“We’re an intergenerational church. A family church.” I’ve heard this said many times and even said it myself, of the church I belong to. But what does it mean? Often, what is meant is that we’re a multigenerational church, a church that comprises and caters to more than one generation. Usually, this statement is made in comparison to—and sometimes quite literally, as opposed to—the youth church. The youth church is the epitome of the homogenous unit principle along generational lines, and is inadvertently made out to be the enemy, a threat to what is supposedly the ideal church norm, our intergenerational church.
But multigenerational is not intergenerational, and sadly, most of our churches are more like the former though we claim to be the latter. Yes, babies, children, youth, adults, and seniors alike are welcomed and do walk through our church doors. Our attendance records reflect this. Our ministries cater to all these groups. Yet, it is precisely these that betray age segregation and age divides: children’s ministry, youth ministry, young adults’ ministry, adults’ ministry, seniors’ ministry. These neat categories along the life trajectory show, on one hand, that nobody is left out but, on the other, the sad reality that nobody is willing to cross their generational categories. The truth, if we are honest with ourselves, is that we are our own enemy.
Yet, not all is bad news. Even in a church that is primarily multigenerational, I’ve seen glimpses of the intergenerational. In the pre-pandemic times, our church used to boast of a Cry Room—“so that even parents of young children can worship with us!” we’d say. But this room, which started out connected to the main sanctuary through a glass wall and audio feed, was closed off with a concrete wall with video and audio feed (so as not to distract our other worshippers?). Then there was talk of closing the Cry Room altogether, because it seemed to be turning into a place for fellowship among parents rather than for worship.
But the pandemic interrupted—or perhaps hastened—those plans, and families learnt to worship together in the home, with crying baby and crawling toddler and slouching teenager (or maybe, slouching parent?) all in one room. The beauty of this was that by the time we returned to the church sanctuary for worship, our tolerance for the messiness of life had increased. I like what Rev Marcos Canales said in an interview on intergenerational worship: “… whenever we hear babies crying, laughing, or yelling, it’s a good sign because it’s a sign of life. And the reverence is not a well-behaved child; the reverence is in the awe and in the wonderment that God would entrust us with another young life to be God’s community, to shape their imaginations of the God that they’re going to follow.*
One of my joys in this season is to have my three-year-old niece stay over with my family on Saturday nights and walk to church together on Sunday mornings. Because of this, I’ve had opportunity to talk with her about Church, to have her sit beside or sometimes even sit on or be carried by me during the worship service. To be honest, I’d never been able to carry her for more than one song. I try to keep her entertained and occupied so she doesn’t disturb those around me, and I often hope she does not suddenly need to pee or demand for her parents in the middle of service. But I’ve also had the privilege to witness and participate in God-moments: the morning she decided that she wanted to go up to a jiejie in church to say hello, the dramatic swaying to the worship music with absolute abandonment and zero embarrassment, the repeated refrain of “I like Sunday School!” to anyone who would listen and, most recently, in the midst of what seemed like her engrossment in colouring, a sudden declaration of “Ayyyy-men!” as the host elder ended his prayer. Through all these, I have developed a tolerance—and even more, an appreciation—for seeing children waddle around the sanctuary during service, for hearing them laughing or crying or even yelling, and I have developed a new-found respect for all parents of young children.
Of course, this is only one aspect of what an intergenerational church looks like, i.e., in its embracing of the young. There is so much more messiness and so much more beauty in the intergenerational church. What about the youth? We often have less patience for these mini-adults, who are no longer small and cute and therefore, somehow, not able to make mistakes in the church without receiving a sidelong glance and scowl of disapproval. What would it look like if the youth were allowed, encouraged even, to (politely) interrupt the sermon with a question, to give voice to their doubts about how God and the Bible speak into their realities and to the voices of this world? What would it look like if we embraced the youth, not as the future of the church, but as its present? And what about our seniors? As we seek to reach out to “the next generation”, have we overlooked the needs of our older members? What would it look like if we truly valued their presence—not just of those who are in leadership positions, but even those whom society deems to be unable to contribute?
And, most of all, how can we cultivate an environment where intergenerational ties are built, where intergenerational friendships are modelled and encouraged?
Building the intergenerational church is an uphill task, but it is a task we all must undertake; not just the church leadership, but each member and worshipper. This is the intergenerational church—where young and old and not-so-young and not-so-old can occupy the same space, worship the same God, in our different ways—and it is beautiful.