Building multigenerational community

10 September 2020

Being truly multigenerational is a great gift to our congregations. So what might help us do that well?

We often talk about church as family: a big family of all sorts of people, called out by their common love of God and tasked with worshipping and serving him. And we see this idea of God’s people living, learning and laughing together all through the Bible: the crowds of all ages following Jesus and sharing the loaves and fishes (John 6:9); the whole community standing with King Jehoshaphat as he prayed for help (2 Chronicles 20:13); and all the people listening to Ezra reading the book of the Law (Nehemiah 8). Throughout the Bible, we see a picture of a multigenerational community of believers seeking and following God.

But as church leaders know, leading a big diverse group of people isn’t always easy, and it requires organisation. One of the ways we have sought to meet lots of different needs is by segmenting people into groups so we can better deliver what they are looking for. And very often these are age-based: over 50s; toddlers; children; youth; 20s to 30s and so on. If we offer more than one service on a Sunday morning, these often default to a family oriented one with children’s groups, and a quieter ‘older’ service. And while these groups do meet needs, they can result in a lack of multigenerational community.

So how can we find ways to create that multigenerational community God intended? Because the benefits are clear. Not only does it lead to better discipleship (see, for example, this article from the Fuller Youth Institute which reports that participation in multigenerational church is a key factor for teens developing ‘sticky’ faith), it creates a healthy place to be: ‘When a multigenerational community works the way it’s supposed to, every member feels needed, seen, loved and useful to each other’s spiritual discipleship and to the kingdom of God’ (Rachel Turner, It Takes a Church to Raise a Parent). You will already know that within that oddly diverse group of people sitting in your pews every Sunday is so much of what you need to see people grow and flourish in the family of God. There’s someone who might just be the perfect mentor for little Ben who is struggling at school; there is Jean, a business owner who’d be brilliant at coaching young Jess for her first job interview next week; there is someone who might be able to journey with newly widowed Sheila; there are budding dramatists who, if they only got together, could write a brilliant new nativity play; there are lonely people who need family and there are families who need an extra pair of hands; there’s Tom and there’s Greg, sitting just three rows apart who are both looking for a prayer partner but haven’t yet met; there’s a neighbour of Bert’s who just doesn’t know how much he’d appreciate a bit of help with his shopping.

If only we could get them all to connect!

Here we share all sorts of ideas for helping your church become more and more multigenerational.

Create opportunities for different generations to hear each other’s stories

One of the quickest ways to get to know people and find points of connection is to share stories of themselves and of what God is doing in their hearts and minds. There are many ways to do this:

  • Share stories on Sunday mornings. For a while, our church had a regular slot on Sunday mornings where someone would be interviewed about ‘Where I’ll be this time tomorrow’. We discovered all sorts of interesting things about people! You could ask people for testimonies, sharing what God has done. You can ask groups to report back on their activities – not just the teens returning from their weekend away, but the ladies’ group who did flower arranging at the cathedral or the over 50s’ visit to the seaside.
  • Use social media well. Ensure all sorts of stories are posted on to your church’s Facebook page and website: interviews with someone with a story to tell; highlights of the toddler group’s trip to the farm; a video of the youth group in action; the homegroup delivering meals to a new mum.
  • Create opportunities for people to connect. For example, one church pioneered something called ‘A Table for Eight’: people signed up either to host a dinner party or to come along to a dinner, and then the church leaders selected the guests for each party, ensuring they had a mix of ages and personalities. Teens in particular enjoyed being guests without their parents, and it proved a wonderful way for people to get to know each other. Other ways to do this might be ‘a Sunday afternoon walk for four’, or ‘coffee and cake for six’, and using a doodle poll might make the logistics a bit easier!

Think about Sunday services

Sundays are the day when we all come together, but ironically is often the day when we have very little time to just be and get to know each other properly.  But we can help people connect on a Sunday with just a few tweaks.

  • Use the beginning of the service well. If you have children in just for the beginning of the service, are they just there for the worship, or could you add in a few minutes where they hear and share stories? If you have notices on a screen before the service begins, could you add in pictures of videos of all sorts of people and activities?
  • If you have two or more services, think about how you talk about them. Many churches end up with a quieter, more reflective service and a livelier service which ‘the families’ go to. If that is the case for you, do you default to describing the former as the service for ‘older people’ and the latter as the ‘young families’ service? What would happen if you said: ‘We have two services every Sunday. If you or your children prefer a more structured and reflective service, this is the one for you; if you prefer a bit more informality and noise, then our second service may be the one for you.’
  • Deliberately create opportunities for multigenerational connection. For example, if you are asking people to share something, instead of asking them to share with the person next to them, you could say: share with someone who is at least 15 years older or younger than you are. Or if you were asking a group to wonder together about a question, you could stipulate that we’d love there to be two or more generations represented in each group.
  • Think about roles and responsibilities on a Sunday. Children and teens are perfectly able to serve in church and it’s a great opportunity for multigenerational connection. If they take up the collection, could they also assist in counting and recording the money afterwards? Even if they’re not allowed in the kitchen, could they spot and deliver drinks to people who might find getting to the serving point difficult? Could they assist with serving communion or co-lead intercessions? And it works the other way round too: we often encourage children to lead the actions, but how powerful if they were to see an adult who’s not a children’s worker worshipping as they led the actions?

