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Book Group Reflection: Age to Age - A Reflection on Group Learning and Intergenerational Worship

A reflection from Mark Neleson, Zeeland, Michigan on "The Church of All Ages"

Mark Neleson

It was an eye-opening experience.

For three months, nine of us gathered once per month in a community meeting room in the local hospital to talk about worship. The wonder of it, however, was not the location, but the unique community that formed around a book and the conversations that unfolded from it.

This was no ordinary gathering.

Two teenage young women, two Christian Reformed worship coordinators from different parishes, a Reformed Church in America education director, and four clergy; one Christian Reformed, one Reformed Church in America, and two from the United Church of Christ. An unlikely group, we gathered together for three months around a book on multigenerational worship, our own experiences, and our common love for the Church. These core commitments caused us to form a community of friends quickly, helped us to learn from one another, and deepened our respect for each other.

Beyond worshipping together

One of the most poignant observations made early in the course of our conversations was that if you want to be intergenerational in worship you need to find places outside of worship to connect those generations. This insight was significant for our group. It is easy to have a church of multiple generations; all one needs to do is contour and market niche programs that will attract and draw a given age group. It may even be possible to have several generations within the same sanctuary on a given Sunday. The challenge is that when worship begins, it is easy to assign a particular generation’s tag to a particular style, song, and atmosphere. The work of integrating is not something for the music, liturgy, and language choices. The act of integrating is something that needs to take place in the non-worship life of the church in order for the worship life to be generation-rich and generation-respectful. This is hard work. It is easy to identify a 300-year-old hymn as traditional and therefore old, and therefore not something meaningful as young people worship. It is easy to assume that a message for the children is for the children – though every pastor knows differently.

Context is everything

Preachers are schooled on studying the ancient context of a text. Worship leaders are often current on cultural trends and make choices in light of those trends. It is ironic, however, that often each of us forgets in our own worship contexts the importance of how things are said, and, where they are said in relationship to the other words and actions in worship. A message for the children can be for all or it can be exclusive. A high school choir who sings as part of the service can be integral liturgists who aid in the congregation’s worship. That same choir can be distanced when introduced (or thanked afterward) as “our young people who sing for us.” In such an example, the content or style of what was sung is not the distancer, but the words and assumptions that lie beneath them.

The teens in our group observed that one of the things that their congregation often do is a “hymn sing”. During that part of the service, members of the congregation choose a favorite song for all to sing. In many congregations, this could be a competitive enterprise. The assumption might be that the elderly will pick the older and slower songs and the younger people will pick the newer and faster songs. In this particular congregation however, they have set up the practice in ways that grows the congregation together. In order to pick a song, congregants need to tell the story as to why they are picking a particular song. The practice binds the generations. In that activity, the congregation hears the story as to why a given song is meaningful to another member of the Body. Upon hearing that story, old and young find themselves better appreciating the other because now they have a point of connection that is beyond a particular style and song. One may not like the song, but the song is no longer their only point of relationship. Mutuality, appreciation, connection and a narrative has grown where there were once only preferences. Often we forget that community, connection, love, and narrative are stronger and have more staying power than personal preferences – even musical ones.

These seemingly simple practices of integration show up in that church community in other ways. Their youth group invites fresh and spunky elderly speakers to discuss dating. High school age students participate in discussion groups as part of adult education. It is harder to create distance in worship services when you have growing intergenerational relationships outside of worship. Because of these practices, this congregation was not surprised to see a middle-aged mother and an unrelated 8-year-old together as they led the congregation in a time of confession. These practices are not reserved for “special Sundays” but are part of the ordinary context of how that church does intergenerational community.

Openness and imagination needed

Ideas like the ones mentioned take creative time and space to create. They also require an openness and receptivity to learn from what they have to offer. That willingness is not just limited to the congregation. A pastor in our group shared that s/he had worked hard at crafting a prayer of confession. The words did not come easy and s/he had a fair amount of attachment to them. On this particular Sunday, the Children’s Education and Ministry Director was the liturgist who would speak these hard-earned prayer words. When it came time to pray them, the Children’s Ministry Director simplified them and made them more accessible for children. The Pastor’s immediate response was one of frustration. S/he then realized that the Children’s Ministry Director actually improved the prayer and actually made it more accessible for all ages. Not every pastor would respond with such openness. One of the valuable learnings that came out of this exchange was that in order to have intergenerational community, one needs to have an intergenerational imagination. How one imagines the congregation significantly impacts who says it, what is said, and how it is said.

One of the preachers in our group observed that s/he regularly thinks about a particular person in the congregation when s/he is writing a sermon. The person changes from week to week, but the preacher finds it an important practice to focus on a particular member of the congregation when writing. That person is not necessarily the target of the sermon, but this practice allows the preacher to carry on an imaginary dialogue with that person to see how he or she might hear the given sermon. As we discussed this practice as a group, this pastor observed for the first time that s/he has never chosen a child to be the imaginary dialogue partner. The discussion we had as a group, as well as the stories we shared, opened this as a new awareness. The following week - for the first time ever – that preacher selected a child to be the imaginary “member of the week” with whom a sermon was written.

Reading for community

Those involved with the life of the Church often find themselves reading in order to hunt for ideas and gather information. One of the advantages of reading the way our group did was that our gathering together was about reading for community – in both senses of the expression. The occasion of our gathering was to read a book together. Our gatherings, however, were about the community we were forming together as an intergenerational group. That group was formed by reading and growing, to the end of doing all of these things to make us better and deeper persons who serve communities of faith.

While we enjoyed the book we read, our shared reading became a portal through which we gained access to something else. We began to make connections across denominational lines, across generations, gender, and roles within the church. We discovered that the work of making connections and growing relationships outside of worship are some of the best ways to begin to grow them within it.

Our differences became resources. Our stories became places of connection. Those stories helped us inspire, heal, and learn from one another. By the mere practice of togetherness, our group began to close some of the distance that we sometimes have when we do not have experience with engaging someone who is not like us. To our surprise, those sitting around the table learned that we have much in common.

Imagine that … a book at the center around which multiple generations find a surprising intersection of new connections. There, stories are told, relationships deepened, and all of us are readied to be resources for a larger arena. It’s pretty radical stuff; but it sure looks and sounds a whole lot like the Body of Christ.