Intergenerational Ministry in the Weird World of COVID-19
Cory Seibel, PhD, is a pastor at Central Baptist Church in Edmonton, Alberta
Looking back, the decision to cancel face-to-face services at our church was a no-brainer. During that Friday morning emergency meeting, however, our staff team felt the full weight of this decision. At that early stage of Canada’s COVID-19 crisis, we were hearing on the news that older adults were especially at risk and that children might be “super-spreaders” (an assumption that has since been called into question).
Based upon the information we had at our disposal, we ultimately concluded that bringing the generations of our church family together that Sunday was simply too risky.
This was especially hard on me. One of my top priorities as a pastor has been to see our church grow as a vibrant community of faith in which people of all generations worship, serve, learn, and grow together. Now, as we entered the strange new world of COVID-19, so many of the ways in which our congregation had been learning to live into this intergenerational vision came to a screeching halt.
This pandemic has forced all of us as church leaders to ask questions we’ve never faced before. So, one might ask, is all this effort to bring the generations together even worth it? In a world that is being radically reshaped by our experience of COVID-19, is this even realistic anymore?
One basic theological truth that has gotten lots of attention on social media in recent months is that the church is more than its Sunday morning gathering. During this pandemic crisis, churches have been forced to find new ways of doing things. Yet they haven’t stopped being the church. The same rings true for this commitment to being an intergenerational community.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m more convinced than ever that this is important. Here are four ways that the world of COVID-19 has highlighted for me the importance of connecting the generations within the church.
1. CARING ACROSS GENERATIONS
As soon as the COVID crisis began to gain momentum in Alberta, our staff was flooded with communications from church members desiring to help others. Many anticipated than seniors would be especially in need of assistance.
One small group composed mostly of twentysomething young adults emailed to express their desire to care for their elders: “…we would like to offer our hands, in whatever capacity they might be useful, to help meet the needs of our congregation during this time. Whether it’s doing grocery runs, picking up supplies, or just giving someone a phone call, we would love to help as best we can.”
At the same time, some young moms in our church have struggled with feeling overwhelmed at times during this COVID period. The disruption of the daily rhythms of family life caused by sheltering-in-place restrictions and the demands of school-from-home have added tremendous stress to their lives. I have been encouraged by stories of middle-aged women in the church reaching out to these moms to offer support, prayer, and assistance.
In reality, the church always benefits when the generations care for one another like this. It enables a congregation to foster a culture of care that is much harder to achieve when the generations keep to themselves.
2. SHARING FAITH ACROSS GENERATIONS
Storytelling might seem like a trivial matter in the grand scheme of things. However, it is immensely important. Each of us is engaged in an ongoing process of narrating our own lives, interpreting our experiences, and trying to figure out what sort of story we find ourselves in. The COVID-19 period has thrust many Christians into wrestling with questions about what God is up to amid the circumstances of their lives (job loss, isolation, loss of loved ones, etc).
This has made me especially grateful for the older adults of our church and the stories they bear. The stories of the profound trials many of them experienced as young adults in Poland in the years following WWII are mind-blowing. But these stories also are saturated with an awareness of God’s presence and faithfulness. As a congregation, we benefit from these stories of faith and the perspective they can offer us when we find ourselves immersed in seasons of disruption, crisis, and uncertainty.
This sharing of stories across generations—by both young and old—can be a vital resource within any community of faith. It provides a living expression of what David pictures in Psalm 145:4: “One generation commends your works to another…”
3. SERVING ACROSS GENERATIONS
One of the exciting intergenerational initiatives that was birthed within our church in recent years is the Love Kitchen. Begun by a few Boomer-aged women, this ministry has brought people from various generations together each month to prepare healthy meals that are frozen and then made available to households in need.
Once the COVID crisis began, it wasn’t possible to continue these monthly kitchen sessions. Fortunately, these diligent servants had already prepared an impressive stockpile of frozen meals. On several occasions during this pandemic period, families in need have benefited from the efforts of this intergenerational group.
When people of different generations serve together through opportunities like the Love Kitchen, this enables them to develop rapport, to direct their shared energies beyond themselves toward helping others, and to grow together in a Christlike posture of servanthood.
It has been encouraging to see some of the new ways that this has gained expression during this COVID-19 period. For example, several of our intergenerational neighbourhood groups have discovered opportunities to serve the community around them. I am eager to see how this commitment to serving together across the generations continues to take new form in the months ahead.
4. BEARING WITNESS TOGETHER ACROSS GENERATIONS
I admittedly have been surprised and troubled by some of the ageist messages that have surfaced on social media and the evening news during this COVID crisis. Some young people have been dismissive toward the risk their public behaviour could have on the well being of older adults. A few US politicians have even suggested that it was the patriotic duty of older adults to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy!
As Christians, we believe that people of all ages are made in God’s image and are of inherent worth. We belong to a community of faith in which people of all generations are learning to “value others above [our]selves, not looking to [our] own interests but…to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
While honouring and protecting one another across the generations often doesn’t look that impressive, it is actually pretty radical. The COVID-19 period has helped to emphasize how much this way of being the church departs from “the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). Simply by striving to live faithfully as an intergenerational community, the church signals something to the world about God’s true intentions for humanity.
I believe that caring, sharing, and serving together across the generations can continue to be a powerful facet of our prophetic witness, our “embodied apologetic,” within our communities.
Today, as life in Alberta begins gradually to ramp back up, it seems clear that it will be a while before we can come together as an intergenerational community in precisely the same ways we did before. Yet, I believe we can continue to find new opportunities to grow as a vibrant community of faith in which people of all generations worship, serve, learn, and grow together.
What We Are Reading
Where is God in a Coronavirus World?
John C. Lennox
John Lennox is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known Christian apologist. Professor Lennox, home-confined like so many of us, sat down one Monday morning a few months ago with a question: what might I have to say from a Christian’s perspective about the situation we find ourselves in these days? By the weekend he’d written the book, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? He then sent the manuscript to a publisher and by the following Wednesday the first print copy was off the press. The book doesn’t directly answer hard questions but sensitively, selectively and wisely provides scholarly and pastoral perspectives on issues such as the presence of God pain and suffering, coping and hope. He says that whatever one’s “faith or belief system, the big questions of life are breaking through to the surface, demanding attention” during the Covid-19 pandemic. The questions addressed are longstanding ones and Lennox’s treatment of these will have high relevance in the midst of and long after Covid-19. Lennox says “We each need to make sense of coronavirus in three different ways: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. All are important—and together they present a formidable challenge to anyone.” Perhaps the most profound moment for me was Lennox’s citing the insightful words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon who is attributed with saying: “God is too good to be unkind. And He is too wise to be mistaken. When we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.” I also enjoyed the Trinity Forum session with John at the end of May. I notice there are numerous other Youtube sessions with Professor Lennox discussing the book and that the price point on this small book make it one that could easily be given away to people (also in numerous languages, audiobook and kindle formats).
Also note St. Andrew’s University Professor N.T. Wright’s God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (June 2020, Zondervan).
Dr. Keith Walker is Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership at the University of Saskatchewan where, with colleagues, he is launching a new professional doctoral in educational leadership. Find out more.
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