A while back, a community developer decided to put a preschool and assisted living community in the same building and basically force interaction between the two communities. It was something of a challenge get started but ended up being incredibly beneficial for everyone. The elderly folks reported having a much higher sense of well being and happiness, the children’s motor skills improved and their vocabulary increased. The individualized conversation and attention the children received from the retirees helped them to communicate and connect with adults in a positive way. After reading this story, it struck me that many of our churches could benefit from this kind of integration.
When an adult joins a church, they make an intentional commitment to become part of that community. Most of us are excited to become part of the church through service and fellowship. We want to get to know the people in the seat next to us and even form ties with our bible study group members. Not everyone jumps into a ministry and starts going on the church retreats, but a lot of people do and that is a great way to build relationships in a faith community.
With youth, however, it’s different. A kid who comes to church with their family isn’t really choosing the church. So creating longterm connection is a little more complex.
Most churches have children’s ministries available and those are a great place to start. But many churches have moved to age specific worship which leads to a weird dynamic if not managed properly. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of screaming babies in the middle of a sermon, but there is something very special about worshipping together as a family. When there's children’s church during the entire “adult” worship services, you lose that opportunity. Teens often have a special time of worship that is just for them, so many don’t feel like the need to come to Sunday morning service because it’s just going to be a repeat of what they’ll hear in their teen service later in the evening or later in the week. However, that concept of separatism for youth is, in some ways, the very death of a church.
I’m not knocking youth ministries. It's fun to worship with people your own age. Creating bonds and connections with other kids and teens is a special and important part of a child’s spiritual development but it is also important for youngsters to become more than just a passing presence of “seen and not heard" in the congregation.
I am a firm believer in connecting young people to other generations within the church to help them develop spiritually and socially. It’s difficult for young people who aren’t considered contributing members of a church to grow in faith and in christian living. When you only worship with the same 20 people your age all the time, the only level of spirituality you are going to see is people who are going through the same kinds of things at the same time as you. It’s like being a first time sailor trying to get solid advice on how to survive a hurricane from someone in the same storm who has also never sailed a boat in a hurricane. It might be comforting to know they are right there with you, but it doesn't make them particularly helpful. When you're struggling, gaining the perspective of people who have already weathered the storm can give you valuable insight as to which parts of the water to avoid & what makes for smoother sailing . Young people need the guidance of older generations who have already survived the chaos of youth with their faith intact. But how do you get youth to become part of the adult congregation? Well, that depends on your church’s structure, but here are a few ideas that we have found to be successful. Remember that with any program or activity where kids are involved, there are safety measures you need to have in place to protect children from potentially harmful relationships. This is merely a quick overview of the concept of these programs and activities. There is a great deal more that goes into setting these up to ensure safe, healthy intergenerational bonds are created. Above all else, we protect our children.
In-Gen Sunday School Class
Yup. An intergenerational Sunday school class is where it all started. One of our pastors suggested this adventure and I jumped on board because...well, I got to wear a train conductor's hat and yell "ALL ABOARD THE IN-GEN ENGINE...NEXT STOP...GRACE LAND!" I'm kind of a nerd and the idea just spoke to me. Back to the point, this kind of class is an opportunity for adults and kids to learn together. There are a ton of curriculums out there for this setup and some are very well designed. Each class starts with everyone together in the same room. There's an overview, scripture reading, and a quick review of the previous lesson. Then the groups split up into adult and kid groups to dig deeper into the lesson and complete a couple of age appropriate activities/discussions. For the last 10 minutes of class, everyone is reunited for a review and conclusion. When we decided to do this, we had folks spanning six decades decide to participate which was exciting and unexpected. This class created connections between our kids and adults in the congregation that continue to develop and thrive today. It was probably the easiest way to connect multiple generations in a way that didn't feel forced. The adults enjoy hearing the perspective of the kids & teens and the kids & teens have the opportunity to ask questions & get answers from a variety of adults. The InGen Sunday school class is still rocking and rolling. When you are deciding on a curriculum it needs to be kid friendly, but not kid focused. Give your young people a chance to grow through challenging lessons. It doesn't always have to be super easy. The goal, after all, is spiritual growth.
This was the idea of our associate pastor and it was a great one. This was specifically for the middle and high school age kids and is probably my favorite intergenerational activity. He put out an open invitation to the adult members of the congregation for prayer warriors who would partner with a young member once a week to talk about life and pray with them. The intention was not for the adults to just pray for the youth, but also for the youth to pray for the adults. When we started this, my prayer partner was 17 years old and a junior in high school. She’s now almost 21 years old, going to college and working as a nursery supervisor at the church. We still connect and pray about things going on in each other’s lives and it is a friendship I cherish. Life is messy and busy so we don’t talk every week, but we still connect frequently and pray for one another. There have been times when I’ve been able to share my experiences and faith journey and was even able to connect her with a part time job in her field of study so she could gain experience before she graduates from college. If we hadn’t connected through the prayer partners ministry, those things would not have happened. The beautiful sincerity and clarity of a young person's prayers is so very valuable and unfortunately overlooked. I believe adults often get so caught up in the idea that kids can't understand the depth of our problems, that we lose sight of the depth of their faith. Young David had an unwavering faith that allowed him to defeat Goliath while the grown soldiers of Saul's army stood in fear. We can learn a thing or two from the powerful faith of youth.
