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Generation game: how can the Church bring the ages together?

15 March 2019

The General Synod has been focusing on intergenerational work. Diane Craven considers responses


Children at the centre of a church meeting

Children at the centre of a church meeting

AT THE General Synod session in February, a debate was held on “Growing Faith: Churches, schools, and households” (News, 1 March). The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, expressed the vision of the House of Bishops: “To transform the culture of the Church so that ministry with and by children is woven through the structures of every diocese and forms a central strand of the life and work of every parish, deanery, cathedral, and diocesan mission action plan.”

Placing children and young people at the heart of all that we do challenges us to consider what is truly important. If our priorities are to be radically reordered in order to make resources available for intentional intergenerational work, what would this mean for our work, worship, and witness together with children and young people in our local contexts?

Scripture and human experience tell us that we are made to be in community. We are created by a God who is profoundly relational, and the theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna wrote that it is in relatedness that we best understand the Christian belief that God is Trinity.

In her ground-breaking book God for Us, she explains that the doctrine of the Trinity is an essentially pastoral and practical doctrine, understood best when lived out within the household of faith: “Living Trinitarian faith means living together in harmony and communion with every other creature in the common household of God.” By our imperfect attempts to create and sustain meaningful relationships, we begin to reflect the being and nature of the God we worship.

MANY years ago, I was privileged to be a part of a church that sought to create community as the bedrock of all that it did. The belief was that shared lives deepened our worship and released gifts for mission; and that the pain of building authentic community was central to the Bible’s teaching, and to its outworking in our daily lives and relationships.

Each Sunday, we gathered together as the whole body of Christ, and worship was shared with adults and children present, all of the time. Coming from a traditional Sunday-school approach, the impact on me was profound. It changed the way in which I thought about church; but, more than that, it helped me to understand three things that still shape my ministry and work today.

First, that community is hard work that requires forgiveness, challenge, and commitment as well as joy. Second, that the arts have a particular place within the creation of a community, and give expression to its longings and hopes, struggles and pain. And, third, that it is not normal for children and young people to be segmented (or sent out) from the worshipping community: they can be fully included, and can share in worship, mission, and giving, as well as in leadership.

But, if we are serious about becoming intergenerational in the church, then there will be challenges to the prevailing culture, and difficulties and opportunities that will be unique for each context.

THE characteristics and benefits of intergenerational work have been observed first-hand by several local authorities and voluntary and community organisations. Key to its success are the twin principles of mutual understanding and mutual flourishing.

In a culture where public community space is under threat, the church is uniquely placed to offer space and opportunity for adults and children to meet, socialise, worship, learn, and work together in counter-cultural ways. Intergenerational work in the church can therefore also offer a vision of unity to our neighbourhoods and to the world.

The scriptural tradition teaches us how faith is passed on within households or communities of faith. Building relationships across generations is foundational to mission.

Experimental approaches — such as the one highlighted in a recent TV programme on Channel 4, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds (Comment, 25 May 2018) (where, within safeguarding controls, partnership learning was established between elderly people and young children to the mutual benefit of both groups) — can also help to inform and challenge the practice of the Church in thinking about discipleship and mission. How could patterns of discipleship become more intergenerational? What opportunities can we offer for adults and children to talk about their faith together, and learn from one another? And how would such sessions need to be structured in recognition of the differences in status or power?

PROFOUND lessons can be learned when adults and children reflect on faith together. Godly Play, for example, offers a model of creative space where both adults and children can flourish in faith while reflecting on the Christian story.

Caroline Donne, a Reader and a Godly Play teacher at St Mary’s, Putney, says: “Adults and children are on the same faith journey. In Godly Play, we see children doing theology instinctively, because they have time to wonder, pull the stories apart, and ask big questions. I wish there were more opportunities for adults to learn in the same way, and from the openness with which children approach these questions.”

Opportunities for reflection and discussion on issues of life and faith could include baptism, communion, and confirmation preparation, and variants on the home-group model using multi-sensory approaches. Messy Church has also been using its model intergenerationally.

As Jesus taught, eating together also creates a shared space for conversation and reflection. So, churches would do well to provide more opportunities for eating together and exploring questions of faith and belief, or opportunities for making communion a teaching opportunity (with space for reflection on its meaning).

