The Importance of Generational Connections


‘Intergenerational’ seems to be the buzz word of the moment.  There are large international research programmes in the secular world devoted to intergenerational issues and there’s even a dedicated journal of intergenerational relationships.  It is now widely recognized, even outside the church, that good intergenerational connections are a source of hope for healthy societies and a peaceful world in the future.

Martyn Payne

Martyn is part of The BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) Messy Church team.

Community: Helping the church to thrive as a growing, intergenerational faith community.

This is an extract from the Faithfull Generation book – find out more here

The Christian church is ideally placed to rise to this intergenerational challenge.  In a society in which extended families are geographically dispersed, childcare is outsourced, and child-free resorts and retirement villages are becoming more common, churches are one of the few natural intergenerational spaces left.

The vision of the Kingdom of God is one in which old and young live side by side in peace as part of a society where both genders and all races are also fully represented. For example, consider these Old Testament prophecies:

I will return to Zion. I will live among my people in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City. And my mountain will be called the Holy Mountain. Once again old men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem……

The city streets will be filled with boys and girls. They will be playing there.

( Zechariah 8: 3-5)

After that, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.Your old men will have dreams. Your young men will have visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women alike.

(Joel 2:27-29)

Praise him, young men and women. Praise him, old men and children.

 Psalm 148:13

(The New International Readers’ Version)

This theological vision is not always reflected in church practice and the aspiration to be intergenerational usually remains just that – a good idea but not realised in the everyday of being church together.  From the Enlightenment onwards and even through into our postmodern age churches have inherited and held fast to a model that divides congregations by age.  This is even still the default in much of our training for church leaders.

There are exceptions, as is evidenced by a growing number of imaginative approaches to all-age services and in particular the welcome advent of Messy Church with its insistence that learning and worship take place with everyone together the whole time.

The problem remains that any church that is large enough to mirror our increasingly segregated society tends to do so in the way it organises its worship, teaching, pastoral care and outreach.  These churches appoint specialist ministry workers who focus on age-groups within the church and in some churches this even extends further to gender specific ministries.  A typical Sunday morning for many churches involves consecutive services for large different congregations with age-stratified groups running in parallel for the purposes of teaching.  The sending out of children and young people at the beginning of the service and receiving them back to ‘show and tell’ is a widely recognisable formula. This is however the antithesis of good intergenerational practice.

So why has the church embraced this model so wholeheartedly and continues to do so?  From the mid-20th century onward, stage theories of faith development were proposed, notably by Goldman, Fowler and Eriksson and these were very influential, together with a wider educational policy that was rooted in the notion that chronological age was the marker of educational status. Unfortunately this educational model became superimposed onto our understanding of children’s spirituality and became a descriptor of their faith journeys, making the unhelpful correlation between age and spiritual maturity which fuelled generational separation for Christian nurture and discipleship.

It was fascinating at a conference not so long ago to hear the author of ‘Will our children have faith?’, John Westerhoff, now in his eighties, express regret that he had ever written of faith development in these chronological and developmental terms.  Instead he said that he would now talk of faith being the fruit of a meeting of generations and indeed that all ages need to discover how to become Christian together.

These stage theories of human development have had their day and now have at best only limited application.  However their legacy lingers in church life.  The truth is that spiritual awakening does not come with a linear progression into adulthood nor alongside people who are like us.  This is quickly and easily called into question when we consider seriously Jesus’ teaching about children and in particular his insistence that adults need learn from children how to enter the Kingdom of God – there are also insights from other Biblical stories of children, such as that of young Samuel where it is the child who hears God more clearly than the aged priest.

So how can we address this, not just for the sake of children’s faith journeys but for all of us whatever our age? The first step must surely be to address the issue of how much intergenerational contact we encourage in church.  This needs an intentional development of intergenerational programmes to harness the social and spiritual capital released when old and young come together. And for this there are already natural connections between generations which are often ignored in churches.

For example, adolescents and the over-70s have much in common: both are undervalued for who they are now – one group being valued for what it may become and the other for what it was; both can experience conflict with the middle-aged; both can be plagued by loneliness and shaky self-esteem; while both can also experience great spiritual insights. Similarly there are also strong connections been infants and those who are old, mentally or physically frail: both tend to live in the immediate present; both can experience intense and volatile emotions of joy or anguish; both can be playful; both are at the mercy of their bodily functions and both are deeply vulnerable.

