When Intergenerational Integration Feels Impossible

“Why is she here?”

“What’s going on?” 

“That’s weird.” 

My students murmured these comments following our weekly meeting one week, prompted by an older church member’s joining us. Our students reacted as though a foreign spy had dropped in to sabotage us from the inside out. I cannot deny even my own insecurities in having a respected older congregant present for youth group. I wondered what he thought of me, what he would tell others about the work I was doing. 

Based on our church’s philosophy of ministry, we should have welcomed intergenerational integration! But in practice, the older member’s visit revealed that our students had been more sectioned off from the broader church than we intended. And equally troubling, my own insecurities meant that I had been tentative to move us toward the goal of integrating our students into the church. 

In short, on both the student side and on my side as a leader, intergenerational youth ministry felt ideal but impossible.

Research Points to the Need for Integration

A few years ago, First Things magazine ran an article titled “Keeping the Faith” by Christian Smith. As a sociologist at Notre Dame, Smith has studied the factors that most frequently lead to the successful transmission of parents’ faith to their children. He writes: “Research suggests that among the most important of these channeling influences is the presence of non-family adults in religious congregations who know the children well and can engage them in serious topics, beyond superficial chit chat. The more such adults are present, the more a [congregation] feels like a community or an extended family, which is itself a strong bonding force.”

Research from the Fuller Youth Institute agrees with Smith’s findings. Our students face a powerful movement seeking to sweep them away from faith and out of the church. Indeed, they are either being shaped for lifelong commitment to Jesus and his people, or they are being shaped by forces that will draw them away from their faith. There is no in-between. As church leaders, we have to respond by working against this malformation, seeking to form students for lifelong, gospel faith

In order for that to happen, teenagers need the examples and wisdom of those who have demonstrated faith over a lifetime. They need to see people, young and old, male and female, parents and singles, and on and on who have lived in this world and have turned from their sin. Our students need to see how these different members of the body have found forgiveness and life in the person of Jesus Christ, and how they live in freedom and joy before him. In other words, our students need to see the church holding on to the gospel. The research is straightforward: If you want your students to feel a strong bond to the church, you have to integrate generations other than their own—and other than your own. 

I don’t doubt that many in youth ministry sense the importance of such integration, but the nagging thought remains: This feels impossible! Many of us in youth ministry see this pillar of a gospel-centered youth ministry and a lump forms in our throats. I have felt that same way, and our ministry is still a work in progress. But I want to offer a few pathways we are walking in order to pursue the vision of intergenerational integration

Assess Your Church

In Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry’s chapter on intergenerational integration, Dave Wright suggests three categories into which youth ministries might fall. 

Segregated youth ministries are defined by complete separation. The youth ministry has different meetings, maybe even at the same time as the rest of the church. Students’ involvement with the church revolves solely around their involvement with the youth ministry. 

In associated youth ministries, teenagers are physically present for corporate worship, although this depends a lot on context. (For example, many immigrant or ethnic churches experience language barriers to worshiping together.) Associated youth ministries may also have church-wide events where everyone is together. However, for the most part, adult relationships with students are mostly limited to familiarity rather than depth. 

Integrated youth ministries, on the other hand, “see youth as an integral part of the congregation,” Wright explains. So, students participate in serving, leading, caring, greeting, praying, reading Scripture, participating in Bible studies with adults, and more. Essentially, integrated youth ministries see youth ministry as a door for students to participate in the church as a whole

The first step on the path to intergenerational integration requires spending time assessing your church. Consider which model you think your ministry currently represents. This will help as you consider what moving toward integration might involve in your particular context. 

Begin with Existing Structures

Consider the areas in which your church is thriving—for example, in discipleship, community, or service. How might you integrate students into those spaces or vice versa? Don’t reinvent the wheel! Take what your church is already doing and try and slowly turn that wheel toward meaningful connection between generations. 

At our church, we have adult small groups that meet all around our town. They are well attended and marked by high involvement. This existing structure opens up numerous opportunities for integrating students. For example, small groups could make intentional efforts to reach out to the students who live near them, inviting them to participate. Groups could each “adopt” several students for a time to serve and grow in relationship. Or, as our church has done, you could invite these small groups into your regular student discipleship. One simple way we are trying to do this moving forward is by having small groups meet with students over a meal once per semester. 

There are plenty of other ideas a church could consider, but the task is simple: Pick an existing structure and build from there.  

Give Students Meaningful Roles in Church

How many areas of your church are actually open to students? Could they serve, lead, teach, read, or participate in other ministries like the men’s or women’s ministry? Most basically, is membership in the church held out to them as a possibility?

Giving teenagers meaningful roles shows them that they are a meaningful part of the church body. The invitation to participate in these ways gives students a vision of service rather than consumption from the early years of their church experience. Some students may be uncomfortable joining in these opportunities at first. So go with them, or invite them to go with you or with their parents. 

Represent Young People in Sermons

Can students who worship with your church week after week and ever see themselves in the sermon’s application? Would they ever be acknowledged in the church’s regular teaching?

Encourage pastors who frequently preach and teach in the church to weave in application and direct appeals to young people. Years ago, one of my seminary professors preached at our church. He is a brilliant scholar of the Ancient Near East. Yet, the most powerful moment of his whole sermon was when he spoke directly to the children in the room. By appealing to their childlike imaginations, everyone was drawn in and the students felt included. People feel comfortable in areas where they are seen. Preaching can be a powerful way to include teenagers.  

Develop Intergenerational Group of Leaders

How much do you model intergenerational integration in your own life? What types of people do you most frequently bring into your ministry? Is it always college students, young people, or people your age? 

It may take time for students to get used to having people their parents age or grandparents age in their youth space. But over time, these relationships will grow more natural through proximity. The key is that we have to create space for that proximity. 

Recruit Church Leaders as Allies

Do your elders or other leadership know the students in your ministry? Are these leaders familiar with teenagers’ struggles and how to pray for them? Do they initiate relationally with students? 

This is where you must educate not only the students but also the church. In membership classes, with the church staff and leadership, you may have to make the case to them that they need to take interest in the church’s teenagers. If students are part of the church, then these older people have made a commitment to care for, instruct, and pray for them. 

Stay Curious

As we pursue these various pathways for integrating teenagers into the life of the church, we must continue to examine ourselves and our ministries. Here are some diagnostic questions that can inform our evolving understanding:

What are we communicating to students through the ways in which our church engages them, or the ways we fail to do so?

What examples of faithful life in Christ is our church family showing our teenagers? 

How are we preparing teenagers for church membership? Is there some way we could make membership available to teenagers within the congregation?

How are we preparing our students for life away from their parents’ homes? How can our church family contribute to their vision for living as Christian adults?

Each church will almost certainly express intergenerational integration differently given their context, history, size, and other factors. Nevertheless, the basic premise remains the same: Teenagers need examples of lifelong faith in Jesus Christ. Through intergenerational integration in our churches, students can see the loving God who has demonstrated faithfulness to them in the person of Jesus Christ. We show them the gospel’s beauty in its wide array through the diversity in our church member’s lives.

For more on Rooted’s five pillars of youth ministry, listen to the Rooted Youth Ministry Podcast, part of Rooted’s family of podcasts.

Skyler is an associate pastor over family discipleship at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, Mississippi, as well as the associate program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Skyler earned an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He's now working toward his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. His wife, Brianna, is originally from Memphis, TN, and they have two children: Beatrice and Lewis. Skyler has served on the Rooted Steering Committee since 2021.

More From This Author