It started with chicken wings. Plastic chicken wings, to be precise. They were my favourite toy at the church’s toddler group, and by far the finest item in the toy kitchen. Much to the group leader’s amusement, I would run manically around the church hall with my friend Richard each week, firing imaginary bullets from these perfectly proportionate pieces of plastic poultry as if the world was about to end, and we had been chosen to save it.
Those chicken wings at that loving and accepting toddler group were the start of my lifelong intergenerational journey and my first living memory of belonging to a church family.
Growing up wasn’t an easy experience for me. I was diagnosed with epilepsy in Year 4 and bullied at secondary school because I was different. As a result, I struggled socially and academically. At school I felt like a nobody, but my church made me feel like a somebody. At church I was Mr Popular, to the point that when I walked into youth club my friends would stop what they were doing and chant my name until I joined them. There I was loved, accepted and felt like part of the family.
As well as finding friends my own age, I was blessed to know many wonderful people from other generations. There was Martin, who would give me and my brother Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle videos on Sundays; Barbara, my Sunday group leader who has been praying for me all my life; and Ian, our youth minister, who gave me some life-changing opportunities to step out in faith. I am now thankful to be his daughter’s godfather.
As a child, I didn’t just enjoy receiving love from these different people and absorbing what they had to teach me about faith, I also had the opportunity to input into their lives and support them on their journey. When Rose fell ill I asked my parents if I could write her a letter. When Simon couldn’t eat salt any more he asked me to bake him some special bread. When Mim and Owen were serving God overseas I was invited to pray for them. And when I became too old to attend my children’s group I was asked to help as a young leader.
Church for me went beyond feeling welcome on a Sunday and in youth and children’s groups. It was more than just friendly faces and invitations, it was a family of people all participating together on their shared journey towards Christ. And although my church was in no way perfect, every generation was valued.
In 2012, I had just finished a gap year in Kosovo where I sensed that God was calling me into ministry. I did a three-year undergraduate degree in children’s and families’ ministry, pursuing what I now understand to be ‘intergenerational ministry’. Back then I was focused on working with children, but growing up in the church I had, I understood that church is about family and not the age-segregated, multigenerational setup I often saw. There was something missing, and a new adventure was just starting...
Intergenerational isn’t a new word for all-age, it’s a way of being family together
My friend leant me Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus by Dave Csinos and Ivy Beckwith. I read it and was blown away. There were people out there who felt the same way I did; who were hungry for a type of church that celebrated every generation’s participation within the life of the faith community; who wanted to bring down the walls some churches had built up between their age groups.
I was so passionate about what I’d found that I decided to research the authors. Dave ran a conference in Chicago, where hundreds of church ministers met each year to go deeper into this vision. The obvious next step was to Skype him and ask if I could join the party. With hardly any money and a promise of English tea and Cadburys chocolate, I found myself on a plane to Chicago. The conference was everything I hoped it would be. I made lifelong friends, met numerous church leaders for coffee, ate incredible deep-dish pizza and questioned everything.
I never told my friend how deeply the book had impacted me, or that it had taken me on an adventure across the world. I simply handed it back with a personalised note to him from both authors. I think he was a bit surprised!
I have since been back to Chicago every year for about five years, helped organise a similar conference in the UK and been licensed as a reader in the Church of England with a specific focus on building intergenerational relationships.
Intergenerational isn’t a new word for all-age, it’s a way of being family together. It asks: who is missing here, and who needs to be invited? It challenges structures and asks whose voice isn’t being heard. It’s less about one-way education than it is about long-term, collective formation. It’s focused on embracing the messiness of life rather than a programme-focused ministry. It believes that our path to Christ is easier when we walk it together. It gives the opportunity for all members to participate and interact together as the body of Christ. It says: “You can lead me to Christ just as much as I can lead you to him.” It paints a picture of a church family where you can close your eyes and picture the woman who has been praying for you your whole life, the teenager you have just sat with and supported for an hour and the child who has just said something incredibly profound about who God is to them. It’s about all of us, and who God is.
I’m more excited than ever about what God is doing across the world to reunite the generations within our churches. But if I’m honest, my intergenerational journey didn’t begin in Chicago. It began in that toddler group with those chicken wings.