Contextualizing Intergenerational Integration: A Personal Narrative from the Immigrant Church

One of Rooteds five pillars of youth ministry is Intergenerational Integration. We believe that if we want to see teenagers growing in Christ and connected to his church for their whole lives, we need to include them in the body now. Still, we often find that this is one of the most challenging of the Five Pillars to incorporate practically. At the 2022 Rooted Conference, were hosting a panel discussion on Intergenerational Integration. In this article, panelists Clark Fobes and Chelsea Erickson discuss the nuances of integrating students into the life of the church in Asian-American and immigrant contexts. 

Chelsea: Clark, Im thrilled we get to have this conversation about a topic we both hold dear! I know that learning how to integrate teenagers into the broader church has been a journey for both of us. Was intergenerational integration on your radar when you first started out in youth ministry?

Clark: To be honest, in the very beginning of my youth ministry career, all I was thinking about was figuring out how to do my job (haha) and teach the Bible well to kids who seemed apathetic to Christianity. I was a young, untrained, and inexperienced leader, so I was just trying to get a handle on the week-to-week duties.

To add to that, I was working in a small Korean-immigrant church, so there was a language barrier between the Korean-speaking parents and English-speaking kids. It was the churchs tradition to have the youth join in the Korean worship once a month—but because it was all in Korean, the kids generally hated it. In hindsight, I think it was a well-intentioned attempt to try to integrate the kids into the whole church and to keep the kids connected to their parents spiritually. But unfortunately it tainted my idea of intergenerational integration.

I moved on to a Chinese-immigrant church after that, and although there was a mix of Chinese-speaking and English-speaking parents (first generation immigrants vs. second generation American-born), I pretty much continued on with ministry as I had been trained to think of it at the Korean church. As a result, I committed the error that many youth pastors in my generation (and from my demographic of the Asian Church Context) commit—separating the discipleship of the youth from the context of the whole church.

Chelsea: I relate so much to your experience, Clark. I really neglected intergenerational integration in my first full-time ministry experience, too—to the point that teenagers were essentially exiled to their own separate corner of the building. And I didnt even have a language barrier between the generations to contend with. Its hard for me to understand how I missed the importance of integration because my own experience as a teenager was one of inclusion in the body. My home church gave me significant opportunities to serve alongside the adults (like teaching childrens Sunday School, driving an elderly woman to church each week, and serving on our youth pastor search committee), and those experiences were so formative for me!

I think we imagine that the gap between the generations is just too wide for us to bridge, or that in order to keep kids engaged it always has to be on their terms.

What are some of the particular nuances to Asian-American contexts that can make bridging that gap challenging?

Clark: Many youth ministries within Asian contexts have been siloed for generations—often due to language barriers, but sometimes due to cultural nuances of how adults interact with kids. It really wasnt until I found Rooted that I even started thinking more biblically about how a youth ministry should be structured. To be honest, my first reaction to the five pillars was that this was a very “white suburban” vision of youth ministry, and one which didnt apply to my context. But the more I started looking at Scripture and how Gods people are called to raise up (to disciple”) young people both in the Old and New Testaments, the more I realized that we had a gaping hole in our youth ministries in the Asian church context.

This isnt to say that all Asian churches were neglecting integration or partnership with parents; but due to our cultural nuances, there were a lot more barriers to accomplishing this than there often are in American or white church contexts. Those of us working in immigrant contexts have to think a bit more critically and creatively how to incorporate elements of integration and parent involvement in ways that are contextually appropriate.

At that first Korean church, I dont think simply joining the Korean service was the answer. Most kids who grew up in an immigrant church and worshiped primarily (or only) in Korean ended up feeling like the church was not for them, and eventually walked away. On the other hand, total separation and silo-ing of ministries—the typical solution” to the generational barriers—may not be the answer either. I think a middle ground can exist where teens can be taught and discipled in a language and culture that makes sense to them (in the literal sense, not in the relevant” sense of the phrase), while also maintaining some level of engagement with the other generations.

One thing that I always think fondly of from that Korean church is the bi-annual picnic we used to hold with the entire church. Maybe you could argue there wasnt much discipleship happening, but it was a neutral, fun space for teens to interact with the adults through food, games, and an intensely competitive volleyball tournament. For some youth ministers, these types of informal interactions may be the starting point to intergenerational integration; for others, this may be the only way they can get teens to interact with the immigrant generation(s).

Chelsea: I love that picture of a serious volleyball tournament with teenagers and adults engaged! And I agree that we should not discount those kinds of informal interactions. Just like a group game brings everyone together at youth group and sets the table for a spiritual conversation, I think lighthearted fun can often be the best way to begin to bridge these intergenerational relationships.

