Dr Holly Catterton Allen is a leading academic researcher, author and teacher in the field of intergenerational ministry. This month, Holly will travel from Nashville, Tennessee, to run a two-day Embracing Intergenerational Ministry workshop at the Centre of Theology and Ministry.
Q Can you offer a definition of what intergenerational ministry is and isn’t?
My co-author Christine Ross and I describe intergenerational ministry in Intergenerational Christian Formation as “ministry that occurs when a congregation intentionally combines 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.”
Key words are intentional and mutual.
One caveat would be that intergenerational ministry entails more than simply gathering various generations under one roof (though this is a good place to start); mutuality and interactive opportunities are needed for the generations to bless one another. Another caveat is that hosting two or three intergenerational events every year (though this too is a start) does not really constitute a congregation that is characterised as intergenerational.
One last point—and a positive one—is that bringing even two generations together for an intentionally spiritually formative activity can be truly intergenerational.
One common misunderstanding is that becoming intergenerational means jettisoning all age, or stage-related programs; this is not true. There will continue to be important social, practical, and spiritual reasons for those in the same life stage to meet and support one another.
Q What are the benefits of intergenerational ministry?
Among the many benefits for children, teens, young adults, middle adults, and older adults are a sense of belonging, support for troubled families, character growth, and opportunities for sharing each other’s spiritual journeys.
Perhaps one of the great benefits of intergenerational practices is that children, teens, and young, middle, and older adults get to know each other, so that when their life falls down, they know others further ahead on the journey to go to for comfort, advice, insight, care, and for spiritual sustenance. There are multiple opportunities to be both mentors and mentees.
Q Why do you think age segregation happens in churches?
Churches typically divide by age because it is the paradigm most leaders are familiar with; it is the way medium-sized and larger churches have organised education, ministry, fellowship, even worship gatherings for several decades.
Originally, churches began separating by age in the 1970s and 80s primarily to better meet unique developmental needs of youth. At the time, we thought that addressing the distinctive cognitive and psychosocial developmental needs of children and adolescents (and other age groups) would better meet their spiritual needs. We have since realised that spiritual development and cognitive development are not synonymous. In fact, they are quite different.
Q Can you give some general advice on how a church can start to break down those barriers?
Some leaders take a teach-and-do approach: Lead the congregation through biblical, theological, theoretical, sociological, and empirical support for bringing the generations back together. They offer a few intergenerational experiences, followed with some good debriefing discussions.
Others take a do-then-teach approach. They jump in with a well-planned and engaging intergenerational event, then debrief it in small groups.
Q What do you think are the misconceptions around children’s spirituality?
A common understanding has been that teaching children Bible stories is the essence of faith development. Teaching Bible stories is important. But nurturing children spiritually is primarily about fostering the God-child relationship along with the child-child and child-others relationships. We want children to know God, not just about God. Of course, to know God, children must know who this God is, what God has done, what God is doing in the world; thus, learning the Master Story is part of coming to know God. But knowing the Bible is not synonymous with knowing God.
Another misconception some believe is that young children cannot really know God. Developmental psychology has taught us that children under 11 years old are not very capable of engaging in abstract thought. Christian educators have sometimes taken that to mean children are not able to engage spiritually. However, children are quite capable of entering into a conversation with God, listening to God, imagining themselves in the boat with Jesus, writing letters to God, etc.
Q What led to you developing a passion for family ministry?
For four years my family worshipped with a non-denominational church that was intentionally intergenerational. Every Sunday evening we met in homes in cross-generational small groups. On a weekly basis, I participated in small intimate settings in which children, teens, college students, young families, middle adults, and older adults sang, prayed, listened, laughed, shared, played, cried, ate, and hoped together—and blessed one another.
My experiences in those intergenerational groups changed my understanding of children and my understanding of Christian spiritual formation for children and adults. Ultimately these new understandings led me to change my career. The work I do now has grown out of those life-changing intergenerational small groups and is the work that I believe God has called me to do in this season of my life.
The Embracing Intergenerational Ministry workshop will be held on 27 and 28 July at the Centre of Theology and Ministry. For more information and to make reservations contact Ann Byrne
on E: firstname.lastname@example.org,au
or P: 03 9340 8815