings of the church community together at some point in the day or week is still important, however, we must look to centre this meeting point around something that touches everyone. Just as the dinner met everyone’s need for nourishment, we must strive to find events which meet more than one group’s needs and use these events to get diverse groups to interact together. These events must not be overly contrived or they will serve to divide instead of bind.
The motivation of the individuals in the Thanksgiving Dinner type of atmosphere is self directed: they each choose to pursue something. Contrast this to the traditional church approach where individual groups are sent off to the various meetings; especially, children. The sending is a negative, the pursuit is a positive. It is imperative that we find a way to empower our individual church members to go and pursue; this includes allowing them the freedom to organize things (albeit, within boundaries). Paul’s directive for each attendee to bring something “to meeting” demands freedom within boundaries (Colossians 3:16).