In developing this method of intergenerational services, I’ve made a few discoveries – some by employing insight, but most by bumbling through mistakes and learning the lessons they have to teach.

Stories are naturally informative, insightful, fun, inspiring and directive. So are sermons. There are stylistic differences between the two as well as other distinctions. However, one of the biggest differences is that sermons always exist within the context of a worship service. In other words, they are intentionally set up to be pronouncements of a sacred nature. This is done by intentionally shaping the liturgy of the service to be within a worshipful context that are also psychologically, emotionally and spiritually stirring.

Liturgy has a way of asking the participant to be reflective one moment and then to consider others and the larger world in the next moment. There is a back and forth movement between these internal-external contemplations during a worship service that moves the participant deeper and deeper place of personal reflection such that, by the time the sermon comes, the participant is prepared to receive this sharing at the deepest level – at the place most likely to connect with the unconscious.

Thus, in order for a story to have the same power and transformative effect that a sermon has, it must also make use of liturgy to support it and to prepare the listener for the full impact of the message being offered.

Since much of what the liturgy has to offer is based on creating a sense of the familiar, through weekly repetition, it is important to keep that sense of familiarity intact. For some, coming to worship can be like settling into a comfortable old chair. It can be most disconcerting or distracting to change chairs, or face the chair in another direction. If we are trying to invoke a sense of worship while trying something new, it is important to keep as much the same as possible. It is for this reason that I recommend the following format suggestions for Intergenerational Worship:

1. Identify your liturgy and keep it sacred

Most congregations have a virtually identical liturgy week after week. Most congregants, though they won’t always realize it, become very attached to the specific elements and their order. If some element is omitted or in the wrong order it can distract the worship participant and keep them from relaxing and being completely receptive to the message.

As an example, I list the typical Sunday liturgy of the UU Metro Atlanta North (UUMAN – pronounced ‘human’) Congregation which I serve.

Call to Worship
Chalice Lighting
Welcome and Announcements
Opening Hymn
Hand of Friendship
Joys and Concerns
Prayer of Affirmation
Anthem (Choral Presentation)
Thanksgiving (‘We give thanks for this offering…’)
Offertory Response (Doxology)
Meditation – Silence – Musical Interlude
Closing Hymn
Go in Peace

Within this liturgy, there are elements that are expendable without notice and there are elements whose omission is accompanied by great gnashing of teeth. The trick is to identify the elements that are most precious to the congregation and make sure these are included in any whatever worship service we have – including, and especially, intergenerational worship services.

For UUMAN the parts of the liturgy I must include are the following:

  • Chalice Lighting
  • Welcome and Announcements (much briefer version)
  • Hand of Friendship
  • Joys and Concerns
  • Offertory – Thanksgiving – Offertory Response
  • EITHER the Prayer of Affirmation OR the Meditation
  • Benediction

Remembering to include the essential aspects of liturgy, including the use of special phrasing or other comfortable rituals, are important not only because they help keep us mindful that this is worship and we are comforted by the familiar. But also because we want our children to be able to recognize what it is we do in worship. We want them to understand ‘the way’ we worship so when they participate in neighboring church programs, they will be able to see the distinctions and the similarities.

2. Make sure that the story uses the elements of liturgy to expound upon the meaning of the story

Each one of these elements of liturgy can be used to take the ideals of the protagonist and the challenges he/she faces and make them relevant to the congregation. Oftentimes, the story will be presented in a metaphorical stance. For example, in Lost in the UU Jungle, a little boy is lost in a strange place (that turns out to be a department store). Yet, the elements of liturgy make it possible to make the connection between being lost in a department store (which is not tremendously relevant to any of us) and what it feels like to be lost in a new place like our church and be surrounded by people we don’t always know (something relevant to most of us).

3. Use two voices in holding up the story and its message

One of the most important facets of this method is the tandem of presenters that is in every intergenerational worship service on this site. The two key roles are always the narrator and the service leader.

The narrator will tell the story. Through the description, the action and the voices used for the characters and whatever sound effects, the story is shared and the protagonist’s ideals, struggles, transformation and learnings are ours. The narrator is responsible for pulling much of the story together. The narrator will control the speed of the action with the speed and urgency of her/his reading.

Most stories, when they are told in public forums, are usually presented without commentary. Commentary, however can be a good thing. Commentary is generally associated with certain situations: coming from people we respect and trust; often coming from family or extended family; people who we know care about us; people whose values are enough like ours that we see that their struggles are similar to our struggles. It is for this reason that commentary in our congregational worship is not only very appropriate but a clear responsibility that should not be neglected.

To take the role of commentary out of the hands of the narrator helps make the narrator more effective at carrying the story forward and helps the reflection stand out more.

