Our church stumbled into intergenerational discipleship for purely practical reasons. We were a small church with a family atmosphere, the result of a variety of age groups. We knew each other’s stories, and our lives were intertwined. This was our greatest asset; no large church could touch our deep sense of community. Being part of our fellowship surrounded us with extra sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, siblings and cousins. We were given to each other for the journey, and we were responsible to care for and support each other along the way. It was meaningful to be part of this close-knit family of God. It was also a powerful community in which to adopt others of any age.
The problem came when we focused on discipleship. We knew the conventional wisdom of our day: to make disciples is to break everyone up into age groups and teach them the stories, truths, and practices of the faith, based on age-appropriate levels of development. The large churches in our community were doing exactly this. When we looked at ourselves, frustration quickly took over. All of a sudden, that family atmosphere, our greatest asset, seemed like no great benefit; we were too small to provide the workers needed for all the age groups. Not only were we short on teachers, we were short on resources for curriculum and space to provide for everyone. We dreamt of small groups solely for young married couples, separating the sixth graders from the kindergarteners in Sunday school, and providing a separate toddler nursery from the infant one, but we didn’t have the people power or resources to pull it off. At times, it seemed that we would fail in the work of making disciples.
No church can fail at discipleship. Making disciples is our calling. We knew we couldn’t disciple the adults and neglect the children. We couldn’t focus on children and neglect the teens. We had to be intentional in discipling every age group; therefore, we stumbled into the idea of intergenerational discipleship. We had to figure out a way to pray, serve, and study Scripture together. We had to learn ways to grow and become more like Jesus within diverse age groups. It didn’t matter what other churches were doing; we had to be faithful to our calling to make disciples; we had to do it with the resources that were available to us. We began to look into possibilities of intergenerational gatherings, meaning one gathering with all age groups learning the faith together.
Reasons for Hope
As we embarked on our journey into intergenerational discipleship, we found reasons for hope:
The Sunday school model of breaking everyone up into their appropriate age group is approximately 100 years old; therefore, the Church successfully made disciples for roughly 1900 years before that, without special, age-specific classes for preschoolers, senior adults, and everyone in between. If we could think beyond the current popular methods, we could find ways of passing on the faith.
Intergenerational by Nature
We recognized that the Church is by nature an intergenerational community, the Bible is an intergenerational book, and following Jesus is for all ages. Even in our attempts to break everyone up into smaller groups, we were still studying the same Scripture, learning the same practices, and doing our best listening to God’s voice. In our intergenerational gatherings, we wanted those same things to happen; we simply needed to find a way to do it.
The Best of Who We Are
Not being able to provide all the age-specified discipleship groups forced us to focus on what we could do, and who God had made us to be. Our greatest gift as a smaller church was our sense of community and family atmosphere. Focusing on discipleship that involved all the age groups together strengthened and enhanced this identity.
Shifting our Thinking
In order to make disciples in intergenerational gatherings, we also needed to rethink some of our ideas about learning and faith formation. Discipling everyone in one room at one time was something more than trying to add children and teens to an adult class or adding adults to an already existing children’s group. In gathering everyone together, we still wanted significant learning and formation for all ages present. Was this even possible? Yes, but we had to look away from the educational classroom and toward another significant community of formation: the family.
Families are significant communities that form us, but they are also essential places of learning, not just for children, but for all ages.
Learning in Families
Families are significant communities that form us, but they are also essential places of learning, not just for children, but for all ages. Extended families learn and share wisdom just by being together, but extended families also participate in learning activities that are formational for all ages. Think of grandparents taking their grandchildren to the zoo. Not only do kids and teens learn by watching the animals that are there, but grandparents learn something too, perhaps it is factual information about a species of animal, but it could also be in the process of telling stories and guiding their grandchildren through the exhibits. At the zoo, children have the power to be teachers too, often reminding adults of the importance of paying attention and finding great joy in all God has made. Families learn together in all sorts of ways: add grandparents, cousins, extra aunts and uncles and there is plenty for all to learn on a camping trip or vacation, while gardening or taking a walk in the neighborhood, or when visiting a museum or science center. These places and activities are rich arenas of learning for all ages. Not only are they enjoyable, but they are also memory-making and relationship-building activities. These kinds of family activities, and not the classroom, began to form the way we thought about learning the faith and studying the Bible together. This was a significant shift in our thinking. We had to fi nd ways to learn by doing, learn from each other, and to encourage learning relationships.
