In May, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared social isolation to be a U.S. public health crisis for its link to depression in youth and increased risks for many health conditions in older Americans.
Murthy’s office identified six strategies to combat “an epidemic of loneliness.” One of those strategies is to cultivate a culture of connection in communal places like schools, workplaces, and places of worship. While every connection helps, church may be one of our best opportunities to foster intergenerational relationships, which have proved particularly valuable for the spiritual development of children.
Debbie Gline Allen, minister of faith formation for the United Church of Christ in Southern New England, told Sojourners that many churches and parents have been told that age-targeted children’s programs are the best method for spiritual growth.
“Having Christian education programs in churches has unintentionally implied to parents that their responsibility to pass on the faith to their children can be done solely by the church,” Gline Allen said.
Many parents come looking for a church where their kids will want to go, and a thriving youth program that can provide a moment of kid-free focus. In many ways, parents have been trained to think this is what church should provide, said Gline Allen.
Christina Embree, founder of ReFocus Ministry and minister of generational discipleship with the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ, pointed out the reason for the misconception. Decades of society-wide sorting of Americans into various target audiences has created an unhealthy age-segregation in churches, she said.
In Intergenerational Christian Formation, authors Holly Catterton Allen, Christine Lawton, and Cory L. Siebel trace the evolution of age-specific ministries: In the 1940s and ’50s, ministries like Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life recognized the critical importance of engaging adolescents as they separated from their parents and started looking for their own identity in high school and college. As they sought purpose and meaning, the age-specific parachurch ministries were there to greet them with a faith experience that fit this phase of questing out on one’s own. The ministries were extremely successful.
“Churches took notice,” Embree said. Children’s ministries, youth ministries, and even stage-specific groups for adult singles, couples, empty-nesters, and others peaked in the 1980s and ’90s, Embree said.
For Americans who are used to being divided into target audiences by everything from movies to clothing brands to coffee shops, it made sense for church to feel the same way. Something soft and silent for the babies, bright and silly for the kids, hip and relevant for the teens, and focused and serious for the adults. Some pastors even say, from the pulpit, that church offers an opportunity for mom and dad to have some kid-free time to focus on God — that’s why there’s a nursery.
And while many parents may just be going along with the flow of age-separated Sunday mornings, others feel exhausted and long for a whole community that can help care for kids during worship. If they are going to take on the challenge, Gline Allen said, parents need the whole church behind, around, and with them.
When she helps churches build or revitalize a children’s ministry, Gline Allen cites research from psychologist Lisa Miller: Children have innate spirituality and need connecting to their spiritual communities. In Gline Allen’s experience, that happens best when children are included in the worship service.
From “busy bags” filled with coloring books and crayons to “pray-grounds” — kids tables at the front of the sanctuary where coloring sheets, visual aids, or crafts are provided — churches are finding ways to make their main services more whole-family-friendly. Gline Allen said children shouldn’t just be occupied with quiet, self-contained activities; they should be invited to participate in worship, service, teaching, and liturgical elements — all of which can be made developmentally appropriate.
“Engagement with the children from the pulpit during the sermon is also a way that children are made to feel that they belong, that they are a part of the body of Christ,” Gline Allen said.
Involving them in the offertory, corporate prayers, running the soundboard, worship team, and communion are all ways that kids and teens can bond with the church. Allowing mothers to nurse, and toddlers to roam a little in the sanctuary can go a long way as well. For parents who want support, having a familiar face step in to do the toddler chasing or baby bouncing is all part of the process. There are tools and policies to help, but really it comes down to a mindset, Gline Allen said, a relationship between families and those supporting them.
Gline Allen said that this is an adjustment for the whole congregation: People have to find room in their concept of “church” for something other than the perfect individual experience. She recalled a young couple who came to one of her area churches shortly before having their first child. There were no other infants in the church at the time, but they offered a room that could serve as a nursery. The parents chose to keep the child with them in worship. Things were “bumpy” at first as the child got noisier, but soon Gline Allen noticed that the vocalizations were starting to coincide with the hymns and the “hallelujahs.” The child was participating. By age two, she was going up for the children’s sermon, watching the older kids sit still and listen. She started to do the same. She recalls one Sunday, when the child was 4 years old, seeing her daughter walking up the aisle for communion, hand in hand with the church treasurer, a man in his 60s.
Those relationships are vital, she said, and the very act of becoming flexible on behalf of wiggly children is good for a church. The congregation can be invited to see the adjustments as learning opportunities for themselves, and to see crayons rolling under the pews as a sign of life. Lead pastors play a huge role in this, Gline Allen said. “When it comes from the pulpit that this child is welcome with open arms, it makes a difference.”
Embree helps churches consider ways they can strengthen cross-generational bonds so that young people feel supported and held by their church community. It looks a little different for every congregation — size, demographics, and facilities all shape what’s possible. But two things are critical every time: prayer and service.
For instance, she has orchestrated intergenerational prayer partners, using Tony Souder’s “Pray for Me” campaign. Children in the church make three bookmarks with their prayer requests at the start of a new school year. The children are then invited, with the help of their parents, to pass out the book marks to adults from different age groups — perhaps a young adult, someone their parents’ age, and someone their grandparents’ age — to pray for them throughout the year. Not only do the children feel supported, Embree said, but then when there’s chattering during the sermon, adults can think less about the noisy kid, and instead be reminded to ask how she did on the test she was so nervous about.
Likewise, church service projects, like clean-up days, can be sorted into age-appropriate activities, with opportunities for adults to show children and teenagers how to weed, paint, and use various tools. Next Sunday, instead of a quiet teen avoiding eye-contact, adults might see the young man who lit up when he learned to use a chainsaw during a brush haul.
Prayer and service are two of the best relationship building opportunities, and it’s relationships that form long lasting connections to the church, Embree said.
Gline Allen added that thinking about both children’s and adults’ ministries as creating ideal environments for transmitting orthodoxy or having a curated worship experience is a mistake. Prioritizing teaching and comfort to the exclusion of intergenerational connections gives the impression that lives of faith are primarily about what we know and feel rather than how we live in community and show love to each other.
Embree pointed out that age-segregation is not the same as having affinity-based ministries in the church throughout the week, or in addition to corporate worship. Hosting groups based on a shared interest in church history, hiking, or a need to talk through divorce with others who have experienced it is different than creating entirely different ministries and Sunday experiences around stages of life.
The consequences of our lost intergenerational connections are myriad throughout society, but both Embree and Gline Allen believe the church has an opportunity in front of it to rethink the models that have a single generation life-span. By setting clear sights on whole-family ministry and services that prioritize the inclusiveness of the body of Christ, it’s possible to find each other again.