By Melissa Cooper
You’ve heard it’s a good idea. You read a book and a few articles. The church leadership is on board. You’re going to do it: intergenerational Sunday school.
Intergenerational discipleship is one of the greatest challenges churches are facing today. But should it be? While our generations are more divided than ever in the church, intergenerational faith formation is a core practice that has been part of religious culture since the beginning.
By approaching this discipleship from a 21st century lens, you can revive the practice and make it effective and engaging. The first step is finding or creating a curriculum that works for all participants.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
It’s easier to adapt a kids’ curriculum to include adults than vice versa.
You’re better off looking at a children or youth curriculum for a completely intergenerational experience. Adult curriculums are often made specifically to challenge more mature minds and are difficult to make kid-friendly. But remember, when I say take a kids’ curriculum and adapt it up, be sure you do actually adapt it to meet your adult generations where they are, too.
What’s good for kids is good for adults.
Adults may be capable of growth through simply reading a book and having small group discussion. But even adults enjoy getting to do hands-on activities and acting silly every once in a while. This is good news! It gives you more freedom and options when selecting a curriculum for your intergenerational Sunday school class.
Look for a well-rounded curriculum.
Activities are great, but you will want a curriculum that provides opportunities for class discussion in addition to structured interactive experiences. Storytelling is the key practice of intergenerational discipleship, and classroom discussion ensures stories are shared across the generations.
Choose curriculum based on your context, then adapt.
Curriculum in any congregation is only as good as its adaptation to your specific setting. Consider what “intergenerational” looks like for you. What ages does it include? Anticipate how many people are likely to participate in your intergenerational Sunday school program.
Consider the space you have to work in. If the curriculum you choose requires a large, open play space but you only have a room stuffed with tables and chairs, you’ll want to choose a different curriculum. Or, at least, choose only the activities that work with your space and age span. If your group includes a significant number of prereaders, use more visually driven curriculum than language-driven.
Don’t only focus on the kids.
Remember: this isn’t kids’ Sunday School that you’re inviting adults to attend. This experience should be as educational and faith-forming for adults as it is for the children and youth who participate.
Sunday School can be a catalyst for transformational discipleship, so don’t shy away from topics or theology that goes above the youngest participants’ heads. While you do need to ensure there’s something for everyone, everything doesn’t have to be for everyone. Be sure you are challenging the adults in the group to grow in their own faith as much as the kids and youth.
Here’s the good news. Almost any curriculum can work for intergenerational Sunday School. (Almost.) And while curriculum is often your first important choice, remember it’s not your most important choice. It is a tool with which you build intergenerational relationships and foster discipleship. Keep those relationships as your primary focus, and you can’t go wrong!
Setting Up Your Space
If there’s anything I learned from nearly a decade in camp and retreat ministry, it’s that place matters. While you may have the best printed curriculum in the world, your curriculum doesn’t only exist on paper. Where something happens ends up being part of your “curriculum” whether you’ve planned for it to or not.
While we know that God can show up anywhere (really, God’s already there anyway, right?), it is our responsibility as ministry leaders to create the best possible environments in which individuals and communities can experience God’s presence and grow in God’s love and knowledge.
It’s true for any church event or activity, and it’s especially true when you’re creating your space for an intergenerational Sunday School experience. You may not have a plethora of options for which room you meet in, but you can be intentional about how you set up your classroom.
Here are a few suggestions to help you craft the perfect context:
Don’t create separate spaces for each age group.
While you may find yourself inclined to create a craft area for kids, a cool hangout space for teens, and a traditional theater or classroom style area for adults, resist that urge. When you separate ages in the room, you’ve created a multigenerational space rather than intergenerational. If your goal is to facilitate intergenerational relationships and intergenerational learning,
Do ensure the space is flexible.
The best intergenerational experiences usually involve a variety of activity types, so fixed chairs or pews aren’t ideal, unless your space is large enough to have a few different “spaces within a space” for different activities.
Do ensure there are multiple seating options.
Sometimes folks with mobility issues do better if chairs have arms. Sometimes kids with sensory challenges prefer chairs that move, like rocking chairs. Young parents or grandparents with infants may be able to participate if there’s a rocking chair or two available. These seating alternatives don’t have to be your primary option, but having them available as needed can create an environment that includes those who might otherwise be unable to participate.
Don’t offer only one way to participate.
This may sound like a curriculum recommendation, but it’s about how you set up your space, too. “Sit and listen” works as well for some adults as it does for toddlers, so providing a variety of alternatives is inclusive of all ages, not just children.
Having a table in the back of the room where individuals can choose coloring sheets, quiet craft supplies or other “fidgets” can allow for different learning styles and attention spans to engage throughout the whole experience, even if they aren’t doing the prescribed activity.
It’s also important to acknowledge that these “fidget options” are not just for the pre-pubescent crowd. Many adults benefit as much as kids from these alternatives; they just need the permission to utilize them.
Do ensure everyone has a seat at the table.
In my experience, for focused and hands-on activities, a literal table works best. By placing participants around tables rather than just in chairs, you give a physical foundation for everyone to work at and around. It brings everyone to the same level, regardless of age, stage or stature.
By providing tables as the grounding element in your setup, even those who are coloring or crafting in another way than the defined curriculum can still be a part of the community, because they’re still at the table together, rather than segregated into a separate “fidget space.”
Above all, though, know your people. You know the needs and personalities of your participants better than anyone, so take some time to anticipate how your room setup might impact the individual needs of your community.
Melissa Cooper is a United Methodist clergywoman who serves as a ministry coach and consultant with expertise in intergenerational ministry and intergenerational culture building.
This information is courtesy of Sparkhouse, which strives to deliver resources that help you engage and build faith in your community with innovative Bibles, curricula, and workshops from birth to adult, www.wearesparkhouse.org.