For this discussion, I have chosen three hymns published within the past two decades. The first addresses multiple life stages and generations. The second specifically focuses on children, and the third has a particular interest for older adults.
The first hymn is “Lord of Our Growing Years” Mowbray, PH 279, WR 608, Celebrating Grace Hymnal 539:
Lord of our growing years, with us from infancy,
laughter and quick-dried tears, freshness and energy;
your grace surrounds us all our days;
for all your gifts we bring our praise.
Lord of our strongest years, stretching our youthful powers,
lovers and pioneers when all the world seems ours:
Lord of our middle years, giver of steadfastness,
courage that perseveres when there is small success:
Lord of our older years, steep though the road may be,
rid us of foolish fears, bring us serenity:
Lord of our closing years, always your promise stands;
hold us, when death appears, safely within your hands.
—Words: David Mowbray © 1982 The Jubilate Group (Admin. Hope Publishing Company, www.hopepublishing.com). All rights reserved. Used by permission. CCLI Song # 2854799
Age is a unique identifier for human beings. We experience our lives as stories, each of which has a beginning, a middle, and an end (Pinches, 203). Each part of the journey of life is valuable and has a place in our song to God. This hymn includes every stage of life in corporate worship, acknowledging all present and inviting them to submit their experiences and circumstances to the lordship of Christ. God’s grace is named in each generational verse, and all are exhorted to recognize the gifts God has given them and to respond with praise.
Children are encouraged in their joys and sorrows and cherished for their abundant energy (though many a parent or caregiver has been at times dismayed by it). Youth and young adults are lauded for their passion and optimism, which often inspire the church to attempt what we might otherwise have left undone. Middle-aged adults receive a blessing for their thankless work of daily faithfulness and long-suffering. Those who are growing older find a gentle acknowledgment of the difficulties they encounter and a summons to rest in the trustworthy love of God. The elderly looking toward their last days in this life are reminded of God’s covenant faithfulness and the unshakable security they have in the arms of the Almighty. Through the act of congregational singing, each generation also gives voice to the experiences of all the others, being invited into empathy and solidarity by singing a blessing and prayer over each other.
The second hymn is “Strong, Gentle Children” Damon, WR 629:
Strong, gentle children, God made you beautiful,
gave you the wisdom and power you need;
speak in the stillness all you are longing for;
live out your calling to love and to lead.
Strong, hurting children, angry and terrified,
open the secrets your life has concealed;
though you are wounded, know you are not to blame;
cry out your story till truth is revealed.
Strong, knowing children, utter your cry aloud,
honor the wisdom God gave you at birth;
speak to your elders till they have heard your voice;
sing out your vision of healing on earth.
—Words: Daniel Charles Damon © 1993 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission. CCLI Song # 1419998
This text profoundly describes the gifts and experiences of children and instructs both children and adults in a powerful and positive view of childhood. Children are affirmed as “strong” three times, and each stanza includes expressions of that strength. First, children are blessed by God with beauty, wisdom, and power. God implants in them longings and hopes for good things and empowers them to give and receive love and be an example to others of all ages. Second, children are validated in their experiences of fear, suffering, and even abuse. The courage to speak truth about their pain is another expression of strength that the church needs from children. Third, children have access to surprising wisdom and insight and can at times express deep spiritual truths or ask penetrating questions that catch adults by surprise. They have a part in receiving the revelation of God’s designs for the new creation.
Children, youth, and adults together can sing these words and be reminded of the blessings and burdens of childhood as well as the privilege and importance of engaging with children in relationship. Children have an impressionability and receptivity that offer adults a glimpse of the love of God (Carnes, 334).
The third hymn is “God, We Spend a Lifetime Growing” Gillette, Songs of Grace 59a:
God, we spend a lifetime growing, learning of your love and care,
planting seeds you give for sowing, working for the fruit they’ll bear.
Now we honor faithful servants who, with joy, look back and see
years of growing in your presence, lives of fruitful ministry.
Thank you, Lord, for ones who teach us what has brought them to this place!
May their faith-filled witness reach us; may we glimpse in them your grace.
Strong in you, their strength uplifts us from our birth until life’s end;
Spirit-filled, they give us gifts, as prophet, mentor, guide, and friend.
Christ our Lord, you walk beside us, giving daily work to do;
years go by and still you guide us as we seek to follow you.
If our sight fails, weak hands tremble, minds forget the things we’ve known,
Lord, we trust that you’ll remember, hold us close, and see us home.
—Words: © 2001 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved. Used by permission. carolynshymns.com.
This hymn emphasizes the experiences and gifts of older believers—those who have lived a life of faith for many years and those who have come to belief later in life, both of whom have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to offer. They are encouraged to reflect on the legacy they’re adding to and the ways they have seen God work in the past. Their experience also equips them to encourage and instruct others, even as they continue to serve. This hymn expresses deep appreciation and respect for older believers as well as a desire to learn from them. Finally, those older members of our congregations are exhorted and invited to keep serving God and others and to know that God’s love and grace hold them as precious regardless of human comparisons of productivity.
