Intergenerational Church as a Space for Opportunity, Change, and Learning
In this conversation, pastor Theresa Cho of St. John's Church in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco shares joys and insights from a historical congregation that is learning to embrace change and be vulnerable in order to live together as an intergenerational, contextual worshiping community.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] Welcome to this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. This is a new series hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am Dr. Elizabeth Tamez Méndez, founder and executive director of New Generation3 and longtime collaborator with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Rev. Dr. Theresa Cho, and she's joining us for this conversation in the next video in the series. Theresa, thank you for being our guest today. We're so happy to have you here.
Theresa Cho [00:00:46] I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me and providing this opportunity to have this conversation.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:53] Thank you so much for your time. As you know, the CICW has been working on gathering insights around this theme. We went to come together and learn about community worship practices in different contexts, especially those that encourage intergenerational worship spaces and relationships. In today's conversation, we want to focus on practices that include and empower youth. Theresa, would you please share with us a bit about your context and your work? We are eager to get to know more about it and about you.
Theresa Cho [00:01:25] Sure. I am a pastor at St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and it is a church that is one hundred and fifty years old, so it has a lot of history. I will say throughout its history, I am their first woman pastor, so that's a change. We're kind of a small urban congregation very focused on servicing and loving our neighbors in the city through food insecurity, affordable housing, family worship, and immigrant rights. I also do a lot with youth only because my background was a teacher before I was a pastor, so I taught special education, focusing mostly on older children who are on the autism spectrum. So what I bring, then, to anything that I do here at St. John's, but also in my denomination, which is Presbyterian Church USA, is how do you bring the abstract? Nothing sometimes can be more abstract than God. And down to the concrete, where we get to touch it and participate in it and smell it and taste it. So a lot of my work then is working with youth on the denominational level. I had participated in Presbyterian youth training, where we gathered about five thousand youth to one area. I got a chance to write the curriculum, so they got to dive into Bible study, kids all over the United States, meeting people, intersecting with people that they would never probably have met before in their lives and all centered around the Word of God.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:03:21] Thank you so much, Theresa. This really helps us to get to know you better and to understand the spaces where you work and relate to youth. Now, before we move forward, we want to let our viewers know that to frame our conversations in this series, we have chosen five values to shape this project on corporate worship and models of ministry with youth. These values are youth agency, spaces for theological questions, the role of the family, sparking intergenerational relationships, and designing multiple pathways for ministry with youth. So how has your work with youth and then your work at St. John's Presbyterian Church been able to inform the way that you create these intergenerational spaces?
Theresa Cho [00:04:06] I think for me, it's really understanding what is intergenerational church, what is intergenerational worship? I think a lot of us focus on the youth and the children aspect of it. But for me, the important part of it is the “inter.” So, where are the spaces—whether it's in worship, whether it's in ministry, whether it's in social justice— where are the intersections and the interactions between those of all ages? And how do we then learn from one another that no matter what age we are, we are all teachers, and we're all learners. And given our age, we get a different glimpse into the wonder and awe of who God is and therefore who we are. So a lot of what we do at St. John's is creating that space where everyone has access to shape and form not only worship, but the church as well. So that's really what I focus on. It’s less about age and more about the different ways that we learn. So some people, whether you’re young or old, are more visual learners. Some are more audible learners. Some need to touch and feel everything. Some love words and long-winded sermons. We all have different ways we process. And it's not just about age. It's really about the unique ways that God has created us.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:05:45] Thank you for pointing that out of how you are trying to create these spaces there at the church where everything is intergenerational. There were a couple of things that jumped to me that I would love to hear more about. You mentioned having these values and ways of conceptualizing ministry where everyone is learning from one another. Could you share with us about that? Because I know that a lot of the people that we speak to and that we have conversations with about these topics, they either point out to us that maybe some of the elders or older generations, they have a bit of a struggle with that concept and that notion. What are some practical ways that you do that, where there's an ethos of understanding that part of my role is teaching, and younger ones can also teach me? And then with the young ones, the other side, where perhaps also in different cultural spaces where there's a sense of their elders are to be respected, and I don't have a voice. So then it's almost the reverse teaching, that you have something valuable to bring. So I don't know if you could speak about that. How have you been able to work these aspects into your church and in worship?
Theresa Cho [00:07:17] I really do think intergenerational gives us an opportunity to really pull at some of the myths that we hold, and not only myths, but for a lot of us, it's deep values. So I think for a lot of the older generation, we have this idea of what is holy, and how we worship can be holy. And for some it may be that you have to sit a certain way; you have to act a certain way; children should be seen and not heard; definitely do not bring any food or drink into the sanctuary—how many times do we see those signs at the doors of the sanctuary that say no food or drink here. But intergenerational worship can start testing those questions of, well, why? What happens when you bring food and drink into the sanctuary? What is of value to you in worship may actually be an obstacle to somebody else in worship.
