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Tell, then show

Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network keynoter tosses out ideas for creating authentic intergenerational ministry

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Some churches have storytelling benches designed for intergenerational story-swapping. (Photo by Doug Kelley via Unsplash)

LOUISVILLE — After speaking Tuesday to the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network national conference about what intergenerational ministry might look like, Missy Buchanan showed her online viewers on Wednesday.

Buchanan, an author and speaker, was keynoter during the first two days of POAMN’s annual conference, which concludes Thursday. Her topic Wednesday was “From Rhetoric to Reality: Impacting Younger Generations by Taking Action to Create Life-Changing Legacies.”

Buchanan encouraged the 100 or so people registered for POAMN’s conference to assess their church’s strengths and weaknesses and then identify new initiatives for intergenerational ministry.

“Dream big,” she said, in part to help rid faith communities of ageism, “which is all around us. It cannot co-exist with authentic intergenerational ministry.”

Missy Buchanan

She quoted the pastor of a large church not in the PC(USA) who specialized in ministry to older adults. This pastor had been told by the church’s senior pastor to teach the church’s senior members to “pray, pay and stay out of the way.”

“Would you be willing to call out ageism here?” Buchanan asked conference attendees. “You might get some flak for that.”

Buchanan described a number of efforts churches have made or are considering that enable intergenerational ministry to flourish:

  • One church board had photos of people from all age groups framed and at the table when it was time to make decisions. The board’s central questions became, “Are we addressing the needs?” and “What are we doing to bring these generations together,” Buchanan said. “It was a wonderful visual.” One caution, she said: Creating intergenerational opportunities does not replace age-specific ministry.
  • Some churches train younger worship participants such as acolytes to, for example, go fetch an older adult’s walker at the end of the service. That often leads to a post-worship conversation.
  • During the church’s large annual events — at Buchanan’s church, it’s called the Great Days of Service — young and old can draw a card with a prompt asking them to, for example, talk about their favorite part of summer vacation or a time they helped someone. Another speaking prompt when church members are out cleaning up the church grounds or their neighborhood: Where do you think all that trash came from?
  • Youth groups sometimes invite older members to attend their meeting and consent to an interview. They’re asked questions like “What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” and “Were you ever bullied? How did you get through it?” The older adults are given the questions ahead of time so they can begin forming their answer. Whether the interview is conducted online or in person, “Each generation is listening to the other,” Buchanan said. “They find out they have a lot more in common than they ever thought.”
  • Churches have erected storytelling benches on their grounds, where members of disparate generations sit down together and, in turn, answer a prompt, such as “Tell me a time you felt afraid.” Local media love doing that kind of story, Buchanan said.
  • One church uses the interpretation social media anagrams to bridge the generations. Older adults are asked to guess the meaning of, for example, ROFL, which any young person will tell you stands for “rolling on the floor laughing.” One older adult guessed it stood for “right on, funny ladies.” “2m2h,” or “too much to handle,” became “two million, too happy.” “It steps into the world of youth,” Buchanan said. “We are dipping our toes in their water.” Older adults even began inventing their own. One who’s constantly telling her grandchildren “Love you to the moon and back” shortened it to LYTTMAB.
  • Churches have started intergenerational circles where participants play everything from drums to ukuleles. “Bring whatever instrument you have,” Buchanan suggested. “It’s more than just learning together. It’s conversation.”
  • A Texas church has been recording videos of older adults reading a children’s story, then sending the recording to be seen by the child ready for bed and grasping the same book.
  • “Everyone has touchstones,” Buchanan said, ringing a bell she used to ring as a girl to summon her grandmother’s help for her earaches. When her grandmother got older, she was given the bell to use the same way. The bell “represents to me the whole cycle of life,” Buchanan said. At church, older adults could sit in a large circle explaining their touchstone to younger members seated in a smaller circle inside the larger one, with the youth facing the older adults. “Kids are going to have touchstones too,” Buchanan said. “Invite them to share their stories. It knocks down those barriers.”
  • A youth group director in Tennessee contacted Buchanan about the youth reading Buchanan’s book “Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body.” That’s an odd choice for a youth group, she thought, but “he was wise,” Buchanan said. The youth were visiting people at a nearby assisted living facility. As they talked to the residents, both groups learned they experienced similar emotions and similar fears, Buchanan said.

Buchanan left the gathering with three sentences to complete:

The world tells me aging is my enemy, but God …

I feel incapable of learning new things, but God …

I feel I am too old to make changes, but God …

The Office of Christian Formation has more information about intergenerational ministry here.

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