Most churches have tons of ministries or groups or clubs…whatever you want to call them. There’s the women’s and men’s ministries, music ministry, the knitting circle, care team, welcoming committee, local outreach, global outreach, facilities team, children’s ministry, and a multitude of small group bible studies. All of these ministries are considered adult driven in most churches. Not every church has confirmation in a strictly formal sense, but there is an age group of kids that are learning about the creeds and theology, if you will, of the church they are attending. Confirmation is great. Teens learn about the church, they learn about maintaining their faith, they learn about the foundation of what we believe as christians. The problem is, for a lot of youth, they just stop coming to church after confirmation. It’s like their parents make them come until they’ve confirmed what they believe and then the job is done. That is such an unhealthy way to lead kids into a faith journey, mainly because it happens at an age when they are just coming into a world of temptations, conflicting information about religions, and an understanding of the evils in this world. It’s after confirmation that they need the most support to maintain their faith. So how do you keep youth engaged in church after confirmation? You connect them with ministries they are interested in while they are in confirmation. We send confirmands to a ministry rally. Every ministry in the church sets up a table or station in a hallway, gym, in classrooms or in a parking lot with information about what that ministry does. The ministries' members setup a display with the ministry’s mission, photos from activities, plans for the upcoming year, etc. Think about a college, job or club fairs. This ministry rally has the same vibe. Youth ask questions about the ministry, get a schedule of what’s happening and then make plans to check out at least 3 ministries they are interested in for an activity or meeting during the following six months. After spending time with those ministries, the youth decide which ministries they want to officially be part of after confirmation. This is information they provide to those ministries before their confirmation celebration. The ministries they choose give an official welcome at their celebration. It is a super cool tradition that helps youth develop relationships with adults of all ages in the church through common interests and passions for serving.
The Connections Board
This is program I developed for a different organization, but applies to churches as well. Organizations that bring people together from various walks of life for short amounts of shared time can still connect people based on their interests. This Connections Board helps people find connections as they share information about themselves without having to give a speech about who they are. Each month, there are one or two questions on the board and sticky notes and pens on a table below it. People write their names and answer the questions on a sticky note and stick it on the board. The questions/requests are things like, “Describe your job without using your title.” "What's your favorite vacation spot." "Draw what you think an alien spacecraft looks like." “What sports do you like to watch or play and who are your favorite teams?” “Where did you go or where do you want to go to college?” “What’s your favorite restaurant in town?” “What’s the best job you ever had or what is your dream job?” “What genre of books or movies do you like most?” “What’s your favorite cartoon?” You get the idea. Some of the questions are serious, others are just for fun, but the point is, you get to know a little more about the people in the church. It's basically a long term ice breaker the company I made it for still uses and it opens the door for small talk and connections with others.
This is something we did when I was in youth and I still love the impact it had on my life. Once a month, a family in the church would host dinner at their home for the youth. However, two kids from the group had to help prepare dinner. Sometimes that meant helping shop, cook or setup depending on the skills of the kids. The dinners were fun and it was always neat to see church people in their homes. Helping prep a meal with someone in their home was an incredible experience. I learned so much about the families I prepped with and was so much more comfortable talking to them after that experience. It helped tear down the persona I had built in my head about them from our Sunday morning interactions. It connected us with every family who participated and over the years, we have maintained many of those connections. We still share recipes, coupons, and new cooking tricks we learn with each other and I love that I am still connected to the members of my home church even when I’m working with other churches.
The Bottom Line
So what’s the benefit to the organization doing these things? Life. The continuity of an organization depends on having as many new people interested in the purpose and mission of the organization as people leaving it. People leave through moving away, conflicts with others in the organization, losing interest in the mission and sadly, death. Churches, non-profits, and social clubs all over the country are dying because they weren’t able to connect with a younger generation to share their passion for their mission in a meaningful way. Kids are naturally inclined to be interested in what adults are doing. They are curious and want to try new things, but need the support of caring adults to build confidence to do so. They have talents that can be used to help people, but we have to guide and encourage them to join us in our missions to do good in the world. When we connect through conversation, let them help in ministries or programs and pray with them about life, we form relationships that connect them to the people, not just the building. When they are excited to share their lives with others in the church, they stay connected to it even when they aren’t able to be there. I think about the folks from my youth group and love seeing those who stayed or have returned to our community like I did. I still attend special events at my home church, not because I love the building, but because I love the people. The choir members who invited me to join the adult choir at fifteen years old, the people who went with us on youth mission trips, the people who prayed for me, offered me summer jobs, and cooked meals with me are the reason I return. I still give financial offerings to this church when I can because I want the ministries to continue doing good in the community and around the world. I know the people doing the work and I care about them and what they are trying to do because they took the time to share those passions with me in my youth.
These ideas are just a few of the many things I have witnessed working to create intergenerational connections in churches and other organizations. If you and your church are interested in how to put any of these things together, I am more than happy to consult or provide you with planning and execution tools. Helping youth to be engaged in their faith communities in positive ways is part of our mission and if you share that passion, we want to help you succeed as well. As always, thanks for reading and we’ll see you again soon.