Learning by Doing
Learning in an intergenerational setting is to learn by involvement. To read the Bible together is to act it out, not with the goal of creating a high quality performance, but in order to understand what is really going on in the story, to make the Bible come alive and hear its story in new ways. By providing hands-on opportunities like projects, activities, or experiences, all ages are involved in learning. A senior adult and a child might not learn the same things in the same way, but all can be shaped by the same Bible story, service project, or Christian practice.
Learning from Each Other
Intergenerational learning puts less emphasis on the teacher and the teacher’s content delivery and puts a greater emphasis on the learner and what can be discovered while actively learning with others. Each person involved becomes a potential teacher for the group, with a story to share, the ability to direct our interest in new areas, or insight no one else caught. The young bring a fresh perspective, a sense of joy and awe, and imaginative questions to the learning process. Those who are older bring their wisdom, their stories, and their ability to care for others. Providing plenty of space for these interactions to happen naturally became essential.
Relationships are vitally important in making disciples. Building those relationships of trust might be more important at times than the actual content of the learning.
Building Learning Relationship
Relationships are vitally important in making disciples. Building those relationships of trust might be more important at times than the actual content of the learning. We all need others who are further down the road of discipleship sharing their lives and love with us. To mature in Christ, each of us needs to share ourselves with others. These relationships that take us beyond our peer group tie us into the depth and breadth of the community and its wisdom. They give us practice in talking about our faith and teaching it to others. As these relationships are built in the family of God (both within nuclear families and outside of them), we develop the deep bonds that have the ability to profoundly shape our lives in Christ for years to come.
A Better Way of Making Disciples?
We started this journey into intergenerational discipleship for purely practical reasons. Along the way, it proved to be a valuable method for making and becoming disciples of Jesus. We moved beyond the idea that it is solely the Sunday school teacher’s or small group leader’s role to make disciples in the church community. Instead, we were reminded that passing on the faith was the task of all Christians. We needed opportunities to practice both passing the faith onto others and receiving the wisdom of others. These gatherings prepared us for other informal moments of passing on the faith, which happen in the lives of families and within the church. Learning together helped each of us see that we all have an important role in the church, and it clearly communicated to our children and teens what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ in all of life’s stages.
Learning together helped each of us see that we all have an important role in the church, and it clearly communicated to our children and teens what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ in all of life’s stages.
Making disciples in this “new” way took some creative thinking and hard work, but it was disciple-making we could do well as a small church. Perhaps it is an even a better way to work at making disciples.
Examples of Intergenerational Gatherings
So what does this intergenerational way of learning look like? Here are some examples:
No Room at the Inn: (Adapted from a Christmas tradition in Mexico and based on Luke 2:1-7)
After reading the story aloud, let all the children dress up in costumes as Mary and Joseph. Send the adults behind all the doors to the classrooms and closets in your building to be the people of Bethlehem, who had no room for Jesus. Mary and Joseph's group asking the people of Bethlehem if there is room for them to spend the night and give birth to their baby. They are turned down at every door, until the last one, where one of the adults agrees to let them stay in their barn. With all participants, go out in the cold to the church’s shed and read Luke 2:6-7 again and find a makeshift bed for the baby Jesus. There in the shed, talk about Jesus’ arrival into our world, and what it means to make room in our lives for Jesus.
Zacchaeus and Cookie Taxes:
This Scripture comes alive when acted out with the help of vanilla wafers and everyone present. Hand out sandwich bags with four vanilla wafers inside to each of the “people of Jericho,” and a bag of 20-30 vanilla wafers to Zacchaeus, illustrating his wealth. After reading about Zaccheus ,a wealthy tax collector, have him go throughout Jericho and collect two vanilla wafers as a “tax” from each person, adding them to his large bag. Continue through the story where Zacchaeus is changed by meeting Jesus. When Zacchaeus says he will give half of what he owns to the poor and four times as much as to everyone he cheated, show Zacchaeus doing just that with his cookies. After finishing the story, ask the group what happens when people meet Jesus. They will have plenty to say.
Crisis Care Kits:
Before assembling collected items into crisis care kits, pause to reflect on the needs these items will fulfill. Draw a group of simple pictures to tell the story of a family, as their lives go from normal to crisis, as they lose their home in a brutal storm. They go to a shelter, giving them a warm place to stay, but there are lots of items needed before this family can be ready for bed that night. Ask the group what items they might need: toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, washcloth, soap, and so on. Tell how someone at the shelter handed them a crisis care kit. Pray for those who will receive your kits, then assemble the kits together.
CHRISTA KLOSTERMAN currently serves as Discipling Pastor at Five Mile Church of the Nazarene in Boise, Idaho