Posted by: Titus Presler | October 17, 2009

Congregations unique in leveling the playing field for all ages

Religious congregations are the most level-playing-field multi-age communities in our society.  By multi-age, I mean, of course, the fact that congregations include infants, toddlers, children, pre-teens, teens, young adults, young marrieds and partnereds, families, middle-aged, aging and elderly people.

By level-playing-field communities I mean that every age has an equal place.  The institution is not set up to service any particular age, but all ages.    This is in contrast to many school events, where many ages are present, from younger siblings of students to their parents and their grandparents, but everyone is clear that the main show is the students, whether elementary, middle or high school students.  It’s in contrast to scouting recognitions, where many ages are present, but it’s clear that it’s the scouts for whom the organization exists.  Obviously, it’s a contrast with nursing homes, which are centered on the elderly.  Sporting clubs, like golf clubs and yacht clubs, often have many ages as members, and they form a community, but a comparatively one-dimensional community, gathered around that one sporting event and those who can pursue it.

Religious congregations, by contrast, are multi-dimensional: worshipful, musical, social, educational, missional, celebratory, sometimes even political, and so on.  In all these dimensions the institution exists for everyone equally and not for any particular age group over any other age group.  It is truly cradle-to-grave in a way that no other institution in society is.

I see this week by week at the Church of St. Simon the Cyrenian in New Rochelle, which, like most religious congregations, is a community of all ages.  Recently the college students went back to their universities, but over the summer Rosemary and Tamra served as very competent and committed acolytes in the liturgies, and they and others received scholarship cheques from a fund raised by parishioners.  Before the service I see Gloria downstairs with her small group of about eight primary and elementary children in a Sunday School class: modest, not ambitious, but very committed and fruitful.  Between the services there’s a lay-led Bible study that’s attended pretty much by older people, though a few middle-ageds join them.  Sitting in the Sunday worship are families with children, teens and young adults.  There are lots of middle-aged and older people, and they’re not just in the pews.  There’s a 91-year-old in the choir and also an 86-year-old.  I was touched this past Sunday when an elderly person asked me to pray for him because he feels he’s beginning to lose his short-term memory.  So worship leadership on the dais – not simply participation but leadership – usually ranges from middle schoolers to the very elderly – a very wide range indeed.

One way to look at this is that God is The Great Leveler.  When people gather to be with God, they gather simply as humans.  They don’t gather as people who have particular gifts and abilities, still less particular careers or professions, nor as people at a particular time of life.  Rather they gather simply as humans, because before God we’re all fundamentally equal, regardless of characteristics that may otherwise distinguish us from one another.  Now religious institutions have lots of hierarchies, and particular congregations may be known for an authoritarianism that stifles dissent.  And many churches have, unfortunately, hugged various distinctions to themselves, so that we now have white churches and black churches, churches of various national and ethnic origins, churches of the affluent and churches of the poor.  Too true, but these are distortions.  The more fundamental reality is that because they’re gathered around God, the true nature of religious congregations is that they are egalitarian and democratic, because before God our various distinctions shouldn’t make a difference.

And that applies to age as well.

Coming out of this, the one suggestion I make to ourselves is that we recognize our peculiar nature as multi-age institutions and then build on that reality.  Too often our focus is on dividing up the age groups within our congregations.  If there’s not a youth program, then we feel there’s something wrong with us.  If there’s not a silver-threads group of some kind, then we’re not reaching the elderly.  And what about a young adults group?  And a group for young mothers, and so on?  Then this gets extended even to having age-separated worship events, so that, in Christian settings, there may be a particular Sunday service called the “family service,” and in some parishes there’s a special Sunday service for children, with their parents invited along as well.  The later, more traditional 11 o’clock service then gets stereotyped as the service for “older people.”  And it’s true that having groups that address the needs of particular age groups within congregations does often promote congregational growth and vitality.

Balancing these efforts, however, should be a recognition that our particular gift is that we are the only significant multi-age level-playing-field communities in society.  Everywhere else people are divided up according to age, so in our congregations the age differentiation should be limited and balanced by our multi-generational giftedness.  In addition to providing opportunities for ages to be with their own, we should be initiating opportunities for the ages to be together, celebrate together and learn from each other.

– At a congregational picnic, for instance, when often the age groups hive off together, how would it be to pair five young adults with five elderly, ask them to have a conversation together sometime during the picnic, and then at some point have each person share with the whole group what he or she found out about the other?

– In visiting the sick and the shut-in, each middle-aged visitor might make a point from time to time of taking a teenager along for the visit.  The teen could have what might be a rare conversation with an older person, while the older person could experience a youthful person.

– In prayer groups, combining the ages can enrich the group’s life.  I led a men’s prayer morning last winter, and one of the middle-aged participants brought along his college-age son.  That opened up the tone and quality of the morning.  Likewise, younger participants can be steadied and deepened by the insight of the older participants.

As congregations do more to live into and celebrate their multi-generational giftedness, they can share that gift with their wider communities of neighborhood and town.  What the congregations do along these lines can spill over into park programs, public libraries, musical programs, recreational ventures and even town government.

Livable communities are integrated communities, communities that integrate races, nationalities, languages, lifestyles and, yes, ages.  A community brings the ages together for mutual enjoyment and learning is a whole community, a learning community, and an authentic community.

Congregations: Models of Level-Playing-Field Communities for all Ages: Remarks by the Rev. Canon Dr. Titus Presler at the Panel “Communities for All Ages through Congregational Engagement” at the First Regional Livable Communities Conference, sponsored by the Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services in partnership with AARP, the Westchester Partnership for Aging Services, and the Volunteer Center of United Way.  Friday, 2 October 2009, Westchester Marriott, Tarrytown, NY

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