Book Group Reflection: Generational Roles-Thinking Differently

Andrew Donaldson, Toronto, Ontario shares his reflection on "The Church of All Ages"

Andrew Donaldson

“Amen! Children are the church’s future.”

“If we have to, but don’t put me on the committee.”

Mention “intergenerational worship” to any church group, and you’ll receive a wide array of responses, from glazed eyes to comments such as the ones cited above. What you likely won’t receive is a considered understanding of intergenerational worship as more than occasional services featuring youth leadership or a child reader.

According to The Church of All Ages, edited by Howard Vanderwell, “intergenerational worship” is worship in which “people of every age are understood to be equally important.” How we welcome people, how we pray together, how we read the Bible and tell its stories and ours, how we preach, how and what we sing: all these affect the “generational cohorts” of a church community, each in a different way. The Church of All Ages provides tools for thinking inter-generationally in congregational life, from worship to personal relationships.

These—and many other subjects besides—occupied our reading group, drawn from a variety of different churches and denominations in the Toronto area in the fall of 2009. We gathered at the behest of editor Vanderwell and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to read and discuss the book, and report back to them during the Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids in January 2010. This model of connecting a book with its intended audience may not be new, but it succeeded in creating an ecumenical and intergenerational group that was challenged and renewed by what we explored together. We began by struggling to find time to meet; we ended with members saying, “What’s our next book and when is our next meeting?”

The Church of All Ages is not a how-to primer for intergenerational liturgies, much less a collection of ideas for a children’s or youth worship event. Rather, it explores the foundational issues that underlie how church members of different generational cohorts experience life in a community of faith. In a sense, the book is an easy read. But when our reading group began discussing it, we discovered how much material it covered, and how many underlying dynamics of church life it uncovered, dynamics that can lead to conflict but also to congregational renewal.

One of the first dynamics we discovered was confusion about the purpose of some of our deepest-rooted congregational practices. We discussed many, but the example of the Children’s Time will suffice. We agreed that a typical church doesn’t have a “Senior Moment” or “Time with the Thirty-Somethings,” so why a special time with children? Of course, the answer points us to the central issue of Vanderwell’s book. Worship is usually—and some would say properly—a time designed by and for adults. At the same time, the words “All Welcome” on most church signs proclaim the value of everyone attending church: seniors, youth, children.

We went further in our questioning. What about the “Children’s hymn?” Why do we have the adults sing it, while the kids (who don’t have a hymnbook) troop to the front? And who are the real listeners to the “Children’s Sermon” when the pastor uses concepts in the children’s story that only an adult can understand?

We discussed one solution to the challenge of the children’s time, practiced at Trafalgar Presbyterian in Oakville, Ontario, where group member Kristine O'Brien is the minister and I direct the music. Since the church at present doesn’t use PowerPoint in regular worship (and since, in any case, the children don’t necessarily read well), we sing songs that can be learned by rote. African-American spirituals, South American songs, African songs, even refrains from standard hymns such as “All Creatures of our God and King”—all these form a repertoire that both children and adults have learned by heart, and carry with them from worship. The kids often sing unaccompanied, or in musical dialogue with the congregation and choir, with the adults singing verses and the children singing the refrains. The children’s sermon itself is often a conversation between Kristine and the children. The kids are not cute-and-comic-relief to the rest of worship; they are active participants, and the adults participate by listening.

Another dynamic that we discussed was the fact that different generations bring different expectations to church life. This can often lead to conflict. What does it mean, for example, to respect the sanctuary space? For some (not necessarily young parents), it means giving open creative rein to children so that they will feel comfortable coming to church. For others (and not necessarily senior church members), it means being quiet and learning to behave in a manner appropriate to the various parts of the liturgy. For some, it means feeling comfortable and at home, so that a cup of coffee is never out of place in the place of worship. For others, it means that everything in the sanctuary is sacred, and “set aside from all common use.” The expectation of renewal as opposed to the expectation that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; the expectation that certain subjects and a certain kind of language are appropriate for worship of Almighty God as opposed to the belief that all of human life and every human struggle, including money, sex and politics, are the proper stuff of our worship life: these and other expectations tend to fall along generational lines, and shape how generations interact with each other. And sooner or later church congregations face the fact that church is not always, nor can it be, comfortable.

This fact led us to the dynamics underlying decision-making and power in congregational life. Whose expectations are satisfied? Who gets to decide? Whose voice is included? Whose is excluded or, if heard, disregarded?

With all these challenges, why is it critically important for us to practice intergenerational worship? In response, Kristine tells of the many funeral services she has led at funeral chapels. She says that during times of communal grief, anger or even joy, we search in vain for language, prayers, songs—any modes of expression that we hold in common. She finds that no one knows the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-third Psalm, or any other expressions of common faith. This situation has developed to such an extent that, in a recent article in a Toronto newspaper, a columnist advised an inquirer not to attend a funeral, since funerals themselves have become meaningless exercises. People no longer have the language to deal with life-and-death issues in communal gatherings such as funerals, Kristine says.

Intergenerational worship can lay another kind of foundation. Karin Schemeit describes going to church while visiting family in Germany and recognizing its liturgy from her childhood church, a German-speaking congregation in Toronto. “I appreciate the comfort and the grounding of the familiar, but I also appreciate the new,” she says.

It was the question “What does it mean to include all generations in our worship?” that led us to explore how the generations relate to each other in a church community. We discovered that our different faith communities faced very similar experiences. We also discovered a thread running through all our discussions: what drew people to church was that other people were interested in them and included them.

For me the memorable parts of our discussions around The Church of All Ages were the stories of people being given opportunities to offer their gifts of leadership, of insight, of storytelling, of music. Claire Lemiski told of praying, by heart, the words of the Great Prayer of Thankgiving at a communion service and realizing that she had learned it at a church where she and her brother had played weekly as part of the instrumental ensemble. Karen Pozios told of her young son being asked to play violin at the funeral of an elderly church member, and how meaningful it was for him to be entrusted with what is often considered an “adult” role. David Locke, now a music director at a Christian Reformed church, related the fact that he is involved in church now, as an adult, at least partly because he was given leadership roles, including playing trumpet, at Sunday evening services at his church.

Churches typecast our members into generational roles:
“Children are the church’s future”
“Seniors are the memory of a congregation”

In response, I offer this story. After years of struggle and decline, a church was looking for a new minister. Elder John Will, who was himself struggling with a long-term illness, dutifully listened to the sermon preached by a young prospect, and attended the follow-up meeting. After listening to comments by other committee members, he said, “He’s not my kind of minister, but I don’t think you should be choosing the minister for me.” John supported the committee’s choice and, until his death a few years later, supported the new minister’s groundbreaking work in the congregation. He could have tried to end his days being comfortable with a familiar style of minister. Instead, he sowed the seeds of the renewal of the congregation.

The Church of All Ages offered our group tools to think differently: to imagine and offer church members of all generations different roles to play.

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