By Steve Yeaton
He didn’t like the change made in the way our church serves communion. Since the beginning of the church’s ministry, the servers had always taken their communion up front before distributing it to the congregation. But a change had been made and no longer do they take it in view of the congregation. What was this member’s objection to the change? Was it doctrinal? No. Is he against all change? No. His reason goes back to his childhood.
As a child this church member had sat in the pew and watched with fascination as the servers were given the Lord’s Supper by the presider. One server in particular captured his attention. The server, a pillar in our church then and now, would bow his head, close his eyes in a moment of reflection and prayer, and then take his communion. Something in that gentleman’s demeanor made a lasting impression on the child. Though the boy would drift from the church in his teen years, he eventually came back to his faith. One of the reasons he cites is the godly testimony of that older man manifested in the way he took communion.
This church member may not know it, but his objection to the change in how the Lord’s Supper is served speaks to the value of cross-generational relationships in the church. In many churches he never would have experienced the faith of an older saint because there are so few opportunities for the generations to mix. Much of the age segregation is well intended. It is believed that programming by age helps the church reach and disciple more people. While there is value in limited age segregation, a ministry model built primarily around segregating the generations misses out on a powerful tool for discipleship.
Much has been written in recent years about restoring the home as the primary place for discipleship of children. This readjustment has been long overdue, but it may not go far enough because it only fosters cross-generational relationships between parents and their children, ignoring the larger church. The church also includes empty nesters, young marrieds with no kids, senior adults, youth whose parents don’t go to church, single adults of all stripes, and everything in between. Each demographic has something to learn from and to offer the other. A church that is intentionally cross-generational maximizes that potential.
Scripture assumes rather than argues for a cross-generational model. For example, the children were present with the rest of the community as Joshua read the law: “There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children” (Joshua 8:35). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul exhorted older women to mentor and disciple younger women, writing, “Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4). Such mentoring can only occur when older and younger people already know and trust each other. How does that happen apart from a church that is already cross-generational?
In recent years the church I serve has become more cross-generational. In our church’s early history, that wasn’t an issue because the size of the church dictated a cross-generational ministry. The church simply lacked the resources to offer anything else. But as the church has grown, it’s been tempting to add more and more programming that segregates the generations rather than brings them together.
A few years ago there was discussion about expanding our children’s worship service from K-2nd grade to K-5th grade. (Those above 2nd grade had been remaining in the main worship service.) We recognized expanding the program might be attractive to unchurched families we were trying to reach. Families in the church might like it too. But we decided not to. It’s true that young ones may not hear songs that instantly engage them. They may not always understand the sermon. But we believe they will encounter something powerful through witnessing the worship of the rest of the body.
These children see their moms and dads participating in worship. But it’s not just their parents they see closing eyes in prayer or taking notes on the sermon or singing praises. They’re also seeing a teacher from school, the teenage friends of their older siblings, a tired factory worker who just came from third shift, and the old man who pushes his wife in her wheelchair. A child included in corporate worship is seeing all of them worshipping. The child most likely thinks nothing of it at the time. But over the course of a childhood she is discovering that faith and its expressions matter to those she knows and trusts most.
The impact this can have on a child’s faith is reminiscent of what Paul said with regard to the development of Timothy’s faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5).
A church that involves children in its regular worship services need not pander to children but can include them in the service, treating them as members of the community. In our congregation it’s not uncommon to see children asked to help with communion alongside our adult members. While I do get a bit nervous watching an 8-year-old handling a heavy tray of juice, I’m glad seeds of service and relationship are being planted in his heart and soul as a result of his participation. Other examples include involving youth in the worship team, including youth in the communion meditation schedule, and having youth serve on the media team.
This summer our church is trying something new with Vacation Bible School that is intentionally cross-generational. Instead of offering programming for children only, it’s going to involve the whole family. Each night families will have projects and crafts and lessons they do together all built around a common theme. The week will end with a family fun night. Besides bringing families together, another benefit is that it will expose adults in a nonthreatening way to Bible stories they may not be familiar with. This benefit cannot be underestimated in an age when biblical literacy continues to decline, even in the church.
Not everything our church does is exclusively cross-generational, but it’s amazing how much can be when the church is intentional about it. Christmas caroling can be a cross-generational activity, and so can the welcome/greeting ministry, the mission trips, and many fellowship events. We even include teenagers in our search teams for ministry staff. We genuinely want their input, and we also want them to get a taste for serving in a leadership capacity.
Just recently a team of adults and teens joined a Samaritan’s Purse relief project in South Carolina. While the young people benefitted from being with the older adults, the older adults benefitted more. One of those adults recalled with tears in his eyes a story about how three of the teens went on their own to visit with an elderly woman on her porch, and they prayed with her. Had this been an exclusively youth mission trip, that man would have missed out on being inspired by the compassion of those teens.
Cross-generational ministry runs counter to how most people think ministry should be done, so it won’t just happen without effort. The leadership has to embrace it, continually cast the vision for it, and provide opportunities to practice it. We still have age-specific ministries like the senior adult ministry or the high school ministry, and that’s not going to change. However, the more we cultivate a cross-generational culture, the more the senior adult ministry will think about ways to include younger people on field trips. On the other hand, maybe the teens will consider inviting older adults to join them for one of their Sunday night hang-out sessions to play some games.
The children of the man who objected to changes in communion are not going to miss out on opportunities to witness and learn from the faith of those who have gone before. Cross-generational fellowship, worship, and service may take on different expressions for them than it did for their father, but it’s still going to be very much a part of their lives. Knowing they might be watching and learning is further encouragement for all the church to be faithful in setting an example by doing what is good (Titus 2:7).
Steve Yeaton is the Senior Minister at Batesville Christian Church in Batesville, Indiana.