One real dilemma of intergenerational worship is that it engages differing, and often competing, generational cohort values that live side by side in the congregation. People of different generations often like and enjoy being with one another. They may even see themselves as similar to one another, coming from the same families or living in the same community. Nonetheless, because of the cohort differences, discomfort below the surface commonly makes sharing worship, program planning, or decision making difficult across generations.

A generational cohort is that group of people who were born around the same time as one another and who learned the same life lessons because of their shared historical location in the culture that shaped their expectations. The lessons each generation has learned, the values it has adopted, and its way of seeing serve as a lens or a filter through which the world is experienced and understood. Such generational filters lead to a natural conclusion, arrived at by each successive generation, that there is a “right way” to be in the culture. It is this assumption of a “right way” that leads to so much tension and misunderstanding between generations. Older generations quite naturally but mistakenly assume that the difference between them and younger generations (their children and grandchildren) is an issue of maturity. The assumption is that once the younger people “grow up,” they will behave more appropriately—that is, they will dress better for worship, they will more readily sign on for committee and board responsibilities to help with the work load, they will sign a pledge card, they will. . . .

However, these are not issues of maturity but of differences. People with differing and competing values sit side by side in worship, as they do in all of congregational life. In too many congregations intergenerational worship is simply a search for those compromises that will be most palatable or least offensive to the participants. Leaders too often go out of their way to head off conversations about differing expectations in worship, rather than helping members and participants to engage in and sustain essential conversations about how the congregation will now behave. Yet it is the conversations that engage the differing generational value systems that can bring some understanding and vitality to the congregation and offer a real future to the faith.

Preference and Purpose

To be intergenerational requires us to make the effort to see beyond our own cultural or generational lens. Being intergenerational is clearly a leadership issue. Being intergenerational is not limited to worship but includes programming, stewardship, mission outreach, even community formation itself. Being intergenerational is one of the most difficult challenges of congregational leadership in a fast-changing culture, because leaders must constantly be more focused on learning how to speak to the shifting culture than on speaking in familiar and safe language that is already embedded in the congregation.

A significant challenge in intergenerational congregations is to train and challenge leaders to look beyond the “preferential.” The natural tendency of leaders in a voluntary institution such as a congregation is to satisfy the current constituency—to find the preferred way the current congregation likes to worship, to plan, or make decisions, and to embed those preferences as the approved practices of the congregation. There are problems, however, when leaders simply follow the “preferred” ways too closely.

One problem is that when leaders simply endorse the preferred practice in the congregation, it becomes much more difficult for those leaders to hear and to respond to the new voices of people coming into the congregation. The preferred way is established as the norm and is not easily challenged. The necessary argument that will lead to faith-shaping accommodation will be missing because only one voice is allowed in the room. The deeper problem, however, is that when leaders assume it is their responsibility to satisfy the people who are already active members of the congregation, it becomes increasingly difficult to lead change and to learn new ways. One of the most difficult “kinds” of congregation to lead is the satisfied congregation because, quite naturally, it does not want to go anywhere different. Seeing intergenerationally means understanding that the task of leaders is far more than satisfying the members.

We need to understand that what satisfies most people is to remain in their preferred practice—their established strategy for doing anything from cleaning a kitchen to worshiping God. Congregations too commonly mistake strategies for purpose and hold on to particular strategies as if the practice were itself holy rather than a way one might approach the Holy. Leaders must look at worship and other congregational practices from the perspective of purpose rather than preference. Rather than asking how most people like a particular practice, leaders must learn to explore how choosing a practice will most faithfully fulfill the purpose of the congregation. Worship planners will help deepen the worship life of the congregation when they increase the congregation’s awareness of the power and purpose of their worship. In addition, the community life of the congregation will likewise be deepened as generations engage one another in a healthy conversation to reshape the practice of the faith in an appropriate way.

A Way of Seeing

Intergenerational leadership is a way of seeing—a way of seeing each other, a way of seeing the purpose of the church, a way of seeing the need to be flexible in our strategies for worship, leadership, and decision making. To be intergenerational, leaders need to be prepared to share the leadership table with people of different “cohort values” and to appreciate the differences that these others will bring. In a good number of congregations the challenge of developing an intergenerational way of seeing means getting the right people around a safe table for the conversations needed.

Intergenerational as a way of seeing is also an act of Christian hospitality—rich Christian hospitality. Too many congregations limit their practice of hospitality to politeness. I was confronted by the difference between politeness and hospitality in my last congregation soon after we began sharing our facilities with a new church in the Latino community surrounding us. We hired a pastor from Puerto Rico and provided worship, program, and office space. However, we also unwittingly provided many expectations about how that space was to be used. Finally, my Puerto Rican colleague had to come to me and, speaking for his congregation, say, “It is wonderful to be invited into our brother’s house. However, it is not easy always being reminded that it belongs to our brother.”

Intergenerational worship, programming, stewardship, decision making, and faith formation require so much more than politely allowing others to do it their way “in our church.” It is a way of seeing and being with each other that goes deeply beyond politeness to true hospitality, where we see God in one another and shape a new community because of what we see.

Adapted from The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.

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AL348_SMThe Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together edited by Howard A. Vanderwell

Among the questions congregations struggle to address are these: Should we try to hold the generations together when we worship? Is it even possible? Led by pastor and resource developer Howard Vanderwell, nine writers-pastors, teachers, worship planners, and others serving in specialized ministries-offer their reflections on issues congregational leaders need to address as they design their worship ministry. They guide readers as they craft ministries and practices that fit their own community, heritage, and history. Each chapter includes questions for reflection and group discussions, and an appendix provides guidelines for small group use.

AL286_SM Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning  by Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell

This book draws on more than two decades of collaborative worship planning by pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma deWaal Malefyt, offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life-enriching weekly worship.


AL244_SMThe Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge by Gilbert R. Rendle

Congregations need to learn new cultural languages and practices in order to speak to and be heard by new generations of people. But how do congregations enter the wilderness of ministry with these new generations when many of those in the entourage do not appreciate the trip? Rendle shows us how to talk with and really understand one generational cohort while another cohort is present “looking over one’s shoulder.”