Book Review: Intergenerational Christian Formation

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Intergenerationality: Pipe Dream or Possible? A review of Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church together in Ministry, Community, and Worship (IVP Academic, 2013).

For many churches across the United States, the move from being a multigenerational church (comprising several generations) to an intergenerational church (several generations interacting with one another) is a pipe dream. For Holly Allen and Christine Ross, this shift is totally possible. In their groundbreaking work, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community, and Worship, Allen and Ross contend that an intergenerational church is God’s favored design for growing His people, and as such, contemporary churches should embrace an intergenerational model of ministry. They acknowledge that this shift may be difficult, and “requires a holistic orientation; that is mind, spirit, and body must be involved” (180). However, as they contend, “Intergenerational faith experiences uniquely nurture spiritual growth and development in both children and adults” (45) and merits further consideration on the part of those invested in passing on the faith to future generations.

Summary

Allen and Ross describe how the church began as an intergenerational body of believers who came together for the purpose of sharing, fellowship, teaching, and learning. However, with the decline of generational integration beginning during the Reformation era, and accelerated by the inclusion of age-level developmental theory in the practice of Christian education, age-segregated practices have become the norm in most churches today. Why? Allen and Ross contend that “Throughout the ages Christians have tended to emulate—often unintentionally or unthinkingly—the culture around them, and as American culture has become more and more generationally fragmented over the last hundred years, churches have followed that trend” (38). Thus, age-segregation in the church is not so much a biblical model as it is a cultural one. The authors do admit that not all age-segregated ministries are misguided or ineffective, however, their concern is the lack of intergenerational ministry going on in churches today.

So if age-segregation is not a biblical model for forming believers, then what is? Based on their plundering of biblical texts, the authors find that “Scripture presumes that faith formation occurs within intergenerational, familial, and community settings” (77). Indeed, the biblical record indicates that God’s choice model for enabling the formation of believers is through an intergenerational community that combines young and old believers alike. Allen and Ross note that intergenerational spiritual formation “occurs when a congregation intentionally brings the generations together in mutual serving, sharing or learning within the core activities of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community” (17).

With their biblical grounding in place, Allen and Ross provide a wealth of theoretical support for the idea of an intergenerational church. Based on research from across an array of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, and education, the authors contend that an intergenerational framework for Christian formation is superior to traditional frameworks based on age-level assumptions. If you enjoy understanding the the rich theoretical underpinnings of ministry practice, you will no doubt enjoy the first half of this book.

While Allen and Ross put forth with remarkable breadth the theoretical arguments for an intergenerational church, their suggestions for championing an intergenerational culture and implementing relevant practices are equally innovative. The authors, while academicians in their own right, address the difficulties in implementing intergenerational practices in churches, and provide several ways to practice intergenerationality in the church. Particularly, the authors seek to frame worship, small groups, and teaching ministries as inherently intergenerational, and provide extremely practical ways of implementing this vision based on their thorough research of effective intergenerational churches. Helpfully, the authors demonstrate awareness of the ever-expanding multicultural flavor of American evangelicalism, and as such, provide practical means of fostering intergenerationality in multicultural churches. With several appendices devoted to practicing intergenerationality, the book will no doubt stimulate the thoughts and dreams of ministers everywhere aspiring to create intergenerational experiences in their congregations.

Analysis

As one familiar with scholarly literature related to Christian formation and education, I can honestly say that this book is a milestone in the field. Moving beyond the boilerplate realms of developmental psychology and educational theory so common in conversations related to Christian education, Allen and Ross issue a clarion call to congregations everywhere to embrace an intergenerational ministry culture that brings voices across the lifespan into conversation with one another for the purpose of forming believers and passing the faith on to future generations. I anticipate that intergenerational ministry will become a resounding theme in both academic and ecclesial texts in the years to come due to the groundbreaking work of Allen and Ross.

The book surveys many disciplines with breadth and depth, however, I wish the authors devoted more space to delineating their theological convictions. The authors articulate well the biblical support for intergenerational ministry, however, give little space to demonstrating how a robust evangelical theology (particularly Trinitarian theology and ecclesiology) supports an intergenerational ministry culture. While the content of the book ranges from rigorously academic to extremely practical, its tone is engaging, interspersed with anecdotes, helpful explanations, and useful sidebars. Ministers both academically-minded and practice-minded will find enough material in this work to stimulate their thinking regarding the ways we facilitate formation in our congregations.

This book will challenge the way many of us conceptualize and practice ministry in the local church, particularly educational ministry. While it is often easier to abide in our antiquated paradigms and structures, the truth is that a church enveloped in an age-segregated model of ministry brings on more spiritual damage than we care to admit. Reorienting our hearts and minds to the idea that God has called the church to participate in a rich, intergenerational community will no doubt influence evangelical culture and reverberate throughout sanctuaries, Sunday school rooms, and Christian homes for generations to come.

Purchase Intergenerational Christian Formation.

A free review copy of this book was received from the publisher.

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Ben Espinoza currently serves as a pastor at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. A frequent writer in areas related to Christian formation, ministry, and theology, he currently serves on the board of directors for the Society for Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives.

2 COMMENTS

  1. glad to find this. i have always beleived, and tried to swim upstream against all the age-segregated approaches. this book will be so useful. thank you!

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