So one of the first things that we did at St. John's was—I got pregnant my first year at St. John's, and my son was someone whom I could not easily hand off to somebody. He had to be with me, glued to my body, 24-7. So here I am, a new pastor, young, and I have to preach with him strapped to my body. That gave me an insight of things that were obstacles for me as their pastor that prevented me from fully being able to lead worship there. I mean, we are a historic church, we had these beautiful historic pews, but those pews took up so much physical space there was not room to do anything else. It was so hard to bring in a stroller; it was so hard to walk around and move around. Those pews were meant to just stay there, which meant that the people were meant to just stay there and sit there. Well, here's one thing: children don't just sit and stay there! They run around.So one of the first things that we just experimented with was, what if we just remove a couple of them just so that there's at least some space where I could have a stroller, or families who needed extra things could have space. And one of the things that we discovered was that not all the adults actually felt comfortable in that space, that when we just removed a couple of the pews, some of the older folk who were in wheelchairs or walkers said, “There's now room for me here.” This is not just a young-person problem. This is an intergenerational problem. And we have now created space that no matter how young you are to how old, no matter what ability you have or what challenges you have, we are creating space for you. So that's just like one concrete example of how changing something, testing a value, can really then discover ways that unintentionally a church was being unwelcoming.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:10:51] I think you pointed out something extremely important: those values that sometimes we have not had a chance to articulate and to actually express, but in our mind and our imagination, this is how it is, right? . . . This is how worship is. This is the right way to do it.
Theresa Cho [00:11:18] And if we're ever wondering, well, what values should we start with, the perfect people to ask are toddlers, because what do they ask? Why! Why do we have to do this? Why? What's this? They're always asking why. And oftentimes I wonder if we have the answers to their whys, and if we don't, then that's a clue that that is probably something that we should be paying attention to. “You need to sit quietly. You need to act like this.” “Why?” “This is how you worship.” “Why?” “You can't bring your goldfish crackers into the sanctuary.” “Why?” I think just being playful with it too. I really think God is a creative, playful God. And that's one of the things about intergenerational church is it makes us to not be so serious about these things. We are supposed to engage and interact with one another, and that's how we learn who God is and who we are.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:12:18] And I think we often have been passed down this image of God where everything is very stern, is very orderly, and how opposite, I always see, of how everything is created outside of that! I am almost mesmerized by the chipmunks here, and the birds and everything. There's a lot of nature around here, and they're just playful, and they're happy, and they're disorganized, but they know exactly what they're trying to do, what their goal is. And yet somehow there’s a lot of movement and play and playfulness. We've kind of lost that in the translation and transition; we've been telling each other these theological stories. And so then we start to see these generations that are growing up in this society which is a lot more playful and open. I spend a lot of time watching those TikTok videos, and this is what they want to do, the new generation, and now even the older ones are catching on to it. They want to be free, they want to move, they want to be playful. They want to be able to express what they have in mind, and somehow those deep values from other generations have been passed down, and there's a clash in that.
Theresa Cho [00:13:46] It no longer fits; it no longer translates. And I think too, we run a real risk and a real danger of becoming irrelevant if we haven't become irrelevant already. And I think it's not because the church is old-fashioned. I think it's because there's something we do where we walk through the doors of the church and we expect nothing to change, that we worship a never-changing God. But if we worship a never-changing God, then really what we've created is an idol of sorts, because everything outside the doors of the church, our lives have changed. A perfect example of that is what we've been going through for the past year and a half. Our lives have been turned upside-down through this pandemic. We have lost loved ones. We have lost jobs. We have lost our sense of independence, maybe, depending on how you feel about the masks or vaccinations. We have lost a sense of community because we've been having to do so much on technology. If the church does not then help us build up and strengthen our spiritual muscle so that we are better able to deal with the challenges and the changes that are happening out there, then what are we doing? And so then the kids, the youth who are in that, they see what's happening, they see the least of them, the most vulnerable, their lives being affected, and then they're looking to their church and their faith for answers for this. And they're seeing that there is a huge discrepancy behind that. So really an intergenerational church in worship, if it's truly intergenerational, it really is a laboratory. This is a place where we can test our doubt, test our hypotheses, be in difficult conversations, practice forgiving one another. If a child spills something in the sanctuary, it is an opportunity to practice grace. If things don't go perfect in worship, it is an opportunity to practice compassion. It tests, really, are we only welcoming to people that are like us, or are we truly willing to welcome the “other” at the expense of our own comfort? That is what we need to be practicing in this laboratory of a sanctuary. Why? Because we need to be better able to do so out there. It is not easy to love our neighbor, and the best people who keep us accountable to that are the youth.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:16:46] They can see through any walls or any masquerade that we want to bring forward because we feel that this is expected of us, this is how we need to show up. I was having a conversation with a few leaders in another event yesterday, and it was very interesting to hear this leader mention, “I used to have issues with being vulnerable and open to to others and being transparent because there's this sense that a leader needs to be this way and that way and needs to show up in this in this manner. And I was like, ‘Who said it?’” Why do we continue with perpetuating these ways of either being a leader or doing church or living out our Christianity? I always point out to people, any living organism, that's part of the reality; if you're alive, you're changing constantly. . . . Inside our biology, everything in our system is renewing itself and it's multiplying.
