No Clowns Needed: 5 Suggestions for Preaching Intergenerational Sermons

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Intergenerational seems to be the new buzzword in many congregations lately. This has been prompted by many factors:

  • The drastic decline in young families attending church.
  • Young families no longer live near parents and relatives and have lost needed support and mentoring.
  • Older members, paired with younger members, give purpose and provides company for older members and mentoring for young families.
  • Many congregations are small (under 200 members) and dedicated programming and classes for each age group is not feasible.
  • The family has always been a model for the church and families are multi-aged. Intergenerational ministry reflects the family model.

As a result, more and more congregations are developing intergenerational programming and encouraging their pastor to preach “intergenerational sermons.” Preaching intergenerationally, to several different age levels, can seem overwhelming and difficult. The temptation is:

  • To preach one Sunday to a specific age group and another age group the following Sunday.
  • To preach each week to the adults and then have a “family” service where the sermon is geared at children.
  • To leave the sermon alone and add elements into the service which “feel” family friendly… balloons, clowns, crayons for everyone, and children’s songs.

Before you hire clowns, I would like to invite you to think differently about intergenerational preaching and suggest that you do not have to “dumb” down or change your preaching style to reach the different age groups in your congregations. Below are five suggestions for creating intergenerational sermons:

Preach the Bible.

The Bible has stories of children, new birth, young people feeling called by God, young parents making decisions about life, extra marital affairs, the affect of wars on parents and children, old people struggling to feel relevant, old people doing amazing things in their later years, siblings fighting, and the list goes on and on. The Bible is a collection of intergenerational stories. Use it and you will be preaching to all generations.

Let go of age level stereotypes.

The psychology of developmental stages has been deeply ingrained in all of us. We all accept that children cannot experience God until they reach the stage of “abstract thinking.” We accept as fact that older people experience despair in their later years. Are these assumptions accurate, or have we simply never challenged them? While I appreciate the psychological theories, I do not believe that we should assume that a secular model applies entirely to faith development. In the course of my career, I have found many children who experience God long before they reach the age of abstract thinking. I have also met many older people who begin the most fulfilling part of their lives after retirement. When we let go of stereotypes and really listen to people, we discover that the age level stereotypes we have accepted as fact are not always valid. Letting go of stereotypes helps us to understand that we cannot preach to an “age group.” We preach as we are led and trust that God will speak to the person of whatever age

Remember that people experience many of the same emotions regardless of their age.

Heartbreak is heartbreak. Grief is grief. Fear is fear. We often feel like adults and children have nothing in common, but on the feeling level, the spiritual level, we are more alike than we are different. A child can understand the fear an adult felt when mountain climbing. An adult can understand the heartbreak a fourth grader felt at a school dance. When we tell stories, even when the characters vary in age, the members of the congregation can still relate to them on an emotional level.

Don’t take all scholarship out of your sermon.

When preaching intergenerationally, we often feel pressured to make sure that the entire sermon is child friendly. The temptation is to leave out any scholarship or quotes that a child might not understand. Remember that children have short attention spans. They will never be able to listen to an entire 20-minute sermon. Leave your scholarship in but make sure to include at least one story. Most of us do that anyway. Children will listen to the part of the sermon that catches their attention: the story. And one story is all the time they can focus anyway.

Listen deeply to the stories of people of all ages and discover powerful intergenerational sermon illustrations.

Good sermon illustrations about children are not easily found online. In fact, most of illustrations you find on the web are either about a child doing something silly or a child dying. Children have life stories that adults can relate to but we will never learn their real stories unless we spend time with them and listen. The same is true with older adults. Their stories are not often the ones told in movies or on the web and yet their experiences are ones to which even a child can relate.

Intergenerational preaching might feel daunting, but I believe that much of our preaching is already intergenerational. We simply need to take a step back and make sure that stories of all generations are heard and shared. If we do that, then every sermon becomes an opportunity for all of God’s children (birth through death) to hear God’s word.

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Leanne Hadley is an ordained elder in the UMC and has a DMin in the spirituality of children. She has dedicated her entire career to working with and studying the spiritual lives of children. Her work experience includes working as a chaplain, directing a migrant ministry summer program, Minister to Children and Families, and Founder of First Steps Spirituality Center. She is passionate about strengthening congregations by helping them understand the spiritual lives of children and deepen and expand the ministries they offer to children and families.

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