by Diane Lewis (January / February 2000 — Volume 16, Number 1)
Enhancing congregational life and strengthening faith are hallmarks of intentional intergenerational learning
Intergenerational learning is a buzz phrase in church education circles, but not usually a strength in many congregations.
Prof. Susan Houglum, head of the Ministry Department of Trinity Lutheran College, of Seattle (formerly named Lutheran Bible Institute of Seattle), sees a need for the development of intergenerational activities. This will benefit all God's people, as they work and grow together, in all phases of church life.
The church seems to be the last island in our society where intergenerational activities still happen."Look around you. Where else do you see babies and toddlers breaking bread with grandmas and grandpas over traditional Lutheran potluck meals? Where else can there be education and service activities spanning ages from 1 to 100? Where else can a choir of children blend with music by the senior choir," says Prof. Houglum.
But the mere mingling of generations doesn't necessarily help generations to grow in faith and develop stronger Christian bonds. Intergenerational activities need to be intentional by laying down a groundwork in the congregation.
"Intergenerational" does not mean involving all generations all the time but can be defined as at least two generations gathering for the same activity.
Our society shows some age variety in our personal families, but our extended family in the church includes individuals of all ages, providing a richness of experiences and knowledge into which we need to tap.
Our society with its mobility and its relatively recent changes in family structure (fewer children, divorce) and its sense of individualism does not foster intergenerational activity or learning.
Institutions in our culture, in addition to the church, also tend to separate generations. Our schools separate by age levels. Sports are separate, although attending ball games together can be a multi-generational event. Entertainment is even segregated by ages through the movie rating systems.
Sunday School's Impact
Lutheran churches became part of the the Sunday School movement in the early 1800's. Christian education was taken out of the home and parochial schools and into the realm of the church. Sunday School was a movement for children and youth where they were put into classrooms with children of like ages — following the public education model.
Parochial schools also had the task of religious and moral training, as did families. Previously, the family often provided Christian education with parents reading from the Bible and talking to their children about what they had read. Church was a time for worship and other fellowship activities.
The Sunday School movement began as an independent entity outside the realm of the church. Denominations got involved so they could have control over the theology being taught and over the quality of education.
That model, which separates children by ages, is basically the same model being used in most congregations today. In addition, old fashioned hymn sings, informal Sunday activities including a Sunday evening service, the frequent (often weekly or monthly) potlucks, and the annual summer picnic became activities of the past as the church and society became more and more divided into age and generational groups.
Now, without these church cultural activities in place, our church family doesn't necessarily know how to commuunicate between generations.
Several activities worked well at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, Oak Harbor, Washington, where Houglum's husband Mark was pastor. "It is difficult work finding activities which meet the needs of older adults and of children and youth," she says.
Those successful activities included:
–A two-night congregational family camping trip to a Bible camp. The camp had a number of family-oriented events including worship and other activities. Those other activities had different appeals for adults and children, and some segments were segregated on purpose with a specific adult get-together time and children-only events (with adequate adult supervision).
–A mini-musical with children, a few youth and grandmas and grandpas. The event was put on for the entire congregations and featured intergenerational activities such as a retired fifth grade teacher showing third graders how to make huge paper mache stones. A variety of ages took part in the presentation.
One negative aspect of segregating persons by age is that teenagers do not know how to talk with older adults and that adults 50 years or older do not know how to talk with four-year-olds or teenagers. We're losing an ability to talk with and communicate among age groups.
Hence, we need to lift up communication as a personal thing, as well as a teaching tool, so adults know and respect the role of younger people in the church.
Intergenerational activities don't just happen. Ground work is needed. Congregations need to develop an attitude encouraging older folks to mentor children and youth. Adults and seniors need to realize youth and children are the church and that all groups can learn from each other.
One way to develop an intergenerational program is to use the input of experts. Houglum recommends the following publications:
–Intergenerational Sessions (part of the Good News Explorers Sunday School curriculum), by Margaret Marcrander (Augsburg Fortress, 1999), $15.99, ISBN 0-806-66707-9.
–Take It to Heart, by Miriam Dumke (Augsburg Fortress, together with Lutheran Brotherhood and the ELCA Division for Congregational Ministries), 1999), $5, ISBN 6-000-10655-6.
