Intergenerational worship is one of the most important and most neglected opportunities within the local church.
Once the Millennial decline became apparent, one of the first longitudinal studies done on youth in regard to church attendance after high school was done by Fuller Youth Institute in 2006-10.
Primarily, their research found three things:
1. While most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages.
2. Churches and families overestimate youth group graduates’ readiness for the struggles ahead with dire consequences for the faith.
3. While teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage faith long-term.
Further research showed that while there was no “silver bullet,” churches that encouraged intergenerational connections and worship, and youth that felt involved and connected to the larger church, had a much greater chance of remaining in church post high school.
Kara Powell and Chap Clark, authors of the book, “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids,” were among those who first influenced me to understand the importance for intergenerational worship.
“Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity,” Powell explained.
Studies by the Barna Research Group and Pew Research Center support the idea that Millennials often leave church because they have no connection to the larger church body, no relationships with adults outside of specialized ministry areas, and no sense of belonging in corporate worship since they’ve never or rarely attended.
A Lifelong Faith study showed six key factors in young adults remaining religious (affiliated with church and Christianity).
The first three applied directly to the family, but the next three to the church, specifically supportive nonparent adults and personal religious experiences in the larger church, not just in youth group or children’s church.
I am not opposed to quality, Christ-centered, community-focused children’s ministry and youth ministry, but I am concerned when families and churches are consistently separated from each other and never have time to fellowship together.
Additionally, adults need to be with children. Christ tells us that we must “be like children” (Matthew 18:3), but how can we learn from them if the adult church community is never or rarely around them?
Every church has its own unique needs and culture to consider – there’s no cookie-cutter model.
However, I do believe that there is a bigger vision needed that includes children in worship with adults at some point and allows for relationships to be fostered between the generations, even those who don’t volunteer in kids’ ministry.
Too many church services today are designed to reach one target audience: adults, generally older adults.
In order to be churches that welcome children, some things might have to change; there might have to be a new “normal.”
Times of communal worship and fellowship where kids and youth can see these things modeled for them and where church members who aren’t involved in kids’ ministry can see them, grow with them and know their name is an important part of that plan.
There are some churches that are able to foster intergenerational connectivity without including kids and youth in the worship service.
Yet, corporate, communal worship is one important and overlooked tool God has given us for reaching the next generation.
Jesus modeled this inclusion of children in the larger context throughout his ministry by drawing the kids into his teaching time and welcoming them in his presence (see, for example, Matthew 10:42; 11:25-26; 18:2-10; 19:13-14; 21:16).
At the very least, intergenerational worship gives families more time to spend together, which is an endangered moment in this day and age.
A 2013 study, for instance, revealed that families spent an average of 36 minutes together during the week.
What better time for families to be together than when they are worshiping God and spending time with fellow believers?
What better place to participate together in learning, growing and discipleship than in the house of worship amid the congregation?
In a world that is consistently pulling families apart, shouldn’t church be the place we create space to put them together?
There are no easy answers. But given what I’ve seen and the research I’ve read, I feel it is imperative that local churches welcome the children into our midst as integrated members of Christ’s body and intentionally create space for them in our communal worship.
Because, as the kids at my church say each Sunday, together we are the body of Christ.
Christina Embree is director of children and family ministries at Nicholasville United Methodist Church near Lexington, Kentucky. A longer version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.
A church planter with Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky, she is a graduate of Wesley Seminary with a Master of Arts degree in ministry focusing on family, youth and children’s ministry.