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Joy: When all ages worship together

Geoffrey, age 7, interrupted the vicar's prayer. Hands on hips, he demanded, "You mean Jesus died?" What happened next reveals how one congregation answered a classic dilemma of intergenerational worship. A feature story exploring the importance of intergenerational worship.

Geoffrey was seven the first time he ever went to church. Caroline Fairless, then vicar of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Half Moon Bay, California, recalls that Geoffrey's parents were of "the lost generation," so his grandparents brought him.

"The young people always came to the altar for the prayer of consecration, before communion. Geoffrey listened intently. When I came to the part in the prayer about how Jesus died on the cross, Geoffrey was indignant.

"He put his hands on his hips and interrupted me. 'You mean Jesus died?' he asked.

"So I stopped the prayer and said, 'Yes, Geoffrey. He died.' And then I asked the congregation, 'When was the last time you were surprised to hear that Jesus died?' We had a very good discussion," Fairless says.

"To welcome kids you have to accommodate them," she explains. Of course, becoming a congregation where all generations learn from each other takes time.

What matters most?

Fairless says she got into intergenerational ministry by default. When she arrived in the 1990s, Holy Family wanted to build a children's ministry. But the small congregation didn't have the resources to offer a state-of-the-art Sunday school that met during the same time as church

"We were forced to look at a different model. Our model became having everyone all together so people really could learn from each other. The question shifted from 'What do I like for worship style and music?' to 'How can we design music, tell Bible stories, and do prayers to engage all ages-within the framework of the Episcopal tradition?'" Fairless says.

She admits it's hard work to value living as God's community, especially when it sometimes means questioning traditions of order and decorum.

"Yet it feels the exact opposite of trying to hold onto the edge of something that is burning you out because it's not working. People talk about ministry for and to children. But multigenerational, or intergenerational, worship is ministry together. It's the child's ministry to the adult as well as the adult's to the child.

"I care deeply about what constitutes community. Young people have to be a part of that, for their sake and the sake of adults who need kids' richness, spontaneity, and surprise," says Fairless, now an author and consultant on intergenerational worship.

Seize the window of opportunity

Author Carolyn C. Brown agrees that children belong in the worship service.

"Worship is the heart of the congregation. Everyone has different interests, such as pastoral care or missions, but in worship you build community. Children need to see themselves as part of a community of all ages who share commitments. I can't imagine a person of any age being thought of as part of the congregation but not being part of worship," says Brown, who served as director of church education in small and large Presbyterian churches before becoming a worship consultant.

It's crucial to engage children before they enter middle school. "Children from ages seven through eleven are very interested in the broader world-how it works, what adults are doing. This is a special window of opportunity to involve them in worship. Once they reach their teen years, they become more interested in their peers," she explains.

Hearing the Bible read and preached in worship has a different impact than studying it in Sunday school. "One Sunday a grandfather, father, and pre-teen daughter, all from the same family, took turns reading verses of Psalm 139 during the service. It was very moving for the adults to hear a child read, 'You knit me together in my mother's womb.' Kids paid attention simply because someone their own age was up there," she says.

In her book on designing sermons that reach all ages, Brown advises preachers to hook children's attention with references to literature and movies. For example, one "very erudite preacher" concluded a sermon on grace by reading a classic picture book, The Runaway Bunny. He explained that God's gracious love is like the love of that mother bunny; it always sticks with you.

When she was installed as an education director in a large Presbyterian church, Brown requested that a child be included. "When this young girl asked me, 'Will you teach us and pray with us and be our friend?' an audible gasp went through the congregation," Brown says.

Experience deeper commitment through involvement

Caroline Fairless and her husband, church musician Jim Sims, helped a lay team at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Mary's City, Maryland, add an intentionally multigenerational morning service.

The worship design team recruited eight children and teens, including Sylvia Zander's three kids. "I have two teens and a pre-teen. It used to be hard to drag them to church. I find the old prayer book routines comforting, but they thought it was boring. Now we have to get out the door even earlier, to help set up, but it's no problem, because they are involved," Zander says.

Each week Fairless and Sims asked the team, "What sits at the heart of our worship this week? When you look at the Old Testament, Psalm, epistle, and gospel readings, what matters most? Where is this happening in our world today, and how will we address it?"

Zander says this focus helped her kids see that each service has a theme and purpose. She helped write a poem and intercessory prayer tailored to what was going on in the world; the church has used the prayer several times. Amanda Zander, 15, made a fancy moon and star and pasted them on sticks so kids could hold and swing them around during a Bible lesson.

"I enjoyed watching kids come up with ideas. Of course, I had to learn to be quiet. The new service was right before Sunday school. The new format brought in people who hadn't been coming to church, and our Sunday school attendance went up too. I like the new format because it reminds me of some of the happiest times of my life, when I was a teen participating in youth services.

"I usually see my son, Billy, 12, when he's goofing off at home. But he was asked to deliver a soliloquy as Jesus-and he took it very seriously. He was striking. He asked Peter, 'But what about you? Who do you say I am?' Later in the service we divided into pairs to describe ourselves to someone we didn't know well. It's surprising how quickly you get into those things you usually keep protected. It's fascinating to see how people see themselves, usually different than you might. Powerful services like that one helped build a feeling of community," Sylvia Zander says.

Virginia Zander, 11, adds, "It felt special to be able to help put together services so other people could learn. I was the youngest on the committee. It kind of surprised me that people listened to me the same way they listened to people their age or older."

During Advent, the committee brainstormed ways to have people write out prayers of thanks that could be hung on the church Christmas tree. Virginia suggested making origami balloons from computer paper. The committee made the balloons, worshipers wrote their prayers on the balloons and blew them up, then put them on the tree as gifts to God. "It felt pretty good to know it had been my idea," she says.

Live as the family of God

Unless churches make a point of planning inclusive worship services, people at both ends of the age spectrum often get left out of the songs, prayers, and sermons.

"But the Bible is very clear from the get-go that we are called to be God's family. The interplay between generations and levels of wisdom feeds the whole community. Funneling everyone into their own worship setting or niche loses the truth of all generations worshiping together," Carolyn C. Brown says.

That makes sense to Jane Vogel, who with Mary Sytsma co-authored Sunday Morning Live: How and why we worship. They are volunteer youth leaders and church school teachers at Wheaton (IL) Christian Reformed Church.

"It's easier to 'meet needs' of worshipers when you focus on only one age group. My 10-year-old, for instance, could be very happy with a service geared entirely to his level of understanding. And a youth-oriented service probably responds to the complaint we often hear about church seeming irrelevant or boring to some young people.

"But I was encouraged by the nearly universal response of the high-school students at COLAM who said that they wouldn't want their church to have a separate service just for them. They appreciated the influence and the wisdom of older members and the playfulness of younger children, and they felt that being a body together ought to mean worshiping together as well-even if we have to make concessions to one another in the process," Vogel says. 

She notes that Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life, explains that learning to give and take within the body of Christ helps us grow into the people God wants us to be. Although her own children have no family nearby, Vogel says, "They have a surrogate grandmother in our congregation, countless big brothers and sisters as role models, and scores of adults who know their names, encourage them, and keep them in line when that's what needs to be done."

In fact, Vogel worries that teenagers who've been segregated into "youth services," instead of attending worship with their families, will graduate from high school never having built worship patterns with adults.

The same concern inspired Hyuk Seonwoo, pastor of Zion Korean United Methodist Church in Warwick, Rhode Island, to begin bilingual weekly communion. At Zion, adults worship upstairs in Korean, while everyone age three through high school worships downstairs in English.

"There was a big gap between upstairs and downstairs. It was two different worlds. Our kids would graduate from high school and have nowhere to go," Seonwoo says.

So his congregation became the first Korean church in the United Methodist Church in America to celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. They bring the kids upstairs for the sacrament and do it bilingually. They sing a mix of contemporary songs, traditional Korean hymns, and music from other cultures.

"At first people were not so sure about having Holy Communion weekly. Some said, 'This is the way Catholics do it, not the way we have done it.' At first some kids were impatient. But now people like participating as a family. And the bishop in our conference now advises newly ordained seminarians to practice Holy Communion weekly.

"The kids take communion and then go to a corner of the sanctuary to dance and play traditional Korean drums. They are so joyful. I think that is why worship has become more meaningful for me and other adults. This is a long-term project, but we think those young kids will stay worshiping with us after they graduate from high school," Seonwoo says.

Learn More

Read Carolyn Brown's book on preaching for all ages. Book her for a workshop or conference to help your church or denominational region think through new ways to include different generations in worship.

Caroline Fairless recommends using ideas from John Witvliet's book A Child Shall Lead and songs from Sing! A New Creation. Read an excerpt from her book Children at Worship: Congregations in Bloom. Listen to the companion CD New Voices, Ancient Words: Dramatic Adaptations of Scripture. Use The Bloom Box resource set to help your congregation work through the emotions of making liturgical change.

Find ideas for all-age worship or start a multiage spiritual formation class using resources in Seasons of the Spirit, a lectionary-based curriculum offered cooperatively by publishers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S.

Looking for resources that work well as stand-alone sessions, congregational retreat topics, or church education courses? Try Children in the Sanctuary, a study guide/video set or Sunday Morning Live: How and why we worship.

Remind yourself why some churches believe children's church is most appropriate for kids.

Get free tips on becoming a child-friendly church, mixing generations, handling ambivalence about all-age worship, choosing worship music, encouraging all-age participation in worship, and building your worship library.

Start a Discussion

Reflect on what the benefits and challenges of intergenerational worship are:

  • How often do your services include elements that acknowledge or appeal to all ages, including children, teens, and the elderly?
  • Do you offer ways for families to be responsible for various activities, such as greeting visitors, collecting the offering, or giving prayers?
  • At what ages do children in your church attend worship with the adults? Thinking theologically and biblically, why does your church choose to niche or mix various age groups?
  • If your church includes young children for part or all of the worship service, what are your expectations for their behavior? How do families and children learn what your church considers appropriate in worship?
  • What skills do children need to worship in your church...sit still?...recite The Lord's Prayer? How are you teaching these skills?
  • What would you lose or gain by changing who attends, designs, or leads worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to engage all ages in worship? 

  • Have you figured out effective ways to involve people of different ages in designing, participating in, and leading worship?
  • Do you designate one Sunday per month as "intergenerational worship" and have children worship together elsewhere on other Sundays?
  • Have you discovered subjects, curriculum, or other good ideas for designing a multigenerational Sunday school option-gathering people from many ages into an occasional or regular class?
  • Which all-age worship participation changes have been easy to implement yet have made a measurable difference?
  • What are your best insights on how to engage all generations in worship, while remaining true to your congregational and denominational values?