Much too often in our society we neglect to contemplate. We are constantly surrounded by a great breadth of interesting insight: examples of social, moral, relational, psychological, scientific relevance. It is not that we don’t understand them; more often it is that we fail to pay them much mind, which is to say that we neglect to stop and consider them.

Intergenerational worship is designed to present a microcosm of relevance, and then, intentionally ask the worship participants to consider the significance of what we’ve seen. How is it related to us? How have we struggled with this dilemma in the past? Has it cost us anything? How could we learn to rise above this challenge with our values and outlook in good stead? Here is where the role of the service leader becomes key.

A good service leader will not intrude on the story but simply make the connections between what we’ve just considered and what we consider on a weekly basis:

  • Chalice lighting – from where is our vision cast and to what do we aspire?
  • Hand of Friendship – who are my brothers and sisters?
  • Joys and concerns – to what am I mindful?
  • Prayer – for what am I thankful and for what do I wish?
  • Meditation – what needs to be done?
  • Offertory – what can I do?

In this way the service leader will help us to imagine ourselves in such a struggle, forcing us to exercise our values and posit where we might waver and what we might chose. Hopefully, the service leader will help people consider ideas they’ve not explored fully before and stretch their understanding. At the very least, a service leader can help us see the many facets of a familiar problem.

A service leader will always try and be a spiritual presence. That means that the service leader will always attempt to convey love. And acceptance. And understanding. And gentility. But also a sense of conviction and high ideals.

The narrator, in order to be effective, may at various points, take on the attributes of one of the characters she/he is reading. This can be confusing if she/he is also trying to simultaneously offer that spiritual presence.

A good narrator – service leader team can, through good communication, make intergenerational worship engaging, effective and fun. But to have those two roles confused can make the presentation muddy by hiding the message behind a character’s personality and putting too much responsibility on the worship participant to separate the two functions.

4. Sequence the plot development throughout the service

Stories have six essential parts:

a. (Opening) Character introduction and development and revealing of the character’s ideals / goals. Hint at the conflict of the story.

b. Introducing the conflict which threatens the character’s goals

c. Elaborate on the relationship between the protagonist and the conflict; show how the character attempts to overcome the conflict and how such struggle affects other characters.

d. Further wrestling with the conflict

e. Introduction of ‘the hook’ or the ‘aha moment.’ Resolution of the conflict

f. (Epilogue) Character moving beyond the conflict and the lessons learned and differences made for everyone involved.

If these are the various elements of a story, it makes sense that each of these elements is presented within the worship service. What I have done is to try and write the story in six parts and weaving the liturgy around these parts. A typical outline for an intergenerational service I write will look as follows:

  • Prelude or Processional Hymn
  • Story Opening (Introduce Protagonist and hint at conflict)
    Chalice Lighting
  • Welcome and Announcements
  • Story Part II (Expound on protagonist’s character, ideals and the impending conflict)
  • Hymn
  • Story Part III (Relationship between protagonist, conflict and the effect it has on other characters)
  • Joys and Concerns
  • Prayer
  • Story Part IV (Further wrestling and the insights that are gathered)
  • Hymn
  • Story Part V (Reframing of the conflict and the taking of a new approach in a way that helps to meet the original goal)
  • Offertory – Thanksgiving – Offertory Response
  • Story Epilogue (revealing the lessons learned and the effect it has on other characters).
  • Hymn
  • Benediction

This provides an opportunity to present the story and use the liturgy to provide commentary. For example, in the story opening, the protagonist is presented, the dream / goal of the character is revealed and a hint of the conflict is offered. The first element of the liturgy which follows the opening is the Chalice Lighting. The chalice lighting universalizes the protagonist’s ideals such that we identify with his/her aims. And, the chalice lighting might also elude to the conflict being explored.

In the production, "The Polar Express" the story opens about the grandfather who cannot hear but, looking out the window, can still seem to sense the magic of Christmas approaching. The goal of the story is to show that it is not with our senses that we experience the magic of Christmas. The conflict is that the grandfather’s daughter and her husband discount the grandfather’s whimsy as a combination of senility and sentimentality. Some of this is eluded to in the story’s opening. But it is reinforced in the chalice lighting:

We light this chalice because we believe
That the things we cannot see
Cannot point to or prove
Can still weave magic and miracles
From the ordinary strands of our lives

Each successive element of the liturgy helps to shore up the story’s development. Each element of the liturgy helps us to connect the relevance of the character’s experiences to our own. It is typical to use the liturgy to say things such as, "…like our character, we have all encountered times where the journey before us was fraught with peril…"

If we are using the joys and concerns to comment on the story we might state the character’s joys and concerns first and then invite others to do the same. If we are doing the prayer, we might have the protagonist of the story pray, or one of the other character’s pray for the protagonist. If we are in the meditation we might ask some penetrating questions about what this challenge is asking of us and what we have to do in order to meet the demands before us. If it is the offering we can ask what are we willing to give in order to reach our goals.

