I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a multigenerational church. I’ve also recently discovered the disastrously hilarious show Nailed It! It’s essentially a cooking show where contestants with self-diagnosed mediocre baking talents attempt to recreate ludicrously complex cakes and desserts in a very short period of time. As you can imagine, the results are usually disastrous and hilarious!
After watching several episodes, I feel that problems arise when contestants either: (1) forget to add the necessary ingredients, or (2) don’t combine them properly or carefully enough. And believe it or not, the process of baking a cake can teach us a great deal about being a multigenerational church.
Not convinced? Intergenerational ministry expert Cory Seibel tells us how:
“The process of becoming a vibrant intergenerational church can be compared to baking a cake. In order to bake a cake successfully… combining the correct ingredients is essential. If the necessary ingredients are not mixed well, there is a good chance the cake will not hold together properly…
Similar observations can be made about multigenerational churches today. Many of us are eager to see our churches become characterized by a strong sense of cohesion between people of different generations. There are immense benefits that accompany the strengthening of intergenerational cohesion within the church. Nonetheless, the sad reality is that the experience of many churches in recent decades has been painfully similar to “cake fails.” In far too many cases, the generations have not held together well.” 1
Baking a Multigenerational Cake at Church
So when baking a cake, two important things to remember:
- Having all the right ingredients
- Mixing these ingredients well
And so, using this analogy, being a vibrant multigenerational church looks like:
- Welcoming all generations (i.e. Having the right ingredients), but also
- Creating opportunities for intergenerational learning (mixing these ingredients well)
I quite like this analogy because it helps us make a massive topic easier to get our head around. (Also, every time you bake something, you’ll hopefully think about fostering a multigenerational community at your church!)
A precautionary word
Now, as a side note, just because an idea or metaphor or saying sounds interesting and it’s presented with confidence, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s biblical or wise. So we always need to turn to God’s word to see how it measures up. When considering multigenerational ministry, it evokes big questions like:
- Does God actually desire a church where all generations are present together?
- Should we instead aim for targeted church communities and groups where everyone is the same age and stage as us?
- And if we do have different generations together, does God want these different age groups have anything to do with one another?
As we explore some passages that address this, I hope you can catch the Bible’s vision of a multigenerational church and that these generations should find opportunities to learn from one another.
Having the Right Ingredients: Welcoming all Generations
So first, when we think about having the right ingredients, both the Old Testament and the New have a wonderful vision for the people of God, as one where multiple generations are gathered and welcome together.
From One Generation to Another (Psalm 145:3–7; Psalm 78:1–7; Psalm 8:2)
God’s vision throughout the Psalms is that all generations join together in worshiping him and teaching one another. I love these wonderful words from Psalm 145. Where the Psalmist proclaims:
3 Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
4 One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.
5 They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
6 They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
7 They celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness. (Psalm 145:3–7)
Worship pastor John Bolin makes a great observation about this Psalm:
This passage gives us 5 activities that all generations should do together. They should commend, tell, speak, celebrate and sing. Is it just me or is that an incredible structure for one big worship service? I love how the Psalmist is so affected by this worship experience that it compels him to both internally meditate and externally proclaim.2
Passing the baton
Multigenerational ministry plays a vital role in entrusting the next generation to know the ‘praiseworthy deeds of the LORD’ (Psalm 78:4).
1 My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
3 things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
5 He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach their children,
6 so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
7 Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands. (Psalm 78:1–7)
Graham Stanton shows the multigenerational heart of the Psalmist:
Psalm 78 invites all of God’s people to take our part in the ancient relay of intergenerational faith transmission… Psalm 78:3-6 describes a great relay race of intergenerational faith transmission: our “ancestors” handed on the faith to us, then we hand on the faith to “the next generation”, our children. Looking further forward, verse six speaks of “the children yet to be born”, and then further still to “their children”. The great vision of Psalm 78 is to see the faith handed down to our children’s grandchildren!3
Jesus himself in Matthew 21, hearing children around him praising God, turned to the Psalter and recited Psalm 8:2: ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’ (Matthew 21:16).
