Debbie and Karen Nell asked to meet with me via Zoom late in the fall to help them brainstorm best practices for intergenerational worship which would fit the culture of their congregation. They have been implementing this intergenerational indoor model quite successfully for three months and are ready to share their learnings with us:
Debbie Gline Allen: What prompted you to move to intergenerational worship?
Karen Nell Smith: It’s been a slow evolution. Edwards Church has been on the path of intergenerational worship for some time. When I was called to serve there as Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Outreach in September of 2019, each communion Sunday was celebrated with everyone in the sanctuary and a variety of intergenerational activities. Our overall vision and goal was to create meaningful relationships within the congregation across age groups, teaching our young people about community, for we understand that children learn more about our faith and Jesus Christ through our actions and their experiences with us than we can ever impart verbally.
In the spring of 2021, we began to worship outside as we are blessed to have wonderful and interesting outdoor space. In this setting, inclusion of the children into our worship really took off. We created a “pray ground” space on the lawn with a quilt and a rocking chair — a sacred space just for kids. Children were invited to help with the candle lighting and blessing of the altarscape each week, often participating in the sermon in some way, collecting coins to fill our big penny jar (the children’s means of offering), and gathering the offering.
Children were free to roam and noise was not an issue in the outdoor setting. The other members of the congregation really enjoyed their presence and there was always much interaction. Parents and others sometimes joined the pray ground, and the older children took the younger ones under their wings.
As the colder weather arrived and we moved back into the sanctuary for hybrid worship, we adapted the pray ground space to a “Tent of Meeting" -- a small canvas tent with open sides so that the children still had their own special space and still remain a vital part of our worship.
DGA: How did your church leadership assist in this transition? How did the congregation and the families assist?
KNS: Our church leadership has been in on the conversation throughout the evolution of this intergenerational ministry. Our Board of Christian Education (now called the Faith Formation Transition Team), staff, Deacons, and Council all worked together as we navigated both the pandemic and the new forms of worship. Feedback and ideas have always been welcome, and different needs considered and accommodated. Summer outdoor services proved to be a valuable time for experimentation. Parents and others often helped out by sitting at the pray ground or at the Tent of Meeting, as well as supporting the home-based projects, videos, and other outdoor events — making this a great family faith formation approach as well.
DGA: Isn’t it difficult for parents to have their children with them in worship?
KNS: In order to make this transition comfortably, we thought through the flow of worship and imagined appropriate accommodations for children’s attention span, noise, and freedom of movement throughout the service. For a number of years we’ve had boxes or bags of crafts, crayons, books and other activities for children in the pews, and those are still available if kids want to stay with their parents in the pew.
Since our return to the sanctuary, children participate at different intervals in the service, breaking up the time to keep engagement and interest high. First they “bring in the light” and light the candles on the communion table, then sit with their family during opening prayers. They come forward for “Words with Young People,” then move to the Tent of Meeting for a craft. Toward the end of the service they help with the offering and the big penny jar, followed by bringing out the light during the last hymn.
So far, it hasn’t been cumbersome for parents, as the children now seem very comfortable in the worship space. We’ve talked with them about the difference between outdoor and indoor worship, prayer time, quiet times, and so forth. Parents have reported that the kids love it.
DGA: What advice do you have for congregations who want to shift to intergenerational worship?
KNS: Go slowly, be creative, present changes as “experiments,” welcome feedback, and be clear about the purpose and goals of intergenerational worship. Work toward consensus to support changes as you go.
DGA: Thank you, Karen Nell, for sharing your unique intergenerational worship experience with us. I hope that your story will inspire other congregations to welcome families into worshipping as the Body of Christ together in their own ways.
For information and resources on intergenerational worship, visit our SNEUCC Intergenerational Worship & Ministries webpage.
Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program. Her passion for ministry is with children and family...