5. Flow of the liturgy

One of the other important aspects that the liturgy is able to do is to present a good flow for the service. For younger and older members alike it is difficult to absorb so many words and conflicts – even if they are presented with action and movement and character illustration. Our minds simply become clogged with so much information to process.

One of the areas that helps us to process information are opportunities to process the information. These can be invitations to sit in silence or opportunities to clear our mind and join together in singing.

Words, music and silence are the three modes of a worship service. Ideally, if they are used in good proportions to one another and if they are able to establish a rhythm, it makes it easier for viewers to enjoyable absorb the information being presented. If too many words are piled on top of one another we become overwhelmed or tired. If too much music is presented then we become bored. If too much silence is offered we become fidgety or uncomfortable.

But each of these elements has the ability to give us a rest and allows us to process the information already given and prepare to receive new information.

For this reason, it is sometimes nice to have music intertwined into the telling of the story. Sometimes, it is interesting to have each character have it’s own melody. Or, use a different instrument to introduce a new character and be played each time the character returns to the stage. Not only does this help heighten the dramatic effect and give the characters some personality, but it gives the congregation a chance to briefly rest their mind so they are ready to take in new information. Yet these interludes should not be so long so as to be distracting or cause impatience. About five seconds is about as much as you’d ever need for this purpose.

6. Length of the Story

In order for a story to work well and have the service end up being approximately 50-60 minutes, it is important to choose a story of appropriate length. My experience usually leads me to stories that are between 3300 and 4200 words.

Not only does this achieve a good overall length of the service, but it forces the producer to stay on task. In other words, 3500 words allows you to tell a story with a considerable amount of depth, character exploration, humor and detail. However, it is not so long that it will afford you time to meander or get side-tracked on peripheral issues. It is very important, therefore, to choose a story that has ONE theme.

It is always best to choose one theme, wrestle with it significantly and resolve it completely, rather than choose several themes, wrestle with them lightly and not resolve any of them fully. It is frustrating to the viewer to portray an issue they are personally experiencing in their life and trivialize it by not exploring it fully or leaving it unresolved. And if you are picking an issue that is not already under some scrutiny by members of your congregation, you are generally picking an irrelevant issue that needn’t be explored in worship.

7. Repetition, Echoing and Framing

One thing that is always good to remember for intergenerational services is the idea that repetition is often helpful. But, it is only helpful when something familiar is reintroduced in a new setting, a new context, or with new information to uncover possibilities that were previously hidden. For instance, a character with a ball-and-chain attached to his leg who is seeking to cross a deep river may repeatedly walk (or limp) up to the river saying, "Today is the day I will cross the river." However, this will only work if the character has the benefit of having learned from previous attempts and uses that information to try something new and insightful. If the character repeats the same approach and encounters the same result, it not only gets boring and pointless, but becomes painful to watch.

Repetition, when done well, can remind the viewers of the issue at hand, illuminate new insights, demonstrate growth and effectively show the importance of different perspectives in overcoming conflict. It is not very often that brute strength or simple determination will overcome a conflict. Most effective intergenerational worship stories are asking us to think about a familiar dilemma in a new way.

Repetition, as long as it does not become redundant and boring, can be quite comforting. Repetition can reassure viewers that they understand the theme being explored and they understand the challenge being faced. It also becomes a convenient way to focus and center the viewer’s attention.

Music can be an excellent mode of repetition. For instance, in ‘How Coyote Lost his Music, Dance and Song, the hymn "Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen" is woven in throughout the story. This helps the viewers recognize that Coyote is struggling with a familiar dilemma, and although he tries new things, he encounters a familiar result. Having the congregation participate in the repetition also helps people feel like they are part of the storytelling. Also, the final verse of the hymn includes a note of resolution of the conflict, thus it helps confirm the resolution of the problem.

A similar technique is used in ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ using the hymn, "Over My Head." In this production, the hymn is repeated at various points through the service using a small choir of voices to carry the hymn. Since it plays over the action and is placed in the background, it is called ‘echoing.’

In the service "Freedom Train," the hymn is used to frame the service. This is the same as repetition, but it is limited to the beginning and the end of the story. Thus, it provides a border within which the story is told and provides some poignancy by establishing the beginning and ending points.

Repetition, echoing and framing could also be done quite easily through the narration (and further supported with the use of the service leader carrying the liturgy). It is simply a matter of having the character face the same situation at different points in the story. Introducing echoing into the narration could be done by having the voice of the protagonist’s loved one, parent or mentor come from off stage reminding him/her of some sage piece of wisdom.

Framing through narration can be done by having the character return to the scene where the story started but seeing how different everything is now that the conflict has been resolved.

All of these elements help promote understanding as well as providing comforting reminders of the story’s development.