A church in the intergenerational HOV lane

A ministry case study

Fuller Youth Institute Image Fuller Youth Institute | Feb 2, 2009

Photo by Andras Vas

High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) carpool lanes are a great part of highway driving. Those having more than one person in their vehicle are given access to their own lane(s) of traffic. This usually ends up cutting a tremendous amount of time off congested highway travel.

San Clemente Presbyterian Church is a body of believers that has found the HOV/carpool lane of intergenerational youth ministry programming. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, author of It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives and Show Time: Living Down Hypocrisy by Living Out the Faith, serves as senior pastor of the San Clemente church. Under his leadership, the San Clemente body has embraced bold intergenerational initiatives that have radically reshaped their youth ministry, as well as their church-wide programming. [Listen to a talk given by Tod at Fuller on intergenerational ministry entitled, “How God Works in the World Through Kids.” You can also read Tod’s thoughts on his blog, https://bolsinger.blogs.com]

While we have heard from a lot of churches who are in the initial steps of merging onto the road of intergenerational ministry, some wonder, “What do we do after those first few miles?” How do we make intergenerational youth ministry not just an experiment but a long-term part of our DNA? To answer those questions, I recently interviewed Dr. Bolsinger to better understand both why intergenerational ministry is so important and how youth ministries can move toward the Intergenerational HOV lane.

What is the theology that drives your intergenerational programming?

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10

This verse provides the theological foundation for all intergenerational programming at San Clemente Presbyterian Church. We are the people of God! This notion begins with the understanding that the doctrine of the Trinity leads to community. Once you recognize the essence of God is community, believers relating to one another in community makes perfect sense. The incarnation of the triune God is the people of God, the body of Christ relating with one another in the Spirit of Christ. What does that relationship look like? It is found all over the Bible; it’s family—extended family! If you are going to have a people, you have more than a program. You have families, multiple generations that are like a tribe of people who share life together as a demonstration of the life of God.

Families have stories that unify and identify each member within the broader family story. That is what is so amazing about I Peter 2:9-10. Peter is writing to Gentiles, but he is writing to them like they are Jews! He is including them in the broader family story. That’s what we are supposed to be about as the people of God. We tell the story over and over.

Who first pushed for the intergenerational focus for youth ministry? You, your youth workers, your students, or their parents?

I believe that today’s problems are based on yesterday’s successes. By consumerist standards, we had a very successful youth ministry at San Clemente. We were pushing large numbers of teenagers through our youth programs. We did have the occasional “Youth Sunday” (i.e., the teenagers helped conduct worship) that provided the token adult/youth connection. However, both adults and teenagers hated it. Ironically, those events actually tended to encourage the idea that students only stepped into the sanctuary a few specially-designated Sundays each year.

What we ended up with was a large youth ministry program, run by professional youth workers, interns and “cool” young professionals that operated more as a parachurch organization than part of the San Clemente body of believers. As a result, what we were unintentionally communicating was “we don’t need parents and adults, we are the professionals. Leave the ministry of your children to us.”

Our hope was that the hundreds of students finding their way into our teen space would someday find their way into our adult space after graduating from youth group. That proved to be a flawed assumption. At one time we provided youth ministry programming for around 3,500 students. Out of that number, only a handful of students found their way into adult membership roles. To be fair, maybe another fifty ended up in other churches. Either way, we were not seeing long-term fruit being produced.

We came to the harsh reality that our youth ministry program, though well attended and held up as exemplary by other churches, was producing religious consumers and not committed disciples of Jesus. Those consumers were leaving our youth program never seeing themselves as part of the larger church body. This reality, coupled with my PhD dissertation work, led me to the conclusion that our church needed a culture change.

As a senior pastor, what can you tell us about the importance of parents in a child’s religious faith and practice?

It’s huge! I believe that the kids who end up as vibrant followers of Jesus tend to come from families in which their parents possess a vibrant faith. Our Pastor to Families often says to parents that we have a great professional youth staff that is committed to chasing down students so that they can introduce them to Jesus and connect them with a loving, supportive family. He then says his job is to chase down the parents of those students, and invite them to come to know Jesus and encourage them to live out their faith in front of their kids.

What are some practical ways your church has brought generations together for worship?

We believe in and have created “rite of passage” experiences throughout our education and worship ministry. Every grade in our Milestones children’s program has a rite of passage that is carried out with children, parents, and supportive adult community members. When a student reaches junior high, they are taken on a confirmation retreat in which they officially become members of the San Clemente body. At the beginning of their senior year of high school, I, the youth director and the adult small group leaders take the students on a hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite and discuss their year ahead and the spiritual legacy they want to leave as student leaders. This tradition is so important I have parents of elementary age children telling me to keep in shape so I can take their child on this rite of passage hiking experience. At the end of their senior year, we have a blessing ceremony in which all high school students, graduating seniors, parents and congregation members participate. These are just a few of the ways we make our church intergenerational.

As a whole, we keep an intergenerational focus on all our assemblies so that every generation can engage in a meaningful experience together. We want our kids in worship with families. We have created worship services that value this.

What are some practical ways your church has brought generations together for community building?

We believe that most discipleship training and relationship building still needs to take place within age-specific groups. Why? Teenagers and adults both feel more comfortable within their particular age groups and need the security found among their peers. So we have focused on creating intergenerational community-building opportunities through church-wide service and mission projects. We place adults and children in situations in which community happens organically and does not feel forced or fabricated. Practically, we believe small group programs cannot produce the kind of relationships that serving alongside generations naturally produces. On more than one occasion, at the conclusion of an intergenerational Mexico mission experience in which students and adults have worked side by side, young and old alike will say, “This is what the body of Christ is about.” We trust in organic contact to produce quality relationships across generational lines.

