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The ageless Kingdom of God

11 December 2015

The Churches are well placed to lead in building intergenerational relationships, suggest Joanna Collicutt and Martyn Payne

All aboard: Alina, who is nine, and Ferdinand, who is 78, at a project that brings together refugee children and people with dementia, in Hamburg, Germany

All aboard: Alina, who is nine, and Ferdinand, who is 78, at a project that brings together refugee children and people with dementia, in Hamburg, Ger...

“INTERGENERATIONAL” is the buzz word in the study of ageing. Massive international research programmes are devoted to intergenerational issues. There is even a dedicated Journal of Intergenerational Relationships.

It seems that good intergenerational relations are seen as a great — if not the only — source of hope for healthy societies, and for a peaceful world in the future.

A secular community-development researcher recently asked one of us why the churches do not do more intentional intergenerational work. She observed that, in a society in which extended families are geographically dispersed, child care is outsourced, and child-free resorts and retirement villages are becoming more common, the churches are one of the few natural intergenerational spaces left to us

As so often, an outside perspective can illuminate a theological issue: her observation about the nature of churches resonated strongly with the vision of the Kingdom of God. Here, old and young live side by side in peace, as part of a society where both genders and all races are also fully represented (Zechariah 8,1-8; Joel 2,27-29; Acts 2.7-18).

How much this theological vision informs church practice, however, is questionable. The aspiration to intergenerational church life is not always there. Where it is, its enactment is often limited, despite the welcome advent of Messy Church, and some imaginative approaches to “all-age” services.

Any church that is large enough to mirror our increasingly segregated society tends to do so — in the way in which it organises worship, teaching, pastoral care, and outreach. Youth workers and children’s and families’ workers are commonplace on ministry teams. There is also an increasing trend of identifying specialists in ministry with older adults. Some churches also have gender-specific ministries.

A Sunday morning may typically involve consecutive services for large, different congregations, and/or age-stratified groups running in parallel for the purposes of teaching. The sending out of children and young people soon after the beginning of the service, and receiving them back in for “show and tell”, is a widely recognisable formula.

There may be simple logistic reasons for this situation, but it also arises from our history, particularly since the Reformation, of following a segregated model of faith-sharing and discipleship.

From the mid-20th century, “stage theories” of faith development (most notably those of Ronald Goldman, James Fowler, and Erik Erikson) were influential, together with a wider educational policy that was firmly rooted in the notion of chronological age as a marker of educational status (“I’m a Year 5”; “She’s a Key Stage Two”).

They emphasise the distinctive — if not unique — needs of individuals who are at a particular point in life, and lead naturally to the conclusion that these needs are best-served in the context of cohorts of a similar age or stage.

 

THE stage theories of human development have long since had their day. They are now regarded as being, at best, of only limited application; at worst, as totally discredited. But their legacy lingers in church life.

We have inherited an assumption that spiritual awakening can come only with a staged linear progression to adulthood, and alongside people who are like us. This is paradoxical, in view of Jesus’s insistence that adults must learn from children (Matthew 18,2-3; see also 1 Samuel 3). What might we have lost as result of this trend?

First, we have clearly lost simple intergenerational contact. Second, we have lost opportunities to develop intentional intergenerational programmes to harness the social and spiritual capital released when old and young come together.

What do we mean by “younger”, “older”, and “generation”? These are fluid concepts: a group of those aged from the mid-fifties to 80-plus embraces more than one generation.

Nevertheless, there are some special points of connection between certain groups. Adolescents and the over-70s can have much in common: both are undervalued for who they are now — one group being valued for what it may become, the other for what it was. Both can experience conflict with the middle-aged (how often we find subversive alliances between teenager and grandparents!); both can be plagued by loneliness and shaky self-esteem; both can experience great spiritual insights.

There are also strong connections between infants and those who are old mentally, or who are 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 physiology (lavatories are a significant concern); both are deeply vulnerable.

The Church is built on relationships, and intergenerational relationships are a key part of this. They provide opportunities for mutual learning, support, and formation which build up both individuals and communities.

Wisdom is not only passed down, but is also passed across generations. This seems to be particularly true of spiritual wisdom. Both the New Testament (2 Timothy 1.5, for example) and empirical research (www.talkingjesus.org/research and www.stickyfaith.org) emphasise the part played by intergenerational transfer in the transmission of faith.

After all, we have a tradition that is there to be passed on, and received, but also re-interpreted afresh (Mark 7.1-13). The part played by narrative in this is crucial.

Some promising research findings indicate that churches experience real benefits when individuals of different ages are brought together intentionally for teaching, worship, and community service.

