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Worship is hands-on at Burdekin Uniting Church, where the congregation enjoys coming together across the generations. Photo by Burdekin Uniting Church.
Worship is hands-on at Burdekin Uniting Church, where the congregation enjoys coming together across the generations. Photo: Burdekin Uniting Church

Generation whatever: Bridging the worship divide

Whenever two or three gather together in God’s name there will be at least that many views on how to worship. Add different generations into the mix, and being one in the Lord is a challenging task for any worship team. Dianne Jensen reports.

We know that there are big differences between age cohorts, but why is it so difficult to design a worship experience which engages and sustains the whole family of God?

Rev Josie Neuendorff is a member of the Assembly worship working group, dividing her time between the Centenary congregation in Brisbane and the Presbytery of Bremer Brisbane.

Her experience as a young Uniting Church member sparked research into how different generations approach and participate in worship. Those insights were used in a series of Living Generations workshops for Bremer Brisbane and South Moreton Presbyteries conducted by Josie earlier this year.

What makes us tick

Josie suggests that understanding the generational divide is the first step towards identifying who’s missing from our congregations, and why.

In brief, social researchers use the following classifications: Builders (born before 1946), Boomers (1946–1964), Gen X (1965–1979), Gen Y (1980-1994), Gen Z (1995–2009) and Alpha (born 2010 and after).

Many of the attributes are self-evident. Builders, overshadowed by the hardships of the Depression and World War II, understand the importance of duty, industry and thrift. Boomers are both hard working and idealistic—remember the Jesus People? They are used to responsibility and are the ones in charge at most churches.

Gen X, the first generation to experience two working parents, value work-life balance and are often suffering financial stress. They are seekers of truth. For Gen Y, social awareness and friends are a priority, and commitment can wait. Both these groups are generally tolerant of diversity, especially in terms of sexuality.

As for Gen Z, these are the most educated generation in Australia and they know it. They have a high level of self-centred individualism, and although worldly wise are averse to risk.

To discover how these attributes affect our approach to worship, Josie looked at the ways in which young people engage with each other and the world. As a Gen Y, she suggests that the broad difference between older groups and under 40s is around the “heart head hand” approach.

“Services which are more alert to generations might unpack a Bible reading, think about how that might look in our world right now, and help create space for people to be able to respond. This is ‘heart head hand’: something emotional, something intellectual and then something about how do I respond, what can I actually do about this, and how will I be different when I leave this place?”

The desire for “authentic community, not just another social network” runs strongly in both Gen X and Gen Y, she adds, as does the desire to contribute.

“Gen Ys and Xs want to engage and participate and lead; different styles of worship are helpful in that they get to have conversations or to participate in different ways other than just hearing. Builders would much rather just receive and that is how they participate and engage—it is much more passive.”

And rather than getting caught up in church politics, both Gen X and Gen Y are “voting with their feet” says Josie. “If church is not meeting their needs and those of their family then they are happy to go somewhere else.”

How we worship

Some churches have responded to the generational challenge by tweaking their regular service to include some child-friendly segments or adding a few contemporary songs.

Rev David MacGregor, a well-known songwriter and longtime member of the Assembly worship working group, cautions against confusing children’s or youth services with intergenerational worship.

David is minister at Wellers Hill-Tarragindi Uniting Church in Brisbane and one of the team which collaboratively wrote and sourced Uniting in Worship 2.

“There needs to be some ‘connection points’ for the various ages and generations present. Whether it is a song or hymn, a prayer, some ritual movement, folk need to have those components in the worship which are familiar,” says David.

“This should apply to all worship, but it’s vital to factor in the variety of ways people across the generations engage with faith and worship—learning and spiritual styles, multiple intelligences, personality types and so on. Above all, to ensure that the intergenerational worship is indeed worship … not just a series of concert-style presentations or items.”

Rev Mel Perkins, Adult Faith Educator at Trinity College Queensland adds that worship which is truly participatory goes beyond a token involvement of different age groups.

“I have been in worship where if a child reads or you have the Sunday school get up and sing, people will applaud. That is not quite what worship is about, it is not about performing … we don’t applaud when an adult gets up and reads.

“Intergenerational worship is something far more intentional where you are actually respecting that all of the people of God, no matter what age they happen to be, have something to offer to each other. And that has to be reflected across everything that that group does, so you see younger people involved in leadership, all ages involved in mission, and older and younger people coming and spending time with each other.”

Tips for intergenerational worship

Tips for intergenerational worship

Open hearts and minds

Rev Greg Rankin is the minister at Burdekin Uniting Church, with worship centres at Ayr and Home Hill.

Like many congregations, Burdekin has a strong contingent of retired folk and a smaller group of parents with older children and teenagers.

Professionals posted to the area are frequent attenders along with local young families.

It’s a church where the concept of intergenerational worship has been welcomed.

“There is an acceptance of exploring creative ways of doing worship and more contemporary ways of putting together a service,” says Greg. “There is a sense that although I may not enjoy this particular part of a worship service, there are others that find it really meaningful and engaging.”

He suggests that the key to exploring new forms is to strip worship back to its essential elements, tailoring each service around the basic framework.

“Through a service the idea is that you are touching people in different ways; you don’t have to touch people in every way in every service—as long as in each service there are slightly different points, ways of people connecting with the message and with God, and that you don’t do it the same way every service,” he says.

“For example, there are so many different and creative ways to do prayers, such as popcorn prayers or having different people or a family organised to pray about specific things … if we have got a topic and there are different elements then we might have different people around the church who get up and pray.”

Getting together

Many churches have chosen to deal with intergenerational differences by offering a range of worship options, says Josie Neuendorff, and there are good reasons for doing so.

“Don’t feel sad if Gen Ys meet in a separate place most of the time and have their own sense of community. It is okay to have more than one service to cater for more than one generation, but it would be great if at times you could bring those together so that you have the whole people of God.”

She suggests that the bottom line for every generation, no matter how we worship, is an encounter with God that moves our hearts, our souls and our minds.

“The truth is a young person will sit through worship using an organ and old style hymns if the service is something that feeds them and engages them in how to live their faith and how to grow their relationship with God.”

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