March 2019
Becoming Disciples

7 Steps Toward Intergenerational Discipleship

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

When someone in the church speaks of “formation,” many think of the traditional Sunday school classroom, the glories of glitter and glue with small children and goodies-to-go bags on the first Sunday of Lent. Youth, however, are more likely to cringe at the prospect of a visit from parish clergy to their otherwise fun meetings. And adults recall enduring yet another adult forum on the physics of the crucifixion or on the details of this year’s new, improved program to recruit young families and save the congregation.

Over the past 30 years, good work has been done exploring intergenerational discipleship, or what author and church consultant John Roberto calls intergenerational faith formation. In this approach all ages in the congregation come together to learn, worship, serve and play, rather than meeting in their respective age groups. Researchers are finding that the traditional ways we have gone about Christian formation and discipleship, organizing by age and stage, have contributed to new generations that do not identify with their religious tradition and leave or ‘graduate’ from church when they become adults.

The argument for an intergenerational approach

The age and stage model was largely a product of the influence of developmental theorists Piaget and Erikson in the 20th century. For many U.S. Americans, the resulting social segregation has kept children, adolescents, young adults, middle adults and older adults from developing and enjoying meaningful relationships across generational divides. “More significantly, this model has been a cause of a deep void in developing self-identity,” argued Jason Brian Santos, Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation in the U.S. Presbyterian Church, in the 2018 Woods Lecture at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

“For centuries,” Santos said, “these identities were formed in collective societies that focused on communal formation and the social construction of identity.” He went on to explain how identity is largely formed by ‘doing’ the things that are most important to a community, by engaging in practices that define the whole body. In his concluding remarks, he said, “It is our job to make sure those foundational memories include multiple generations.”

Reclaiming our identity as the body of Christ

So, how might we begin to tear down the silos and reclaim our stories, our awareness of each other as essential and, most importantly, our identity as the body of Christ?

Here are seven steps toward becoming a church that practices an intergenerational discipleship model.

1 Believe First things first. Boldly reaffirm and celebrate Jesus in every aspect of the life of the church and in every ministry. Integrate prayer, sacred scripture and spiritual reflection as sustaining practices of the community. Adults, especially the leadership, ought to model
this, and lead by example.

2 Celebrate Experience the sacraments abundantly. Make appropriate changes to worship to increase engagement and participation by all without making worship child-ish. Engage the liturgical year, and let it frame the journey. Reclaim your baptism, reflect on the Baptismal Covenant (BCP, 304-305) and commemorate baptism anniversaries.

The first two steps are foundational to the life of any ecclesial community and essential for intergenerational discipleship. If we desire to be an authentic community of believers, then each of us must work on strengthening our own spiritual life, with God’s help. We must reclaim our identity as God’s church, take an honest look at our congregations and renounce whatever has undermined that foundation.

3 Discern Take a good look at areas where your parish may already have success in gathering members across generational lines and build on that.

4 Envision Look beyond the Sunday school classroom, youth group and adult forum for authentic formational experiences in community. Create intentional space for intergenerational small group communities. Adopt a simple model of theological reflection — follow Lectio Divina or discuss reactions to the Sunday gospel. Allow for social time.

5 Remember Celebrate the Communion of Saints. November is a good time to remember those who have died in the past year. Remember your saints —your ancestors through various actions and make time to hear each other’s stories and shared narratives.

“Remember me,” sings little Miguel to his great abuelita, Coco. It is the song that her father used to sing to her as a little child. The song brings life back into her body and her spirit and in turn, to the entire family. Each time my little ones and I watch the animated film Coco, I cannot help but get teary as I remember the family and community that surrounded me as I was growing up. Like many families of Latinx, African-American or other cultures that emphasize family and community, Sundays and holidays were wonder-filled times. They were not without their challenges, but I could not imagine growing up without my parents’ care and devotion, my aunts’ unconditional love, my grandparents’ stories or the special meals we shared and sometimes prepared together.

6 Engage Go beyond coffee hour. How well are informal mentoring relationships developing? Could a formal mentoring program be right for your parish? Coordinate with your Christian education / formation / discipleship ministers to create spaces for engagement. Organize for justice. Serve the poor. Spend time together. Offer coffee hour activities that promote participation across the age groups. Don’t discard events for specific age or affinity groups, but do not let them drive the mission.

When we first joined our parish in Chicagoland, we felt genuinely embraced. Adults and older adults connected beautifully with us and with our children. The baby had many grandmothers. At times, I would go looking for him and frequently, I’d find a lovely, older adult woman in a rocking chair with the tiny infant in her arms. The people in that congregation demonstrated genuine love and interest in us as a family, and they backed that up with actions when we needed them most.

7 Commit Sustainable progress will only be possible if the clergy and lay leadership, staff and vestry are all committed to shifting the discipleship paradigm from an age and stage model to an intergenerational model. Empower and support your formation ministers to grow, dream and work together to make this your reality.

Growing up, I remember the adults whom I loved and who loved me back — my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and my faith community. I grew up in a Latinx family proud of our cultural heritage and language. We did almost everything together — en familia. The food, the music, the hugs and the stories from my family and faith community are gifts that I will forever cherish, gifts that have helped to shape and anchor me in my identity, my faith and my vision of community from my cradle to this very day.

This process will likely take years to produce a thriving, intergenerational faith community. Experiment. Fail. Keep at it. Learn from the work and success of others. Take your time and celebrate the wins!

Eduardo Solomón Rivera, is on the Board of Directors of Forma | The Network for Christian Formation. Eduardo is the Managing Editor of EFML, the new Latinx curricula of Education for Ministry (EfM) and is on the Bishop’s staff in the Diocese of Southeast Florida. He is also the Latino Resource Development Lead for Baptized For Life, and serves on the newly formed Confirmation Collaborative of the Episcopal Church born out of the research and findings of The Confirmation Project.

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This article is part of the March 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Becoming Disciples