Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bringing the generations together

Our trip to the UK began with a week in Northumberland with my husband Paul’s family from Newcastle and his brother and sister from South Africa and their children. After days of doing tourist “stuff” including walking Hadrian’s wall, we would gather around the table at our B&B to enjoy a meal, play cards and chat. Our group consisted of Jenna (12), Blake (13), Simon (25) and David (27) and the “olds” – the 50 “somethings!” We had lots of hilarity and also a fair bit of reminiscing of growing up in South Africa. My husband’s and my family used to holiday at the same “health farm” but never at the same time. As he and his siblings shared fond memories of their holidays, I felt a knot in my stomach. “I hated those holidays at Blanco” I said. “We used to have to go the “children’s dining room” for meals and were forced to eat “awful” food.” They had no recollection of this because they were all old enough to eat in the adult’s dining room where the food and company was great. My experience of this place means I have no desire to return and certainly wouldn’t inflict the place on my children!

I wonder how many adults today feel the same about their childhood church experience where too often they were banished to a cold hall away from the adults, and presented with unpalatable “food” dished out by sometimes intimidating Sunday School teachers.

When non-church going parents in their 30’s, were interviewed on their perceptions of the church, (Attracting New Zealanders to Spiritual Life. AC Nielsen) they stated that churches are not places for children.

What do they base their perceptions on? As they don’t currently attend church, their views could only be based on hearsay or personal childhood experience.

Rainer Research estimates that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. The statistics in New Zealand is I would imagine even more alarming, as only 7% of the population go to church and many of those are over 60 years.

So what can we do to enhance young people’s experience of church and reduce the inevitable desertion. Fuller Institute’s Kara Powell has done extensive research in this area and asserts that involving young people in intergenerational relationships in church is the answer.
Is the Era of Age Segmentation Over?

Churches first started segregating their congregations in the 1940s. “We were not offering teens enough focused attention. So what did we do? We started offering them too much. All of a sudden churches had adult pastors and youth pastors, adult worship teams and youth worship teams, adult mission trips and youth mission trips. And there's a place for that. But we've ended up segregating—and I use that word intentionally—our kids from the rest of the church. Now we tend to think that we can outsource the care of our kids to designated experts, the youth and children's workers,”says Powell.

Powell equates the experience to family gatherings where children are relegated to the kids' table (this resonates with my Blanco experience) excluded from pleasant conversation and expected to degenerate into “Jell-O snorting contests”. “Theoretically we were having the same meal; but we were having two very, very different experiences. That's what we've done in churches today.”

After years at the kids' table, young people know what kids club or youth group is, but they don't know what church is.

“We've found that one thing churches can do that really makes a difference is getting kids actively involved in the life of the church. There is a strong link between kids staying in church as young adults and beyond and their involvement in intergenerational relationships and worship."

Intergenerational worship is something that needs to happen every Sunday not just once a month at the “all age service”.

There are so many ways to involve young people in worship andin the life of the church. They can serve as greeters, readers and musicians in our services. They can share testimonies and lead worship.

And involving teenagers in ministering to younger children has a profound impact on their faith development too.

And while it can be difficult to find a “one size that fits all” when it comes to worship, remember when children and teenagers are engaged, adults will be engaged too (that’s why they love the children’s story!)

Intergenerational relationships are key to helping young people to belong and commit to churches.

“We asked high school seniors what they want more of in youth group. Time for deep conversation ranked highest,” says Powell. I remember reading some similar research conducted amongst children in New Zealand who were asked to rate time spent on video games or playing a board game with adults. The latter was overwhelmingly positively rated by all participants.

Powell suggests that to promote and facilitate intergenerational relationships churches adopt the five adults to one kid policy.

“I'm talking about five adults who care enough about a kid that they learn her name, ask her on Sunday how they can be praying for her, and then the following Sunday ask her, "How did it go with that science test?" Our study shows that even these baby step connections can make a real difference.

And the good news for many of our churches is that smaller churches have greater potential for promoting intergenerational relationships.

I know from experience that a lot of adults are intimidated by teenagers and don't know how to talk with them. When we run Transformers camps for intermediate age children we ask adult mentors to accompany the young person to camp and commit to “mentor’ them for a year as they serve their church. Too many churches say they have children keen to participant but can’t find mentors. Those churches who have committed to this leadership development and mentoring programme for their young people have been transformed.
We find that when our mentors serve together with their mentees it creates a shared experience, and age is irrelevant”, says Rev Anne Mills of Chartwell Cooperating Parish.

“If adults in a church caught a vision that every kid needs to have their name known by five adults in the church, we would increase the numbers of deep intergenerational relationships and change our churches for the better,” says Powell.

Powell’s research also confirms the role of parents in children’s faith development and longevity. “It's very important for parents to share about their own spiritual journeys with kids."

And of course the role of the minister is crucial. “The behavior and attitudes of the minister (towards young people) set the course for the church,” says Powell.

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