God’s vision throughout the Psalms is that all generations join together in worshiping him and teaching one another. And so we, as God’s people today, are to welcome and embrace people from every generation in this place. Your church community should be eager to welcome babies, boomers, retirees, students, singles, mums, dads, and everyone in between. And we need to ensure we have ministries in place that can meet these generations where they are at. We are called to participate in this multigenerational experience of worship, as we teach, praise, and celebrate God’s greatness together. How much does your Sunday gathering reflect this vision?
The Spirit Empowers a Multigenerational Church (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:12–18)
Through the prophet Joel, God promised that an age was coming, the age of the Holy Spirit, where the Spirit will be poured out on all generations of God’s people (Joel 2:28–29). It was a promised day when the people of God would be supernaturally empowered for this kind of multigenerational ministry.
And then many years later, on the day of Pentecost, God did as he promised. The Spirit comes. He is poured out on the church, and the world will never be the same:
12 Amazed and perplexed, [the crowd] asked one another, “What does this mean?” …
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. … 16 this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy…
39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:12–18, 39)
Men, women, old, young, even the lowly and insignificant… we see the Holy Spirit filling them and enabling them to minister to one another and edify the body of Christ. Since we too live in the age of the Spirit, this is what we should strive to see in our churches. The Spirit enables us to be a church where babies, teenagers, the elderly, pre-schoolers, parents and widows are welcome here.
We need help
But perhaps you’re sitting there thinking: ‘I like the sound of this, but I just don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to foster a church community like that.’ And if that’s you, you’re not alone. After all, it’s much easier to cluster around people like us, isn’t it? It’s easy to stick with our tribe. But welcoming others across barriers of age, ethnicity, gender, language, class… that is hard. And it doesn’t come naturally or automatically.
And I think that’s why we need the Spirit to help us. We can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. And in his goodness, he’s freely given us his Spirit, to empower us to live up to his vision of a multigenerational church. God is faithful—he is with us in this task.
Mixing Ingredients Well: CREATING Opportunities for Intergenerational Learning
To return to our baking analogy: as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve baked before, as important as it is to have all the right ingredients, it’s not going to transform into a beautiful cake or biscuit if you don’t mix them together. You’ll end up with a weird, charred, powdery mess instead. The reason we add the eggs, the milk, the four, the sugar to the mixing bowl… is so they can be combined to form something spectacular. Something greater than the sum of its parts.
And in the New Testament, both Peter and Paul describe the church in really vivid language. Christ is at work bringing each of us together and forming us into a new family (Ephesians 2:19), a new body (1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 5:30), a new temple (Ephesians 2:20–21; 1 Peter 2:4–5), a new kingdom (1 Peter 2:9–10), a new dwelling (Ephesians 2:22), a beautiful bride (Ephesians 5:31–32).
Ordinary people like you and I are transformed into a place where the glory of God resides and where people can experience that glory. Multigenerational churches can enable some of this transformation because they provide opportunities to learn from each other, as the generations interact with one another.
Adults Learning from Children (Mark 10:13–16; Matthew 18:1–5)
In the Gospels, we see that for Jesus, this intergenerational learning is vital for being a follower of him. Mark recounts:
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13–16)
I don’t know about you, but I find Jesus’ words remarkable. Not only do we see his heart for welcoming children as genuine followers of him, but we also see in verse 15 that us adults need to learn about following Jesus from the children around us! On another occasion in Matthew 18, Jesus makes this even clearer, saying to the adults that ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3).
Children as models for the kingdom
And this claim is even more striking, because as Judith Gundry-Volf notes, ‘nowhere in Jewish literature are children put forward as models for adults, and in a Greco-Roman setting [being compared] with children was highly insulting.’4
Yet in Jesus’ mind, God’s kingdom is for children just as much as it is for adults. And one key reason God wants his church to be multigenerational, is because adults and children each need opportunities to learn from one another:
- On the one hand, children are highly dependent on adults to be taught about Jesus and grow in their knowledge and maturity,
- And yet, us adults are to learn about the gospel from children and we grow when we become like them!
