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All Ages Needed for Intergenerational Worship

Though many churches offer multiple worship options, each pegged to an age or generation, Howard Vanderwell and Steve Burger make a case for intergenerational worship that has families worshiping together. A feature story exploring the importance of intergenerational worship.

Children asking at Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” All ages listening together as Joshua renews the covenant with God, Solomon blesses the temple, Nehemiah rebuilds the Jerusalem wall. Jesus hugging and blessing children. Pentecost just as Joel foretold—sons and daughters prophesying, old men dreaming dreams.

In the Bible, God’s people have always included all ages in worship.

Today’s churches, however, offer more options. Some churches still have everyone from newborn to people with dementia in the sanctuary together. Others peg the worship hour according to age, ranging from nursery or children’s worship for young children to separate services for youngsters, middle schoolers, older teens, and college students.

“There’s no one simple solution to a very complex set of circumstances,” says Howard Vanderwell, who’s editing a book about intergenerational worship.

He 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.” Vanderwell suggests that even if your church has chosen a more age-divided approach to worship, you can use the intergenerational worship concept to identify problems and find worship ideas.

All ages present

Intergenerational worship has all ages present—embodying the truth that the whole church is the body of Christ. “Unity is a gift of Christ. Unity is and it needs to be maintained,” Vanderwell says. 

Naturally, though, people ask what to do with the young ones.

“Nobody ever talks or debates about whether adults should be in worship. But we do debate whether children should be heard or seen in worship. Yet God’s continuing self-revelation is not age-specific. Your children may experience a relationship with God long before they can articulate it,” says Steve Burger, director of children and family ministries in the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Christian formation department.

Worshiping with different generations—singing together, holding hands during prayer, sharing communion—helps children form an identity as people who want to celebrate and glorify God together.

Burger recalls a little girl, who asked, while being led downstairs to Sunday school, “Hey, Daddy, how come I can’t stay upstairs with you and God?” She still needed to learn that God is everywhere present. And Burger is all for separating ages for developmentally appropriate education. But he cautions against sending kids to church school while adults worship.

Why do churches split up people by age? First, the 18th century Enlightenment emphasis on reason and education shifted worship from participating in faith to learning about faith. It’s the difference between doxology (right praise) and dogmatics (right belief). So if worship is only about believing, and kids are less cognitively developed than adults, then churches want to make sure kids know what to believe before they join the adults.

Second, North American churches have absorbed the culture of consumer choice and target marketing. They advertise to reach families shopping for more church options.

Meanwhile, churches too small to staff children’s programs during worship should take heart, according to Faith Communities Today 2005. This survey of 884 randomly sampled U.S. congregations found that keeping children with adults can help churches grow—if they also involve children in worship through speaking, reading, and performing.

Countercultural character formation

Though age-groups have their own vocabularies, communication styles, and outlooks—each shaped by particular economic, social, political, and technological realities—Vanderwell cautions against stereotyping or keeping everyone separate.

Instead he suggests becoming more intentional about worshiping together. “Where else in our society do we have such a strategic location to examine and foster the relationships of generations?

“The phrase ‘all generations’ appears 91 times in the Bible. God does not form our character all at once or all by himself. Nor does he expect us to unilaterally form our own character. God acts on us through others. Interaction among generations is necessary for forming faith and character. Each age learns from another,” Vanderwell says.

Steve Burger agrees. “Who or what we choose to exclude from our worship gatherings says as much about our community of faith as who or what we choose to include. And, really, does excluding anyone make sense when you realize we’re spending an eternity together?”

Taka Ashida recalls becoming pastor at a Reformed Church of Japan congregation that valued calm and quiet. He discovered that a father with three young sons always stayed in the entrance hall because he’d been told the boys were “so noisy.”

Ashida invited the family into the sanctuary. “They needed us; we needed them. The father was so happy to hear that from me. The boys were not always quiet. Some members accepted them. Some complained. But intergenerational worship is a foretaste of the ultimate worship service in heaven. Even a little noise should not stand in the way,” he says.

Worship forms character that lasts, according to George Aupperlee, who leads worship in dementia units at Holland Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Touch, direct eye contact, and the use of individual names help contribute to warm, personal, interactive worship … As Jane verbalizes every word of familiar hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, and treasured Bible passages, it is evident that grace still flows through well-worn channels to the depths of her soul and keeps faith alive,” he says.

Everyone participates, everyone learns

Intergenerational worship takes humility as well as intention. Older generations can’t lord it over the rest with a “this is how we’ve always done it” attitude. Neither should worship leaders focus on one or two age-groups and ignore others.

