Exploring Intergenerational Ministry

We recently held a dance at First Baptist Church of St. Albans, where I serve as youth pastor. We planned the dance for just before Christmastime and called it the Snow Ball. The fellowship hall looked amazing that night. Christmas lights lined the ceiling. Glistening snowflakes hung throughout the room. Beautiful tablecloths and centerpieces adorned all of the tables which had been rearranged to open up space for a dance floor in the middle of the room.

As participants arrived, they hung up their coats and gathered with their friends on one side of the room or the other. The awkwardness of the moment was palpable. Two groups of people, on opposite sides of the church fellowship hall, occasionally glancing across the room at the others, each wondering what was supposed to happen. Several of my youth leaders gave me an unmistakable look that screamed, “This will never work!”

Middle School Dance Party?

This setting sounds a lot like a dance at a middle school with the boys lined up on one side and the girls on the other, neither party sure who was supposed to do what and when. That was not, however, what was taking place on this particular night at First Baptist Church. Instead, on one side of the room stood the majority of the church’s youth group and on the other stood a senior adult Sunday school class. You did not read that last sentence incorrectly. The participants for this particular dance were approximately 30 youth and 30 senior adults.

As these senior adults and youth came together and shared their space and stories, they became familiar with one another and began to form connections. The connections formed through this event have carried over into other aspects of church and community life as they now recognize and interact with one another.

We had come together to answer one question: Do opportunities for interaction result in deeper relationships between senior adults and youth? To put it more simply, would putting senior adults and youth in the same room, engaging in the same activities, naturally result in the development of relationships?

Crossing the Chasm

As I stood to the side and observed the abyss that separated the senior adults and youth that night, I began to believe we might have found the answer to our question. We quickly prayed for the evening’s food and invited our guests to make their way through the line. At first, the lines of division held strong. Senior adults sat at tables on one side of the room and youth on the other.

But then it happened. Two senior adults picked up their plates, made the long walk across the room, and took seats at a table full of youth. Soon, other senior adults began following their lead and some of the youth began making their way over to tables full of senior adults. Before too long the room was buzzing with laughter and the awkwardness was completely gone.

Intergenerational Dancing

Later in the evening one of the senior adult men requested the song, “The Stroll,” a popular dance from the late 1950’s. The senior adults began lining the dance floor as youth circled, uncertain of what was going on. One of the senior adult ladies asked for the music to stop. She walked to the middle and taught the youth the steps of the dance.

As the song began playing again, senior adults and youth danced together down the center of an aisle, once again laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Over the course of the evening, the senior adults and the youth took turns teaching one another dances from their era. As one senior adult woman put it, “The Snow Ball was a way to get to put names and faces together. We laughed and giggled lots during the line dances. I became acquainted with some I did not know.”

Intergenerational Community

This was only one of three activities for senior adults and youth, created to answer our driving question: Do opportunities for interaction result in deeper relationships between senior adults and youth? We discovered the answer to that question is a resounding yes! As these senior adults and youth came together and shared their space and stories, they became familiar with one another and began to form connections. The connections formed through these events carry over into other aspects of church and community life as they now recognize and feel the freedom to approach and interact with one another.

Through these events, we have discovered three keys to creating opportunities for connection between senior adults and youth:

1) Get Excited About the Opportunity

If those who are hosting the event do not believe it will be successful and fun, then the participants certainly won’t either. Combined events with senior adults and youth are very unusual in American culture. There is no shortage of people saying that such events can’t happen. The truth, however, is not that they can’t happen, but they usually don’t. Attitude often dictates action. If the leadership presents and conducts the event with excitement and anticipation, participants will sense that excitement and will be much more likely to engage.

2) Treat Both Groups as Equal Partners and Participants

When adults and youth are involved in the same activity, one group is often viewed as the subject doing the ministry and the other is the object for whom the ministry is being done. This takes ownership away from one group or the other and causes them to behave as passive observers. If the goal is relationship development, then two-way communication and participation are vital. Hosting fellowship events such as game nights or a dance, or even an outreach event like baking cookies for college students or for those who are homebound creates an environment that encourages partnership and participation.

Our churches are full of people, of all ages, who are desperately searching for meaningful ways to connect and contribute to the local church. Developing relationships between senior adults and youth serves this purpose to make the church healthier.

3) Establish a Few Easy Wins

Before the combined event takes place, sit down with a few senior adults and a few youth. Talk to them about what is going to take place and what you hope will happen as a result. Ask them for ideas that will help draw their age group to the evening’s activities. This will create an even greater sense of ownership and will open up avenues for connection before the event begins. The first senior adults to cross the room at the Snow Ball were people I had talked to before the event. They made first contact and it snowballed from there.

Change the Game

Recent studies out of the Fuller Youth Institute have shown the benefit youth receive from having even one adult from outside a congregation’s youth ministry maintain contact and connection with them over time.1 I would argue that the value of these connections is a two-way street—the adults benefit as much as the youth.

Our churches are full of people of all ages who are desperately searching for meaningful ways to connect and contribute to the local church. Developing relationships between senior adults and youth accomplishes this purpose and makes the church healthier. What areas in your ministry have potential for intergenerational relationships? Take advantage of these areas for ministry, and create spaces where intergenerational connections can develop. When you do this, everybody wins!

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Footnotes:

1. Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, & Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 78-79.

 


Jeremy MyersJeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in West Virginia with their children Mikayla and JJ. He loves drinking coffee, playing music, and dreaming about what the church could and should be with fellow church nerds. Jeremy has an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, a D.Min. in Church Missional Renewal from Palmer Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA.

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