This blog is part of our Faith Formation Roundtables series.
Carrie Mast is the Children & Youth Ministry director at First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio. In her bivocational life with her husband, two college-aged children and 10-year-old son, she makes space for teaching, learning and digging in the dirt, as a member of a farm co-op.
Declining church attendance on holidays and during summer months, as well as overall church abandonment, are challenges that might drive a church to pursue intergenerational faith formation. Such an approach may address problems like the scarcity of volunteers or a small number of members in a particular age group, but a stronger case can be made for intergenerational faith formation — one that moves away from a position of “not enough, so we have to,” and shifts toward a positive framework of age diversity and rich experience.
The church, by Christ’s design, is for all of us. Jesus invited the children into his circle of believers in Matthew 19:14: “… but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’” (NRSV). As a matter of fact, most of us do, too, each time we offer a congregational response to parents at a child dedication. This is showcased in the following excerpt from Hymnal 791:
“We will support, by our example and words,
your efforts to provide a loving and caring home,
where trust in God grows and Christ’s way is chosen …
May our shared life and witness
help make your task both joyful and fruitful.”
Support offered by “example and words” and a “shared life and witness” suggest we are all committing to being together in body for the purpose of faith formation.
In the church, diversity in life stages assures that we all have something fresh to offer others, because we are not in the same phase of life.
Embracing intergenerational faith formation promises a new level of engagement — one in which teachers and learners are constantly trading places. We all bring perspectives from our particular age and experience to our interpretations of stories in Scripture, our understandings of characters’ motives, our questions about the multifaceted identity of God and our application of it all into our lives. Within this rich diversity of viewpoints, we can find that we belong together. We are already unified, because we share the life-defining principle of following Christ in a community of believers.
Putting intergenerational faith formation into practice can be life-giving. Nearly three years ago, our church experimented with an intergenerational afternoon storytelling event. Four stations were set up around the church, and attendees, ranging in age from 7-77, were divided into four groups — one to begin at each of the stations — and sent with bags of popcorn to enjoy along the way. The stories that were shared were the parables that had been read during the morning worship service, and participation at the stations included discussion, re-enacting the parable, drawing the story as it was read aloud, and considering current day application of the story. The event closed with an afternoon tea party in the fellowship hall.
In 2019, our church was awarded a grant to be used solely for renting the town family recreation center for an evening twice each year. During the first event, we saw three generations running across the indoor soccer field intent in scoring a goal together — a 7-year-old boy, a mom and a grandpa — and none of them were related to each other. This unfolded as college students, parents, grandparents, children, singles, families and youth walked the indoor track, shot hoops, paddled pickleball, lifted weights and tumbled on mats together.
During this past pandemic winter, a four-member group collaborated to create The Scribe Project for our church. In preparation for Lent, people of every age were encouraged to copy one of the lectionary Scripture passages to be included in the chancel display during worship. Embellishment, pictures, word art, simple copying — mistakes and all— everything was acceptable and encouraged. Children worked with parents, youth scribed together during Zoom Sunday School, and artists and non-artists found their work displayed together for the duration of Lent.
Only today, on Labor Day weekend, preschoolers and high school students gathered under a tree on our church lawn to consider difficult decision-making with MennoMedia’s Shine curriculum, based on Genesis 3. A high school senior read the story, while primary-aged children portrayed God, the serpent, Eve and Adam, and the rest of us periodically interrupted with suggestions, like a hiding place for Eve and Adam behind a nearby bush. Following the drama, the teacher and youth took their leading roles in stations around the outside of the church to lead decision-making activities. Before any of this took place, however, considerable time was spent gathering together — sharing our names, ages, and grades, and everyone repeating, “Welcome, ______!” And, indeed, we want to welcome them into intergenerational faith formation, where all of the Christ followers laugh together, though perhaps not at exactly the same time.
Faith Formation Roundtables focus on faith formation in Children’s and Youth Ministries.
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