Our teenagers recently invited a group of seniors in our church family for hot dogs and root beer floats one afternoon as part of a service week we did together. It was the sweetest time of fellowship and encouragement, even though there was no formal element of worship or teaching. Of course we want to take seriously the more intentional aspects of discipleship, but we recognize relationship precedes discipleship.

Once you were convinced of the biblical imperative to disciple teenagers in the context of the church and the home, how did you set out to do that in your context?

Clark: Pursuing integration still proved challenging even after I bought into it as a biblical value. At the Chinese church, more than fifty percent of the youth in our ministry were neighborhood kids whose parents didnt even attend church, and of the half whose parents were at the church, many of their parents were part of the Chinese speaking congregation. We eventually opted to include the youth into the main English service for all Sundays, rather than holding a separate youth service. This meant that not all kids could worship alongside their parents, but at least all of the students could worship together with other generations.

It wouldve been easy to say we did our job once we made that change, but I came to realize that integration doesnt just mean occupying the same space. True integration is the inclusion and participation of all generations in as many facets of spiritual, ministry, and mission life as possible.

We tried a lot of different approaches over the years: we involved youth in worship and production, integrated them into our mission and outreach trips, encouraged them to join in service opportunities along with the whole church, and even took breaks from youth Sunday school to join in learning opportunities with the rest of the church. Some efforts were better than others, but I believe all were good attempts at getting students to glean from other generations, and for older generations to be encouraged by engaging with the teens.

Chelsea: I love what you said about getting creative and trying some different approaches. And I think like you said, its helpful to emphasize that these interactions are mutually encouraging–the older generations often benefit just as much as our students!

It seems to me this pillar is so critical to Rooteds goal to flip the statistic,” in other words to see more kids following Jesus after they graduate and leave their homes and youth ministries. And yet, in my experience it is one of the hardest shifts to make in youth ministry. 

What are your thoughts on how youth ministers can start to make the shift toward more intergenerational exposure?

Clark: Most youth pastors—myself included—fear implementing intergenerational integration because it usually involves a loss” of some sort to the youth ministry. Whether thats a loss in programming, control, and leadership over an aspect of the ministry, or the perceived experience for teenagers, something has to be given up in order to gain more integration. Every time Ive led one of my churches, or counseled others, through a shift towards more integration, Ive tried to acknowledge that loss, while also advocating for the benefits. Perhaps the biggest benefits are the chance students have to develop meaningful relationships with Christians adults, and the sense of ownership that the church is also their church.

I now serve at a smaller multi-ethnic, multi-generational church in the heart of urban San Francisco. We have a large demographic of Asian American families and students, but there are a wide range of other ethnicities represented as well. This means that adult-child interactions often look different depending on the culture. Being a smaller, family church also means the congregation is used to having students as a regular part of the church.

Im grateful that much of the legwork was done already prior to my coming to this church. Im encouraged each Sunday as I observe our students lovingly interact with some of the older members of our church, and Im reminded that no youth event or programming can replace the diversity of meaningful relationships they get to have because we opted for integration.

We should be cautious to lift up one model or one picture of it as the premier biblical example of a faithful youth ministry. This type of thinking is what, unfortunately, devastates and discourages youth pastors around the world when they realize they cannot execute their ministry in the same forms as a wealthier church, a suburban church, a white church, a megachurch—whatever descriptors you want to add that may be different than ones own context.

While some forms of integration may bear more fruit than others, the nuances of culture, size, language, and a host of other factors, are too vast to guarantee that this one form will bear the same fruit in a different context.

Chelsea: Thats such a good word about how easy it is to fall into the idol of comparison, Clark. Maybe we find this pillar challenging to pursue because it is so contextual—as you said, its just going to look different in every church. And it also requires so much intentional collaboration with others in church leadership.

I think what were really driving toward is for students to see themselves as part of their local church (and ultimately part of the universal Church), instead of only a member of the youth ministry. If teenagersentire experience of church happens in the youth ministry context, they are likely to feel unmoored from spiritual community and faith formation after they graduate.

What advice would you give to youth ministers trying to take steps toward integrating the generations?

Clark: My encouragement and recommendation to youth pastors these days is simple: start small, celebrate those small wins, let the fruit speak for itself as you grow in integration, and trust the Spirit to continue to work in the hearts of all generations to move towards greater unity and fullness in Christ.

Clark is the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church SF, and has served in Youth Ministry in the Asian-American context for over a decade. He received his M.Div. from Talbot Theological School in Southern California, and is a Doctor of Missiology (D.Miss) candidate at Southern Seminary (SBTS). He is also an emeritus member of Rooted’s Steering Committee. He and his wife, Janet, have two daughters, Kara and Nora. Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years. She and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells, who delights them with his little boy energy. Chelsea holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. She is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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