“How To Create Intergenerational Worship that Engages and Inspires All Ages”

(Article published in Faith Works – 2006)
Rev. Greg Ward

Does your Unitarian Universalist community offer intergenerational worship services?  Are they consistently engaging the people who call for Intergenerational community and worship?  Are they inviting and intriguing to those for whom Intergenerational services are a ‘necessary inconvenience?’

If you answered ‘yes,’ to these three questions, don’t waste your time reading further.  You have found the holy grail 90% of your fellow UUs and their congregations have been seeking.  Instead of reading further, just post your address so the rest of us can come see what you do and copy it.

If you answered ‘no,’ to any of the above, move over.  You are in good company - with most every person (young and old) in most every congregation in our association.    Including me and most every congregation I’ve been in.

I grew up UU.  I also grew up somewhat curious, smart, precocious, talkative, energetic, impatient and craving for something that would engage me virtually every minute.  Just like many of our congregation’s children. 

We had intergenerational worship in the church I grew up in.  I learned when I was in RE that we don’t believe in hell.  But it sure seemed to me that we not only believed in it but we organized worship services that recreated it.  At least for me.  And my siblings.  And friends.  And parents.  And their friends.  And though I didn’t realize it at the time, the ministers and leadership.

What was the problem?  By and large, the biggest problem was worship schizophrenia.  The service, by and large, tried to remain true to a typical, traditional Sunday service – with challenging intellectual rigor, the use of reason and very little in the way of cheap sentimentality.   But, to offer a nod to our attending children, I would notice added snippets throughout that were obvious attempts to reach my younger interests. 

The problem was that, instead of a nod to me and the other children, it felt more like a head-fake.  Not only was the juxtaposition often unrelated and confusing, but the attempts to appeal to children and youth frequently seemed like stabs in the dark.  The result often felt either confusing or condescending when the isolated offerings missed my target age.  And even when these offerings were age appropriate for me, they often came after I had already tuned out from sitting through too much adult material.  To be perfectly blunt, from a child of the modern era’s perspective, most of it wasn’t engaging.  Or funny.  Or relevant.  Or memorable (except the parts where I was reprimanded for not sitting still – those were memorable). 

Granted, I had high standards – and was fairly demanding when it came to worship.  And I was sometimes hard to please.  Just like every other UU – of any age – I have ever met.    

But I was also lucky.  I came across, somewhat frequently, intergenerational worship that did work – and work well.  I got a chance to really become captivated, and transformed, by worship because it made room for me and spoke to me.  And I enjoyed doing that with my parents – not only in that I got to be with them in the service (which felt to me like I was being included in something important), but I could see that my parents were enjoying it too.  And we all got to talk about it at home – together.  But not only that – the experience of being together in community, amidst people of all ages (some of whom I had little other interaction with) made the whole idea of ‘community’ make sense to me.  I ‘got it.’  And it led me to wanting more of it as I grew up.  That experience taught me about myself, my aspirations and my community. 

The people who helped create these kinds of experiences – people like Tom Owen-Towle and Ric Masten – helped me understand that there are critical elements necessary for making intergenerational worship engaging for all ages.  And incorporating these elements into a systematic approach eventually made developing engaging relevant and transformative services not only easier, but more fun as well.

Over the course of my first few years of ministry I took opportunities to explore and experiment with what I had seen as successful in my youth.   I examined what I remember as powerful in those worship services – the kinds of stories, the kinds of music, the kinds of ritual, the kinds of lessons – and began figuring out ways they fit together and flowed and complimented.  I also considered and included wisdom from human developmental psychology as well as drama.  

Nine years and thirty scripts later, this method of intergenerational worship has been successfully explored in over a hundred and fifty different congregations.  People have appreciated the website (www.uuintergenerational.org) that presents the philosophy and format of the method as well as the scripts that are ready to use.  Many of the religious professionals who have used the scripts posted have gone on to write and submit scripts of their own.  The website has become not only a valuable resource but a spring board of inspiration.  It has consistently had over 4,500 hits a month, every month, for the last two years. 

