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Transcending 'Young' and 'Old': Intergenerational Youth Ministry & the Solution to Volunteers

  • Dr. Steve Vandegriff Executive Director of the Center for Youth Ministries at Liberty University
  • Updated Sep 02, 2014
Transcending 'Young' and 'Old': Intergenerational Youth Ministry & the Solution to Volunteers

OK. "Intergenerational youth ministry" may sound like an oxymoron, but think about it. What can be more normal than other generations being a part of ministry to young people / teenagers / students / adolescents / whatever? I'm not trying to return to back-in-the-day days, nor am I trying to sound culturally relevant, even though anyone who knows anything about youth ministry would know being culturally relevant is a youth ministry mantra. So let's sound culturally relevant while suggesting some back-in-the-day common sense.

Coming to Terms

Intergenerational ministry is connecting various generations in meaningful ministry opportunities that have intentionally been created. Jesus Himself demonstrated a coming together of the generations (Matthew 18:1-6), with each generation learning from the other, as well as a harsh penalty for those who take advantage of a younger generation.

Many churches tend to segregate the generations, from teenagers to children. I would be the first proponent to that kind of ministry segregation. It should be done, and done well, but within those segregated groups, other generations need to be integrated into leadership and participants. On the flip side, there needs to be ministry that includes a coming together of the generations. "Are we connecting our kids to nurturing relationships that will last them after they complete their teenage years, or are we simply exploiting them as public relations tools to make our ministries appear successful? I submit that unless we are making intentional, focused efforts at connecting kids with mature Christian adults in the church (not just their youth leaders), we are more like the vultures preying on kids at rock concerts and less like the spiritual leaders praying that their children's lives would be founded upon eternal things." (From Richard Dunn's book Reaching a Generation for Christ, Chicag Moody Press, 1997.)

Somewhere along the way, some purposeful merging of the generations needs to take place, usually in some main church gathering or service. When it comes to "big church," leadership needs to strive toward having parts of the service, from time to time, speak to their younger generations. Something that is said, done, performed or sung needs to catch the attention of the younger, more scrutinizing audience, no matter how minimal it may be. Something needs to resonate with this younger generation, something they recognize. If you attempt this, some folks may resist or complain, so be prepared.

Focus on Your Own Family

Intergenerational youth ministry means including as much family as possible. I don't mean necessarily doing stuff where the entire family is welcome. Sometimes young people need their space, as well as their place simply to be teenagers, but I am saying that having parental and grandparental types who are best described as matriarchal and patriarchal in their demeanor, would go far in effective ministry among young people. Their involvement can be regular or seasonal, but whatever the involvement, it is needed and should be valued.

Transcending Age Limitations

Now let's be honest. In most church youth ministries, advanced age and maturity are not always top on the priority list of desirable characteristics. "Young and dumb often are the more accurate discriptors." This needs to change. It does not have to be one or the other. It really should be a combination of the two. Youth ministries need the age, maturity, experience, wisdom and resources of an older generation. Youth ministries paradoxically need the youthfulness, enthusiasm, energy, technical savvy and entrepreneurial spirit of a younger generational leader.

Age is relative and unavoidable. Some people are old because they think in old ways. Their age of mentality has caught up with their chronological age. If you begin to think in old ways, then you are old, no matter what chronological age you are. What do ageless people look like? They help things progress; they exchange ideas, make decisions, change decisions, encourage initiative, bring visions to fruition. Everything is kept on track because of ageless thinking. They are in your church or ministry. There aren't many of them, but when you have them, you wish you had a dozen more like 'em.

Making it Easy for Adults

OK, you're probably looking for the "handle" to make this an easy step toward intergenerational volunteer leadership. That's what I'd be looking for. (This is where I'd be using my highlighter.) To make it easier for other generations to be involved in youth ministry, you have to make it easy for them. In even more simple words, you need to create ministry situations that make it easy for older generations to interact and minister to the young generation. Let's face it: Teenagers can be a bit intimidating. Thanks to the Internet, they are the most intelligent and impatient generation ever. (It takes Google .08 second to find 85,800,000 sites for MTV.) Who wouldn't be intimidated?

Let me give you an example of "easy." Many ministries are investing in youth ministry via the development and construction of youth rooms and youth centers—kind of like a community center with a spiritual dynamic integrated into the program. Sometimes these facilities are in the current church building, a separate building on the property or a free-standing structure off the property, but a youth center is a way of making it easy for other generations to be involved. Why? You just show up!

In one youth center, the entire facility is designed for interaction. There are no snack or soda machines. Students have to ask an adult for something to eat or drink. All the games are designed for interaction; participants have to play against someone, usually an adult. So what's hard about that? Stand there and play. That's easy; the kids come to you! Not so threatening. That is what has to be developed—ministry situations where the students have to come to you, to engage, to interact, to talk—situations where adults have to be sought out and are in positions of leadership.

I was in one church in Tipp City, Ohio (near Dayton), where the church invested in a youth center (The Avenue) on site. The attendance of teenagers in the area was overwhelming. I met a retired individual who became the "go to" person for all the skaters who were coming. Retired guys tend to know how to fix things. They may not know skateboard linguistics (decks, ramps, rails, grind rails, etc.), but given a little time, they can figure it out. So this retiree got to know a bunch of middle school students who were all about skateboarding, and they loved this man, regardless of his age was.

Counting the Cost (and Reaping the Benefits)

When making purposeful placement of older generations in youth ministry, there are some other factors to considation a person's spiritual gifting(s), personal skills and personality. Some would say spiritual gifting trumps personal skills and personality. I would disagree. All three must fit together. Probably your best ally is time—time to see how they are doing, the reaction of students, and the gaining of rapport (or lack of) with those students. Are they comfortable around students? Are students comfortable around them?

A second factor would be permission to volunteer—specifically for parents. OK, here's another highlightable statement: Not all parents are qualified to be involved with youth ministry simply because they have teenagers (or were once teenagers). They're kind of like pseudo-teenagers, either reliving their own adolescent years, or living their adolescent years vicariously through their own teenagers.

Here is a trick of the trade in youth ministry. Have parents get permission from their own teenagers to work in their youth ministry. Either their teenagers won't mind; there is no way during this lifetime that will happen; or involvement will be conditional. Those conditions will vary from a limited amount of time, to a trial basis. Actually, anyone involved among your students should be on a trial basis.

Intergenerational youth ministry is nothing new, but for some, it has been abandoned. It needs to be revisited purposely. An atmosphere of dependence and need on all the generations should be cultivated, with the right people doing the right things in the right places.

What better place to foster community among the generations than within a church family? Everyone benefits. Weaknesses can be strengthened by others. Inexperience will give way to those who have experience. Teachers will have students. Students will be taught. Spiritual maturity will trump immaturity. Mentors will mentor. Teenagers will be reconciled to God. It makes sense.

Content Provided by: Youth Worker Journal.