Theresa Cho [00:18:00] My phone is renewing itself all the time!
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:18:02] Right! Update, update, update! So why is it then that we have held on to this notion that the living God and the representation and presentation of us as Christians as the church need to be static and never changing? That goes against what it means to be alive. If you're alive, you're changing, so if you're not changing, are you alive?
Theresa Cho [00:18:34] One of the things that we do at St. John's is we're not a programmatic church, so we don't have, like, here's Christian education for kids; here's a youth group program. It really needs to be equal access to everything. So youth can be leaders. Youth can be a part of planning worship. Really, it has to be an intergenerational endeavor. So one of the things that we do, for example, [with] confirmation: confirmation isn't only about learning the liturgical calendar and knowing all of the confessions or all the things that you're supposed to learn. We really talk about what are the issues that you're concerned with? What are you hearing out there? And the children today are the most “woke” when it comes to what's happening in the world. And we talk about ways of how that tests or intersects with our faith. So our youth then create a statement of faith for the congregation—not their own personal statement of faith, but a community statement of faith that definitely is in line with what's happening in the world. And then they plan that worship service. They plan their own confirmation worship service down to the liturgy and the prayers that they want the rest of the church to participate in. It's taking what they're learning, what they're believing, and then it's giving them access and opportunity to say, OK, now how do you want this to translate to the rest of the congregation?
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:20:22] So this is part of what you have worked into their confirmation process, that they plan that worship service when they're finished with the confirmation process. And they're the ones who say, this is what we're envisioning for this expression.
Theresa Cho [00:20:39] Yeah, it's really making it more concrete. It's not just them being passive recipients of all this information. It's “OK, so this is what we're learning. What story in the Bible do you think then would be a good one to then go along with your statement of faith that you all wrote? What music could we sing around that, and how do we pray around that? Maybe there's an interactive activity you want the congregation to participate in to reflect on their own statement of faith.” So we talk about that, and then they exercise their own sense of agency and leadership, and they become the teachers for the congregation.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:21:32] I have a couple of questions about that. There's two things that keep coming into my mind. One is that there are a lot of conversations about innovation, about church reinventing itself, about being open to new ways of doing things. And at the same time, what I'm also seeing from from some leaders who are trying to implement this is that even though they go to conferences and they get a lot of practical [advice], and then they go and try to replicate this in their congregation, in their context and they're so frustrated because they’re like, “I have the older generation and the younger generation talking to each other and working, but then they come back and they give me the same thing, or they're not really having those conversations with each other.” And one of the aspects that we always bring up to them is: Did the congregation establish this as a value that they want to live out? Do they understand what they're doing or why they're doing it? Did they determine that this is their mission and calling to pass on the baton of leadership? Were there conversations about that? No? OK, you see, when you try to implement techniques without having the foundational work done . . . So I would like to hear how you went about doing that in the church, because one of the aspects that we're always trying to point out to leaders is that we want to see young people engage with the church, continue the work, the ministry; however, how [do we] integrate them into these spaces of voice, of leadership opportunities, and who needs to walk alongside of them? That's where there's a disconnect, because we always try to remind them that science continues to show that if you want to make the greatest impact in a person in their leadership abilities, when you have an intervention with an adult on a good day, you have a 16 percent improvement in their leadership, perspectives, and abilities. Obviously, when you have those interventions and interactions with the kids and young people, their brains are being formed, their purpose, their way of seeing things. Of course, then that number grows exponentially and they start seeing themselves as “I am vital to the church, and this is my place, and there are ways that I can give back, and we can learn from one another.” Those are great concepts that make us feel good, but then how do we go about it? What was the foundation that you laid out so that people would want to go along with that ethos?
Theresa Cho [00:24:33] Unfortunately, there are no “easy ten steps,” right? First, it's recognizing a few things. It's contextual. My church and then maybe a church down the block, we're in the same city or in the same neighborhood, but we are in two different contexts. So it's very contextual to your own church. And it takes time. I think we want everything to happen [according to]: “What's the plan? When do we expect this to be done? How will we know that this plan has succeeded?” It doesn't work that way. I've been a pastor here at St. John's for eighteen years and we're still working. We're still making improvements. We're still trying to be better at being an intergenerational church, so it takes time. Then the other thing that I would say is that it's about changing people. The church is the people. And we all know it is not easy changing people. We know because we have a hard time changing ourselves. Why do we keep doing New Year's resolutions and then two weeks later, we've broken them? We can't even change our own selves! So I really do liken it back to the time when I was a special ed teacher, and we would have an IEP for each student. And then when they're working on their goals, on their individual plan, there's going to be behaviors. So there's a behavior planned. It's almost the same thing you do with the church. You covenant to try something. We're going to covenant to make this one change. And then you always are assessing and observing, because there's going to be behaviors, because that's what change does. Change tugs at our sense of security. It tests our values. It makes us uncomfortable. So we can't help but have it test, have behaviors come out, including our own. And so one of the things is really kind of assessing what you're doing so that you can figure out what's a good thing for us to try, to experiment with. And then you make a covenant about that. You name the fears. When we got rid of our historic pews to these movable, stackable pews, it was a five-year conversation.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:27:28] Tell that to a designer who comes . . . we're so used to changing the layout and the furniture of a place whenever you want. Wow, that's powerful. Five years.
