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What the Heck is Intergenerational Ministry?

“One generation commends Your works to another; they tell of Your mighty acts.”-Psalm 145:4

This was the verse that we reflected on at the beginning of the first session each day during the Intergenerate Conference in Nashville last week. It set the tone for the day and reminded us of why we were there: to learn, discuss and hash-out what it means to be an intergenerational church. Being an intergenerational church is different than a multi or cross-generational church. Multi or cross-generational churches are places where there are two or more generations present. Intergenerational churches are places where the lines and divisions between the generations don’t exist. One body, moving, working, worshiping, learning and ministering together as a whole entity, not segregated.

Before I go any further, I want to point out there were many points during the conference where I got excited because I realized “Hey! We do that already!” Hamburg United Methodist Church isn’t a barren wasteland of non-intergenerational activity. We do have opportunities and occurrences of intergenerational ministry. I don’t want you to think this whole reflection is scolding our church for not being this way; we do already have things that happen such as readers, communion stewards, and musicians from different generations, which is a great start! So let’s keep moving forward with that and look for even more places to bridge the gaps between generations.

Why does this matter? Why does this need to happen? Why is this important? Well, to put it simply, I believe it’s the future of the Church, not just ours but the global Church. Do not misunderstand me, I see and know there is a necessity for generations/age groups to congregate together to do their own thing. However a church, The Church, cannot hope to maintain any sustainability if the age groups consistently go their separate ways as the normal pattern.

Imagine a building that has the inside built before the outside, this can represent an internal structure of leadership within a church. Now the congregation has decided that it would be best if each generation built their own wall of the church, because every generation knows how to talk and work with people within their own generation best. What you end up with is no wall being built the same way and you can only hope they’ll meet up properly and stay upright in the end. You may get lucky and things work out, but will it last? Plus, in the meantime none of the generations have sufficiently interacted and now they don’t know what to do with each other.

Now imagine everyone broke off into groups to build walls, but they were intentional about making sure each generation was as equally represented as possible for each wall. Each generation is communicating, learning, laughing, and bonding over building something together. Not only have they built these walls together, but they have built them on the solid foundation that is Christ. They have memories together and a sense of everyone being needed and wanted to make this possible.

This is intergenerational ministry. It’s all about relationships. That was the word and concept that was used the most throughout the three days of the conference. It was the heart of Jesus’ ministry, therefore it is what is meant to be the heart of ours. He spent moments alone, but not His entire ministry, and was frequently surrounded by and welcomed people of all ages and stages of life. He welcomed the children as well as people His age and older.

Take a look at that Bible verse once again. “One generation commends Your works to another.” This means any generation speaks of God’s works to another one. Knowledge and wisdom doesn’t have a linear flow to it; it doesn’t just go from oldest to youngest. One of the speakers, Dr. Theresa Cho, said “Knowing the Bible has nothing to do with age.” She followed this up with saying she knew of a “five year old that could preach [her] under the table”. We have so much to learn from one another, the young from the old and the old from the young, and it all starts with being intentional about intergenerational relationships.

We as a church community have to decide and commit to one another that this is something we want to make a priority and practice. Intergenerational relationships aren’t just going to happen. A sports team or theatre production doesn’t just know how to work perfectly together the first time they get together. It takes practice, and each person helping one another when they get stuck. You have to want it, and be willing to really work for it, because it’s not an instant thing. Everyone who spoke at the conference that had fairly intergenerational congregations said it took about 5-6 years to get that way. Sounds like a torturously long time in this instant gratification world we live in but we all know that things worth having are worth investing time and effort. We already have a good start; we just need to keep building on it.

Let me put it another way; if we do not have the generations interacting with one another, how will the younger generations view and be the church when they are older? Moments of segregation can be beneficial, just look at Jesus going off to pray by Himself. Children, teens, young adults, married couples, married couples with kids, single individuals, and elders all need time with their peers. Every generation has something unique about them that only their peers will understand and it’s good to have the camaraderie. Human beings, though, were created for relationships with each other beyond our peers, and I firmly believe the more we practice this with intention, the more we will see a positive shift in the church.

So now for the big important question: how does this happen? Mmmmm good question! It happens with the understanding that this needs to be viewed as movement, not a phase. I do not believe this to just a trendy thing that’s happening right now in churches. Nor do I believe that being an intergenerational church is sign of a dying church, but rather a sign that a church values all its members and the quality of its congregation over the quantity. A church needs to show all the people that walk in its doors that they belong. Millennials and Generation Z kids, (the youngest generations that are missing from our church specifically) are constantly walking around with the question of “Do you like me?” bouncing around in their brains, especially Generation Z. They want to know that they are known, noticed and loved for exactly who they are, where they are, and how they are, everywhere they go. They want to feel that no matter how they dress and what their interests are they going to be embraced without the expectation that they need to change to be accepted. This raises some specific challenges for discipleship- but that is a larger issue than can be addressed here. Everyone, regardless of age, wants to feel valued, needed and wanted wherever they go.

Church is not about just doing a bunch of stuff together, it’s about being together. We use the term “doing life together” all the time in Christian communities, but do we realize what they actually entails? It means the good, bad and ugly. It also means going deep with the relationships. Churches are meant to be sanctuaries, where people can open up and go deep in thought and feeling. If we’re being surface-level about our faith and what’s going on in our lives with each other in the church, then how is that going to encourage us to go deep with people outside the church?

Another opportunity for intentional relationship we will be introducing soon is going to be called Sunday LIFT (Living In Faith Together). Sunday LIFT is a resource that encourages relationships to grow intergenerationally through the sharing of food, fellowship and learning together. Honestly when I attended the workshop about this I thought it was worth the entire trip by itself. We will be inviting the families from VBS to participate with us. It will be taking place before worship during the summer, and what’s going to make the experience truly remarkable will be the participation of as many different people as possible. No previous Bible knowledge required. No age minimum or maximum. Little ones can participate and get just as much out of it as the oldest of us.

Sunday LIFT will hopefully just be the start of HUMC’s journey towards this way of church. No, the goal isn’t to change everything and make church unrecognizable. Like I said, we are already doing great things that encourage and have the generations doing ministry hand in hand. Remember, this will take time because we want to do it right, and not bulldoze our way through this. Trust me. I love this church, and I’ve seen how much we’ve come through in the last 5 years, and I can see the potential we have to do great things for The Kingdom, and I believe we will.

One of the last things I’ll mention from the conference is that all the speakers and many of the other people that I heard from who have fairly intergenerational churches said they’re making this up as they go. No one is an expert here. These weren’t mega, multi-million dollar churches. They were small and middle sized churches, rather similar to ours in many ways. So, like them, let’s just take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and see what wonders God will work though us. We need to be patient.

I’m on fire and excited about moving ahead together. Who’s with me?

Written by Meghan Garland, Hamburg UMC

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