Six key ingredients to strengthen community among people of all ages
irds of a feather flock together. Do you remember that old saying? In many cases birds do hang out together for safety, so for example you don’t usually see a seagull hanging around with a robin. Canadian culture and our churches treat people this way, too. We’ve tended to organize in ways that isolate – even insulate – the generations from one another.
Churches seem to be awakening to a different vision of what’s possible within their ranks, one that intentionally aims to bring the generations together to learn, worship and serve. This was evident at the recent InterGenerate Conference, a virtual gathering on intergenerational ministry that brought together 950 Christian leaders from 16 countries and roughly 40 different denominations. Many of them have begun to experience something that may well have been part of God’s true intentions for the Church all along.
We are better together
Becoming an intergenerational church is a process that takes time and intentionality, but it’s worth the investment. Churches that welcome and include the gifts and perspectives of all generations report their ministries are strengthened and enriched in ways they couldn’t have anticipated. Intergenerational community provides a rich context for people in all stages of life to mature as followers of Christ.
In a world where people of different generations lob rhetorical grenades back and forth at one another ("Ok, Boomer"), being an intergenerational church in a healthy and significant way is countercultural. Being distinctly intergenerational becomes a powerful expression of prophetic witness within communities. It enables us to experience and show more of the vibrant reality of God’s Kingdom.
The ties that bind
The Bible sends clear signals that God desires the family of faith to express the unity and shared identity we find in Christ in tangible, real-world ways. We see this reflected in 1 Timothy 5:1–4 and Titus 2:2–4 where young and old are instructed about how to relate to one another within the Church.
In a cultural environment where young and old aren’t accustomed to sharing life together, how do we foster this sort of intergenerational community within our churches?
Through my research within intentionally intergenerational congregations – and my collaboration with intergenerational ministry innovators in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. – I’ve identified six key ingredients that can help church families strengthen cohesion – or stickiness – between the generations. Together these six ingredients form the acrostic cohere, which fits so beautifully as parts come together to form a unified whole
Amos 3:3 poses a thought-provoking question: "Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?" This question certainly applies to different generations within the church. It is impossible for us to walk together if we relate only to people of our own generations. Helping people cross the relational lines that keep them from associating with members of other generations is a key ingredient of intergenerational cohesion. Intergenerationally sticky churches are those that strive to encourage and enable people of all ages to connect with one another relationally.
It is impossible for us to walk together if we relate only to people of our own generations.
It can be tough to make these sorts of connections when church life prevents us from crossing paths with other generations. This challenges us to do some fresh thinking. What would it mean for us to organize things differently so the generations could be encouraged and enabled to connect? This is a hugely important consideration. Intergenerationally healthy churches work at developing structures that provide these opportunities for connection.
Our culture tends to emphasize disagreements between the generations. Some of these differences are real, but we also actually have a lot in common, especially those of us who possess a shared identity in Christ. Intergenerational churches strive to help Christians of all ages recognize the core values and beliefs they share. Through liturgy, learning activities and leadership processes, people of different generations can discover they are singing the same song. We may also discover some of our differences aren’t as dissonant as we assumed. Through intergenerational dialogue, healthy congregations learn to help the generations harmonize these differences in ways that can actually strengthen cohesion within the church.
At times we may find ourselves judging people without really understanding them. Empathizing is about trying to put ourselves in another’s position to understand things from their perspective – to feel with another. Storytelling can be a powerful avenue for helping people of different generations learn to empathize with one another. As we share our life stories, understanding can grow between us. We begin to recognize the inadequacy of the stereotyped ways we’ve viewed each other. Intergenerational churches are committed to creating space within which the generations can move beyond their distorted attitudes and assumptions toward one another.
The Bible has a fair bit to say about the responsibilities of older and younger people to care for one another. From a biblical standpoint having a sense of responsibility for each other is normal. However, the rapid social changes of recent decades have left our culture with little understanding of our responsibilities and obligations to one another across the generations. This loss certainly has been felt within the Church. Intergener-ationally sticky churches are striving to recover these neglected scriptural values and gain a renewed biblical vision of the responsibilities younger and older generations have toward one another.
The New Testament teaches that every part of the Body of Christ is endowed with important gifts meant to enrich the life of the whole. Churches sometimes lose sight of this vision. Older generations may refuse to make room for the young, or younger generations may look dismissively upon the contributions of their elders. Intergenerationally healthy churches recognize we all are connected in Christ’s Spirit and that all are needed. These churches strive to foster an environment where the contributions of all ages are welcomed, and in which all generations are learning to honour and receive one another’s gifts.
… every part of the Body of Christ is endowed with important gifts meant to enrich the life of the whole.
It is exciting to see congregations move beyond "birds of a feather flock together" to embrace this innovative, ancient way of being the Church. Every church can begin to experience the benefits of strengthening intergenerational relationships by fostering these six key ingredients.
Fortunately, these are not secret ingredients. We may find they are already present in our churches to varying degrees. The key is being intentional about working with this blend of essential ingredients and mixing them together to help the generations within our churches learn to truly cohere. As we do so, we are bound to find ourselves growing together stronger as intergenerational churches.
Cory Seibel joined us for a chat on Instagram on Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. Eastern for a live chat. Watch a recording of our chat.
Cory Seibel is a pastor at Central Baptist Church in Edmonton, Alta., chair of the InterGenerate Conference and editor of The Generative Church (Wipf & Stock, 2019) and Engage All Generations (ACU Press, 2021).