Intergenerational Worship Model Based on Scripture and Story
Residents of senior living communities often feel cut off from church life. Meanwhile, congregations often feel segregated by age. This participatory intergenerational worship model brings people together around Scripture and life stories.
Senior citizens in rows of chairs and wheelchairs. A social worker or chaplain with three recorded hymns, or, in a best-case scenario, a volunteer pianist and a roster of retired preachers. That’s what’s usually available for older adult residents who don’t have rides to their own churches.
But Seabury Resources for Aging has developed a participatory intergenerational model of worship. Instead of a sermon, people interact with Scripture at worship stations. A younger woman kneels next to an armchair where a much older woman recalls a joyful experience. Off in a corner, two young boys, a middle-aged woman, and two elderly men pound on djembes. A bell sounds three times, and people rotate, some to tables full of books or art supplies. About 15 minutes later, everyone gathers to sing and share communion.
“Through our ongoing work with local congregations, we know there is a need for new models for intergenerational worship,” says Billy Kluttz, who led a 2018 Vital Worship Grant project for Seabury Resources for Aging. “Through our relationships with older adult clients and residents, we know they desire to have their stories heard, their full selves welcomed into worship, and more regular celebration of communion. Worshiping together reminds us of our shared identity as God’s beloved children and our shared calling to do God’s work in the world,”
Seabury provides personalized, affordable services and housing options for older adults in metro Washington, DC. It also works with DC-area congregations to make their faith communities more inclusive for older participants.
The grant project offered Common Threads, a four-part worship series, at two senior residences. It used “traditioned innovation” to help people of all ages creatively link Scripture and their life stories. Congregations and senior housing communities can use and adapt this intergenerational worship model.
Common threads in life and in Scripture
Common Threads participants varied in age, gender, race, ability, socioeconomic status, and religious background. “But each week focused on a theme common to everyone’s life journey—joy, sorrow, hope, and change,” says Kluttz, who directed the grant project while working as new media coordinator for Seabury. He is the associate pastor of music and arts at Church of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, and coordinates Sunday evening worship at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia.
Kluttz and Elizabeth Boyd, Seabury’s congregational resources coordinator, paired themes with Scripture passages: joy (2 Cor. 6:8–10), sorrow (Matt. 5:1–12), hope (Ps. 126), and change (Eccles. 1:4-11). Kluttz composed a simple song, “There’s a Thread of Hurting,” to open and close worship.
There’s a thread of hurting
There’s a thread of love
There’s a thread of restive longing
Coming from above
Common sorrow; common love
Coming from above
Kluttz and Boyd led services at Friendship Terrace in Washington, DC, on four consecutive Tuesday evenings in October 2018 and at Springvale Terrace in Silver Spring, Maryland, in February 2019. Each service lasted about an hour.
Seabury grant writer Hanna Finigin says that at Friendship, an independent living residence, about 70 percent of residents are women; 55 percent white and 40 percent African American; 42 percent aged 62–80 and 49 percent aged 81–90. About 90 percent live with memory, cognitive, or physical challenges. Springvale has both independent and assisted living, but Boyd says most resident participants at both places were from independent living.
“Various Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic groups lead services at Friendship and Springvale,” Kluttz says. “This was new in that it was intergenerational and led by people from Seabury Resources for Aging and its supporting churches.” Seabury is historically affiliated with the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, and that was reflected in participants who weren’t Seabury residents.
Kluttz and Boyd chose a worship format known as “stations worship.” Each Common Threads service followed a traditional fourfold worship pattern of gathering, reading the Word, responding to the Word, and celebrating Eucharist together. Each service also included worship stations to promote accessibility, choice, and interconnectedness in what the planners describe as “parallel worship/play.”
They set five tables in a circle around the room, with the communion table in the middle. Station elements, including table decorations and liturgical cloth, changed weekly according to the night’s Scripture, theme, and song lyrics.
“We opened together with song and liturgy, and we closed together with communion and a song,” Kluttz says. During the service, in lieu of a sermon, worshipers engaged the evening’s Scripture and theme by choosing one or two stations: art-making, drumming, guided storytelling conversations, or discussions of meditations in Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life.
“Stations allowed our younger and older participants to share their thoughts and ideas about the Scripture and theme. It removed the shame some people feel about not being able to sit quietly in a pew during a long service,” Kluttz says.
