Storytelling has, for countless centuries, been the primary mode of sharing and passing down information about heritage, tradition, moral decision making, group norms, values and critical thinking. More often then not, villages were constructed such that dwellings surrounded a central gathering spot. This spot attracted a great deal of commerce and trading as well as important resources such as water, food and company. Stories were often told in such places on a regular basis. It was common to have various children, parents or elders come to the town center to trade, catch up on the news and listen to the stories. Often the stories were designed to make the young and old alike think about their lives, consider how to summon goodness, live healthfully and find contentment in one’s life.
These are the very things that a religious community tries to do. Because we rarely have town centers anymore, it is our nature to be more intentional about creating and caring for the communities where we find this kind of company, information and stories. Thus, we’ve built churches.
However, over the years, most religious denominations – including ours – have moved to offering programs that are designed to target certain ages. Often a church will offer catechism (religious education) and adult worship concurrently. Much of the mid week programming is also designed to be age appropriate. So, when we are asked to do something like worship, which we are accustomed to doing specifically for one age or another, it is difficult to find engaging appropriate ways to bring the different ages together.
This method of intergenerational worship is based on stories because stories can span the bridge between the various levels of experience, education and understanding. In an entertaining way, they allow all ages to focus on other characters that can teach us about our selves, our decisions, our relationships and our ideals. The only difference between a good story and a good sermon is the way the ‘story’ is ritually set up to be told and the elements that support and compliment it.
This understanding led to the idea that stories can be the foundation of a worship service. All that is needed is for certain other elements to be incorporated around (or within) the story such that the congregation is able to discern that something sacred is being invoked in the telling. And it is trying to convey something of values, decision making, ideals. In other words, it is ‘worship’ (or, as the original Saxon term infers, ‘shaping worth’).
Younger members (typically young people between 3 and 12) are primarily visually and experientially oriented. They like action, characterization, movement, a chance to identify with the characters and a sense of drama, suspense or intrigue. They have a shorter attention span and they need some kind of movement, action, comedy or drama to keep them engaged. This means that they can only go a short amount of time before something in the presentation attempts to reach them. My experience is that they can go approximately 3-5 minutes without action, movement or a storyline to hook into without becoming bored, distracted and fidgety.
One of the things that is most important to understand about younger members is that many of them can’t read or, at least, can’t read well. It is frustrating for them to be asked to keep up with much better readers. Especially in singing or in responsive readings. Being asked to do so can feel shaming to them and sends an inarguable message that the service is not intended for them. If the service is, indeed, intended for them, we must make sure we don’t make reading a requirement for participation or being present. Therefore I strongly discourage the using of hymnals and responsive readings. There are literally infinite songs available that are simple, easily memorized and taught and quite captivating. The use of litanies instead of responsive readings are suggested, where the congregation repeats a single line with a service leader reading a varied response.
Also, vocabulary can be a barrier to joining the generations. A younger member can hear a word or two they don’t know and still understand the gist of a scene. In fact, many younger members will enjoy having a few words that are just beyond their comprehension which will force them to expand their knowledge. However, if the vocabulary is significantly beyond their understanding, they will become frustrated, give up and stop paying attention. It is important to be somewhat familiar with age-appropriate developmental abilities and vocabulary. The objective is not to cater to just one facet of a community but to maintain a responsible middle ground such that the vast majority will be asked to stretch without being dismissed.
Older members (typically 19-90) have become much more intellectually and conceptually oriented. They enjoy slightly more complex themes and ideas. They don’t necessarily need movement of characters and action, but they do need movement of ideas and for the presentation to help them wrestle with some moral or ethical question. My experience is that a 50-60 minute presentation must have at least 3 or 4 opportunities within it for the older members to wrestle with the idea presented and to consider its relevance to their own life. Older members won’t get noticeably or distractingly bored, disinterested or fidgety during a single performance; but if they reach the conclusion that intergenerational services don’t push them to wrestle with substantive questions, they will find ways to intentionally avoid these services.
One of the things that is most important to understand about older members is that some of them will have sensory difficulties or mobility issues. That is, many will not be able to see, hear or move as well as they once did. They are not fond of being reminded of their limitations, especially when they stand in the way of their ability to participate.
You’ll notice that I left out ages between 13-18. This age group can, depending on maturity, interests or experiences, be more engaged visually or conceptually, imaginatively or rationally, with action or with ideas. Often, this group has some disposition to both, yet, typically with an even shorter attention span. They are often the hardest group to please and, for that reason, I often think of them as my target group. What do they need?