Theresa Cho [00:27:42] Yeah, because again, it's about changing people, right? You would have thought that we were getting rid of someone's aunt! I mean, people had this nostalgic attachment to this wooden furniture. But we took the time, we heard from everybody, even though we still made the decision to change them out, it really was about saying, “Well, what are your fears about changing the pews?” “Oh, it's a historic church,” or some of the fears were “If you change this, you're going to change everything. If you change everything, where is it going to end? Where is it going to stop? Nothing of what I love here is going to exist anymore.” So in being able to have people name what they fear, we were able to create a covenant and go, “We promise this is only about the pews. We promise open communication.”
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:28:45] “If they’re no longer useful, then I'm not going to be useful either! You're gonna throw me out too!”
Theresa Cho [00:28:50] “We promise we're not getting rid of you. It's only about the pews.” This is kind of why we're going down this route and wanting to put forth so much money for this endeavor. And let me tell you, that happened in 2015, and there weren't specific things we were able to name because people wanted to know exactly why. But let me tell you, March 2020, the moment we had to go into lockdown, if it wasn't for those movable pews . . . within a week, we were able to turn our sanctuary into a food pantry. As people were losing jobs, as people were losing their sense of security, we were feeding people. And it only took a week. That's holy.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:29:42] Amen. Yes.
Theresa Cho [00:29:44] And that was an intergenerational effort. We had kids from all ages, old and young, coming to hand out food to our neighbors. So forget bringing coffee and goldfish crackers into it. We were bringing watermelon, onions . . . You see the sanctuary picture behind me. The sanctuary is still intact. It's still holy. It's still beautiful. It's still historic. So . . . there's no method that's going to be the secret sauce. It's about relationships. It's about loving people. And that's hard.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:30:28] Yes, that is one of the factors that we constantly try to remind leaders and all of this leadership research, that the hardest thing for a human being is change. And that can be a bit decentering for some of us, especially different generations, because we are so used to, “OK, so I had this phone for a few months and [I’m ready for the] next one,” and I see some of the elders who are like, “No, this is my phone for life!” . . . So there is this whole generational change, a way of viewing things and what is necessary, what is able to help us do the work for a season, but sometimes then it starts to hold us back, and it doesn’t allow for the imagination and the creativity. Like you said, little did your congregation know that there was going to come a time when there was going to be this huge need in the community and you needed to pivot quickly. And what was beautiful, very useful furniture for a long time at this time was not going to serve you well. It was just going to start getting in the way of being able to say that the people need to get in here. And thank God we have furniture that can quickly allow us to get that done.
Theresa Cho [00:32:02] So when we have young people come and say, “Do you see what's happening out there? What's the church going to do about it?” We can say, “Well, what do you think? Let's think about that together. What should the church do about it?” And have the capacity to be able to do it. That's really what we're doing. We're building capacity. We're making room for whatever the Spirit blows, whatever God presents to us, we have the space to receive it. But if our values have created such tight borders that the Spirit can't even move, so that we can’t see where new life is happening around us, then then we've really kind of idolized aspects of what we think is holy and of God, and we've really confined God to a temple, to a limited space. I don't want to devalue people's fears, because there is a sense of grief. Grief is serious. And the people needed time to grieve over those pews. Absolutely. But we can grieve and move forward at the same time.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:33:29] It's true, it's not a dismissal of those things; I think it's an invitation to catch ourselves. It's not that somebody is doing something ill-willing; it's just sometimes we haven't had the space or the invitation to reflect, to say, Well, why do you believe that? Why is that so important? Why is this creating noise inside of you and making you restless? Regardless of your age or your background. So that's beautiful to hear that your congregation has adapted those ways of being, that it's just this conversation knowing that it takes time. [Honoring everyone means recognizing] it may take you five minutes to make the decision, and it may take others five years to come to terms with why this is happening and why we all want to do it now.