The flexible framework made room for the needs and gifts of each week’s participants and leaders. Boyd recalls an Episcopal priest who sat at the art table during Springvale Terrace’s sorrow-themed service. “He shared his sorrow over a friend who’d died by suicide that week. Others commiserated and shared their stories, and they all expressed their pain through making art,” Boyd says.
The same priest had presided over communion at Friendship Terrace’s sorrow service. “Although we used the same liturgy as when he’d led before, Kluttz says, “there was a noticeable difference in the words he emphasized, where he paused in the liturgy, and the storytelling around the art station. As we reflected with him after the service, he commented on how much he appreciated the opportunity to be in worship while he was grieving and the space that our liturgy had given him.”
One resident later commented, “The series made me wonder about more spaces to allow what is human into the worship service.” Another participant said, “We weren’t wed to a liturgy roller coaster we couldn’t get off. We could take time to acknowledge thoughts and feelings or people present as each part of worship took place.”
Make room for stories
As in many senior housing complexes, Seabury residents often feel disconnected from family, friends, and former faith communities. Church members experience disconnection as well. As Melva Wilson Costen writes in African American Christian Worship, it’s more common for non-Western and non-white churches to make room for people to share their stories and experiences with God.
"Christian worship is the ideal location to share and
listen to one another’s successes and struggles
—and to respond with the hope and love born out of faith."
But Kluttz and Boyd note that modern Christian worship, especially in white Protestant congregations, has become increasingly individualistic. Churches don’t often structure worship to include conversation or learning from others in the community of faith. “Yet, older Christians have a deep well of wisdom to share,” Boyd says. “We believe that Christian worship is the ideal location to share and listen to one another’s successes and struggles—and to respond with the hope and love born out of faith.”
She and other younger participants learned a lot at the storytelling and guided discussion stations. “Older adults are eager to connect their own life stories and faith journeys. They seemed almost hungry to be heard,” she says. “We read Buechner’s meditations on the 1963 March on Washington, the Vietnam War, segregation, inequality, and poverty. Participants shared firsthand accounts of experiencing those things and reflected on them from a faith perspective. I hope it grew younger people’s faith to hear about older people’s faith.
“I was also struck by how the storytelling happened at all the stations, not just the two (guided storytelling and reading discussion) directly devoted to this practice,” Boyd says.
For example, percussion facilitators helped participants compose songs about their stories of joy, sorrow, hope, and change. One older man shared how much he’d enjoyed playing snare for his high school drumline. He loved sitting at a drum again and having the freedom to jam.
At the art station, a woman shared her sorrow about losing the closeness she’d once had with her daughter. She created a colorful image to express her hope about restoring that relationship.
Looking back, Kluttz says, “We learned that the first barrier to including people of different ages and abilities in worship is our own assumptions. We worked consistently as a team of worship leaders to check our assumptions about who could do what during worship. With the right approach and supports, almost anyone can adapt to new worship formats and become a worship leader.”
Boyd adds, “Churches can put elders at the center, and then listen! Does church programming respect older adults by recognizing the deep resources they represent? Their insights offer rich potential for intergenerational connections about past and present social conditions. A semi-structured format with universal themes can produce connections and shared insight across generations.”
- Changing worship from passive to participatory
- Traditioned innovation
- The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together
Read Seabury Resources for Aging’s grant poster. See their liturgy for the joy-themed Common Threads service. Consider applying for a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.
Check out Seabury blog posts on four ways spirituality shapes how we age and the difference between multigenerational and intergenerational worship. Seabury shares innovative ways for congregations to connect with aging members.
This brief Presbyterian Outlook article describes the intergenerational worship team that Billy Kluttz leads at Church of the Covenant (PCUSA). Billy Kluttz has been involved in making worship more participatory at several PCUSA congregations, including Church of the Pilgrim in Washington, DC. These kinds of worship services are examples of traditioned innovation.
Read The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together edited by Howard A. Vanderwell.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story to your staff, board, or education, worship, or pastoral care committee. Discuss how you might make worship more intergenerational and more inclusive of older adults:
- Which senior living communities does your congregation have a relationship with? Which of your members live in independent living, assisted living, or nursing care?
- What first steps could you take to include the wisdom of older adults in worship?
- In what contexts might you replace the sermon with worship stations?