Back in December, I dug the signage for our Christmas Eve Services out of storage and put it in front of the church. Despite all the changes of the past two years, our in-person service times were the same as in the past. But I found myself wishing I could easily change the text that read: “Family Service with Pageant.” When the sign was printed six or seven years ago, that description seemed fine. If I were making it now, I’d call it “All Ages Worship.”
What does “Family Service” mean?
The term “Family Service” has been used in many churches for years. But it’s falling out of favor as more people come to understand that “family” can feel like an exclusive word. Church leaders may have an expansive sense of “family” in mind, intending to welcome not just the classic-TV heteronormative two-parent family with young children, but also couples, LGBTQ+ households, single parents, elders, and single adults. But those people have heard the word “family” used in ways that exclude them, and might not know that we mean something much more expansive and welcoming when we say “family.” It makes my heart ache that so many people in our parishes aren’t sure whether we think they count as a “family;” this is a cultural and pastoral reality that we can’t just brush over.
Shifting from Including Children to Intergenerational
In 2017, I planned a sabbatical project focused on exploring ways to integrate children meaningfully into Episcopal worship. When I did the project in 2018 – visiting parishes, doing interviews and reading the literature – I found that my thinking shifted from “including children in worship” to “intergenerational” worship. I came to see the core work to which my parish and I were called as not (just) grafting children into (or helping children tolerate) our way of worship as it already existed, but gradually and collaboratively changing the ethos of worship in ways that open up more modalities for engagement and participation for people of every age. The truth is that, in many churches, many adults have not felt fully engaged in worship, either. As Gretchen Wolff Pritchard puts it in Offering the Gospel to Children, “I am increasingly convinced that children’s liturgical needs are not qualitatively different from those of adults.”
Now, after more than two years of this work (complicated, but not stopped, by the pandemic), I can say with confidence that many of the changes we have introduced have deepened engagement for both kids and adults. For example: We added ASL signs to certain prayers or songs, and we learned which adults have been itching to be invited to pray with their bodies. We added a Prayer Garden where someone can place a flower or stone during the Prayers of the People, and I’ve found there are adults who are more comfortable expressing their prayers with a symbolic gesture than in words. The changes have been impactful across age, personality, and circumstance.
Landing On: All Ages
This ongoing learning has shifted my vocabulary further. The terminology we use now for our worship is “All Ages.” It’s a simpler term than “intergenerational” and I believe it is clearer.
The word “intergenerational” can be used to mean that multiple generations are present and participating together (and there are many generations in most churches, not just kids and grownups!). But it is also sometimes used in a more specific sense, to imply interaction and relationship-building across generations. Our all ages worship sometimes does that, but not always; often we’re simply sharing worship, as an age-diverse body. To be clear, all ages worship is a cornerstone of intergenerational community: worshiping together, with people of all ages participating and sharing their gifts, their voices, their prayers, both flows out of and continues to lead us deeper into our common life as an intergenerational church.
This Language Challenges Us
Naming our way of worship as “All Ages” is an ongoing challenge for me, as a pastor and liturgical leader: If I’m saying this, what am I doing, week by week, to extend welcome and opportunity to everyone from our youngest to our oldest worshipers?
It is also a challenge for my parish: If we’re saying this, then what are we doing, week by week, to acknowledge and affirm one another? This is countercultural work in a world where most of what we do is age-segregated!
I’m sure that our worship practices and ways of living into our call to be a faith community of all ages will continue to evolve as we experiment, reflect, listen, and learn. Perhaps the terminology we use to describe our worship life will change, too.
What terms does your church use to describe particular services or your whole life of faith as a body? Do they say what you mean to say?
Do the terms you use challenge you to keep discerning, seeking and striving towards whatever God is calling your faith community to become?
This article contains an affiliate link which benefits Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary.