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Intergenerational Ministry

Young, middle-aged, and old can grow and learn together, blessing our faith forward churches and communities.

By Daphne Sydney, Australasia Superintendent

One of the greatest joys of attending or visiting one of our GCI congregations is fellowshipping with a mix of ages from the young to the well experienced in years, from infants to octogenarians. It’s especially joyful to see two and sometimes three generations gathering together to worship, to learn and to fellowship with one another. Where else would we have such a privilege to mix and mingle with a group of people of all ages? Church is a wonderful community where all ages are welcomed to fellowship and grow together with an intentional engagement of the generations, none too young and none too old. This provides a picture of belonging where each generation is valued.

A similar picture is found in the Gospel of Luke, who tells an amazing account of young and old being vital in God’s plan. Beginning with the birth of John the Baptist, Luke tells the remarkable story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, both from priestly descent, an upright and blameless couple. The scripture also says, “and they were both very old” (Luke1:7). Being very old was obviously no hindrance to God and the purposes he had for them. Miraculously they became the parents of John the Baptist— the one who declared Jesus as the Lamb of God!

Unfolding in the next chapter of Luke is the birth of Jesus as told through the story of Joseph and a very young Mary. Notice how Elizabeth, this godly and mature woman, was present for Mary when she was chosen to bear the child Jesus. Mary, most likely a peasant teenage girl, must have felt quite alone. Elizabeth was there with a grandmotherly tenderness, and being in a similar situation herself, was described by Gabriel the angel to Mary: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail” (vs. 36-37). There is that sense of empathy yet strength in belief and togetherness.

Shortly afterwards, Mary hurriedly goes to visit with Elizabeth, where Elizabeth blesses, uplifts, and encourages her. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (v. 42). Elizabeth also blesses Mary because she has “believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (v. 45).  These are incredible, Spirit-filled words of reassurance and comfort that were no doubt embraced by Mary as she faced the difficult days ahead. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for around three months, and we can only imagine what a wonderful ministry of shared stories and faith was taking place between the two women of two different generations.

In researching for this article, I discovered a helpful book entitled: Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship, by Holly Catterton Allen & Christine Lawton Ross, which I have drawn upon for this article. The authors share the following quote, which underlines intergenerational ministry as a way of being formed in Christ:

The best way to be formed in Christ is to sit among the elders, listen to their stories, break bread with them, and drink from the same cup, observing how these earlier generations of saints ran the race, fought the fight and survived in grace. (James Frazier, p. 17)

With intentionality, these intergenerational experiences foster the spiritual growth and development of both young and old. I like this definition:

Intergenerational ministry occurs when a congregation intentionally brings the generations together in mutual serving, sharing or learning within the core activities of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community. (p. 17)

This is kept in balance by maintaining some very important separate activities that are central to groups—examples given such as Seniors gathering within their age group for mutual care and support, or young children gathering to learn and make friends. However, when there are regular cross-generational opportunities for worship, fellowship and/or activities together, these also offer real spiritual benefits and blessings. Note another quote from the book:

Intergenerationality enables the whole church to benefit from each individual’s God-given gifts and enables believers to fully live out being the body of Christ and the family of faith. Among the many benefits for both adults and children is a sense of belonging. (p. 47)

That sense of belonging, feeling loved and wanted is foundational to a child’s development. And moving into teens, the authors note Smith’s 2005 national study which endorsed parents as the primary influence on teens’ spiritual lives. However, as these teens become emerging adults, others who reach out to them are also important. Significant others in their faith communities who have taken the time to build a meaningful personal relationship can share their experiences with these emerging adults as they begin asking profound life-questions during these years:

They are also seeking community and are looking for ways to pour their lives into the hurting people of the world. Perhaps more than at any other time period in their lives, they need input, feedback, insight and wisdom from those who are further ahead on the journey. Intentionally intergenerational communities of faith can provide especially well for those entering the adult world. (p. 56)

With a strong intergenerational community, those who are a little further ahead on the journey can surely be a source of encouragement, insight or simply be an attentive listener. Jesus himself was intergenerational. He took time out to bless little children. In doing so he reminded all of his disciples to have that childlike attitude—one of Christ-like humility and gentleness. Paul continues this thought: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

This process of becoming Christlike is formed by participating in a community of believers, as God designed church to be—a place where we grow up in him, a place for Christian formation. As Paul notes:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15)

May we embrace the values of intergenerational ministry and appreciate the wonderful gift each generation brings to the body. In this year of Faith Forward, lets capitalise on those many opportunities to engage with and strengthen the generations within our church.

Reference: Holly Catterton Allen & Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation – Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.

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