Most American congregations are already multigenerational, and those that are not are usually intentional about wanting to be. Congregations that hold only one generation are the exception to the rule. Such single generation congregations are more commonly new church starts designed to attract a singular generational cohort. However, given the overwhelming pattern of multigenerational congregations, the pressing issue for leaders is not only how does the church speak to new generations but how does the church hold together multiple generations in one time. “Family” and “community” are still dominant (although limited) metaphors we use to describe congregations. These other two places in our lives are also where multigenerational expectations are confronted and negotiated. With the increase of life expectancy we now experience differences spanning up to five generations in all of these places-congregation, family, and community.

The reality of already existing multigenerational settings means that most congregations are seeking to find forms of worship that (1) live well across these differences, (2) give voice to the various and often competing preferences that live side by side among the multiple generations in the pew, and (3) prepare an expression of faith that will be sustained into a changing future. The better approach is for leaders to attend more to the major generational value shifts rather than the fine-tuned generational differences so well mapped by the advertising and marketing world.

Joseph Turrow, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated the way in which technology and advertising have contributed to a marketing industry that has developed fine-tuned ways to segment (differentiate) and target people according to even the smallest differences in their preferences and behavior.1 A highly complex and comprehensive marketing industry now collects huge amounts of demographic and economic information at the individual level so that each of us can be “assigned” to one of a number of categories based on lifestyle and preferences. Among other things, this is how the world knows which mail-order catalogs to send us. More important, it trains us to think of ourselves individually and to give priority to our perceived personal needs over others.

This sensitivity to differences has heightened generational disparities. Take for instance TV commercials that are so generationally focused–using the images and metaphors of a single generational cohort–that others cannot even identify the product being sold. This same sensitivity has also given people an increasing sense of entitlement when it comes to having “things” (including worship) “their way.” For most congregations such fine-tuning may not serve the sense of “community” well. Heightening and focusing on generational preferences may lead to a trendiness that will not bear the long term fruit of the faith. In fact, leaders need to practice caution in following generational preferences too closely. The results are not yet in, but it appears that early trends of megachurches, worship designed explicitly for the seeker, and fully contemporary worship, while clearly viable, will not be dominant expressions of worship and faith. We are still on the way to “something else” or “something more.”

As leaders trying to understand generational differences, it is more helpful to back away from all of the reified and magnified differences between early baby-boomers, late baby-boomers, gen-Xrs, millenials…and so on down the line. All of these generational cohorts do, in fact, have their own preferences and life lessons that make them different from one another. But each of these generational cohorts shares a need for a personal faith lived in community (a congregation), and each of these generational cohorts lives, daily, in a multigenerational environment.

The more productive approach in understanding generations in worship is not to drill deeply into the smaller differences but to attend to the larger “watershed” divide of cultural values. Jackson Carroll, project director of the Pulpit and Pew research on Pastoral Leadership at Duke Divinity School points to a “major generational watershed” that lies between those who are Pre-boomers (born prior to 1946) and those who have come after.2 He notes, for example, that “although Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) and Xers (born 1965 – 1979) differ in some respects, they are much more like each other than like Pre-boomers.

For the purpose of this brief article we can look quickly at one of the watershed value differences-the life lesson to see oneself as primarily a part of a larger group (Pre-boomer “GI” value) or the life lesson of seeing oneself primarily as an individual (Boomer -and following-“consumer” value).3 When seen through the lens of the GI value of “group,” it is easily assumed that there is one way for everyone to worship and that it is the way that has been shaped by past and present tradition. In this value system people who have different preferences are expected to conform to the group and not seek to change things. This voice in the multigenerational congregation can often be heard to argue that:

  • There should be only one large worship service where we can all be together and get to know one another.
  • We need to affirm the liturgy, the roles of leadership, the roles of adults and children, and the time of worship as practiced over the years.
  • There is a fairly narrow range of music appropriate to worship (sometimes limited to as few as 25 “approved” hymns).
  • Children (members with minority status) should be seen and not heard.

