All Aboard the Intergenerational Train!

In their seminal work Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069, William Strauss and Neil Howe describe generations metaphorically as distinct trains carrying groups of like-minded people to stations that represent the different stages of life. For instance, today, the “Millennial” train is passing through the rising adulthood station and the “Generation X” train is passing through the midlife station. Strauss and Howe posit that each train looks different to observers as they come through each station because each generation has a distinct character.

Generation theory (and its precursors) has been around for a quarter-century now. Perhaps an older notion than that is the presumption of a “gap” between each generation that makes living together more difficult. This perception has been aided by a trend in American society toward age segregation over the last 100 years, with the youngest Americans receiving an education separate from adults, who are in the workplace, and separate from the oldest Americans, who are retired. That is a major shift from what was previously a largely agrarian society.

One of the final bastions of intergenerational life has been the church. However, even communities of faith have seen the influence of age segregation, with the term “silo ministries” being used to describe those areas of church life that are segmented by age or stage of life. Sunday school classes and worship services see the most visible effects of age segregation, with many other areas of church life suffering from a lack of intergenerationality, as well.

In the last 15 years as the effects of age segregation have become more pronounced, a relative abundance of research has been published on intergenerational church life, and, thankfully, more and more communities of faith are getting on board the “intergenerational train.” If you aren’t sure about boarding the train, let me offer you some reasons in support of intergenerational church life.

  • It’s biblical. From the Old Testament image of the family of Israel experiencing the Exodus, entering the Promised Land, and the exile together, to the New Testament image of the Body of Christ utilizing the diverse gifts of all its members, intergenerationality is the norm – not the exception – in Scripture.
  • It lines up with theories of faith development and sociocultural learning (among several others). James Fowler posits that advancement through stages of faith cannot occur without affection, modeling, challenge, and the interaction of others. Lev Vygotsky stated that sociocultural learning most effectively takes place when someone is paired with another person who has more experience in the specific area of learning. Fowler and Vygotsky would both be on board the intergenerational train because of the opportunities for development inherent in an intergenerational congregation.
  • It’s practical. Intergenerationality leads to better understanding and unity in congregations. Individuals and families are supported in their various walks of life, wisdom and experience meet with energy and fresh ideas, and the generational mentality moves from the prevailing “us/them” of American society to the “we/us” of a church family.

If I haven’t convinced you, perhaps the plethora of resources available today can make a better case. I strongly recommend Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross’s Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship (InterVarsity Press Academic, 2012). This comprehensive text presents definitions of and rationales for intergenerational church life. It also has eight chapters dedicated to intergenerational best practices. In addition, Faye E. Chechowich’s article in the Spring 2012 edition of Christian Education Journal (vol. 9, no. 1) provides a review of selected publications on intergenerational ministry written from 2001-2012.

Finally, there are great resources available online. You’re already aware of Hope4CE since you’re reading this. Another great resource is the Lifelong Faith journal, which is available free at lifelongfaith.com/journal. Of particular interest is the Fall 2013 issue (Volume 7.3), which is dedicated entirely to intergenerational faith formation.

All aboard the intergenerational train!

Keith Phillips, MDiv/MAPT student (2017), Columbia Theological Seminary

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