Does the Bible talk about intergenerational ministry? How about generational discipleship?
Is there a biblical basis for this new craze sweeping the children’s ministry and family ministry worlds?
Yes, and it is a practice that dates back to the origins of Christianity. Until recently in church history, the generations worshipped together as an intergenerational faith community.
“First century churches were multigenerational entities, with children present for worship, healings, prayer meetings, even perhaps when persecutions were perpetuated,” said Holly Allen and Christine Ross in their book, “Intergenerational Christian Formation.”
That really didn’t change until the 20th century, Allen and Ross explain, when the work of development theorists such as Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler began to gain popularity.
The church adapted their practices and it led to the creation of specialized ministries to connect to specific age groups.
Eventually developmentalists’ concerns were applied to the worship hour and the Sunday morning church experience began to be viewed as a time for teaching adults.
Even so, movements have arisen to help churches regain that more intergenerational feel, and today it’s a popular church trend.
It seems like everywhere you look, this idea of intergenerational or multigenerational ministry and generational discipleship is being discussed, argued and implemented.
So, what does the Bible have to say about this approach to discipleship?
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 exemplifies the work of discipleship done by parents within the home.
But it’s important to note that these instructions to share about the commandments of the Lord weren’t given to solely to parents.
In fact, when Moses shared these commands, he did so with the whole assembly of Israel, not just to the parents/caregivers that were present.
Similarly, Deuteronomy 4:9 reads, “Make them known to your children and your children’s children,” indicating there were multiple generations present when these commands were given.
The charge to “impress upon your children” the commandments of the Lord extended beyond the home and into the larger faith community.
We call that “generational discipleship.” And it’s not limited to this moment. Intergenerational community can be found throughout Scripture.
Whenever the nation of Israel would gather for special occasions, such as feasts or celebrations, the entire community – all generations – would be present.
For example, Deuteronomy 29:10-12 when Moses spoke to Israel for the final time, 2 Chronicles 20:13 when Jehoshaphat called for a fast of the entire nation, and Nehemiah 8:2-3 and 12:43 when Ezra read aloud the book of the law and the entire community celebrated together.
Again, Allen and Ross share, “In the religion of Israel, all ages were not just included, they were drawn in, assimilated, absorbed into the community with a deep sense of belonging.”
In the book of Psalms, there are references to the passing of faith from one generation to another.
These include Psalm 145:4, “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts,” and Psalm 78 where the importance of testifying about God’s works to the next generation so they would remain in the faith and not turn away is emphasized.
In the New Testament, Jesus modeled this inclusion of all generations and specifically children throughout his ministry.
He told his followers that welcoming a child into their midst was akin to welcoming him and the one who sent him (see Matthew 10:42; Matthew 11:25-26; Matthew 18:2-6, Matthew 18:10; Matthew 19:13-14; Matthew 21:16; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 9:46-48).
In the epistles, Paul writes to the churches and asks for the letters to be read aloud to the gathered community.
In them, he specifically addresses a wide range of generations, including children (such as Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20).
It’s safe to assume that he mentions all the generations because he expected them to be there to hear what he had to say.
Intergenerational ministry and generational discipleship are found in Scripture. The idea of having all generations interacting within a community of faith isn’t a new one.
That doesn’t mean we throw out everything we’ve learned from developmentalists or that doesn’t mean that age-appropriate ministry isn’t of any value.
What it does mean is that the normative faith practice is one where generations have the opportunity to be together and pass the faith to one another, so it would be a good idea for us to create spaces where that can happen.
I’m a firm believer that we can do both age-appropriate ministry and intergenerational ministry well in our churches instead of either/or.
Rather than pitting these two against each other, perhaps it’s time we consider how to embrace the new without rejecting the old.
This means that churches must ask regularly: How are we finding ways to engage every generation in faith conversations and relationships?
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.