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Creating online worship space for Presbyterians of all ages

Webinar panelists: Be intentional and inclusive, and your intergenerational worship will be enhanced

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Worried about how mainline churches are communicating to the youngest and oldest in their congregations during a time of online worship, Karen DeBoer, creative resource developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, recently surveyed a landscape of churches.

She asked, “how are you intentionally creating a sense of belonging for all ages?” she said. The most common answer: “We’re not.”

DeBoer was one of six panelists this week during an ecumenical “Faith Formation at Home” webinar on intergenerational worship sponsored by the Office of Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Stephanie Fritz, associate coordinator for Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, worries that if churches don’t intentionally find ways to create intergenerational worship online, those who feel left out won’t return when churches can meet again in person.  (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

Now that churches are months into online gatherings on Zoom, Facebook or YouTube — which has been referred to as “scattered time”— Stephanie Fritz, associate coordinator for Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, encouraged nearly 50 participants to consider how they might intentionally create worship practices that would involve the full diversity of their congregations. For it is through worship, she said, “that we become intergenerational communities of faith.”

To illustrate this, DeBoer talked about her family gatherings as child. Once a year they’d have a dinner celebration where the children would gather in the kitchen. The adults would go into a fancy dining room and have a meal together.

DeBoer said other than a quick hello or goodbye hug, adults and children didn’t really interact.  As a parent now she gets that and while it was great to get cousin time, she asked those gathered to imagine what it would have been like if her family had a meal that way every week.

“It would create a hierarchy, of who matters more and less,” she said, “and leave one feeling like they belong to this group or that group, but not to the group as a whole.”

To help churches intentionally work at creating intergenerational worship experiences,  DeBoer shared The Building Blocks of Faith resource for leaders to use as a helpful reminder that every worshiper, regardless of age, should feel like they are part of God’s family within their particular church community.

The Rev. Dr. Tori Smit is regional minister for faith formation with the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

The Rev. Dr. Tori Smit,  regional minister for faith formation with the Presbyterian Church of Canada, recently watched numerous online worship services to see what was happening intergenerationally.  She observed that the first thing to go was the inclusion of children — even in churches that included children during in-person worship.

She asked a diverse set of families with children ages 4-17 how online worship was going for them.  One of the things she learned is that children have difficulty paying attention.

“They wanted worship to be shorter,” she said. “Thirty minutes of more screen time on Sunday morning is about all they can handle.”

When Smit asked what was going well and what might help them worship better as a family, respondents said that seeing a variety of leaders in their church, including children and youth, was important to their online worship experience. They also asked worship leaders to prioritize stories and illustrations to ensure that all ages are involved in the context of the sermon.

“When children’s experiences of wanting to see friends, or their private worries about the safety of parents or grandparents was mentioned in a sermon, then their children understood that their feelings were being honored,” Smit said.

Smit also mentioned families want leaders to do these things:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Use short, simple, repetitive responses for the call to worship, confession and prayers.
  • Select music to include well-known hymns that are easy to sing at home.
  • Use not just words, but body language, and include the passing of the peace on Zoom.
  • Employ as many rituals as possible.

In her reflections on what she learned about the inclusion of children and youth in worship, Smit said that families mentioned taking online communion was a little odd at first.

“But now it has become incredibly meaningful to them,” she said. “Common household elements have become ripe with meaning.”

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology & Worship, encouraged participants to consider using their church’s liturgical service books to aid planning intergenerational worship. He said the theological and pastoral commentary, as well as orders of worship, in the PC(USA)’s Book of Common Worship, play a big part in shaping worship. That helps form how Christians live in the world. Common responses and other brief repeated texts are like “miniature lessons in Christian faith,” Gambrell said.

“In whatever denomination you find yourself, these hidden treasures can build a sense of mystery and meaning into worship, which is important to those of all ages,” he said.

The Rev. Elmer Zavala said the nucleus of church is family and that churches should worship in ways aimed more for children than adults. (Photo by Ellen Sherby)

The Rev. Elmer Zavala, a house church pastor of the Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston Highway in South Louisville, spoke of how the pandemic has impacted the life of this house ministry. Currently he’s able to meet with single families only while wearing a mask and standing outside in their yard or on the porch.

“We want to go back to house church,” he said. “The nucleus of the church is family — being at home right there in the middle of their living rooms. Even if we don’t want to see a person’s face, we have to. Kids, adults, youth — we include everybody.”

Zavala said the best worship cares for the most vulnerable. If a child understands the message, then adults will too. But if an adult understands it, a child may or may not get it.

The message William Breytspraack, director of music ministry at Village Church in Prairie View, Kansas, is trying to convey around intergenerational worship is if you’re going to encourage children in worship, don’t just parade them in and out of participating in the service. Instead, involve them in a way that integrates them — “so that we’re getting their best gifts, which we all need so much,” he said.

Sometimes when he’s working with children on leading a hymn, he’ll say to a five-year-old, “Let’s cheer some people up today. Someone might be hurting, and you can look at a person and make a difference.”

Brian Frick, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s associate for Christian Formation and camp and retreat ministries, spent the last year working with an intergenerational ministry cohort in Portland, Oregon. What he’s learning is that being an intergenerational community is about three things: accommodation, reciprocity and mutuality. Frick said generations have to make room for each other by giving up traditional roles. Examples might be youth making space for older adults in a church’s mission trip, or children serving communion.

“All age groups have to bring something to the experience, have to have a voice in the experience and be gaining something from the experience,” Frick said. “It’s kind of like in a Pixar movie — it has humor and plot for multiple ages.”

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