There is a generational divide in most North American Churchs. We need to find ways to build understanding and relationships across generations. One of way doing this is through intergenerational worship.
CRC pastor Howard Vanderwell defines intergenerational worship as “worship in which people of every age are understood to be equally important. Each and all are the church of now.” The whole church, from children to seniors, is the body of Christ. The whole body of Christ is called to worship together in unity. While it is taken for granted that adults should participate in worship services, when it comes to children, we don’t make the same assumption. We see children as a potentially disruptive presence in an otherwise orderly worship service, so we ask them to leave the sanctuary early in the service. This is like eating dinner at a five-star restaurant only to be asked to leave by the waiter to leave immediately after the appetizers have arrived. You will go home hungry. This is precisely what we are doing to our children – we are sending them away from worship empty. We require that children have an adult style faith in order to fully participate in all aspects of worship. Furthermore, we demand conformity to a particular way of worshipping that does not translate into their experience. We are sending our children away hungry and they are finding other ways of feeding their appetite.
Worship is an important way of feeding our hunger for God, of developing our relationship with him. Children experience a relationship with God long before they are able to express it. God’s revelation is not age specific; God reveals himself to all believers, regardless of their age. Therefore, all age groups need each other in worship – adults need children and children need adults. In this way, we are forming the faith of all generations as we encourage and uplift each other. When we exclude children from worship, what are we doing to their faith? Moreover, what are we doing to the faith of adults?
We need to become a congregations that encourage children to form an identity as people who want to celebrate and glorify God together. Adults need to welcome children into their midst and allow them to express their passion. Intergenerational worship takes humility on both the part of the old and young. The older members must patiently listen to the young; they must shed their “this is the way things have always been done” attitude and adopt a posture of selfless maturity. The younger members must patiently listen to the older members; they must respectfully teach the older members about the way they worship and find new ways to interpret our traditions for today’s context.
Some Justifications for Intergenerational Worship
1. Throughout the Bible, God’s people have always included all ages in worship. The Bible frequently appeals to the importance of “all generations”. In both the Old Testament and New Testament, we see children included in the life of the community.
2. North American youth and young adults between the ages of 18-30 are leaving churches across all denominations in never before seen numbers. I am convinced that the cause of this is because children have not been welcomed and included in all aspects of Christian worship, so when it comes time for them to join the adults in the sanctuary, many of them decide not to simply because it seems foreign to them, both in style and content. They have not been instructed and initiated into the rhythms of the liturgy due to our practice of age segregation during Sunday morning worship.
3. Reformed Christians emphasize the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This means that all members of the congregation, young and old, are invited to participate in and lead worship in age appropriate ways. The priesthood of all believers stresses that worship is not about performance; rather, it is about participation in the life of God and his church. Children and adults cannot be merely passive consumers of worship services; they are called to be active participants.
4. Research has shown the benefits of intergenerational worship on the faith formation of children and teens. Children and teens who participate in intergenerational worship services have a stronger faith and are better able to articulate their faith. These children and teens are more open about talking about their relationship with God and they read the Bible more than their age-segregated peers. Intergenerational worship and intergenerational events have also been shown to draw the congregation closer together, especially when cross-generational relationships as encouraged and developed.
5. In order to be a Christian, one must fully participate in Christian community. There is no better way for a congregation to grow and develop than in an intergenerational setting. Adults show care and concern for the faith of young people, leading them in the faith and allowing them to express their faith in ways that are appropriate to their age and culture. Children remind the adults of the importance of passion and wonder in faith. Children, teens, young adults, adults, and seniors have remarkably similar spiritual needs; in an intergenerational setting, adults and children grow together in faith and in Christ.
6. There will not be Sunday School when Jesus returns – all ages will gather and worship around the throne. In our worship, we should anticipate this future by bringing it into reality. Sunday School and other age-appropriate forms of religious education are very important, but they are secondary to worship in terms of faith formation. Therefore, we must prioritize participation in worship before programs and ensure that children are included in our worship services.
7. Hosting occasional “youth” services and a maintaining a “blended” worship style are not adequate for intergenerational worship.
Youth services are simply a way of appeasing the youth who are dissatisfied with regular worship services. They are promised a special service once and a while (preferably in the evening) so they won’t entirely reject the church. However, this strategy isn’t working as many youth, when they leave the church for college, are opting to worship in community churches or out of church altogether. Children and youth need to have ongoing and active input into the shape, style, and content of our worship services and accepted as important voices in the body of Christ.
A blended approach is an attempt at compromise between “traditional” and “contemporary” worship. However, blended worship requires trying to occupy a middle ground where no one is really comfortable. Furthermore, this approach tends to favour those who are unwilling to fully accept different worship styles. Although we must draw from the resources of the past, we cannot allow the past to prevent us from moving into the future. The present requires that we move forward, not backward. Ultimately, a blended approach stalls us somewhere between the past and present and prevents us from moving into the future.
An intergenerational approach will help young and old to appreciate that they need each other in worship – that they all bring important insights and contributions to our worship. When we segregate young and old in worship, the faith of both young and old suffers. Both young and old must come to understand that worship is not primarily about how we worship but who we worship, and therefore, worship can and should take many different form, styles, and shape, all of which need to be explored, not by blending them, but by being open to the many different ways that God reveals himself to all ages and allowing these revelations to shape our worship and move us into God’s future.