Robert Nordling, now co-director of Christian formation and orchestra conductor at Calvin College, recalls a tense moment in a former church of mostly college students, plus “90 faithful older members.”

A seniors music group leader asked for copies of the new songs being sung in church. To nitpick? Not at all.

The woman explained, “Every Tuesday we eat lunch together, have a speaker, and then sing for a little while. We find some of the newer music a bit challenging. I thought if we practiced a bit together on Tuesdays, we might be able to participate better on Sundays. Some of those songs seem pretty difficult…to us anyway.”

Nordling says, “In all my years of music ministry, I had seldom witnessed such selfless maturity! This music would never be the favorite of these good people, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter. Their desire to sing as active participants in worship alongside those younger worshipers allowed them to lay aside their own music preferences in deference to others.”

Every Member a Minister

Anne Zaki grew up in a congregation in a very poor section of downtown Cairo, Egypt. It had only 25 families but served 200 children and 150 adults through education and outreach.

“It is a transient congregation because people move out as soon as they have done better for themselves. So they need to be constantly training ministry leaders. The church motto is ‘Every member is a minister,’ ” Zaki says.

She progressed from setting up Sunday school snacks at age 8 to helping 5-year-olds do crafts when she was 10. By age 12, she and 2 other girls were trained to lead worship and prayers at the weekly youth group meeting.

“When I was 14, the church organist groomed me to play the piano at worship services by insisting that I sit next to him on the bench to watch what he did and listen for cues from the pastor and congregation.

“Every effort, whether excellent or lacking, was always received with encouragement and appreciation by the whole congregation,” Zaki says.

Congregations serious about intergenerational worship learn to value what every age offers. This includes being willing to learn together and including all ages in worship leading and worship content.

Learning alongside children

Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts, got the whole congregation talking about what it means to be a baptizing community.

“We entered into an extended conversation about children at worship—teaching them about their worship tradition, about scripture embodied in the three-year cycle of readings, and particularly about the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.”

“The English Reformation put Anglican liturgy in the language of the people. We asked, ‘What is the vernacular of today’s young people?’ and invited the children and youth to plan Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services,” says Linda J. Clark, music director.

The youth created a Maundy Thursday service that followed ancient forms. Their Good Friday service led people through 10 stations of the cross, including foot washing, the Last Supper, and appropriate Scripture and drama. Worshipers started in the garden, moved throughout the building, and ended in the sanctuary.

“These 20 early teens transfigured ancient patterns. Adults could never have done it! They moved 50 people ranging in age from 2 through 89 through all of this in 40 minutes. Both services are repeatable and will become regular parts of our worship, at least until another group of teens decides to change them,” Clark says.

Beth Ann Gaede, an Alban Institute author and editor, says that when she was a pastor and her denomination introduced a new worship book, she used children’s sermons to teach worship.

“It was easy to keep the children engaged, because we moved around the sanctuary—to look at paraments, touch symbols carved in the altar, smell things, or practice a simple liturgical action, response, or song. Of course, the rest of the congregation learned alongside the children, and, gradually, the congregation grew in ‘liturgical literacy,’ ” Gaede says.

Age-inclusive worship leading

Making worship age-inclusive requires that you value participation more than performance.

“Having a praise band up front lead 20 minutes of music in a row isn’t necessarily child-friendly. If you do songs here and there throughout, there’s more chance to stand up and sit down.

“It amazes me to see worship leaders sprinkle prayers between chunks of song, but give no opportunity for people to engage in prayer with God,” says Steve Burger, director of children and family ministries in the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Christian formation department.

He suggests planning simple interactive movements into the liturgy. “In one congregation, the pastor would say, at the end of the service, with hands out, ‘The Lord be with you’ and the congregation would open their hands back and reply, ‘And also with you.’ Even a little two-year-old girl could do that. She loved it.”

Kristy Ruthven, who directs worship and youth programs at Princeton Christian Reformed Church, in Kentwood, Michigan, used a survey to involve different ages in leading worship. She asked about interests, regardless of experience. Parents interviewed and filled out surveys for children to young to write. Now:

  • A preschooler turns pages while her father plays violin.
  • Two teens and a 90-year-old former pastor read Scripture at the same service.
  • Whole families sing together on praise teams. Other vocal or instrumental teams have mixed ages of unrelated people.
  • Evening services sometimes begin with a short sanctuary service. Then all ages gather around tables in the narthex to discuss the morning sermon.

