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Beginning a Communal Conversation: A Process for Developing Intergenerational Worship

The way in which we worship and express faith must remain supple and open to the change necessary to be heard in an changing world.

Most North American congregations are already multigenerational, and those that are not are usually intentional about not wanting to be. In multigenerational congregations, the pressing issue for leaders is not only how does the church speak to new generations, but how does the church hold together multiple generations in one time?

With the increase in life expectancy, congregations span up to five generations. That means most congregations are seeking to find forms of worship that

  • live well across these differences,
  • give voice to the various and often competing preferences that live side by side among multiple generations, and
  • prepare an expression of faith that will be sustained into a changing future.

Congregational leaders will do well to attend more to the major generational value shifts than to the fine-tuned generational differences so well mapped by the advertising and marketing world.

Marketing Influences

Joseph Turrow, a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated how technology and advertising have allowed the marketing industry to develop fine-tuned ways to target people according to the smallest differences of their preferences and behavior. A highly complex and comprehensive marketing industry now collects huge amounts of demographic and economic information at the individual level so that each of us can be “assigned” to one of a number of categories based on our lifestyle and preferences. Among other things, this determines which mail-order catalogs arrive in our mailboxes. More importantly, it trains us to give priority to our perceived personal needs over the needs of others.

This sensitivity to differences heightens generational disparities. Take, for instance, TV commercials that are so generationally focused that the rest of us cannot even identify the product being sold. This same sensitivity has also given people an increasing sense of entitlement when it comes to having things—including worship—“their way.” But such fine-tuning may not serve congregations well. Heightening and focusing on generational preferences may lead to a trendiness that does not bear the long-term fruit of faith. In fact, leaders need to practice caution in following generational preferences too closely. The results are not yet in, but it appears that megachurches, worship designed explicitly for seekers, and fully contemporary worship will not be dominant expressions of worship and faith. We are still on the way to “something else” or “something more.”

Attending to the Watershed

Those trying to understand generational differences will find it helpful to back away from the magnified differences between early Boomers, late Boomers, GenXers, Millennials, and so on down the line. All of these generational cohorts do, in fact, have their own preferences and life lessons that make them different from one another. But each generation shares a need for a personal faith lived in community (a congregation), and each lives daily in a multigenerational environment.

A more productive approach to understanding generations in worship is to attend to the larger “watershed” divide of cultural values. Jackson Carroll, project director of the Pulpit and Pew research on Pastoral Leadership at Duke Divinity School, points to a “major generational watershed” that lies between those who are pre-Boomers (born prior to 1946) and those who have come after. He notes, for example, that “although Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Xers (born 1965-1979) differ in some respects, they are much more like each other than like pre-Boomers.”

Group Versus Individual: A Case Study

Let’s take a quick look at one of these watershed value differences—seeing oneself as primarily a part of a larger group (pre-Boomer “GI” value) or seeing oneself primarily as an individual (Boomer—and following—“consumer” value). People who see through the lens of the GI “group” value easily assume that there is one way for everyone to worship—the way that has been shaped by past and present tradition. In this value system people who have different preferences are expected to conform to the group and not seek to change things. This voice in the multigenerational congregation can often be heard to argue that

  • there should be only one large worship service where we can all be together and get to know one another;
  • we need to affirm the liturgy, roles of leadership, roles of adults and children, and the time of worship as practiced over the years;
  • there is a fairly narrow range of music appropriate to worship (sometimes limited to as few as twenty-five “approved” hymns); and
  • children (members with minority status) should be seen and not heard.

However, those who see through the eyes of the “consumer” individual value system, in which differences of preference are expected, can be heard to argue for

  • multiple choices in the time and format of worship;
  • choices about liturgy based on how it influences one’s own spiritual needs, informal roles that blend leaders and participants in shared action, and experiments that may reach either ahead to untried practices or reach back to ancient traditions once forgotten;
  • a wide range of music that reflects the global world that people experience daily; and
  • the inclusion and accommodation of children similar to the role given children in the current culture.

Such multigenerational voices that speak out of different value systems are commonly in competition, if not contention, making congregational leaders particularly uncomfortable. It is difficult to have it both ways when facing competing preferences. Despite the discomfort, such negotiating over worship is a sign of health in the congregation since it represents the way in which we pass the faith on to the next generation and provides the changes necessary to speak to a changing world.

Identifying Unspoken Norms

All communities and organizations develop and follow norms of practice. Norms are the usually silent and often invisible practices and agreements that human groups develop by common consent. These norms (such as, “bringing coffee into the sanctuary is inappropriate” or “the pastor alone decides whether Christmas hymns can be sung in the Advent season”) provide guidelines for how the community will behave. Because norms are often hidden and unquestioned, they are difficult to change. In fact, the norms and preferences practiced by many North American congregations are still heavily guided by the values and preferences of the pre-Boomers since these norms were established in years past. This is how people learned to do worship over the years; it is ingrained in the assumptions of most people in the pews.

We need to become more aware of the tacit norms that guide us. The way in which we worship and express faith must remain supple and open to the change necessary to be heard in a changing world. Like any living language that constantly adapts to use by adding new words, deleting words that have lost meaning, and becoming more or less formal as the pendulum of culture sways, our worship practices also need to constantly change in order for worship to live. Not to adapt is to die. Not to be changed by use is to lose usefulness.

Beginning a Communal Conversation

The task of leadership is not to proclaim what form of worship is “right” or to point out who is “wrong.” Rather, the important question is how, within this specific congregation, do we need to worship? The answer comes as a dialogue between God, God’s people, and the culture in which we live. An intriguing and healthy model for such conversation was developed by Dan Schechter, who was a vice chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Designed for use in synagogue discussions of worship, it is equally adaptable for use in Christian congregations.

  • First, a team of eight to twelve people who represent the membership of the congregation agree to study, participate in worship, and keep a “worship diary” on their experience.
  • Then the pastor and others lead the group in an initial period of study exploring the purpose of the components of the liturgy. Context and purpose is offered to such questions as Why do we sing? Why do we pray? Why do we have assigned roles for clergy and lay people to play? Why do we observe times of silence in worship? Being careful to avoid the temptation to teach people how they “should” worship, the pastor helps people turn to church and denominational history in order to understand the purpose of forms of worship.
  • Next, with some idea of what the worship is meant to do, study team members then spend several weeks in worship attending to their own experience. Using their worship diaries they begin to track their own responses.
  • Finally, the team begins a conversation about worship in their own particular church, asking:

—Does this do it for us? Does the way we now worship fulfill the purpose for which we gather? (The key word is us. This is a communal conversation. It is not about the particular preferences of the way I like to do it.)

—How can we best do this, not only for ourselves, but to be welcoming to the people who are not yet here?

In an increasingly multigenerational world, the creative role of leadership is not to find the right way to worship for each generation. The challenge is to help different generations speak wisely and listen closely to each other. God is still speaking. Our hearing God depends upon how well we listen to one another.

Excerpt
Sources
  • Jackson Caroll, “Bridging Worlds: The Generational Challenge to Congregational Life,” Circuit Rider 22:5 (Sept.-Oct. 1999).
  • Gil Rendle, The Multigenerational Congregation (Alban Institute, 2002).
  • Daniel Schechter, Synagogue Boards: A Sacred Trust, Appendix E “Procedure for Self-Study of Congregational Worship” (UAHC Press, 2000)
  • Joseph Turrow, Breaking Up America (University of Chicago Press, 1997).