People have asked me repeatedly ‘does it really work?’  ‘What is its appeal?’  ‘What’s the secret?’   

First of all there is no secret.  That is why I have never wanted to keep this method to myself – why I have always felt that it should be shared, and used, widely.  The underlying ideas that make it successful are common knowledge, incorporated into countless other arenas within our culture.  It is the same philosophy and approach implemented by the ancient Greeks, employed by thousands of community theaters, found in almost every book read, every movie watched, and the heart and soul of what has made Disney so successful.  It is a method flexible enough to contain any message using a wide array of styles. 

So, what’s behind it all?  Simple – the same things that are behind all stories.  But as we begin to think of how to adapt stories to worship, we may begin to see that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Stories are the oldest and most popular medium for transformative teaching in human history.  Since the Paleolithic era, people have gathered together and shared stories as a way of educating, informing and building community.  Whether they relay history, cultural norms, or morals, stories – and storytelling – prove remarkably well suited to reach across a wide body of audience perspectives and needs.  Stories are particularly effective at stretching to reach different ages. 

The method of intergenerational worship takes advantage of the fact that all stories include the same basic elements.  These are (1) identification with characters (protagonists) and their goals; (2) establishing a premise of conflict threatening protagonists and their goals; (3) exploration of context, issues and resources to find resolution to conflict; (4) Exploring the drama of unsuccessful attempts to resolve conflict; (5) Discoveries, epiphanies, or ‘aha’ moments; and (6) Resolution of conflict and glimpsing the future applications of what was learned.

The beauty of stories is that they operate on so many levels.  There is the immediate level of the characters and the conflict they encounter, as well as the metaphorical level of who/what the characters represent and the relevant conflicts in the broader human context. 

Within the same story, smaller children can enjoy the characterization, the drama of the conflict and the resolution.  Their attention will gravitate to the costumes, animated action/movement, simple slapstick humor and the natural emotion within the conflict and resolution.  Older children and youth will look for any identification they may have with the developmental lessons being portrayed, the moral imperatives being explored and the humor of seeing usually very serious adults they know in less than serious, even vulnerably accessible, roles.  And the adults will appreciate the metaphorical / conceptual application of ideals to the universal human context as well as some of the possible humor of seeing the president of the board of trustees play a toad. 

As you can guess, if the objective were just to be silly, the endeavor would be fruitless – even detrimental.  After all, a board president needs to maintain the respect of the members to be effective.  The objective of an intergenerational worship service must always be to convey a relevant, transformative message.  But, at the same time, if a president can show some new/different facet of him/herself that allows others to see him/her as more humble, more human or more accessible, doesn’t that open opportunities to be more successful at being in relationship with the church?  And thus forge new avenues for leadership?

When it comes to participation in intergenerational worship, I have found that it is also a great way to introduce newer people to the church.  These are the very people who need exposure – for others to see them as approachable.  And, of course, it is always a forum to get the children to participate in thoughtful, engaging ways which do not mean an anything-goes spiral into chaos.  Working with and maintaining structure is vitally important.

One of the keys to success in this method depends upon honoring and presenting all the essential elements of liturgy and maintaining ritual.  This means that every congregation would need to adapt the story – whether they are writing it themselves or taking a script from the website – to their own liturgy.  

For instance, for this model to be successful in my church I had to identify the elements of liturgy that MUST be in ANY worship service we produced.  I saw these as (1) chalice lighting / welcome; (2) hand of friendship; (3) joys and concerns; (4) offering; (5) meditation / prayer; and (6) benediction. 

The reason that we have liturgy is to satisfy the human need for ritual.  Often, our Unitarian Universalist churches are startled to realize how much ritual we incorporate into worship.  But ritual need not be religiosity or godly language.  Ritual is any intentional pattern or repetition of order or wording.  We rely on ritual for familiarity and comfort.  We set up patterns in our worship for the same reason we set up patterns in our life – so that we can turn our attention to deeper matters other than routine.  In fact, routine offers us the comfort we need to examine important matters more deeply. 

