Editors Note: In the fall of 2014, Matthew Kozlowski, a member of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching staff and Co-curator of the Building Faith website, attended the Lifelong Faith Associates symposium on intergenerational faith formation. About 100 practitioners from a variety of churches and denominations gathered to discuss intergenerational models of teaching and sharing the Christian faith.
One issue that I want to get out of the way: intergenerational formation is not about closing or killing Sunday school. Many people who are doing this work have taught and run Sunday school, and they understand its benefits. That being said, people are willing to ask whether a standard classroom model grouped by age or grade is the best format for every church.
Alternatives Models – Large Gatherings
Churches that have transitioned out of the age-group classroom model are hosting intergenerational gatherings instead. All ages are invited to these monthly events, and organizers embrace the excitement and challenge of planning the large gatherings.
I met representatives from several large Roman Catholic parishes that are fully committed to this model and are no longer offering traditional classes for children (sometimes called CCD). Instead, all families and children are invited to the monthly events. The churches publicize the entire schedule in advance, expect wide participation, and even ask for registration and a small payment to cover food and materials.
Intergenerational gatherings are often around two hours, and may include food, icebreakers, worship, music, and study. Some churches include “break-out” sessions in which adults and children split up, briefly, for age-specific study.
Alternative Models – Small Groups
An entirely different model of intergenerational faith formation focuses on small groups meeting in homes. Many Christians are familiar with small groups, but intergenerational small groups are different in that adults, teenagers, and young children all meet, pray, and study together.
But how does the content work? Surely a 4-year-old cannot comprehend Bible study at the same level as a 44-year-old. This is true. But in an intergenerational small group, children are encouraged to participate as they are able, and to listen and be present. Additionally, the format is usually simple: sharing, scripture reading or devotions, and praying for one another.
The benefits, say proponents, far outweigh the drawbacks. Imagine a younger child praying for a teenager, while other members of the group lay hands on them. In intergenerational small groups, this is normal practice.
Alternative Models – Enhance Existing Programs
The intergenerational model that may translate well to Episcopal congregations is the “weave model” – not an official term, but one I made up. This model looks at all the events and formation opportunities that a church currently offers, and asks – in a very practical way – how can this become intergenerational? For example, are adults already making make palm crosses before Palm Sunday? Invite all ages and create an intergenerational event. Does the youth group already deliver items to nursing homes? Invite older adults to help, and young children to tag along.
Extreme Practical Planning
A note of caution here: intergenerational programming takes careful planning. For a leader, it means thinking up everything that could go wrong, and then stacking the odds in your favor. For example, a recent Building Faith post explains how to ensure that multiple generations sit with one another at tables. As a leader, you can have all the best questions and activities in the world, but for them to work you must create mixed groups.
The theory underpinning intergenerational formation proposes that people learn faith through the community of faith. Notice that this is not a one-directional movement of adults to children. ALL participants in the life of the church learn through the insight, experience, support, and prayers of the other members of the community.
An 80-year-old can learn quite a bit by reading the parable of the laborers in the vineyard with an 8-year-old. Teenagers often have powerful lessons to teach about service and mission. And of course, as it has always been, trusted adults teach and model Christian faith to children in worship, study, charity.
As Maria Harris writes in Fashion Me a People, “The doers of education are the community as community… [We] are realizing that the church does not have an educational program; it is an educational program” (47).
A good framework for any church considering intergenerational formation is a focus on relationships. That is to say, churches can create a plethora of opportunities for all ages to connect with one another in meaningful, faith-based, conversations and experiences.
Yes, the events and the content must be planned and executed well, but the programming is not the end-goal. The goal is mutual learning, growing closer to Christ, and deepening faith. In intergeneration formation, people of all ages make this journey together.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Spring 2015, Vol. 27, No. 3, page 8-9