Cross-Generational Worship Planning

September 19th, 2011

One Sunday, five actors from my church’s drama team offered a fifteen-minute drama during our evening worship. The drama, as humorous as it was poignant, explored the complex network of relationships in a suburban American family. In one scene, all five actors were simultaneously present on stage: the septuagenarian grandmother, the forty-something parents, their sixteen-year-old son, and his ten-year-old sister. As I sat in my pew, watching this intergenerational assortment of actors lead the congregation in worship, I thought to myself, “There is something wonderfully right about this.” It became a moment of profound discernment for me, an occasion of enlivening clarity in which I began to appreciate the beauty and power of a generationally diverse liturgical environment, one that dares to transcend the stifling parameters of generational myopia.

In his Pentecost sermon, Peter makes reference to Joel’s prophetic description of the intergenerational ramifications of God’s outpoured Spirit: “‘In the last days it will be,’ God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh... and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’” (Acts 2:17). In light of this significant moment of Scripture, one of the contemporary church’s most urgent challenges becomes clear: How does a church create worship experiences that are hospitable both to the dreams of the old and the visions of the young?

There is, of course, no simplistic and universal formula to implement in response to this challenge. Every local congregation must seek out its own unique response, one that is determined by that congregation’s personality and assortment of gifts. In my own congregation, I have identified three governing impulses that, when embraced, help to bring about an ethos of generational inclusiveness in our worship and worship planning. I share these three impulses with you in the hope that they might resonate in your contemplation and in the hope that they might assist you in your effort to create a liturgy that is liberated from generational constraints.

IMPULSE #1: Rejection of Liturgical Unilateralism

This first impulse stabs at the very heart of a longstanding Protestant presupposition: Specifically, that it is the pastor’s job to plan all the worship. “After all,” the presupposition goes, “that’s what we pay the pastor for.” The creation of authentic liturgy, however, regardless of your worship style, demands the work of the people, not simply the work of the pastor. Furthermore, one person, no matter how gifted, can never sustain the attentiveness and creative energy required in the long-term maintenance of an intergenerational worship environment.

IMPULSE #2: Creation of an Intergenerational Planning Team

My church’s weekly Sunday evening worship event (often described with that problematic adjective, “contemporary”) has inspired the development of an intergenerational planning team, the purpose of which is to determine and clarify the content and scope of the Sunday evening worship. This team, consisting of eight people (ranging in age from sixteen to seventy-four), meets monthly in order to plan for that month’s worship. At a recent worship-planning meeting, the following dialogue transpired between Mary (age fifty-nine) and Jennifer (age twenty-nine):

Mary: “Why do we have to sing the choruses through so many times? It’s way too repetitious, and it gets in the way of the flow of the worship.”

Jennifer: “I disagree. With the choruses, the idea is to sing them through repetitively, so that you stop thinking about the words and music and lose yourself in the spirit of the song.”

Mary (smiling): “I don’t want to ‘lose myself’ into anything.”

Jennifer (also smiling): “But isn’t that part of what worship is all about—losing ourselves?”

What followed was an hour-long conversation that was as meaningful as it was productive. Through that conversation, Mary became more sensitive to Jennifer’s passion for experiential worship, while Jennifer became more sensitive to Mary’s desire for liturgical linearity and flow. In those moments of intergenerational discussion, it became clear to all of us on the team that the Sunday evening liturgy, if it is to remain truly inclusive in its scope, must always emerge from dialogue rather than monologue.

IMPULSE #3: Development of Worship Ministries That Are Cross-Generational in Appeal and Content

I recently asked a vocally-gifted singer in our church why she does not sing in our church’s Sunday morning chancel choir. Her response was significant, given the fact that she is in her late thirties: “I’m not old enough to sing in the choir.” In a related conversation, I recently asked a twenty-something if he would like to serve as an usher on Sunday morning. “I don’t think so,” he responded. “Isn’t that what the senior citizens do?”

Both responses, of course, were grounded in inaccurate presuppositions. Our chancel choir, after all, has plenty of younger members, as does our team of Sunday morning ushers. Nevertheless, the perception was that these two areas of congregational participation—choral singing and ushering—were generationally limited in their appeal and scope. Sensitive to this perception, our Sunday evening worship team has made it a priority to create a wide variety of new worship ministries that are conducive to intergenerational participation.

Our Sunday evening drama team, for example, includes over fifty members, the youngest member being eight years of age, the oldest member in her eighties. Our technical team, responsible for managing the sound, lighting, and set-up, includes a forty-something father and his ten-year-old son, and a sixty-something mother and her forty-two-year-old son. Our Sunday evening hospitality team (ushers and greeters) has grown to nearly sixty people and includes entire families. Our worship leader team, the men and women who offer prayer and direction at Sunday evening worship, is populated by seven people, one of whom is a recent college graduate, one of whom is a recent retiree. The development of these cross-generational ministry teams has been nothing less than instrumental in the sustenance of liturgical inclusiveness.

One Sunday evening, as I walked into our sanctuary for worship, I was greeted at the door by a smiling husband and wife and their two young children. All four of them were wearing the nametags that the hospitality team provides. As I shook her hand, the youngest child, no older than four, said to me, “God is here! Welcome to church!”

It was one of the most sacramental calls to worship that I had ever received. Under my breath, I thanked God for the intergenerational spirit of the hospitality team, a spirit that allows a child to welcome me into the presence of the holy.


Reprinted from CIRCUIT RIDER magazine (July-Aug. 2000). Used by permission.

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