In other words there are already generational connections that simply need to recognised, celebrated and nurtured as healthy all-age relationships. Church should be built on relationships, as Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ so clearly illustrates and intergenerational relationships are a key part of this.

They provide opportunities for mutual learning, support and formation, which build up both individuals and the whole faith community. Wisdom is not only passed down but also across generations.  This is particularly true of spiritual wisdom.  The New Testament (for example, take Timothy’s intergenerational faith journey as described in 2 Timothy I:5) and research such as that of Sticky Faith and Talking Jesus reemphasise the part played by generational transfer in the transmission of faith.

Whenever I have been leading workshops considering this whole issue of intergenerational church, it does not take long for stories to emerge that reveal the important role of significant adults – other than a person’s own parents or grandparents – in someone’s faith development.  My own family was brought up in a church which stayed together as much as it possibly could do on a Sunday morning.  Our children grew up not just hearing about the Christian faith from us as their parents but also saw it expressed and lived out through other key adult figures who were like parents and grandparents to them within the body of Christ in our fellowship.

I am convinced as I look at their own faith now that this was a highly significant factor in their own commitment to Christ and growth as Christians.

There is a growing body of research, initially from the States but also more recently from the UK and Australia, that churches experience real benefits where individuals of different ages are brought together intentionally for teaching, worship and service.  It strengthens the sense of unity in a church, enriches the spiritual learning and is a great opportunity for Christian character formation through mentoring.  There is also evidence, in particularly from recent research carried out in the UK into Family Ministry, that intergenerational churches are better placed to help troubled families, addressing loneliness and modelling a way of life that challenges society’s tendency to fragment families.

For many, especially where parents are separated from their children through family breakdown or simply work pressures, the gathered worship of a church may be the only time when they can come together.  Recognising that this time is so precious, should help us see that keeping parents in the service and sending their children away from them is not the best approach.

All this suggests that if we want to see the Christian faith caught and nurtured today the young need to be alongside the old so they can hear and learn from those with experience of what it means to trust God in all the ups and downs of life.  Likewise the old also need to be alongside the young who can bring the gift of a lively questioning spirituality and an eager sense of wonder; and Christians of whatever age who have a mature faith need to be alongside beginners of whatever age to help them explore new ways of seeing life and encountering God.

So what is the way forward?  Perhaps initially we might simply start by celebrating and learning from those small, often rural, village churches where, through the necessity of having a single worship space, they have actually built up good cross-generational practice without a specialist children’s or youth worker.  We can also learn from the growing number of fresh expressions that have made mutual serving and learning between generations a core value.

Messy Church has been particularly inspiring in this regard, as long as it is seen not as a technique for getting more people into ‘Sunday church’ but rather as a place where people can become Christian together in a congregation in its own right.  It is not uncommon for example in congregations who have adopted the Messy Church approach to find that older adult participants become, at least for the two hours of the service, honorary grandparents to the young children they encounter, who both give and receive around the activity tables, during the celebration and over the meal together.

Some congregations have adopted an intergenerational approach of mixed teams making connections with the local community.  A growing number of such churches are taking groups into residential Care Homes to share faith through crafts and storytelling and having tea together.  There are stories of toddler groups meeting in dementia Nursing Homes, engaging with residents as they sing along with the nursery rhymes that have been known from childhood and through gentle ball games within the mutual acceptance of old and young.  An increasing number of Messy Churches are likewise taking teams into Care Homes in the same way, under a ministry which has been christened ‘messy vintage’!  Some Anglican dioceses have developed intergenerational connections through an annual Grandparents’ Festival and a number of churches have worked creatively to build connections around special events such as Remembrance Day with its unique coming together of the young in uniformed organisations as well as older church members, some of whom still have memories of recent wars.

Many of the creative forms of worship of recent decades, which have largely been pioneered by children’s and youth workers in churches such as the use prayer spaces, are finding a new lease of life through being extended to include older people.  Other initiatives such as Godly Play which was initially developed in the States to accompany children on their spiritual journey, is now being extended to explore how all ages and particularly the elderly can benefit from this reflective storytelling approach to the Bible.