Older members of churches have much to offer those who are younger, but sometimes those gifts are unappreciated. When young people do seek wisdom and mentoring from their elders, they give a gift of encouragement that is profoundly meaningful (Palmer, 35–36). All of us find reminders of the meaning and usefulness of our own lives in relationship with others. “God, We Spend a Lifetime Growing” can provide those reminders for believers in later life, when marginalization and isolation become very real concerns. This hymn both expresses the value of mentoring and invites younger generations to develop relationships with more mature believers.
Singing the Stages of Life Together
If we acknowledge the invaluable gifts that both young and old bring, we are right to consider how to include all in our worship. Intergenerational worship assumes and avows the need we all have for community across categories of age. For our conversations around intergenerational worship to mature toward greater fruitfulness, they must go deeper than simply including some songs that “young people” like and others that “old people” like. We must consider questions of musical style, but not rely solely on style for building connections between age groups. We should use music from a variety of generations, though stylistic preferences are not neatly divided based on age (Keeley, 150).
Singing songs that narrate and describe the experiences of diverse life stages, such as the hymns above, can enrich our worship. When we sing a hymn like “Lord of Our Growing Years,” we place ourselves in one of the verses, perhaps remembering previous stages of our lives or imagining what life may be like in the future. But we also become aware of those around us who are presently experiencing life quite differently. We may be moved toward curiosity, empathy, prayer, and new ways of relationship, and we may be inspired to reach out to those who sing beside us. When we sing a hymn like “Strong, Gentle Children,” suddenly people whose spiritual capacity and agency are sometimes forgotten are instead highlighted. People of all ages may be reminded of the gifts children have to offer as well as the hurts they may have endured. The church body is reminded that children have a voice to be invited and cherished. When we sing a hymn like “God, We Spend a Lifetime Growing,” the older members of our community, also often marginalized, are celebrated as we express gratitude for what they have to offer. We voice our desire to learn from and value them, and we invite the church to fruitful and mutually encouraging relationships.
All of us need to be seen, heard, and understood by those who are like us and by those who are unlike us. We need to share our faith and our struggles with those who can easily empathize and relate to our experiences, as well as with those who cannot. For the latter, we must work harder to build the bridges of connection. The opportunity to share in fellowship and corporate worship with people of all ages is a rich blessing indeed. We would do well to consider how we might pursue this opportunity more thoughtfully and faithfully.
New Songs for Young and Old
Songs that express the diverse life experiences of believers of different ages can enrich our worship and foster intergenerational community. The reality, however, is that very few modern worship songs even touch on these topics. Perhaps there is room for songwriters and worship leaders to write new lyrics and songs to enable their congregants, young and old, to better understand one another. What if a new song drew us together across our differences rather than dividing us? It could be a song about Jesus’s life that acknowledges his own childhood and growing years, starting conversations between parents and their children about what it’s like to be a young person and how to honor God in that time of life. It might be a song that names the blessings and struggles of aging, inspiring a young adult to ask an older church member about their life experiences, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve lost. It may be a song about Christian community that highlights the call to care for the sick or elderly, leading to new expressions of pastoral care and support in local congregations. In all of this we can recognize our place in the perennial blessing of one generation proclaiming the works of the Lord to another.
- Carnes, Natalie. “We in Our Turmoil: Theological Anthropology through Maria Montessori and the Lives of Children.” The Journal of Religion 95, no. 3 (2015): 318–36. jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/681109.pdf.
- Keeley, Laura and Robert J. Keeley. “Intergenerational Connectors in Worship.” In The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together, edited by Howard Vanderwell, 147–64. Herdon, VA: Alban Institute, 2008.
- Palmer, Parker. On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koeherl, 2018.
- Pinches, Charles. “The Virtues of Aging.” In Growing Old in Christ, edited by Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
For Further Reading
- Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children. 3rd ed. New York: Paulist Press, 2019.
- de Waal Malefyt, Norma, and Howard Vanderwell. “Reaching All Generations in Worship.” Clergy Journal 83, no. 2 (December 11, 2006): 11–13.
- Frambach, Nathan C. P. “Seen & Heard: A Theology of Childhood.” Journal of Youth and Theology 4, no. 1 (April 2005): 33–50.
- Krause, Neal M. Aging in the Church: How Social Relationships Affect Health. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.
- McCarthy, David Matzko. “Generational Conflict: Continuity and Change.” In Growing Old in Christ, edited by Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.
- Rolph, Paul, Jenny Rolph, John Cole, and Albert Jewell. “What Churches May Have to Learn from an Ageing Population.” Rural Theology 15, no. 2 (November 2017): 60–73. doi.org/10.1080/14704994.2017.1373469.
- Vanderwell, Howard, ed. The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshiping Together. Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations Series. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2008.