A Reflection on Intergenerational Worship from Edmonton
Julianne Gilchrist reflects on the book The Church of All Ages
by Julianne Gilchrist, Edmonton, Alberta
In 2009, The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship initiated a number of reading groups throughout North America to discuss the book The Church of All Ages(1). The group leaders were asked to invite people from different churches, different age groups, and different levels of involvement in worship to participate. Each reading group was given the task of meeting at least three times to dialogue about the topic of intergenerational worship, as presented in the book. This paper seeks to present the topics and questions that arose from one specific group’s discussions, as well as to reflect on and evaluate the use of reading groups as a pedagogical tool for the church.
Overview of the Book
Intergenerational worship, as defined by Howard Vanderwell, editor and contributor to The Church of All Ages, “is worship in which people of every age are understood to be equally important (2).” The book is written with the premise that intergenerational worship not only matters, but is part of who we are called to be as the people of God. It is also written with the understanding that while people are living longer, thereby keeping more generations within the same congregation, many churches have segregated the age groups. For those churches where the generations do worship together, it is often experienced as worship that is aimed at one or two generations, rather than asking that all the generations not only participate, but also contribute to the planning and leading of worship.
Seeing this as a much-needed topic to be addressed, the contributors to The Church of All Ages tease out the theological, psychological, and sociological foundations to planning intergenerational worship. After providing a Biblical basis for intergenerational worship and an overview for why this topic matters at this point in the church’s history, the book offers insights into the stages of faith development, the importance of viewing the life of the church through intergenerational lenses, the significance of preaching and telling stories that connect with all generations, and the gift (and challenge) of planning intergenerational worship. The Church of All Ages, though rich with examples and ideas, is not a how-to book. It provides a foundation from which congregations can move forward to discern how they might become a church where “people of every age are understood to be equally important.”
Topics and Questions from the Edmonton Reading Group
The group I led was made up of nine women, representing 4 denominations and 5 congregations. Our group included a 14-year-old, parents (of babies, young children, and teenagers), as well as a grandmother, and two university students. Most of our group members were laypeople, though one is on staff at her church, and three others are on worship teams. I entered the dialogue of intergenerational worship wearing the dual hats of being a campus minister at a small Christian college and being an active participant in a church congregation.
The first question with which we wrestled is a very basic one: what is worship? While we understand that worship can involve all of life, the scope of this book was limited to addressing the gathered community at worship. Within that scope, we debated about what it means to worship. Is it not possible to be present at a worship service, and yet not engage in worship? How do we determine if worship actually took place? Jane Rogers Vann explains that worship is not about our experience, but happens when “the full attention of all the faithful is on [the Triune God, present with us] and on our proper orientation to [God] (3).” Where, then, does that leave those of us who must also be attentive to the ones that God has entrusted to us? I refer, of course, to parents with young children. Is a young mom worshiping if she spends the entire worship service helping her children to worship by whispering song lyrics to them or explaining what the congregation is doing? Is she still worshiping if she is spending her time at the back of the sanctuary, walking with her baby or watching over her toddler as he plays? I would suggest that this mom is, indeed, worshiping, though her attention may be divided and she may not identify her own experience as such. I believe it is important to help worshipers understand what worship is and give them a vocabulary to put words to their experiences.
One of the big questions seems to be whether children should stay in the sanctuary for the entire worship service or be dismissed partway through for children’s worship. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. The specific issue that was raised for us under this question is that of the sacraments. One woman in our group shared that in her congregation it would be very possible for children to grow up in the church, yet never see their parents taking communion(4). If we believe that the sacraments are central to our worship and our identity and formation as the people of God, we would do well to order our worship services so that our children are present for the celebration of the sacraments.
This leads me to another topic we discussed. If we are to embrace intergenerational worship, we need to equip parents and congregations to include and educate children. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that children understand what is happening in a worship service? Who should explain the significance of the sacraments or why we might light candles during certain seasons or why we might respond with certain words? I believe that it is both the parents’ and the congregation’s duty to our children to nurture and teach them in worship. However, many parents don’t feel equipped to do this and/or assume the church is taking care of it, while many congregations assume the parents are doing it. Pastors and church leaders ought to consider how they can equip their congregations in this way.
The topics I’ve discussed thus far illustrate another issue: when we talk about intergenerational worship, we tend to immediately jump to children in worship. Do we run the risk of turning our focus exclusively to children and families with children? If intergenerational worship genuinely seeks to embrace and value all ages, we need to spend just as much time talking about (and talking to) the elderly, the empty-nesters, the young singles, and the newlyweds as we do children and young families. This is where collaborative worship planning is key, as the final chapter of the book highlights.
One final topic that arose in our reading group is a reminder that intergenerational worship is just once piece of a bigger picture. To be part of the body of Christ means that the barriers of division present in our culture are torn down. Not only are we called to be intergenerational, but we are also called to be a community where both women and men, and people of every race and socioeconomic class are welcomed to participate fully. While we hold up intergenerational worship as a value, it is vital that we don’t forget these other aspects of diversity and unity.
Reflection on and Evaluation of Reading Groups
Reading groups as a teaching method offer several opportunities, as well as a few obstacles. One strength of this format is that it allows people to hear a diverse range of opinions and experiences. Our conversations are richer and our learning is deeper when we rub up against ideas that are new and different from our own. We need the space to disagree in healthy ways and to question and consider our own experiences. Because these reading groups were designed to be diverse, they seem to be a good place to do that. The range in ages also provided great insights that might have been missed if the group had been more uniform. While it is obviously important for a conversation on intergenerational worship to have many generations present, I would recommend making this an expectation of a reading group on any topic.
The groups are also a way to build bridges between churches. Who knows what might come out of the connections that were made in the reading groups. We might discover that they are the catalyst for congregations to work on future projects and ministries together.
Another strength is that a reading group provides the opportunity for laypeople and pastors to learn together. In this model, pastors don’t have to be the experts, but can learn alongside of their church members. This leads to a wider ownership of vision and encourages collaboration in implementing changes. It also has the potential to strengthen relationships within a congregation.
One obstacle we faced was that of finding a time when everyone could meet. People are so busy that it is hard to find space to get together. I don’t believe this should discourage reading groups, but it is an obstacle to be aware of.
Another challenge we discovered results from having laypeople in our group whose pastors haven’t read this book. They were left feeling powerless to bring about change in their congregations because their leadership had not undergone the same learning process. If one of the objectives of reading groups is not just to educate, but to educate for change, perhaps the groups should be required to include one pastor/church leader as well as one layperson from each congregation.
Another way to design these groups, of course, is to create them from within one congregation. This might better enable a church to put legs to what they have discussed. This would also address another challenge we felt: while people from different churches had much to offer the conversation, it was difficult to talk about concrete ideas in such a diverse group because the size of a congregation and the leadership structure greatly impacts what may or may not work. If groups were to be formed within a congregation, though, they would miss out on some of the strengths listed above.
Despite the obstacles we faced, we walked away believing that reading groups are a wonderful way to learn and have the potential to deepen the relationships, learning, and spiritual growth of congregations.
(1) Vanderwell, Howard, ed. The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together (Herdon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2008).
(2) Ibid., p. 11
(3) Ibid., xiii
(4) The question of whether or not children should participate in communion is too big to address in this paper.
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