The rapid advances in technology in recent years can on the one hand seem bewildering, particularly to older members of our congregations and therefore lead to a sense of isolation from the modern world. However, viewed more positively, this is another great opportunity for young people to bring their expertise to support older adults in compiling life-story work such as scanning and digitising old photographs and creating memory boxes together. Schools are already leading the way in this partnership of learning between old and young. And also in western society, pressing social needs have opened up the doors for intergenerational connections of involvement in church outreach projects such as food banks and care for the homeless.

In so many ways all this is simply a recovery of a Biblical vision of faith sharing and faith nurture.  When we look back into the Old and New Testaments we discover that discipleship and service were learned and expressed both in family celebrations at home and in religious festivals at which all ages participated.  We still see this happening among orthodox Jews today where the family gathers for the regular Sabbath meal or to celebrate festivals such as the Feast of Booths where young and old enjoy making shelters to remind each other of how God looked after them on their wilderness journeys.  Likewise all-ages are present at the meal that celebrates the Passover where it is the youngest child who asks the question that prompts the storytelling for the whole family to hear together.

In a similar way the early church communities of faith experienced a togetherness (expressed in the Greek word ‘koinonia’) as they shared their homes and meals, celebrating their new experience of Jesus, alive in and through them.  These churches were households of faith which welcomed young and old, slave and free, men and women and certainly there is no mention of a ‘Sunday school’ going on somewhere out the back! This ‘faith at home’ or in an atmosphere akin to a home, is another expression of generational connection in which the church has for far too long neglected to invest. Generational connections of the sort described so far are vital not just for our fractured society but for the health of our churches who are called to be salt and light in this world.  The much quoted proverb from Africa ‘It takes the whole village to raise the child’ can be applied more widely, since there is no doubting that ‘it takes the whole church to raise any one of us in the faith’.  I know that in my own Christian life journey I have been deeply grateful for the support and companionship of old and young.

I cannot imagine how I can continue to grow in Christ without the presence of children and young people to stimulate and challenge me, nor without the presence of older generations with their stories of a faith that has stood the test.  There is something about the Kingdom of God that holds diversity together like the ‘fish of every kind’ that are caught in the net in the parable that Jesus tells and which turns on its head the usual hierarchies of age and status that characterise the way the world works, but sadly too the way some churches still operate.

This bringing together of the generations goes against the culture of some urban and suburban churches, and these churches need reminding that church at its best is one of the few social gatherings where you can find representatives from every stage of life from the new-born babe-in-arms to the nonagenarian in a wheelchair.  A healthy church community is therefore one that embraces all-age diversity and celebrates God-given differences; is one where there is the dynamic of encounter of like and unlike which is the recipe for healthy Christian growth.

The perspectives of someone who has lived through war in the past century or the sexual revolution of the 1960s compared with that of a young person who is a 21st century digital native may be very different, but each undoubtedly needs the other to enrich both lives for good and most assuredly for each to grow as fruitful disciples of Jesus.

Resources, books and websites

Messy Togetherness by Martyn Payne (BRF 2016)

Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship by Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross (2012: InterVarsity Press).

 All-age Worship by Lucy Moore (BRF revised and reprinted 2016)

Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus by David M. Csinos and Ivy Beckwith. (IVP 2013)

Generations Together – caring, praying, learning, celebrating and serving faithfully by Kathie Amidei, Jim Merhaut and John Roberto, published by Lifelong Faith Associates 2014

Sticky Faith by Powell, Griffin and Crawford (2016 Zondervan)

Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century by John Roberto (Lifelong Faith Associates 2015)

All-Age Everything, Worship for an Intergenerational Church by Nick Harding (revised and republished by Kevin Mayhew 2016)

The Family Ministry Research Project, CGMC and the Methodist Church, 2014–15

Unfinished Business, a report produced by the Consultative Group for Ministry Among Children (CGMC), a network of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), available digitally:

The Growth of Love by Keith White and The Study Guide to the Growth of Love, published by WTL and available from Mill Grove:

Related websites include:

(Journal of Intergenerational Relationships)