The creation of prayer spaces and stations in multi-age groups, on liturgical or church-year themes, also offers opportunities to reflect together on prayer, as well as to pray together. Multi-sensory and visual approaches to teaching the faith reach across generations, allowing for engagement at many levels.

Exploring faith through the arts offers pathways into understanding God that are not dependent on our capacity for language, and therefore can include the youngest alongside elderly people. Engaging with theology and life’s big questions can be done by working as a group on an arts-based project, where it is possible (literally) to make meaning.

Projects to create items for the adornment of the worshipping space can provide opportunities for reflection on worship and the nature of God, as well as for retelling stories of our faith. After completion, adults and children can plan together how the created artefact might be used for worship, or within the service.

IF FAITH is a lifelong journey, then it is best explored in the context of a diverse community where learning is spread across generations, in considered ways. Most churches still segregate opportunities for learning about faith along age lines, but everyone can be enriched by multi-generational groupings. Elderly people have much to tell about their longer faith journey, and much to learn from those new in faith.

Churches need to consider how best to respond to the needs that parents and grandparents have for support in nurturing faith in the home. In the diocese of Southwark, a course, GodTalk, was developed at the request of parents to equip them to share faith and to pray with their children, and to respond to life’s difficult questions.

Given that some parents will enter the Church with their children, parish churches might consider Christian formation for households rather than as an individual process. The foundation for this approach already exists in work to prepare children for communion before confirmation, where the Christian story is told and where adults learn what it means to participate in communion alongside their children, and are given the opportunity to consider with them what it means.

Creating a meeting place where God’s story can be told in intergenerational settings underpins the ministry of many toddler groups. Here is a place where those who are lonely can find community across generations. But more could be done to equip and resource the laity for this crucial work of mission, pastoral care, and opportunity for teaching theology.

Schools ministry is another area of church life where cross-boundary working and partnership are foundational. Many parish churches are building more consistent links between church and school, and some appropriately experienced members of congregations are engaged in offering Godly Play and other work on Bible stories, or in prayer activity, in school settings. This is a crucial aspect of the Church’s mission to every generation.

The need for confident, empowered, and well-resourced workers requires the Church to fund and support sustainable programmes of training for clergy and laity, which aim to empower volunteers, children’s leaders, and parents. Churches should consider how to make intergenerational activity central to mission action-planning.

Much expertise already resides in children and youth workers (employed and volunteer), but more resources are needed to ensure that parishes can avail themselves of advice and support in thinking through their work. We will need to move beyond organising isolated events to a process of cultural change.

Intergenerational work requires that we reconsider our usual ways of doing things, and reimagine opportunities in church life where building relationships across generations, and learning from one another, can become primary, and where life can then be worked out in witness, work, and worship.

Diane Craven is a Reader and a freelance education and spirituality consultant. She is currently working on a book about intergenerational worship and mission.

Jo and Andy Bowden

Involving all

Jo Bowden and her husband, the Revd Andy Bowden, have been exploring intergenerational working

WHEN we were in Newcastle diocese, Andy was the incumbent and I worked with the young people and the worship music group, which often overlapped. We were concerned that the “all-age” service that we inherited was not really representing “all ages”; so we created a process where planning for the monthly service began in Sunday school.

The children and the leaders chose the themes for the year, then we had monthly meetings across the age-range to plan the services, starting with the ideas created by the Sunday school, on a large sheet of flipchart paper.

The theme for the month was explored in Sunday school — prayers, songs, Bible themes, links with everyday life, etc. — and everyone involved in the process came together on the Saturday evening to put it all together. Young people prepared parts of the PowerPoint as much as the adults.

Over the years, this became a genuinely intergenerational process, as more and more people became involved in the process of creating liturgy: reflecting, evaluating, and building together.

Andy is now a part-time Vicar of five small rural churches in York diocese. In two of those churches, he uses the “Inquiry” method to study the Bible rather than a sermon (at the request of the churches). Across the age-range, people read the passage, then raise their own questions, which they then answer together as a community.

As a result of this, people have gone and bought Bibles, and continue to discuss the theological issues that they have raised throughout week. This approach has a strong philosophy behind it — and it works.

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