Adults and children shaping one another
Judith Gundry-Volf has done a lot of study into the way Jesus interacted with adults and children. And I love the way she expresses her findings. She writes:
[T]he Gospels teach more than how to make an adult world kinder and juster for children, and how to raise children in a Christian way for an adult world. The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world, where children are the measure, rather than don’t measure up to adults, where the small are great and the great must become small… Adults need not only to shape children but to be shaped by them. And this being shaped is essential to their shaping children, but also to adults’ very relationship to Christ and their participation in the reign of God.5
Receiving ‘like a child’
Given its importance, what does it mean for adults to ‘receive the kingdom of God like a little child’? (Mark 10:15). R. T. France and James Edwards offer some wisdom:
[T]he reason the disciples were unable to appreciate the significance of children in relation to the kingdom of God is that they themselves have not yet learned to ‘receive’ it like children. Their ‘grown-up’ sense of values prevents them from being in tune with God’s value scale.6
To receive the kingdom of God as a child is to receive it as one who has no credits, no clout, no claims. A little child has absolutely nothing to bring, and whatever a child receives, he or she receives by grace on the basis of sheer neediness rather than by any merit inherent in him- or herself. Little children are paradigmatic disciples, for only empty hands can be filled.7
We need a multigenerational church, because it helps each generation recognise our own blind-spots, and together grow to become more like Christ. Just as a cake won’t work if the ingredients aren’t mixed well, we not only need to have all the generations present our church, but be prepared to humbly learn from one another in love. The church is enriched when all generations are heard.
Old and Young, Teaching and Learning (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14–15; 2:1–2; 1 Timothy 4:12)
But it’s not just the adults and children paradigm. In the New Testament we have Timothy. As the Apostle Paul is writing to him in 1 and 2 Timothy, and we find that Timothy’s faith has been greatly shaped by those generations older than him:
1:5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. (2 Timothy 1:5)
2:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14–15)
Timothy would certainly not be where he was without the formation he received from those older than him. But at the same time, the young adult Timothy is urged to shape the older generations in their faith and living, and promote a culture of intergenerational learning:
2:1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:1–2)
4:12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Timothy’s story is one of being both a multigenerational learner, and a multigenerational teacher. Old and young, teaching and learning together. Shaping and being shaped. This multigenerational vision is God’s will for us too.
ExperimentATION and Mess
When we’re baking, the fun is often in the experimentation. Let’s be willing to experiment with new ways of combining these generational ingredients. Graham Stanton has done some excellent work around children and youth ministry, and he offers an intuitive way of imagining what possibilities there are for intergenerational learning at church:8
By picking any two combinations of generations, we can ask:
- What might this generation be able to teach the other? For example:
- What might children teach young adults?
- What might babies be able to teach teenagers?
- Teenagers teaching adults?
- Teenagers learning from elders?
- How can I create opportunities for this intergenerational learning to take place?
Embrace the Mess!
Of course, mixing ingredients can get messy sometimes. What’s that old saying? ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’ I have a vivid memory of attending at an all-ages service years ago, and one of the toddlers decided to use the ‘Greeting of the Peace’ time to come forward do shots of all the communion juice cups! Combining generations can get messy sometimes, our sensibilities may get offended from time to time.
But I say, considering what’s at stake, let’s embrace the mess. The saviour that we worship willingly humbled himself into the mess of our world, in order to bring us to God (Philippians 2:6–8; 1 Peter 3:18). Christ made a great personal sacrifice for our sake, and we’re called to do that for the sake of others (Philippians 2:3–5; 1 Peter 2:21). So let’s embrace the mess.
Keep the mess safe
And of course, there’s a big difference between being messy and being unsafe—both in cooking and in intergenerational ministry. 1 Timothy 5:1–2 exhorts us that when relating to those older and younger than us, we must do so ‘with absolute purity’. At least in the Anglican Diocese where I serve, with so many of us having recently competed Safe Ministry Training, we as a church organisation are excellently situated to imagine and embrace fresh opportunities for intergenerational learning, all conducted in a safe and life-giving way.
Sure, mixing generations can get messy, but when done well, and with Christ’s love and care, we will come to hear stories like one my friend’s, who returned to church after encountering the sense of belonging that both her children and parents both experienced at their church. Together, let us foster multigenerational communities in our churches, where people of all ages are welcomed. Let’s be a church where all generations would feel they belong and have a place here. And let’s embrace opportunities to learn from those older and younger than us. This multidimensional body is the church that God delights in, and may his Spirit empower us to be a part of it.
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