Intergenerational Ministry and the Family

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In my last article (posted quite a bit ago), I presented the biblical or theological imperatives for intergenerational (IG) ministry. This article will begin to cover the practical imperatives for IG ministry. The practical imperatives include uniting the fragmented family, embracing the scriptural role of the biological family as well as the family of faith, promoting the unity of the body, and nurturing the faith of every generation. Out of these four imperatives, uniting the fragmented family and embracing the role of the biological and faith family will be discussed.
Constantly separating the generations within the church can contribute to the current fragmentation of the nuclear family in today’s culture. Intergenerational ministry seeks to overcome the segregation of the nuclear family through intentionally uniting the family at church.
In order for congregations to see the importance of a unifying, IG approach to ministry, we must recognize the current state of the nuclear family culturally. Kehrwald (2007) states, “The pressures, challenges, and realities facing families today make it difficult for them to intentionally grow in faith together” (p. 12). Congregations have contributed to the segregation of the family by

over-emphasizing age-segregated programming, which further divides families, and over-programming family members. Oftentimes there is little to no programming that engages the entire family as a family, or that empowers and equips parents for their task as the primary religious teachers of their children and teens. Sadly, many churches blame parents for the situation or have given up on families, “because they don’t come to Sunday worship or the programs we offer, so why bother.” (Roberto, 2007, p. 21)

Merhaut (2007) emphasizes,

We spend far too much of our time, talent, and treasure creating church programs that produce poor to fair attendance, while families are struggling to make sense out of the often chaotic pace of modern living. The church program ends up being just one more appointment on an already overloaded schedule. (p. 42)

Culturally, the family is severely divided. Meyers (2006) points out that, “In 1930 the average child spent three to four hours [a day] with an adult member of the family. In the 1990s, that time shrunk to roughly fourteen minutes” (p. 20). The church should be a place where believers unite as the body of Christ, but instead of experiencing Christian community, many churches “creatively divide…at every opportunity” (p. 55). Intergenerational ministry provides an opportunity for churches to unite families that are distant emotionally and spiritually, bringing them together under the headship of Christ.
Constant age segregation also aids the phenomenon of the church becoming the primary means of nurturing children spiritually. George Barna “found in his nationwide study that 9 out of 10 parents believe they have the primary responsibility for teaching their children the scriptures. While this is encouraging, his study also found that the vast majority of parents do not spend a single minute of time in any given week teaching their children the scriptures” (Bulls, p. 5). Boyatzis (2004) asserts that Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 6:7 declare parents’ call from Scripture to “search for the sacred all day and night, in all contexts” (p. 183). Beckwith (2004) emphasizes the fact that God was reinforcing to the Israelites in this particular passage that “parents are in the best position of anyone to communicate the things of faith to their children” (p. 107). Dividing the church into homogenous groups has resulted in a loss of parental responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their children. Bulls (2007) summarizes the last 40 years of ministry:

…churches have come to realize that parents are not training their children in the scripture; the churches have responded by adding and funding youth and children’s ministries to train children in the scriptures. While the Church has responded with good motives, the Church’s solution has led to the parents being replaced as the chief spiritual adviser to their children… (p. 2)

Huebsh (2008) states, “As long as we keep ‘doing it for them,’ parents will never step up and become the person primarily responsible for the faith of their children…by continually replacing parents teachers at the church, we have unfortunately taught the parents that their role is minor. In fact, though, their role is irreplaceable” (p. 47). If we believe the family is in fact responsible for the primary faith nurture and development of their children, then the church has the critical role of intentionally forming environments in which families can be together in Christian settings and intentionally forming the adults of the church in a way that matures them to nurture their children in love and grace at home. This accomplishment can occur when churches become intergenerational.
Along with the biblical evidence of the parents’ role in developing their the faith of their children, we have to consider the role of the faith family in Scripture.  Jesus makes radical statements concerning the family in the New Testament. The new Christian community is described in family terms using the Greek word oikeios, the “household.” Family is at the core of the new relationship between the Christian, God, and fellow believers. Throughout Christian history, confusion has taken place over how to interpret Jesus’ challenging statements about the family. In reference to Mark 3:31-35, Miller-McLemore (2007) states, “It is not that Jesus does not love his mother or cherish families; other Scripture passages suggest otherwise….But Jesus had a larger vision in mind. He disclaims his own family to proclaim a new family of believers defined not by birth but by commitment to doing God’s will” (pp. 4-5). In an attempt to resolve this ambiguous legacy, early church theologians set up what Miller-McLemore calls a “two-tier spiritual path” (p. 5), meaning families were left behind in order to pursue a higher, spiritual calling. Influential fourth century Christian leaders had differing perspectives concerning the family. St. Jerome viewed the life of a family as an impediment to religious enlightenment, while St. Augustine of Hippo and John Chrysostom saw family “as part of God’s good creation, and, in Chrysotom’s case, believed families were as important as monastic communities in putting key virtues into practice” (p. 5).
A consistent definition of family is needed in order for an effective intergenerational ministry to form and transcend this tension. From Mark 3:31-35, Thompson (1996) emphasizes that the family is not to be idolized, nor is it to be devalued, stating, “The priority of the kingdom of God does not devalue but revalues the family in light of a larger truth…the kinship family fulfills its genuine potential as a ‘type’ of God’s sacrificial love only to the extent that it embodies the priorities of the kingdom and the values of the new community” (p. 134). Garland (1999) embraces the functional definition of family as opposed to the structural definition. She states that the functional definition reflects Jesus’ teaching, “For followers of Christ are not to be bound by the structures of legally recognized or biologically based relationships. Rather, family relationships are defined by relationship process—loving one another, being faithful to the same Lord, and adopting one another as brothers and sisters in the household of faith (p. 50). Fraze (2009) provides the following definition:

The  functional definition of family honors and values the significance of the traditional family unit while acknowledging the place for single parents, divorced individuals, singles and others within the faith community.  This calls the community of faith to offer hope for those hurt by structural family relationships by providing a family in which healing and acceptance are found. (p. 6)

From my research, it is clear that in order to become intergenerational, two things have to be understood. First, families are the forming center of faith that have the potential to reflect Christ’s kingdom as the domesticate church. Second, the gathered body of Christ is the extended family of believers. Neither can be idolized or devalued.
Intergenerational ministry seeks to reflect the role of the nuclear family and faith family with intentionality through embracing all ages in interactive community. In reference to intergenerational small groups, Kirk (2003) states,

Family life continues in the intergenerational group; everyone is involved, and the unity of the family is preserved. The interaction between cell members becomes a lifestyle which involved everyone, and the family can continue the interaction at home with shared vision, shared experiences and shared community. Parents are able to see and encourage their children as they develop their gifts in the cell and the home. Instead of fragmentation, there is an inclusive flow between cell and home. (pp. 16-17)

Intergenerational ministry unites the biological family as well as the faith family. Kirk illustrates the faith family that has the potential of forming in intergenerational contexts:

Where families have been separated, a group provides a re-creation of family where everyone has their own unique place, yet all learn to live with godly values together. Today many are isolated from their own family, and many have no family at all. If people are privileged to be in a situation where this is not so, they have something precious to share with those who are not so fortunate. Whatever our situation, we need each other to give to and to receive from. (p. 16)

Families need to be a part of an intentional intergenerational faith community, a community where their children interact with other adults and form significant relationships with those outside of their family, while the bonds of their family unit are strengthened. Parents need to form relationships with children who are not their own. Singles of all ages must feel a sense of belonging within the body of Christ. Children who do not have believing families must be embraced as an integral part of the family of God. This family transcends the boundaries of the structural family, and it is within this context that true faith nurture can take place effectively. Becoming intergenerational unites the family as a structural unit in the midst of strengthening the eternal bonds of the new family, Christ’s bride, the church.
Beckwith, I. (2004). Postmodern children’s ministry: Ministry to children in the 21st century. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Boyatzis, C. J. (2004). The Co-construction of spiritual meaning in parent-child communication. In D. Ratcliff (Ed.), Children’s spirituality: Christian perspectives, research, and  applications (pp. 182-197). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
Bulls, T. (2007). Troubling trends in youth and children’s ministry. Guymon, OK: First Baptist Church. (Unpublished, received from Ryan Galdamez, youth and family pastor, GBC).
Fraze, D. (2009). Something is not right: Revisiting our definition of family. The Fuller Youth Institute. Retrieved on April 10, 2009 from / Share.
Garland, D. R. (1999). Family ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Huebsch, B. (2008). Coaching parents to form their own children. Lifelong Faith, 2(4), 46-48.
Kirk, D. (2003). Heirs together: Establishing intergenerational church. Suffolk, Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew.
Kehrwald, L. (2007). Faith formation with families in today’s church. Lifelong faith, 1(2), 12-20.
Merhaut, J. (2007). Transforming faith formation one family at a time. Lifelong faith, 1(2), 41-49.
Meyers, P. (2006). Live, learn, pass it on: The practical benefits of generations growing together in faith. Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources.
Roberto, J. (2007). Best practices in family faith formation. Lifelong Faith, 1(3), 21-33.
Thompson, M. J. (1996). Family: The forming center. Nashville: Upper Room Books.

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