However, when seen through the eyes of the “consumer” individual value system where differences of preference are expected, this voice can be heard to argue for:

  • Multiple choices in the time and format of worship
  • Choices about liturgy based on how it influences one’s own spiritual needs, informal roles that blend leaders and participants in shared action, and experiments that may reach either ahead to untried practices or reach back to ancient traditions once forgotten
  • A wide range of music that reflects the global world that people experience daily
  • An inclusion and accommodation of children similar to the role given children in the current culture

In today’s congregations such multigenerational voices that speak out of different value systems are commonly in competition, if not contention, making leaders particularly uncomfortable. It is difficult to have it both ways when facing competing preferences. Despite the discomfort, such negotiating over worship is a sign of health in the congregation since it represents the way in which we pass the faith on to the next generation and provide the changes necessary to speak to a changing world.

In a fast-paced world it may feel outdated to be concerned about the values and preferences of persons born prior to 1946. However, the reality is that many, if not most, established Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish congregations are still anchored in the value system of the Pre-boomers. All living communities and organizations develop norms of practice to follow. Norms are the usually silent and often invisible practices and agreements that we develop by common consent in human groups. These norms (such as “it is inappropriate to bring coffee into the sanctuary” or “the pastor alone decides whether Christmas hymns can be sung in the Advent season”) provide the guidelines for how the community will behave. Because norms are often hidden and unquestioned, they are difficult to change. In many of our North American congregations the norms practiced by leaders and members are still heavily guided by the values and preferences of the Pre-boomer people since these norms were established in years past. This is how people learned to do worship over the years an
d it is ingrained in the assumptions of most people in the pews.

We need to become more aware of the tacit norms that guide us. The way in which we worship and express faith must remain supple and open to the change necessary to be heard in a changing world. Like any living language that constantly adapts to use by adding new words, deleting words that have lost meaning, and becoming more or less formal as the pendulum of culture sways, our worship practices also need to constantly change in order for worship to live. Not to adapt is to die. Not to be changed by use is to lose usefulness.

The task of leadership is not to proclaim what form of worship is “right” or to point out who is “wrong.” The more important question is how, within this specific congregation, do we need to worship? The answer to the question comes as a dialogue between God, the people of the congregation, and the culture in which we live. An intriguing, and healthy, model for such conversation was developed by Dan Schechter, who was a vice chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Designed for use in synagogue discussions of worship, it is equally adaptable for use in Christian congregations. A worship self-study team of eight to twelve people who represent the membership of the congregation agree to study, participate in worship, and keep a “worship diary” on their experience. The pastor and others lead the group in an initial period of study in which the purpose of worship and the purpose of the components of the liturgy are explored. Context and purpose is offered to questions such as “Why do we sing?” “Why do we pray?” “Why do we have assigned roles for clergy and lay people to play?” “Why are there times of silence in our worship?” Being careful to avoid the temptation to teach people how they “should” worship, the pastor helps people turn to church and denominational history in order to understand the intent-the purpose-of forms of worship. With some idea of what the worship is meant to do, the study team members then spend several weeks in worship attending to their own experience. Using their worship diaries they begin to track their own response to the intent of the worship. The team then joins together to begin a conversation about worship in their own particular church asking:

  • Does this do it for us? Does the way we now worship fulfill the purpose for which we gather? (The key word is “us.” This is a communal conversation. It is not about the singular “I” and the particular preference of the way I like to do it.)
  • How can we best do this, not only for ourselves, but to be welcoming to the people who are not yet here?

In an increasingly multigenerational world, the creative role of leadership is not to find the “right” way to worship for each generation. The challenge is to help different generations speak wisely and listen closely to each other. God is still speaking. Our hearing God depends upon how well we listen to one another.

A version of this article was originally published as “Beginning a Communal Conversation: A Process for Developing Intergenerational Worship” in Reformed Worship, Number 76 (June 2005).

1. Joseph Turrow, Breaking Up America, (University of Chicago Press, 1997).
2. Jackson Carroll, “Bridging Worlds: The Generational Challenge to Congregational Life”, Circuit Rider 22:5 (September – October, 1999).
3. For a full discussion of generational value systems see, Gil Rendle, The Multigenerational Congregation, (Alban Institute, 2002).
4.Daniel Schechter, Synagogue Boards: A Sacred Trust, Appendix E: “Procedure for Self-Study of Congregational Worship” (UAHC Press, 2000).


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