At a recent gathering of the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches in Germany we had opportunity to collectively think about how our chaplaincies work (or maybe don’t work) on an intergenerational level. The two dynamic leaders were Diane Craven and Harvey Howlett. The theme for our yearly educational event came from the chair of the organizing committee after reading an article by Diane in the Church Times which addressed issues of intergenerational work, worship and witness with areas focusing on: Learning together, Praying together, and Serving together. The article is here to read if you are interested.
Rarely is the church not intergenerational. Even if people like to highlight ‘missing generations’ that seem not to be present in the gathered community; on the whole, church is intergenerational, with my only experience of it not being so is at a number of ‘mega’ churches which felt more like a concert than church, and if you paid enough attention, you would realize that there were a variety of ages represented.
The real question for me, having had some time to reflect on the three day event is, how do we relate to each other if, in reality, our congregations are evenly spread through with a number of generations. At times, it is majority rule, and other times it is like being held hostage by a small faction of determined individuals; as the church joke goes, ‘what’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.’ (Groan) I think that at the best of times, the gathered people is like a community which is similar to a family set about a common or similar aim. For this reason, there is a lot of emphasis placed on meals together. One only needs to think of a family meal in which a number of generations gather, which apparently happens less often in by today’s standards — some estimate that we spend 30 minutes a day with ‘family’ and over 8 hours a day on some electronic device.
Every cohort of a generation will have different needs and expectations of what it is to be church; this leads to friction of course, as differing needs collide. Being reflective and intentional might be the best way forward. Reflective in how we learn, pray and serve at different stages of life and faith development. As well, we need to be forgiving because we will not always get what we are looking for and find that there will always be some group or individual which is somehow alienated: be it the singles at the family service, the crying infant and overwhelmed lonely single parent at the meditative Book of Common Prayer service, the elder who hears nothing but feedback as the loud music plays havoc with hearing aids as the printed font used for the projected worship service is too small to see; or the immigrant who desperately wants to be in a community, but finds that she cannot understand all of the language so that words which are packed with meaning only lead to more confusion and a growing feeling of alienation.
Each generation will think that they have the answer, as the answer is them, and they must be right. Over the years I have heard strange phrases from the mouths of otherwise pleasant people like, “They will learn to like the BCP if they hand out the prayer books in their role as sides-people and stop loafing around,” or “No wonder this place is half dead, all they care about is investing thousands of dollars on redoing their memorial garden, but they won’t let us paint a youth room.” There might be some value in shifting our perspectives, that our own generation has got it right, and other generations have it all wrong, to something a bit more positive and collaborative and forgiving, such as, “I am, because we are.”
However, rather than focusing on what might be seen as dividing lines between generational needs, there is actually a great deal of good things going on. Such as a church outing to the ice rink when Children’s Church teachers fall flat on the ice and the children skate daring circles around them; the adults have been made into the pupils and the child the teacher; an interaction which then changes the relationship when they next meet on Sunday to discover that we all fall down, nobody is perfect, and we all have something to learn. Or another role reversal when a server does not turn up to help with distributing the bread and wine of communion and a child is eager to help, and does, bringing tears to some as they receive this sacred meal from a child who knows no proper phrase, or liturgical response and has no special ‘license,’ but simply beams with love and enthusiasm. And finally an example of praying together when despite the years of theological study by the youth leader/quasi-theologian a young boy who has started to come to youth group proclaims that knowing God is simple, one only needs to look at an acorn from an oak tree — and the idea strikes the leader as he suddenly realizes that this sounds awfully familiar — like a saying from an ancient female mystic, or one of the desert fathers.
There is no easy way to ‘solve’ intergenerational worship, especially as our own needs and desires, as we search for God, continue to change. I might want a rock band today, but long for simple silence tomorrow. While people change and develop, so does the nature of our churches, and our society where there never seems to be one particular model or identifying factor, rather there is a lot of things all mixed together where we might feel that the church is like a social club today, and tomorrow a group of pilgrims. I imagine it is a bit of both, and more.
Rather than intergenerational: seeing the generations (however we define them) as separate and then somehow linked together; maybe it is better to speak of intragenerational where we recognize that within a church, or chaplaincy structure we have webs of connectedness and that at times, those who may be students are at times the teachers; and those who are leaders are sometimes servants. But then, that’s really about my generations needs, and so it must be correct. Right?