I often am asked how a congregation can transition comfortably to intergenerational forms of worship without disrupting congregational life in general. While the answer is as simple as bringing all ages into the sanctuary at the same time, we all know that each congregation has a unique culture, and the process used to transition children into corporate worship every Sunday will need to be an individualized one.
So when Rev. Kelly Thibeault, pastor and teacher of First Congregational Church of North Attleborough UCC, mentioned to me in passing that they’ve been holding intergenerational services of worship every Sunday for the past eight years, I had to invite myself for a visit. There I found a faith community that is both intentional and authentic, and this was manifested in the ways that they interacted with each other throughout their Sunday morning together — with their children and youth, older adults, visitors, the intellectually challenged, those with unique differences — all were welcomed and appreciated for who they are.
The first hour of the morning, which they call “Household Huddle,” consists of four elements: Breathe, Share, Reflect, and Thank. There were symbols on the wall representing each of these elements to help non-readers (of any age) to follow along. As the gathered children, parents, grandparents, and others participated together in song, sharing, scripture, prayer, gratitude, a hands-on activity, and a blessing, they were preparing themselves for what was to come in the service of worship that followed.
Pastor Kelly half jokingly calls this first hour a “pep rally for worship.” While we often believe that simplified activities are only for children, it is the intentional time of sharing within the themes of the scripture story that made this first hour meaningful for all of the ages present. I am convinced that when relationships are formed and nurtured between the generations, children are more apt to pay attention and engage in longer periods of silence and quiet. Pastor Kelly reminded everyone present that “any time we’re together, whether it's at home or at church or even in the car, we can do Huddle Time like this.” Where two or three are gathered…
In worship during the next hour, I observed several children taking on leadership roles — there was the usual acolyte, tower bell ringer, and those who passed out bulletins, but I was particularly impressed with how well prepared the 7-year-old lay reader was, and later was told that they have lay readers of all ages over the course of the year. The worship bulletin included the symbols we followed during Household Huddle, the sermon allowed time for all who wished to share their responses to a thoughtful question, and the stars we made in the previous hour were lifted up and would be used in worship throughout the season of Advent.
In a conversation with Pastor Kelly after worship, we talked about the reality of children’s developmental abilities in contrast to the typical expectation of sitting still for an hour. We agreed that our culture tends to assume that children can’t sit still; however, that is only because our culture does not give them opportunities to practice being still. I did not observe perfectly still children during this service of worship; rather, I saw children who were happy to be present with their families, who were engaged with the items provided for them to draw with, connected and comfortable with the liturgy and flow of worship, and cared for by the people around them.
I believe that it is more important to raise our children in a loving, Christian atmosphere than to place our entire focus on teaching them biblical facts apart from the rest of the congregation. I believe that the intergenerational relationships formed within a congregation will inspire people of all ages to want to further their knowledge and experience within the Christian faith while engaged in the life of a church community — living in the ways of Jesus and spreading God’s love.
After enjoying a delicious and lively Coffee Hour, I walked to my car feeling like I had just experienced something authentic and real. Was it perfect in every way? No, and it was clear that nobody wanted it to be. Was it uplifting? Absolutely. And while this model is their own and will not work for every congregation, I hope that my description here will help other congregations to experiment with which styes and models will work for them as they strive to give their people — adults and children alike — an authentic experience of Christian community when they gather.
For some ideas on how to receive children into corporate worship in welcoming ways, visit karenwarejackson.com and macucc.org/intergenerationalworshipministry.
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