Given how many churches do service and justice work, can you please help us understand a bit more about how you’ve made service experiences so intergenerational?

All of our service and mission projects are intentionally focused on breaking down generational barriers. For instance, if the youth team wants to do a mission trip, they go and plan it with the Short-Term Mission director. If the trip is approved, it becomes a church-wide mission trip that is open to all generations.

How does your church body include the not-so-nuclear families (i.e., blended families, singles) in your intergenerational youth ministry programming?

We celebrate all types of family scenarios present within our church family. We even honor “unofficial grandparents” (i.e., those who are older yet have no grandchildren involved in the San Clemente church body). We connect this population with younger believers in need of older mentoring relationships.

Has your youth ministry programming received any criticism for conducting intergenerational youth ministry programming? If so, is there a prevalent theme to the complaints? How has your church dealt with the criticism?

The nature of most complaints came from those who remembered the “good ole’” days in which large numbers of teenagers were involved in very public expressions of youth ministry. Youth choir trips, concerts and other programmatic big hitter events are remembered fondly even if they didn’t always produce the most lasting fruit. Those with nostalgic eyes take offense at anyone asking questions as to what defines youth ministry success. To these people, numbers demonstrated success. So when the “crowd numbers” (i.e., those produced through concerts, recreation trips, etc.) diminished, the complaints started.

What we had to do was redefine what success in youth ministry looked like. For instance, when the “critical numbers” (i.e., those produced through small group participation, teenagers joining the church in membership, going on mission trips, entering into church leadership, serving in larger church ministries, camps and Bible study) increased, we considered this as success. Furthermore, we have made it a habit to ask the larger questions of all our San Clemente events, youth and otherwise. Questions such as “Why are we doing this?,” “How do we develop more relationships?,” and “How will we know we are successful?” are a common part of our vocabulary. We reframe everything we do as a community—an extended family—because we want our teenagers to feel like they are at home when they are with the San Clemente extended family of believers.

Leadership has to be ready for criticism. Many of the parents sending their students to our youth ministry program saw our church as another good resource for turning their kids into good, moral, conservative capitalists. A consumerist model of youth ministry worked great for them. So when changes started occurring, their response was “Why make changes when we have the best youth group around?” They were defining success through numbers and volume of wholesome activity. Again, it is important that leaders learn to ask the hard questions and redefine success in youth ministry programming.

What do church leaders (e.g., senior pastors, deacon boards, elders, and youth workers) need to know about turning youth ministry programming more intergenerational?

Do not be afraid to ask the hard questions! Try these questions out:

Like a family business, who will take this over when we are gone?

What is our ultimate legacy?

What do we want to be known for?

How do we develop more relationships?

How do we know we are successful? What is the fruit we are looking for?

Ask important value questions that challenge your leadership and congregation to think outside the consumer-driven ministry model.

Action Points for Youth Workers

The San Clemente case study provides a number of practical application ideas for youth workers. Keep in mind that this church has traveled down the intergenerational highway farther than most, so do not become discouraged or impatient when examining your own ministry context. As you read in the interview, Tod’s experience represents a point in a journey—a journey that had plenty of speed bumps and potholes. Spend time discussing the San Clemente case study with your youth team, considering the following:

  • San Clemente Presbyterian Church still has a youth ministry “program.” There are still age-specific activities offered throughout the church. However, each program passes through an intergenerational and relational filter that is theologically based on I Peter 2:9-10. What is/are the theological underpinnings of our youth ministry program? How about our church? [This is a very important, basic step for any ministry programming. See Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark and David Rahn, eds., Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 109-124. See also Duffy Robbins, This Way to Youth Ministry: An introduction to the Adventure (Zondervan, 2004) as a resource for thinking theologically about youth ministry programming.]
  • Is our youth ministry program producing “consumers” or lifelong disciples? Explain your answer. (Note: the answer could be both/and).
  • What program(s) does our youth ministry offer out of “consumer” demand? What would it take to refocus the program(s)? What would it take to cancel the program(s)?
  • How do we find a balance between responding to students’ and families’ legitimate needs and desires and becoming too “consumer” oriented?
  • Like a family business, who will take this over when we are gone? Are they ready? Why or why not? Is this a good way to think about our ministry or not? What might be more helpful as an image if “family business” doesn’t work for us?
  • What is our ultimate legacy? What will students passing through our youth ministry remember from their experience?
  • How do we develop more intergenerational relationships?
  • How do we know we are successful? What is the fruit we are looking for? (Remember, numbers are not evil. As Tod noted, maybe your next step is to redefine the numbers you are counting)
  • What criticisms will our team face if we embrace an intergenerational programming focus? What, if any, will be the primary source of criticism? How do we plan to deal with such criticism? [A clearly communicated theological focus goes a long way in dealing with criticism in youth ministry. I suggest you read Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Press, 1985) for a great understanding of how congregations work and ideas for navigating change and conflict.]
  • Here are some of San Clemente’s intergenerational connections that Tod mentioned: rite of passage worship experiences, junior high confirmation/membership retreat, senior year leadership hike, senior graduation blessing worship service, intergenerational/church-wide service and mission projects, “unofficial grandparents”. Which of these could you implement in your ministry context now or in the near future? Which of these will take major discussion before implementing? Why? As a team, create your own list of intergenerational youth ministry programming ideas that might be more natural to your context and consider which might be best implemented.

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