Theresa Cho [00:34:42] And we're doing it together. We're not doing it alone. We're a community doing this together. So if we feel that we don't have the skill set, well, that's fine. Someone in the community does. If we're doubting whether this is a good idea, that's OK. Someone is just a little bit more certain than we are that maybe could give us the faith and confidence. One of the biggest gifts I think as older folks in the congregation is to just allow it to happen. Permission can be the greatest gift that you give. You may not want to participate; you may not be able to participate in this new direction. But if you can give support and permission, sometimes that is the best thing for kids and youth.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:35:38] Part of what we always encourage the olders [to do] is to create this view of their sense of calling as those who leave a legacy and pass the baton and practice these biblical, theological values of knowing that the olders are being called and meant to teach the youngers. There's no other way for the younger generation to learn. It has to be the olders teaching the youngers, and to be able to then embrace that calling as a new season in life comes. You're saying perhaps I may not be able to participate in a lot of things, or I may not be able to understand all of it. But can I bless this congregation in this church with a ministry and posture of legacy passing, being able to give the tools and enabling . . . and even just bless them. When you say, “I bless you, I'm in, I'm here and I'm praying.” We have several olders in our congregation and what they are always doing, they say, “Look, I cannot move much in my 90s. I can't do much [in my] late 80s. What I can do is to make sure that when I wake up at three or four in the morning because I can't sleep anymore, I'm praying for this young person and this other person.” They have their list of names. Their handwriting is not very strong anymore because they're older, but yet they take these big cards and they make sure they write two or three words of affirmation for someone else in the church, especially the young ones, and they mail it out. It's these things that just let us know constantly that we are interconnected, and the older is playing a huge role in saying, “We bless you. We bless you to continue the work” versus “No, this is changing, and this is making me uncomfortable, and I don't understand that!” That's a natural reaction. But then that invitation to, How do we view our sense of legacy? Like you're saying, those multigenerational relationships, to be able to continue feeding into that, and that then kind of flows into everything else.
Theresa Cho [00:38:16] How do we know what God looks like and who God is if it's not within our faith community? And so as we always hear the church mourning, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they coming back to the church?” But if what they remember of church is nothing of what they want to know of God, then why would they come back? But if they can remember [that even if the church] didn't do it right, didn't do it eloquently, my church created space and gave me opportunities to be myself, to lead in worship. I felt loved. I was prayed for. They accepted me, mistakes and all. Then that is something that could stay with them for a long, long time of who God is.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:39:18] It becomes addictive, right? In all these aspects of leadership development we're always pointing out that organizational culture. And so in this case, our culture as a congregation, what type of message are we constantly giving with our attitudes, with our behavior, with the things we say, with the things we allow or don't allow? They’re giving constant messages. No one wants to be in an environment where they feel rejected or not valued or this is not the place for you or your ideas, your way of doing things. . . . So how do we check ourselves to make sure that even unintentionally we may be giving that message to young people? And sometimes that's a big paradigm shift because society is still in that transition of young people taking over, especially in congregations with older structures. So how has your congregation been able to open up and unfold into this transparency and the value of vulnerability and saying it's OK if it doesn't come out perfect, if you were going to do this participation or the other and it didn't turn out, that's OK, you're safe here. We value you. We trust you. We are so happy that you did this. How have you been able to create that type of energy and community values that are open to those ways of doing things?
Theresa Cho [00:41:06] I'll just reiterate, it just takes a lot of time. But I think too, for me, it was just modeling that as well, especially as we were having more and more kids in worship. Something would get spilled, or oftentimes I would have kids who wanted me to pick them up as I'm giving my sermon. To model that it's OK. Worship continued; it's OK. That way people could be like, OK, maybe this is something that either I can copy or I disagree with so I'm going to want to have a conversation about it. You really just want those conversations to happen because I think when people share their stories, then it's transforming. When you are more able to know somebody's story, you will have a harder time to stick so much to your values. And one of the things that I'll share is when we were really discerning to become a sanctuary church to advocate for immigrants, one of the myths and one of the fears that people held was, If we advocate for immigrants, are we not advocating for criminals? Because there was that reputation of some sort. We were able to tell stories within our congregation of ways that we have been criminalized purely because of our identity and not because of anything that we had done wrong. And so a congregation member shared how his brother, because he was on the autism spectrum, was having a behavior because something triggered it. The way that their city handled it was they called the police. And so then that police handled it in a situation that ultimately unfortunately ended in the death of his brother. And so it really opened up this conversation of, Oh, wait a minute, this isn't what we thought it was going to be. And it kind of opened up this opportunity to transform our sense of thinking, to be more inclusive and more welcoming that we never thought of before. So I think opportunities that people can share their own stories, not just How are you doing? or How's the weather? But really ways that they can find, “Oh, I thought we were different. It turns out we have more similarities than I thought we did.” Yeah, it can be transforming.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:44:08] I hear a lot of people wanting to do that, desiring to do that. I think a lot of the conversation thankfully has been about sharing stories and being able to tell one another what is going on. And perhaps because I have the the comparison and contrast of the different cultural values and ways of being, when I speak of that in the Latino church, everybody's like, Yeah, we do testimonies all the time, and we tell you everything that happened and what God did in my life this week and what I'm struggling with, and I'm praising God for that. But when I say that in more mainstream culture, that concept of being transparent and vulnerable and open and telling other people my business, it's not quite accepted as much. So how have you been able to negotiate those things?