–Family Friendly Ideas Your Church Can Do, by Ben F. Freudenburg, et. al. (Group Publishing, 1997), ISBN 0-764-42035- 6. $14.99.
–501 Practical Ways to Love Your Grandparents, by Roger Sonnenberg (Concordia Publishing House, 1999), ISBN 0-570-04873-7, $10.99.
–Intergenerational Religious Education, by James W. White (Religious Education Press, 1988), ISBN 0-89135-067-5, $16.45.
Intentional development of intergenerational programs starts in the pastoral office. Study and prayer about how to proceed is the first step.
Seek individuals who have an interest in Christian education and a commitment to intergenerational learning. Children and youth need to help plan.
Plan your activities in conjunction with the church's regular education program since intergenerational ministry is not one based on being mutually exclusive of age-specific groups. It complements regular education and other church programs.
Remember, intergenerational activities can mean just bridging two generations, such as: an adult mentor confirmation program, fifth graders throwing a party for preschoolers, teenagers visiting with ill persons or shut-ins, or a mother-daughter tea.
A variety of things — not necessarily an activity with all generations — is an important part of the mindset of those setting up programs. "Breaking down the Sunday School classroom walls with some intermixing is a first step," says Prof. Houglum.
As your church plans educational and other activities, Houglum suggests these following activities for different areas of church life:
Worship: People who prefer one style of worship — both children and adults — should experience other forms of worship so that we can learn and appreciate each other.
Children and youth must be included in "doing" worship and not only doing a traditional job, such as acolyting. They can be a reader or even lead worship. This is not to suggest a steady diet of energetic youth-led worship. But they can be regularly involved, such as holding youth-led worship on every fifth Sunday of the month. This would allow youth to lead worship four times a year, and give all a chance to look forward to these special occasions.
Worship services, as well as planning, should include youth, children, adults, and older adults. These groups have much to learn from each other.
Fellowship: Lutheran churches don't have regular potlucks anymorethey only occur for special occasions. Sunday afternoon games and picnics in the park which include worship don't happen like they used to. We need to make an effort to find ways to come together again.
Sunday School pageants and Lenten journey services and dinners are some examples of intergenerational fellowship gatherings. Again, allow children and youth to participate in the planning along with adults.
Servant/Service Events: Servant/service components are built into most confirmation ministries. Many youth groups earn money for mission trips to Mexico, or work on a Habitat for Humanity project.
These activities have great value and are even more valuable if all generations are involved. Members of Houglum's former churchyoung adults and teensworked side by side at a Habitat for Humanity site. Other congregations have generations working together at soup kitchens or visiting shut-ins or nursing homes.
Many congregations still participate in Lutheran World Relief projects by making quilts and preparing school and hygiene kits. Youth can become easily involved in these projects.
A Search Institute study, showing the value of servant projects, emphasizes that there needs to be (1) preparation, (2) the activity itself, (3) a time for participants to reflect on the experience, and (4) recognition for what was accomplished.
Music: As part of worship, music can provide great opportunities for intergenerational experiences. This includes mixed-generation musical groups and a once-a-month pick-up choir with one hour of practice during the Sunday School hour to sing for the service (this allows folks who wouldn't normally participate in choirs to join in the music program).
Worship bands can bring adult trumpet players who haven't played in years and partner them with fifth and sixth graders who are just learning to play.
Christian Education: Christian education is for all people, ages cradle to the grave. Offer classes which include more than one age group.
We must "remove" the Sunday School walls with Sunday School parties involving all ages. For instance, try an Advent-Christmas-Epiphany party which explores with all ages what these seasons of the church year mean to their lives. A Lenten Fair can explore the Lenten journey. An Easter morning celebration during the Sunday School hours can bring all ages together with reaffirmation of baptism and celebration of Jesus' resurrection.
Intergenerational Vacation Bible school can bring together as many adults and teen helpers as those who attend. Fellowship Nights merge Christian education and fellowship with different models, including show and tell and joint activities.
Congregations need to value the faith of children. Unless we make an effort to understand the faith of a child, we are missing the mark.
Confirmation Programming: Some programs include mentoring components with an older person who works with the confirmand. Adult mentors benefit as much from the interaction as the younger person does.
Diane Lewis, of Newcastle, Washington, is a freelance writer. She was editor and correspondent for the Northwest Washington Synod for The Lutheran magazine and synodical newsletters.