All ages together on a journey of faith
Since the rules around taking photos of actual people became (rightly) stricter, I have started taking photos of people’s hands as they do things together. One of my favourite photos is of the hands of a woman in her 90s and the hands of a toddler, coming together over a junk-modelling activity. One pair of hands is wrinkled, arthritic and liver-spotted while the other hands are tiny, unblemished, soft and fresh. They meet in their mutual vulnerability and creativity over an old CD and some sequins. The power of the photo is in the visibly close togetherness across nearly a century of age difference.
It’s been fascinating, stepping into my new job as head of the Growing Faith Foundation with the Church of England. Our aim is to help churches, schools and families work together for the spiritual flourishing of children and young people. I hadn’t expected people outside Messy Church to ‘get’ intergenerational church quite as urgently as BRF does. But the wisdom in this new area of ministry is very definitely in favour of a church that supports the discipleship of everyone, all ages together on a journey of faith.
The power of the photo is in the visibly close togetherness across nearly a century of age difference.
There is a huge value in setting up new worshipping communities within schools, led perhaps by school chaplains, with opportunities for students to shape and lead worship with more freedom than many ‘Sunday churches’ would allow them. But those who have been school chaplains for years emphasise the need for young people to belong to church outside school as well – a church that gives new and growing young Christians the chance to grow alongside other generations than just their own.
A golden thread of stories
In the Growing Faith Foundation, we have also been in touch with young Christian adults – the early 20s – a group of young people who feel passionately committed to their small local church but may be the only person under the age of 70 there.
They want to belong to it, they do belong to it, often sacrificially, and are prepared to make an effort to meet other young Christians elsewhere but remain faithful to their church: being with other generations really matters. The psalmist wrote, ‘One generation shall commend your works to another’ (Psalm 145:4), and it is this golden thread of stories, sharing what God has done in very different lives, that is vitally important for a balanced life of faith.
It is this golden thread of stories, sharing what God has done in very different lives, that is vitally important for a balanced life of faith.
No quick fix!
If we want a quick fix for the catastrophic decline in numbers of under-16s coming to church since the season of lockdowns ended, trying to help our churches become intergenerational isn’t an option. A quick, pain-free fix would rather be to pay children to come to church! But if we are interested in the long-term faith nurture of every person in our communities, an intentionally intergenerational church community makes a whole lot of sense.
This isn’t about tweaking something for children on the edge, where it doesn’t impinge on how we like church for ourselves. It’s about looking bravely and selflessly at what church could be in this new season, if we actually want church to be a community which enables a five-year-old to worship, learn, belong, serve and grow as much as it does a 50-year-old or an 80-year-old.
This isn’t about tweaking something for children on the edge. It’s about looking bravely and selflessly at what church could be.
No quick-fix here. It will require a change of culture, a volte-face, a metanoia to set out in a new direction, based on reliable research findings of what families and young people need, as well as biblical injunctions to look to the interests of others as much as to our own (Philippians 2:4).
Are we prepared to consider what it will take to become a church for all ages that will nurture the faith journey of old and young and in-between across lifetimes? It takes time, love, listening, consultation, sacrifice and a complete change of culture to take a whole church on a journey of re-orientation from adult-focused church to church where all ages are equally valued.
We may not want to admit it, but at the moment, most of what we do as a local church is focused around the preferred timings, lifestyle choices, preferences and capabilities of adults, mainly older adults. Rarely is the main worship service shaped by the needs of families, children and young people. Rarely do we complain that the leadership invests all their time in older people and doesn’t spend enough on younger ones.
Most of what we do as a local church is focused around the preferred timings, lifestyle choices, preferences and capabilities of adults.
‘Do justly’ for children and young people
The finding of recent research both in the US and the UK is that one thing held in common by churches who are growing younger is the fact that they all intentionally prioritise children and young people. The instant response can be ‘Young people get all the resources! Shouldn’t we prioritise older people?’ It’s the same principle at play as during the Black Lives Matter campaign, when the misguided response was sometimes: ‘White lives matter too.’
Those of us in a position of privilege need to humbly acknowledge that privilege and ‘do justly’, so that others who have been denied some of our advantages can share in the fullness of life we already enjoy. In many churches that means taking a long hard look at who is missing and prioritising them and their needs.
I recently coincided with the wonderful Aike Kennett-Brown, Messy Church lead, for the first time since I started my new job. It was at a diocesan conference, where we were both speaking. It was so refreshing to hear her talk with such conviction of the Messy Church values, which form its DNA and which include ‘being all age’.
The Messy Church values, which form its DNA, include ‘being all age’.
A vicar came up to us at the end and expressed how utterly convinced she was that intergenerational church is the way to go, but how hard it is to do in practice and how few models there are to follow (apart from Messy Church itself). I hope and pray (and work very hard towards the day when) more and more churches can find ways of worshipping that enable everyone, old and young, to meet the living, loving, ageless God we love.