In the case of worship this means hearing familiar phrasing of things in an expected order.  When something is omitted or done out of order it startles us.  It means our attention is not able to focus on the message or on our job as worshippers to reflect upon, internalize and apply the message to our lives.  Without ritual we are too busy wondering what will come next and what we have to do to be ready.   Thus, if there is traditional phrasing in the chalice lighting or joys and concerns or the offering, using these in an intergenerational worship service will be reassuring to the adults who are used to hearing these words.  They will also be engaging to children who get to feel like they are part of the adult community and their rituals.

Good intergenerational worship must honor the normal rituals not only for focus, but to help convey to those that aren’t normally present (visitors, children and youth) that there is a structure of liturgy under-girding the worship and that this liturgy is much like what they have seen in other settings (either in other churches or in their classrooms or ‘children’s chapel’ experiences). 

The idea that there are six parts within the formation/completion of a story and six (or roughly thereabouts) elements of ritual within many of our worship services, provides a convenient way to structure the service.  The elements of liturgy can not only offer the service a rhythm and interject familiarity, but they can provide the crucial divides between the story sections.  And those divides are important opportunities to pause, invite people to digest, reflect upon, consider the relevance of and deepen the meaning of the message being conveyed.  

This method of intergenerational worship always depends upon two voices carrying the service forward.  The first voice is rather obvious: that of the narrator, who is charged with presenting the context of the story, revealing the thoughts and motivations of the characters, describing the plot as it unfolds and doing all the voices (sometimes additional people aid the narrator by just doing the voices of the characters – this eliminates the need to memorize lines and allows the people in character to just mime the action, drastically reducing the need for rehearsals). 

The second voice is the service leader.  This is the voice that helps the congregation process what the story is saying.  It is the part that clarifies the metaphor being offered.  It is the voice that helps tie the drama of the character’s transformation to our own experience.  It may help us in our personal wrestling with our own values/ideals.  It may help us think about our relationship with events happening in the world around us.  Or it may help us consider our relationship to the very people we are sitting with in our religious community. 

Whereas the narrator describes the journey happening around us, the service leader is our guide to processing the journey going on within us.  It is easy to imagine, therefore, how a story can be experienced on multiple levels.  This allows the service to not only be engaging for different ages of people, but engaging on different levels for the same people. 

One of the other elements that helps tie it together and make the service experiential are the hymns.  For intergenerational worship especially, I try to encourage hymns that are simple, easy to learn and that can be sung without the need to read or hold a hymnal.  One of the things we don’t often think of in our churches is that a truly intergenerational community is differently-abled.  Not everyone in the room will be able to read.  But everyone in the room can generally sing – and the ability to sing together is incredibly bonding.  Therefore, it is very important that what is sung is melodically and lyrically simple. 

Some think that a hymn must be complex to be challenging and rewarding.  But try singing “Motherless Child” after you find out that the protagonist has just lost his mother.  Or sing “There is More Love” when at the point in the story when it appears that all hope is gone.  It’s not the complexity of words that make a hymn challenging.  It’s the complexity of the lesson the hymn is pointing to. 

The best songs for intergenerational worship are either simple rounds or what we know as zipper songs.  Zipper songs are the ones like “Peace Like a River” that are a simple substitution of one or two words into a repeated phrase.  It’s the simplicity of the melody and lyrics which invite people in.  It’s the power of the message and the context which allow for the transformation to take place. 

Good intergenerational worship is like that.  It is invitational.  It is all about making room for you – whoever you are, wherever you’re at.  Insert yourself within the liturgy – within the story – within the community – so that you can experience the transformation you came to church to find.  And do it as a family.  Not only as a family comprising the people you live with.  But as one comprising the people you covenant to live for. 

Intergenerational worship can be remarkably inviting, rewarding and engaging.  It can be effective not only as worship, but as a form of community building.  I invite you to explore the website and imagine how it might reinvent or revitalize what you are currently doing.  Perhaps it could provide a light toward what you could be doing in the future.  Or maybe even get you to see – in a new way - who you might be doing it with.