A Vibrant Tapestry: The Importance of Intergenerational Integration in Youth Ministry

At a recent church gathering, I met someone I had never met before. For the sake of this article, I’ll call her Jayne. After some brief introductions, Jayne confessed that she had served in the youth ministry for a while but is now burnt out. So, she currently attends services and leaves quietly afterwards. 

What happened next really surprised me. A current youth group volunteer approached Jayne and greeted her with immense warmth and fondness. I jumped at the chance to ask, “How do you know each other?” The two women began to reminisce about how Jayne had served in youth ministry as her small group leader.

Here’s the real kicker: As the three of us continued talking, we discovered that one of Jayne’s small group leaders when she was in high school recently came back to serve with our youth ministry after years of taking a break.  

I had a eureka moment when I began connecting the dots. These three women had faithfully poured into each others’ lives over the years. In the example of Jayne, our youth ministry was built, both visibly and invisibly, on the shoulders of three generations of youth volunteers who were still actively pursuing Jesus. Two of them are even serving in our youth ministry today. It was an awe-inspiring moment of clarity that youth ministry is truly intergenerational ministry, down to its volunteer base.  

The Whole Body

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, once famously said that Christianity was just one generation away from extinction. Our teenagers could be the generation that is on the precipice of walking away from their faith. Cultivating a generation of caring adults who are willing and able to weave themselves into the lives of our teenagers could be the antidote to their leaving the faith after high school.

The church must do a better job of integrating generations. We need caring adults who can meet with, disciple, care for, listen to, and journey alongside our teenagers during these pivotal years of faith formation. It is not enough to simply gather caring and willing adults and teenagers in the church together and hope for the best. 

There does seem to be a school of thought that places ministry opportunities with teenagers on the bottom rung. Serving in youth ministry is the first option for someone who has never served before or is a suitable gateway for college students to gain some ministry experience. While I am not opposed to college students serving with our students, they bring a very parochial perspective on life, at no fault to themselves. Some are still very young in their own discipleship.  

When the entire body of Christ, both younger and older, intentionally and collectively serve our teenagers, the tapestry of the Christian faith becomes more vibrant, winsome, and enduring for students. With intergenerational integration, teenagers gain a fuller and more authentic picture of what lifelong faith looks like, with all of its wrinkles and creases (pun intended!).

Gathered Generations 

In our youth group, we have a dad who serves the same grade-level students as that of his high school-aged daughter. He battled questions like, “Will I be relatable? Will they think I’m too old? What if I don’t know what they’re talking about?” But with much trepidation and anxiety, he agreed to volunteer as a small group leader.

This small group leader was surprised not only by the students’ willingness to open up to someone a couple generations removed, but the ways in which his own relationship with his daughter changed for the better. This father-daughter relationship took on new dimensions in the context of a gathered community, week after week with other teenagers. This ended up benefiting the volunteer, his daughter, and the group as a whole. 

This father’s story reminds us that our youth ministries should reflect the gathered generations of all God’s people in order for students to have lasting faith. 

Avoid the Silos

In my ethnocentric Korean-American ministry context, much of our ministries are done in silos. There are language barriers, generational differences, and cultural hurdles that often get in the way of intergenerational integration. The easier route is to do things separately. 

Of course, there is a great need for tailoring programs to meet age-appropriate needs. But, these compartmentalized factions show only a flattened two-dimensional slice of what life-long faith should look like. We would be doing a great disservice to our students if we only showed our students a picture of faith that spans six or seven years of their teenage lives instead of the 40, 50, 60 that we hope to see as they mature into adulthood.

Enduring Faith Through Generations 

In Psalm 78:6-7, the lyricist Asaph tells of how the generations yet unborn may arise to tell the wonders of God to their children. Asaph writes about a future faith that has yet to be realized, but it’s an enduring faith precisely because faith is passed on from generation to generation—namely, from the older to the younger.

When youth ministry gets diminished to a mere span of six or seven years, indeed, its purpose becomes narrowly defined, but in unhelpful ways. Youth ministry becomes another program that carries the baton for a season until students go off to college or a place to congregate students in the church basement. This is the great pitfall that ministry leaders need to avoid. While we have our students for a season, let us point them towards the things that are lasting and eternal. Let us not simply talk about being a family of God, but actually surround our students with the most beautiful portrait of Church possible.  

Let us continue to nurture lifelong faith in our students by helping our them build lifelong relationships with those across multiple generations. By intentionally building a broad volunteer base, youth ministers can offer students a window into how each generation navigates these complexities through their own wisdom, strengths, and weaknesses. This will help build a posture of empathy, understanding, and openness to how God of the ages continues to be faithful through the different seasons of one’s life. 

Behold Jesus Together

I worry that sometimes youth ministers try to make the content, discussion topics, and activities, so relatable to the teenage years that we lose relating to them as persons uniquely maturing into the image of Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago, God came down and took on flesh in Jesus Christ in order to journey with those completely unlike him. Jesus, our timeless creator, became an aging human who experienced all the warp and woof of life – from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. As followers of Jesus, may we not shy away from bearing witness to a God who continues to work through the deep complexities of life as experienced across multiple generations. 

For youth ministers, it can be easy to believe that there is little progress in discipleship with teenagers. Ministers can be easily discouraged when faith formation seems to yield little fruit. May youth ministers give our students a vision of enduring faith – one lived out and embodied by the whole people of God. 

We should not only give our students a view of the Christian faith beyond their teenage years, but also surround them with the kinds of people we hope they grow to become.

The harder, yet more worthwhile, endeavor is to learn to behold Jesus together with our students exactly where they are. Jesus did that for us. He met us on our turf. Jesus, who had no sin, became sin so that we could be clothed in his perfect righteousness. As followers of Jesus, may we welcome the generations to come so that Jesus, the King of all generations, may minister faithfully to our teenagers today.

Interested in training for gospel-centered Youth Ministry? Consider applying for one of our Youth Ministry Mentorship Cohorts today! Applicants who sign up before May 15, 2024 are eligible for a 10% discount.

Brian Ryu serves as the Youth Pastor at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, MD. He and his wife, Esther, parent two wonderful children, Manny and Zoe. He is also a chicken dad, outdoor enthusiast, reader, conversationalist, thrifter, foodie, and budding DIY tinkerer. He has a passion to see students grow in their love for God and his Church as they lean into discovering who they are called to be in Christ.

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