Intergenerational church and unexamined assumptions

There’s a lot of talk around at the moment about ‘intergenerational church’. Many of us have been talking/thinking/writing about it for a long time, but in the last few months it suddenly seems to be getting more traction. And that’s great news. I am really encouraged to see conversations about intergenerational church becoming increasingly mainstream.

I have written before about what a child-centred intergenerational church could look like and about how our ecclesiology needs to change if we’re going to take Jesus’ teaching about children seriously and about my experiences of catching a glimpse of what intergenerational church could look like.

But there’s something bugging me about the whole intergenerational church conversation. I hear and read a lot of presentations/papers/blogs/articles about why intergenerational church is a good idea, how to make it ‘work’, etc. And these are very often good, useful pieces of work. But they start from the assumption that intergenerational church is something for which we need to make a case, the assumption that intergenerational church is not the norm.

Which is a strange assumption to make. A brief examination of global church history will show that it is only in a very specific time and place (from the late 18th century to the present, predominantly in the West) that Christians have thought that church should be anything other than intergenerational. And yet it has become a very ingrained assumption.

I wonder what happens if we turn that assumption on its head? What if, instead of asking “why should church be intergenerational?” we start from an assumption of church as intergenerational and ask “why should church be segregated by age?” (I would genuinely be interested in hearing a decent answer to this, which doesn’t rely on privileging the needs of adults above children.)

“Why should church be segregated by age?” It’s a question which should make us uncomfortable. Not least because the underlying question is “why should church be segregated?” – which should make us very uncomfortable indeed. We don’t like to think of the way we do church as ‘segregated’. But in reality, that’s exactly what the church is when it isn’t intergenerational.

When we talk about ‘intergenerational church’ it can sometimes sound like we are creating something new (and that newness can be heard as exciting, or frightening, or both). But in reality we are not. We are simply recognising what is already there. The church already is and always has been intergenerational. Because God already is and always has been calling people of all generations together into the body of Christ.

So the question is not so much “why intergenerational church?” or even “how do we become an intergenerational church?” But how do we reflect the reality that God’s church is intergenerational – how do we reflect that in our structures and decision making, in our worship and liturgy, in our catechesis, in our leadership, and so much more…

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