Lewis Center Director Doug Powe says siloed age-level ministries often prevent congregations from worshiping together around one common table. But the pandemic provided an opportunity for us to rethink our concepts of place and space and to reimagine what it means for us all to be together.
If your family is anything like mine, every holiday gathering features a grownup table and a children’s table. The grownup table is where serious conversation takes place. It occupies the central space in the household. It is the seat of authority. And children, frankly, aren’t welcome there. The children’s table is often a makeshift arrangement to the side or in a backroom.
This image of two tables is helpful in considering how churches often separate different generations. Children’s ministry is its own separate thing. So are youth ministry and campus ministry. In some situations it’s entirely possible for someone to progress through these age-level ministries without ever having worshiped with the entire community — until they graduate to the grownup table, so to speak.
The image of coming together around one common table is central to the Christian faith. Yet so often, we have failed to live into this ideal of gathering as one family around a single table. But the pandemic provided an opportunity for us to rethink our concepts of place and space, to reimagine what it means for us to all to be together.
Presence, Practice, and Progress
Three concepts are helpful in interpreting the challenges, opportunities, and theological implications of how we minister to different generations.
- Presence. Sometimes a congregation can be gathered in the same building at the same time, yet people are not fully present to one another. We purposely separate the generations. We know people of different ages are there, but they are not truly present to one another. Sometimes the separation is explicit. Children are not part of the adult congregation. From an early age, they learn their place. But sometimes it’s more subtle and implicit. Even within a shared space, different ages have different authority and roles.
- Practice. In terms of practices, this separation leads us to become very program reliant. The goal is to generate enough programs to keep children and youth busy so the adults can do what they want. Then, by their very nature, the programs themselves reinforce the separation of the generations.
- Progress. In terms of one’s progress or spiritual development, separation leads us to base everything on age, regardless of one’s level of spiritual maturity. How might we instead think about Christian formation in a way not based entirely on age?
What are the post-pandemic opportunities?
During the pandemic, most families worshiped together at home. For some, this was a new experience. For many, it introduced them to the benefits and joys of intergenerational worship. The pandemic also taught us the importance of relationships. Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders reminded us of the importance of the relational bonds within faith communities. And relationships are key as we move forward in a way that captures what we have learned.
Keeping relationships central allows us to rethink the categories of presence, practice, and progress in a post-pandemic era, especially as many churches embrace a hybrid approach to ministry that combines digital and in-person elements.
- Presence. If our goal is to create a truly intergenerational space, older adults, teens, and children must be fully present. We have to really pay attention to the ways that different elements of the community are showing up. This requires intentionality because people may easily gravitate into their familiar silos. Hybrid settings put in place over the past year required extending the way we thought about presence. We must continue to think about new ways of making sure people are fully present to one another in personal and in digital spaces.
- Practice. More creative approaches to basic practices, such as prayer and Scripture reading, are needed to bring generations together in meaningful and truly participatory ways. For example, how might lectio divina be offered so that people of all ages can participate? How might we reclaim the tradition of using various art forms to reflect and interpret Scripture? Hybrid settings require that we really focus on what we hope people will experience, regardless of where it takes place. If, for example, our goal is to help people see God at work in their daily lives, we need to allow people to do it in a way that makes sense for each, but also brings people together.
- Progress. An intergenerational approach to Christian formation requires that we get beyond word-based curricula and seek ways of engaging narratives that are accessible to all ages. A beautiful thing about a congregation is that it provides space for people to share stories with one another. This is especially important as people emerge from the trauma of the pandemic.
Developing a new seating chart doesn’t necessarily mean that we eliminate all age-level programs. These can and should continue. But it does require that we make time and space to come together around a common table and worship God as one family.
This article is adapted from a presentation delivered at the 2021 InterGenerate + Children’s Spirituality Summit Conference.