These include a strengthening of a sense of unity in the church, greater fun and enjoyment, enriched spiritual learning, and greater opportunities for character formation through mentoring (a useful resource here is Intergenerational Christian Formation by Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross, IVP Academic, 2012).

There is also evidence that, besides building up the church family, intentional intergenerational practice can reach out to others — for example, through helping troubled families, addressing loneliness, and modelling a way of life that challenges society’s tendency to fragment families.

For some, especially where parents have separated, Sunday may be the only day they can be together. Recognising that this time is precious should help us to see that keeping parents in “the service” while sending their children away from them may not be 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 that they can hear and learn from those with experience of what it means to trust God in all the ups and downs of life.

The old also need to be alongside the young, who can bring the gift of a lively questioning spirituality, and an eager sense of adventure; and Christians who are advanced in the faith need to be alongside those young in faith, as each shows the other new ways of seeing life and encountering God.

So, what can be done? We might start by celebrating and learning from, rather than denigrating, those small (often rural village) churches that, through the necessity of having a single worship space, have naturally built up good cross-generational practice without a specialist children’s and 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, but only if the danger of seeing it simply as a technique for getting more people into church is resisted. It has, in fact, at its heart a profound philosophical shift from a multigenerational to a truly intergenerational culture.

It is not uncommon, among congregations that have adopted the Messy Church approach, to find that the older adult participants become, at least for the two hours of the service, honorary grandparents to the young children they encounter, who give and receive accordingly, around the activity tables, during the celebration, and over the meal together.

Some congregations that have adopted this approach take mixed-age teams into residential care-homes to share faith through crafts, storytelling, and having tea together.

In Oxfordshire, a toddler group from St Helen’s, Abingdon, meets monthly in a dementia care-home. The engagement by the residents, as they sing along with the nursery rhymes they have known from childhood, or play gentle ball games with enthusiastic toddlers, and the mutual acceptance of old and young, are a delight to witness.

 

IN RECENT years, many churches have run successful “holiday at home” weeks for older members of their congregation, usually during the summer months. These borrow much from the well-known children’s holiday-club model, and include a variety of activities, visiting speakers, outings, games, and food. Increasingly, many of these holiday experiences have become intergenerational, as families and young children have been invited to join in the fun.

Often, there are craft activities, where older people with skills such as knitting or carpentry can teach them to the young — who are surprisingly eager to acquire them. The special part played by grandparents and other older care-givers can be celebrated through thanksgiving services.

Next year, the Bible Reading Fellowship is hosting two Grandparents’ Days, in Portsmouth and Sheffield, to bring together grandparents and grandchildren for a day of shared faith and fun. This will draw together two of its ministry streams, Messy Church and The Gift of Years.

Another widely recognised opportunity for intergenerational encounter is provided by special occasions such as Remembrance Sunday, when the coming together of uniformed organisations of all ages could perhaps be better exploited.

Perhaps, above all, Candlemas offers space to reflect on the intergenerational nature of faith by providing an icon: the blended family gathered at the Temple for the dedication of the Christ-child, together with Simeon and Anna.

 

ONE interesting experiment in harnessing the spiritual capital of older people came out of introducing prayer spaces (www.prayerspacesinschools.com) into an Oxfordshire health and well-being centre attended by older people.

They were invited to write, on sheets of paper, words of wisdom that they would like to share with the young. Later, their sheets were attached to a tree that was the focus of a prayer station in a school.

There are many more creative examples of opportunities to bring together the generations. These include Godly Play sessions for all ages, or having older people carve or knit the Godly Play figures that are used by the children.

Young people can bring their expertise in new technology to support older adults in life-story work (for example, by scanning and digitising old photographs); and old and young can create memory-boxes together. Community-focused projects, such as food banks, bring different age groups together in a common cause.

Each of these activities is driven by a philosophy and vision, perhaps owned, perhaps so deeply held that it is almost unconscious. It recognises that there is something about the Kingdom which holds diversity together like the “fish of every kind” in a net, and which turns the usual hierarchies of age and status on their head.

The bringing together of the generations goes against the culture of the urban and suburban churches of recent centuries. Yet, as the researcher quoted at the beginning of this article observed, church at its best is one of the few social gatherings where you can find representatives from every stage of life, from the babe-in-arms to a nonagenarian in a wheelchair. A healthy church community is surely one that embraces all-age diversity, and celebrates God-given difference; one where there is a dynamic encounter of like with unlike.

The perspective 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 needs the other to enrich lives for good, and, most assuredly, for growing in faith.


The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt is the Adviser for Spiritual Care for Older People for Oxford diocese.

Martyn Payne works for the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF), and is part of its national Messy Church team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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