“At first, it was little difficult to get people in older age ranges to participate. They’d say, ‘Well, I’m too old for that…’ or ‘I’ve seen my day…’ or ‘my voice is not strong enough.’ But I started attending the twice-monthly senior soup luncheon to eat, play games, and make friends. Now when I call, they know who I am,” Ruthven says.

When children help lead worship, treat them as peers. Do you (“appreciatively”) laugh at, applaud for, or video adults who sing, read Scripture, or present dramas?

“I wonder if we could be missing how our children are trying to lead us by confusing performance and worship. When our responses signal to them that we expect them to be ‘cute’ rather than an intrinsic part of the drama of worship, we may have missed their contribution to the dialogue between God and his people,” says Jan Zuidema, music ministries director at Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Who do words and images reflect?

Intergenerational worship prompts churches to look at everything with new eyes, starting with who’s in the sanctuary or leading worship.

Try drawing on natural gifts of an age-group for leading liturgy sections. In The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, John D. Witvliet suggests, “For a children’s sermon on Psalm 8, instead of doing an object lesson about scientific wonders they can’t comprehend, try call and response. Let the kids lead the congregation.”

The leader says a few words (“Lord, our Lord.”) The kids face worshipers and repeat the phrase. The worshipers echo back. And so it goes in three parts through the whole psalm—“Lord, our Lord…how wonderful…is your name…” Witvliet says this method is almost guaranteed to help everyone experience the psalm’s exuberance.

Howard Vanderwell, who’s editing a book about intergenerational worship, sometimes uses sermons to explain one generation to another. “A message on young Daniel can be a time to remind those who are no longer young what it’s like, the needs youth face, and that they need adults to encourage them. Similarly, a message about the death of Abraham can be a time to speak to adolescents and young parents about concerns older folks have as they reach their declining years.”

Congregational prayers can be led by different ages, or groups, and include joys and struggles from each generation.

“Make sure worship images—whether paintings, stained glass, sculpture, banners, digital images, or church bulletins—are inclusive of the whole body of Christ, not just your congregation,” Burger advises.

Even if children and youth don’t attend your worship, Burger offers first steps. “Have the kids with you for a short time when the service begins. At least once a month, have All-Church Sunday. On these Sundays, celebrate communion. Invite children and families to help lead parts of worship. Make it experiential.”

Learn More

Book Howard Vanderwell or Steve Burger to do a seminar on intergenerational worship.

Feel free to copy or adapt the congregational services survey that helped Kristy Ruthven recruit worship participants at Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan. Administrative coordinator Yvonne Elliott put the results into Power Church Plus, a congregational database, and printed out reports for various committees. But you could input into Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice.

Read and discuss The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge by Gilbert R. Rendle and Bridging Divided Worlds: Generational Cultures in Congregations by Jackson W. Carroll and Wade Clark Roof. This article discusses issues from both books and suggests that congregations last longest when they consciously appeal to all generations, neither staying stuck in inherited traditions nor creating generation-specific congregations.

Plan to read and discuss a forthcoming book on intergenerational worship from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Read reflections on intergenerational worship gathered in preparation for this book.

These books may give you insight into outlooks and concerns of people younger or older than you are.

Watch the DVD New Beginnings: The Gifts of Aging and use the leader’s guide to focus a discussion.

Check out these Calvin Institute of Worship resources related to worship with children, youth, older adultsand intergenerational settings, including this survey on understanding the generations. Plan a worship service series on “The Chapters of Life.”

The Evangelical Covenant Church has excellent resources on Christian Formation in various stages of life.

Attend one of several children’s worship conferences or go to Aging in the 21st Century & Beyond: SCJ Senior Adult Ministries Leadership Training, September 4-5, 2007, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Browse related stories about accessibility in worship architecturechildren’s choirs, including children in worship, and reaching Christians who have dementia.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking about intergenerational worship:

  • What have you learned from worshiping with people much older or younger than you? Are these opportunities available now in your congregation?
  • Does your church focus more on some generations than others? If you send a bus to pick up neighborhood kids, do you also send transportation to nursing homes?
  • When kids worship separately for years, how do they form the habit of worshiping with adults? Which worship habits does your church do best with…and at what age do worshipers start practicing them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to make worship more intergenerational? 

  • Did you create a survey or checklist to help worship planners more intentionally address different ages in liturgical words, prayers, and sermons?
  • If you found a good way to get more ages involved in leading some aspect of worship, will you share it with us? What worked best to help train these new leaders, whether in leading prayer, music, Scripture, drama, or something else?
  • If you recently moved from age-divided worship to (at least occasional) intergenerational worship, what worked best to prepare the generations to be together? Did you try multigenerational choirs, service projects, one-on-one pairings, or something else?