 Think about your existing groups

  • Are they overly age based? There’s nothing wrong with having age based groups but by their nature they mitigate against a multigenerational culture. Even if you don’t specify age as a criteria for membership, groups often default to age groups, maybe because members self-select and find they have a lot in common, or because of the time or day they are held. Any group held at 11am on a weekday will more than likely only attract retirees. It’s worth having a quick look to see if all or most of your groups attract people of the same age and thinking about if advertising it differently might attract a wider membership.
  • Consider creating or reforming groups based on interest rather than age. It’s easy for church life groups or home groups to become quite closed groups, often with people of a similar age that go on indefinitely. A group doesn’t just have to do Bible study and prayer to be a place where discipleship happens. Consider making some groups short term and interest based to encourage people to find ways to belong and mix with more people. See, for example, how these churches structure and talk about their small groups: New Life Milton Keynes and Community Church Edinburgh.
  • Create opportunities for groups to come together from time to time. For example, home group socials, mums and tots coming to the service held at the local care home, the youth group offering a tech workshop to the over 60s, the men’s group challenging the youth to a football match.
  • Invite people in. What about a church version of ‘take your kid to work’ day? Every now and then invite parents into the kids’ group, invite kids to the parents home group, teens to the midweek communion, girls to the ladies prayer group, the over 60s to the youth group: you get the picture.

Encourage people to have fun together and learn from each other.

Discipleship is about belonging as much as it is learning. By creating environments where people have fun together, you break down barriers and help people get to know each other. If you have a regular programme of varied socials you’ll find that people will start to come along even when that session’s not something they particularly enjoy.

  • Plan for multigenerational interaction, not just presence. Sometimes church socials unwittingly become separated by age: the teens hanging out together, older ladies chatting, mums and toddlers sitting together, the men at the barbeque. But with a few tweaks, it’s possible to gently encourage all generations to mix well. It can be helpful to review your plans for an event by asking how the following might join in: a toddler, someone with limited mobility or understanding, someone with several children in tow, someone who is new and shy, a teen, someone on their own.
  • Think through your event to ensure there’s something for everyone.  In the church I grew up in, we had regular church walks followed by a picnic. To encourage everyone along, they were called ‘Amble, Ramble and Scramble’. The amble was just the getting to the central site where everyone would start, and then sitting nattering while you were waiting for the walkers; the ramble was a gentle walk; and the scramble was a longer, tougher walk. It meant that those who couldn’t walk or didn’t want to could stay put but still be part of the walk, while others self-selected into the two walking groups, which invariably became multigenerational.
  • Encourage the informal. Start to create a culture where people just join in and have fun. So maybe after the service on Sunday, a family might say they are blackberrying that afternoon if anyone would like to join them at 2.30pm at the entrance to the woods. Or someone might say they’re planning to go to see the new blockbuster on Thursday evening and would love some friends to go with. A church Facebook page would be an easy place to make suggestions for that snowball fight, meeting for coffee in town or a walk on a lovely sunny day.
  • Look for opportunities to use experience and expertise. Your congregations are full of awesome people with lots to offer! So why not invite some older married couples into the youth group session on marriage for a no holds barred q and a? Or ask some expert gardeners to help the kids club create a wildlife area in the churchyard. Or invite some teens to teach social media basics to the adults? Or get your knitters and natterers to teach tots mums how to crochet?
  • Proactively buddy people up. Maybe a seasoned mum to support a new mum. Or grandad and grandma figures to pray for young people going off to uni. A new housegroup leader with an experienced housegroup leader. A retired teacher to support year 6s preparing for SATS.
  • Think about your staff and volunteers. Do you need to recruit a new children’s worker or might you be better off employing someone to oversee discipleship across all generations? Would your youth group love to have a granny figure listening and loving them? Is there someone whose role is to nurture older people or do you just focus on children and youth?
  • And finally, tell people we are a family. We are very good at keeping ourselves to ourselves. The easiest way to counter that is to speak about it from the front. ‘In this church, we believe God has put us together to do life together, and everyone has a part to play. We’re a family – a real one that mucks in together and learns from each other. So don’t be shy! God’s placed you here in this church for a reason: there are people he wants you to connect with and do life with.’

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Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash