I can do that!: Embracing Intergenerational Parish Ministry
The Acolyte Master was clearly angry. As we gathered around the table after service to discuss the formation needs of the children and youth, he looked ready to burst a blood vessel. Finally I turned to him and asked, “Is there something you’d like to say?” “Well, yes there is as a matter of fact” he said vehemently and proceeded to explain that in this congregation, after Confirmation, youth became acolytes. He was very annoyed that several recently confirmed boys had neglected to respond to his phone calls and e-mails and had never shown up for acolyte training. I asked him if becoming an acolyte was an invitation or an expectation. He looked at me as if I had just flown in from Jupiter. I then said, “Perhaps they don’t want to be acolytes”. His eyebrows went up and his eyes got big as saucers. I continued, “Well, don’t we want the people serving around God’s table to actually want to be there?” I believe this was the moment at which he totally tuned me out.
How do we engage (or fail to engage) children and youth in the parish? Unfortunately many times we assign, pigeonhole, marginalize or ignore rather than invite them into ministry. With all good intentions we may: tell the youth group to set up the chairs and tables for the outreach dinner; decide that the appropriate ministry for youth is being an acolyte; exclude children from weekly worship until the Peace; forget about them most of the year except for the annual Christmas pageant. Yet somehow we hope/expect that they will be interested in and attend church and bemoan the fact that they stop attending, often right after Confirmation and hardly ever come back as young adults.
How do we keep them interested? It might help if they were engaged in a real way in the life of the parish and given opportunities to explore and claim their ministries and thus their places in the community. There is a real disconnect between what we say about baptismal ministry and what we actually do about it. We baptize babies and young children yet we seldom create opportunities for them to explore, grow into and claim their own baptismal ministries. The truth is that we hardly use the words call, discernment, ministry or vocation with any age group much less with the younger generation. Why do we wait to begin that conversation with middle-aged or older folks? How and when and why did we decide that young people can only do certain things? How can we expect young people to be engaged when there are lots of expectations of them but precious little invitation extended to them? It’s time to open up the ministries to all ages. The ministries of the church are not the possessions of the adults. Few things that we do in church are so complex that young people can’t participate in most if not all of them in age appropriate ways. What we do is not rocket science. I bet there are some young people in your congregation who observe the different ministries and think, “I can do that!” Give them the opportunity. Take a good look at all the ministries in your congregation and figure out what’s involved and how to invite young people into them.
- greet people at the door (hopefully with a smile)
- hand out bulletins
- pass the alms basin
- take up the elements at the offertory
- guide traffic at the time of communion.
Paired with an adult or seasoned person, an interested young person could try on the different facets of this ministry in age appropriate ways perhaps becoming a valued member of the team, developing new cross-generational relationships at the same time. Where else could this kind of invitation happen? The Altar Guild? The Outreach Committee?
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)
The church is an intergenerational community. It’s time to live that reality. Is your congregation ready to embrace a new way of doing ministry?
The Rev. Canon Patricia Mitchell is the Canon for Christian Formation in the Diocese of New York.
Photo used from the Creative Commons on Flikr.