A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: A new intergenerational approach

As we continue with our Summer Worship experiment, one of the things we are intentionally exploring is how to do intentionally intergenerational worship well.

One of our core values as a congregation is being “Welcoming to All,” which by definition includes people of all ages. The challenge is that much of the way that worship is typically done in most Christian traditions, whether in the traditional or contemporary style, is for the sensibilities of adults with little to no thought about children.

Whether we are talking about reading from a bulletin or a hymnal or a screen to join in songs or prayers, sitting quietly and still during a 20-minute sermon, or even the complexity of language or ideas that are used, worship is designed for adults, and a three-minute children’s sermon is not sufficient to counterbalance that fact.

In recent decades, many churches have recognized this challenge and generally taken one of two approaches in terms of engaging children in worship, neither of which has proven effective.

The first approach is simply to say that children need to learn how to do worship, and so they should simply be compelled to attend worship services and taught what to do until they understand and appreciate it. This approach, obviously, has met with very mixed results at best, which is what led many churches to try the second approach: offering alternative programming during worship services that was age-appropriate for children, whether that was a separate children’s worship service or moving Sunday School for kids to run parallel to worship.

This second approach was much more effective in engaging children in the short-term; the challenge was that when they became youth or adults and were expected to “graduate” into the regular worship service, they had neither the understanding nor the interest to do so, and frequently dropped out of church participation altogether as a result.

Intergenerational worship, in recent years, has become an important third way of doing worship that is designed to both avoid those problems and help churches authentically worship together regardless of age. While it can mean a variety of different things in actual practice, the common thread is designing worship services where people of all ages are able to engage fully in active worship throughout the service.

One example of how to do that is using more hymns and songs that are simpler in structure and lyrics so they can be learned and sung without requiring someone to be able to read lyrics, much less music. Another would be offering prayers that have short responsive refrains rather than long sentences prayed in unison, so that again, we do not marginalize children who are not proficient at reading at essentially an adult level.

A third example is using “multiple intelligences” to worship, meaning not simply aural engagement (like the sermon) but also things like visual, physical, and interpersonal engagement.

So, if you’ve been wondering why we have been exploring more embodied prayers, simpler songs, and so on, this is why! We have also made sure to continue offering things like favorite hymns and worship songs and a traditional sermon to ensure balance, but we are already learning some important things about how to do intergenerational worship well that will inform our worship offerings in the future.

So I want to thank you all for your willingness to experiment and explore, and encourage you to fully invest in that as we continue through the summer. If we are truly going to be an intergenerational congregation that is welcoming to all, we will need to find ways on an ongoing basis to reflect that in our worship life, not simply our programmatic life.

And I hope that one of the things that we are all learning is that we don’t have to marginalize adults to include children, and we don’t need to marginalize children to include adults. And if you have feedback or ideas that will help us improve our efforts along these lines, please let the pastors or Rich Hjorth, the chair of the Worship Committee, or anybody serving on Session, know what you think. Thank you!

Grace and Peace,

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The Rev. J.C. Austin
The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton
Rich Hjorth, Worship Committee Chair