Theresa Cho [00:45:16] I did a worship series on stories, and we did origin stories, creation stories, love stories, even kind of the shameful stories. And we looked at stories within our church and then paired it with Bible stories. But I always gave a prompt to them. So one of them was our origin stories, where we began. And the prompt was “The first time I ever . . .”. And it's a very innocent and approachable prompt, so people shared things like “The first time I ever ate sushi,” “The first time I got on an airplane,” “The first time I met my baby.” They got to write these down, and we created a story wall. So I think you don't have to make it harder than it is. Then when it came to love stories, it was just “I love . . .”. Kids were like, “I love pizza!” And other people got more profound and deep about it. And then to place it where it's accessible for people to then read as the worship series grew gave an interesting conversation during coffee fellowship hour and opportunities like, “You know, you and I have been going to this church for twenty years. I had no idea that . . .”. And it gives the opportunity for intergenerational conversations, too. “I like pizza too! What’s your favorite kind of pizza?” We don't have to make it harder than it is. But I think again, creating access, creating opportunity, letting the kids lead, because oftentimes they're the ones that have the least problem with change.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:47:28] Yes. And they can help us, right? They can help us to see it's okay, it’s not so threatening.
Theresa Cho [00:47:37] Especially as adults we get very self-conscious about things and you might be self-conscious of, “My gosh, I have to write something very profound.” And then you got a kid who drew pizza. I guess I don't have to be that profound. I like pepperoni pizza. We just sometimes need to get out of our way a little bit.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:47:59] The exercise was to do these stories, and then the stories were posted throughout the week?
Theresa Cho [00:48:10] Yeah, in the fellowship hall or just a place where people passing intersect and gather.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:48:17] And then it just prompted those conversations, right?
Theresa Cho [00:48:26] It did, and then when you can intersect that with the church's story, so talking about one hundred and fifty years ago, the origins of this church, and then we paired it with the creation story: out of void and darkness, God created all of this stuff. That was the first time. So then [we asked]: What was your first time . . . ? And so again, where our story and the Bible story and our faith community, those stories, intersect, you will be surprised what profound transformation can happen.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:49:02] You've pointed to that very important concept of intersection, and [being] able to create those spaces and those opportunities for the conversation, for the work together, for even seeing each other in the same space. Because like you were mentioning, there's churches whose structures are very much about departments and then they don't get to see each other much. So how do we more and more integrate, from the little things to the big things, where we are seeing each other and then it just feels normal that we're talking to one another, that we're giving the ideas in? I always have this image in my mind of how things have changed when I'm out at the airport and constantly traveling before the pandemic. Now we see a lot of kids at the airport. And over the years I've seen the shift in reaction when I say, Hi, how are you doing? What's going on? What are you playing with?” from where it used to be these open conversations, kids telling me what was going on, to now looking at me like, “Why is an adult speaking to me?” and “I'm busy watching my video.” Their minds are blown, right? And they have no idea what to say or how to react because they're going in these spaces where they don't think adults and younger ones speak.
Theresa Cho [00:50:50] And I think oftentimes we talk at children, and we don't talk to them or with them. And I think as adults we have those same experiences of when we've been talked at, and it doesn't feel good. What does it mean to honor the child and talk to them, talk with them? Because that's what we would want for ourselves.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:51:17] Being able to just recognize that they are a human being with agency, with lots to say and, depending on your theological background, the way I always share with leaders, Jesus made no distinction on the ages—to the contrary, said “Hold on.” The disciples are telling everyone Jesus is busy; he can't bless your child, please leave us alone. And he's like, here it’s backwards, and the kingdom is my way of doing it now. My leadership is they come first. We take care of them first, and then the rest, well, if we get to it, great, and if not, that's it, right? But I think just being able to continue to translate that into the church. I did want to ask you about when you see these intergenerational relationships, what has been the reaction of the parents, the grandparents, the family members, or any other guardians? What have you seen in this process?
Theresa Cho [00:52:22] Well, you know, it's a step for them too, I think, moving from kind of that older style of Christian education where we segregate the children. So you have worship, and then you have the children's sermon, and then oftentimes then they go off to have their separate programing. What that says is their spiritual formation is in the hands of the church. The problem with that is you only see them for an hour a week—maybe—if they come every Sunday. Who are the people that see them all the time? It is their parents. And so the shift is then teaching guardians and parents and family members, you are their number one spiritual formation teacher. And so it shifts them from teaching kids the facts of the Bible stories to teaching parents and giving them the resources on how to teach their children, teaching them how to pray, teaching the spiritual rituals and practices that you can do on a daily basis when those God conversations come up. How can we structure them and form them so that we know what to say and I don't have to feel like I have to know all the answers? One of the things I used to do in church all the time that made the parents nervous is when I did have conversations with the kids and when the kids would ask a difficult question, I said, “That's a great question. You should ask your parents about that.” So it shifted then again from providing the materials and resources . . . for parents we would provide things in worship. Yeah, it was for kids to do, but it really was a tool for them to take home with their kids and to continue the conversation and continue the practice throughout the week. And so that's a hard shift.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:54:47] Right. Part of the legacy we have received but we really haven't thought about is that the spiritual formation of my child is the responsibility of the church and the ministers and the structures within it.
Theresa Cho [00:55:07] And the kids will ask, “Why are you making me do this? I never see you do this!”
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:55:12] That's the great thing about being with the younger ones. They call us out constantly. They're just like, what you're saying and what you're doing is not matching. Why? And so you have to educate leaders on that technique of asking the same question five times, right? I think we probably got it from toddlers. And so I think that's always a good technique for us as leaders: make sure you ask the same questions. And you're going to get to the bottom of things.
Theresa Cho [00:55:49] Every church should know why they exist. Why does St. John’s exist on the corner of Lake Street and Arguillo Boulevard? And if you can't answer that, then that is the starting place for you.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:56:03] And being able then to understand even within that with the intersection with families and to be able to see that certainly we're walking alongside of you as partners and collaborators in the development and in the faith formation of this child; however, the blessing and the responsibility has been given by God to you, not to the pastor, not to the Sunday school teacher or to the youth leader or the children's minister. It's certainly the privilege and responsibility of the parent to be able to guide them in the right direction so that even when they're older they will stick to what they have learned. But I know for a lot of parents that can be baffling. They say, “How do I do that?” because they may not have had an example of that growing up, that formation. So if I understood, then, your congregation creates resources to help the parents in that process?
Theresa Cho [00:57:15] It’s morphed over the years in different ways. But it's really just, considering putting together a guide . . . We used to, before the pandemic, we would have a worship bulletin that would follow the regular worship bulletin, but it gave prompts to the parents. So when we're singing this hymn, it would give a prompt to the parent to, say, have your child recognize how many times this word pops up in the hymn, or if we had a coloring page that went along with the scripture that was being read, see if they can color that character or whatever as they're hearing the scripture. How does it come alive to them? And so it was really just simple prompts for parents to have faith conversations with their children.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:58:28] And does that mean, then, that there needs to be a little bit of a different flow in the worship space if a parent needs to interact with their child during the worship service and help them guide through those prompts? Has that made a difference in how things go?
Theresa Cho [00:58:50] Over time our worship service became a place where . . . it went from what I described my first year at St. John's to now eighteen years later, there's constant movement in the sanctuary, mainly because kids can't stay still, but there are people where an hour is a long time to not go to the bathroom, or they want to refresh their coffee, and I always say that caffeine enhances worship! But again, the sense of permission of just being; what does it mean to be present in worship? And that sense of movement gives parents also permission to get down on the floor next to their child if they have to, or have a quiet conversation with their child to guide them through whatever bulletin we were providing, or if there was an activity in the middle of our sanctuary that the kids were invited to participate in. So that's really kind of where we’ve moved to now. So you don't really notice that. And that's kind of one of the things that we hold as a part of our identity. We do want to be welcoming and hospitable. But if that is not something that you're looking for, then St. John's may not be the right congregation for you.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:00:21] Sure. Because we know that everyone has different needs and may not be at that time in the spot to be open to those types of dynamics; they may have in their imagination that it needs to be a lot more rigid, or the pace of it or the noise of it needs to be in a different tone. We know this, and that's great, and that's why there's so many different types of ministries,. But I think, like you're saying, knowing our context and knowing the temperature, how much can be done at this time. Perhaps later something else can be done [via that] gradual integration.
Theresa Cho [01:01:11] We follow the same structure every Sunday, but one may be a little bit more traditional, but then the next one may be a little bit more interactive. And so what the congregation has developed is this capacity to say, “Oh, this may not be necessarily resonating with me, but I know next Sunday there might be.” Again, it's that permission; it's that creating space that just because it's not resonating with me doesn't mean it's not resonating with somebody in this congregation—this sense of generosity that it's not all about me.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:02:01] That's that's been hard, again and again, part of the legacy that we received, we started shifting at some point to where church needs to give you what you want, and this is about your needs being filled, and are you receiving what you need, and if not go somewhere else. And it's just this sense of the church is here to serve me. Yes, of course there is part of that. But I think that sometimes that we have taken that to the extreme and it's almost we have this view of the church and the body of Christ and those coming to worship almost like I'm going to a restaurant or a business, and they need to give me what I want the way I want it, how I like. [We need to be able to say] this is different. This is about God and . . . sometimes it may not connect with me, but like you're saying, I'm praying then in that moment it will connect with someone else that needs to hear it in this way or do it in that way. If I'm understanding correctly, then, your church doesn't have a dynamic of separate, different worship services or styles.
