Meeting the Challenge of Intergenerational Integration

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I really miss seeing my church family in person every week. No doubt you do too. I wonder, however, when you think of those you miss, who comes to mind? What faces do you see in the pews, in the common areas, in the Sunday school classrooms? Would you say that those you envision represent a wide diversity of ages?

I must confess that for me, the answer is no. I’m guessing that you, like me, are thinking about your students, their parents, and perhaps a few young adult friends. I wonder too what faces come to mind for our students. If their circle of church friends lacks those outside their generation, perhaps it is time to ponder how integrated our churches and youth ministries are when it comes to age demographic. While we long to be back together with our church families, may we consider the vital—yet often understated—importance of intergenerational integration. 

But how do we begin to integrate in the world we find ourselves in now – one where many church bodies are unable to gather in public—especially those with large elderly populations? Just because physical integration is not a current option does not mean that we should ignore the task of integration all together. Perhaps now more than ever, our students need to be incorporated into the life of the church not just physically but spiritually. In a time of physical isolation from the body of Christ, intergenerational integration will require a more creative approach as we seek to form lifelong church members in a post-pandemic world.

Luckily, intergenerational integration is far easier to define than it is to pronounce. At Rooted, we define it as: “Including students among all the generations of the church.” Though the last of the 5 pillars, it is certainly not the least. Not only is intergenerational integration essential in helping students remain faithful church members into adulthood, it also helps build and strengthen the church as the body of Christ. 

Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 12: 

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

Just as a body made up of only hands would not be a functioning body, so too, would a church be lacking essential members if those of certain generations were excluded. Notice how Paul tells us that God arranged the members of the body as he chose, demonstrating God’s intentionality in building the church to include members from every age as well as race, gender, and social class. 

Aside from the biblical emphasis on intergenerational integration (see also: Titus 2, Acts 2: 42-17), consider a few statistics: Kara Powell and her team at the Fuller Youth Institute found that “the #1 way that churches made [students] feel welcomed and valued was when adults in the congregation showed an interest in them. More than any program or event, adults making the effort to get to know the kids was far more likely to make the kids feel like a significant part of their church” (Sticky Faith). 

Think back to your days in middle and high school: was there any feeling you craved more than to be accepted and included? When our students are welcomed and valued in an environment that is committed to seeing them become lifelong followers of Christ, they are far more likely to remain faithful church members well beyond high school. 

Again, we recognize that this pandemic creates substantial roadblocks for physical integration between young and old. Yet the need for students to be regarded as valuable members in the body of Christ has only grown, as many of our students have been plagued with loneliness and isolation in these months of quarantine. While Christ’s church is not physically gathered, may we still be spurred to think about how it can continue to support and nurture its every member. 

I wish I had the perfect formula for your ministry to implement some intergenerational practices in a Corona or post-Corona world. Now is the time to lean on the Spirit’s creativity as to how we can ensure the body of Christ is utilizing every member- both young and old. Graduating seniors could probably use a letter of encouragement from congregants in their 60s right about now. Or perhaps middle schoolers can begin a prayer chain for members of your church in nursing homes. 

In our youth ministry we have been especially encouraged by students who have voluntarily continued to help teach children’s Sunday School via Zoom. They have taken ownership over their God-ordained roles as stewards of His Word, living out the exhortation of 1 Timothy 4:12-13: “let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity […] devote yourself to the public exhortation, to teaching.”

Because every member of the Church has been baptized into the body “in one spirit,” as Paul reminds us in 1st Corinthians, we can rejoice that members of the church do not need to be physically present for the church to remain intact. Through the power of the ever-present Spirit of God at work, intergenerational integration can continue as we seek to encourage and equip every member of the body of Christ. 

While we cannot say how this pandemic will change our churches moving forward, we can attest that intergenerational integration is a biblical and necessary component in forming life-long Christ followers. The body of Christ needs them, just as they need the body. May the Lord grant us wisdom, creativity, and a reliance on His Spirit as we honor the body of Christ by working toward a faithful incorporation of all its members. 

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