Theresa Cho [01:03:28] We don’t, [but] at moments we do. I do think there are definite benefits at times to having something that's . . . age-specific. But it's not programmed to always be that way. If it makes sense at that time, that's what we're going to do. Especially if you're doing a worship series that isn't age-appropriate, then you're going to want to be very sensitive to that. So again, I think to kind of get us out of this cookie-cutter mold that it has to be this way. But no, instead giving us a sense of permission and freedom. Again, it's the teacher in me. It's creating that lesson plan. What do I want people to walk away with? And depending on what that is, that lesson and how that's going to be taught is going to be different.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez[01:04:31] Freedom to say, “This is what seems to be needed today. This is where the spirit is leading. This is where today might need to be more about the olders, or today might be about the youngers.” One of the things that I always share with other leaders is you'll be surprised how when you think, “Oh, this is going to be so boring for kids; they're not going to want to do this,” we set up those spaces and those expectations for them, and they rise up to it, and they're happy to know that, Oh, I'm able to be in this space as well, and it doesn't always have to cater to the children. And then they start understanding and learning this is what's expected of me in this other space and place.
Theresa Cho [01:05:23] And to be able to look at children for who they are individually and not because they're children and therefore I think all children need this. I mean, we had a kid who grew up in our church, and I swear by the time he was born, he was ready to run for president. The first time he co-preached with me—I'm serious about this: co-preached with me—he was in third grade. I mean, he was articulate, he knew what he wanted. And then and then you have kids who are more artistic and more visual. But I think that's the same with adults. I think you have adults who have an ability to articulate what they believe, and then you have those who are just like, I'm here because I know I belong. Other than that, I haven't figured anything out.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:06:20] I know we're getting close to wrapping up our time, but you just touched on something so important! You brought up this concept of co-preaching. Do you want to close with that? Do you want to tell us about how that works and why you're doing it? And how have the youngers and olders reacted to that?
Theresa Cho [01:06:48] I think it depends on whatever the worship series or the topic we have, but there'll be certain kids and youth I'll ask to co-preach with me, and it's great. I'll ask their parents’ permission—”Hey, can I pick so-and-so up after school and we'll go to an ice cream shop and we're going to kind of hash out our sermon together.” And I've had as young as third grade to middle school to youth, and it can be short and simple. It could be a story. But the important part is not necessarily what we say, but it's that time at the ice cream shop where I'm having this conversation with them, going, “Hey, so I want to read you this Bible story. Let's talk about this a little bit. Is there something you can say something in your life that you can relate to? Oh, you're kidding. How so? I wonder if you can tell that story then. Let's try and write that out together.” And then we do, and then we share that as a part of the sermon illustration in worship.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:08:05] That probably takes you longer and more effort than if you were just preparing the sermon by yourself.
Theresa Cho [01:08:16] You know, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. You’ve got those moments where you need longer than a week and come Sunday morning you're like, “I still have nothing to say” or “Jesus, may you speak through me today.” I think it just depends.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:08:35] Something that I am always bringing up is it's been very interesting how in marketing and in the world of business, there has been that transition. One of the big retailers started then making shifts [to] the marketing campaigns and even the marketing companies that they were hiring changed because they understood that every year our biggest sales have to do with Christmas and going back to school. So who is the target demographic? It’s the children who should be selling these products, the children. So they shifted their whole marketing strategy to where young teenagers are the ones directing and writing the stories and doing the whole production of it, and it's shifted from we're not trying to sell you a pen or a backpack or a notebook; it's all these stories of kids telling how “I felt so lonely at school, and then we sat down and I met this girl and I didn't know who she was, but we noticed we had the same backpack, so then we started going off and talking, and I no longer feel alone.” And somehow business has been able to understand these connections with their real lives day to day.
Theresa Cho [01:10:14] Yeah, exactly. And guaranteed, if you ask any pastor if they've had a congregation member come up and go, “I didn't understand anything in your sermon, but man, that children's sermon blew me away. Totally got it.” So then to co-preach with a child, it's not to bring up the cute factor. There's something profound in that. As adults, we all can admit the Bible's not the easiest thing to understand, you know, which is probably why the children's sermon makes more sense than the sermon—that, and we just need to write better sermons. But again, intergenerational church and worship, it's not about dumbing down. It really is about honoring all the different ways that we take in information in relationship, and that includes with God.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:11:10] And the reality of everyday life that someone else, regardless of their age, is going to be able to bring a different application or reflection about it and the impact in that young person's or child’s life or even adult’s: they will never, ever forget that they were co-preaching with you, and that the congregation was open to that and was attentive to them and that they got the biggest message of any that you belong here, you’re important here—so important that you have that space for preaching that is untouchable, right? Thank you so much, Theresa. I sense that when we first started talking that we could stay here for hours, but this was such an engaging conversation. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us today, for sharing about what God is doing in your context. We have learned so much from you today. Thank you for being a light and just showing different ways of being able to continue building faith in different spaces with different people, intergenerational relationships. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Theresa Cho [01:12:35] Oh, thank you, Elizabeth, for this opportunity. It's been a joy.
Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [01:12:39] Thank you. And we also want to thank our viewers for joining us in this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. We pray these conversations inspire and encourage your efforts in reaching the next generation. Please join us for the next video in the series. We really would love for you to leave us a comment and continue this conversation about the session. We want to hear from you. Thank you.