Almost all stories have, within them, a magical ability to engage young and old alike. And most classic stories have a powerful ability to be engaging and thought-provoking on many different levels – from the very basic to the very complex. One of the fundamental tenants of this method is to use a single story and employ strategic opportunities to insert greater depth through liturgical commentary. The objective being to offer more grist for the mental mill that older members need while not belaboring the intellectual / conceptual side and extending beyond the bounds of the younger attention span. I believe that there is vast common ground here to work with (if this were not so, the urge to have children should have dropped off long ago).
There are four elements of storytelling that appeal to young and old alike. They are:
All stories must have some sort of conflict. Otherwise there is little point to the telling. Conflict is the major element of all books, movies, plays, operas, dance and, of course, sermons. Conflict is established very early on in the story. The depth of conflict grows; attempts at resolving conflict are sought; insights are discovered; an epiphany is understood; a resolution to the conflict is reached, a moral is established and characters lives are changed.
The basic idea to establishing a workable sense of conflict can be achieved by addressing the following points:
Humor is that essential element necessary for most presentations to be truly engaging. Humor allows us to drop our defenses, let go of our critical, rational, in-control selves and give in to the story, letting it take us where it wants to take us. In other words, humor is not merely a good idea, it is essential to this kind of project. Younger minds will usually appreciate a simpler model of humor such as slapstick, silly costuming, pratfalls, etc. Older minds enjoy an unexpected turn of events, irony, cultural references, etc.
The key to making humor work for everyone is to blend different kinds of humor together. For instance, when a character gets splashed with water it is funny for most younger people. But when that particular character happens to be the president of the board of trustees, that is funny for the older members. It is good to have a presentation that is humor balanced, meaning, there are not too many humorous parts designed for the younger members right on top of each other nor are there too many humorous parts designed for the older members. The younger members will feel frustrated and uncomfortable if too much seems to be flying over their head. The older members will feel insulted if too much of the humor seems ‘beneath’ them.
One of the great equalizers when working with a broad spectrum of ages happens to be emotions. Although our minds tend to become more sophisticated as we get older, and our thinking more rigorous, our ideas more complex, our problems more complicated, etc., our emotions remain relatively the same. As we age, different things will make us happy and sad. However, we will still universally experience and understand happiness and sadness in very similar ways. We continue to derive similar motivations from our emotions – we move toward happiness and look to resolve our sadness. This remains true throughout our lives and thus, older and younger members share this as common ground.
For this reason, it is often very effective for the emotions behind a story to be brought to the forefront. The excitement, joy, hope, anticipation behind a character’s initial aspirations can be brought out at the beginning as the objective of the character is explained. The frustration, angst, despair, fatigue, alienation of the character can be highlighted during the conflict. The exhilaration, satisfaction, pride, jubilation can be brought out in the epiphany / resolution phase. Of course, for the story portion of the service these are demonstrated. It is during the liturgy – the chalice, the joys and concerns, the meditation, the prayer, the offertory, the benediction – that these are explained and expounded upon. These are the portions of the service where this method seeks to take the opportunity and go deeper into the drama and its relevance to our lives. Older members will appreciate it if we take the opportunities to examine and reflect on the relevance of the issues the characters encounter.
Take this example from "Visalia and Her Quest for Fire." The story is about a young girl and her encounter with ‘the Baba Yaga’ who teaches her about power, fairness, beauty, self-reliance and finding her own voice. The meditation helps explain some of the relevant emotions that Visalia is experiencing. The following segment is the Meditation that follows on the heels of the story revealing the challenges that the Baba Yaga puts before Visalia.
The old and the young alike need to have some resolution to their stories. In order for a story to be useful to anyone it needs to provide some insight, some reminder, as to a healthier way to approach the conflicts in their own lives. Young and old alike are more than willing to struggle, more than willing to sit through elements that are either overly sophisticated or overly simplified if there is the promise of resolution that they can take away with them. When a presentation is able to offer an ‘aha’ moment that spans the distance between young and old, then the presentation is a great success. Not only will such a presentation teach all ages something of value, it will provide a very valuable opportunity for different ages to learn it in the same setting.
Of course, a clear objective is to produce a worship service which satisfies parents as well as children, the RE program as well as the social action people, and the imaginative / creative – types as well as the straight-forward systematic folks. But this objective should not overlook the idea that there is much ministry possible in the process as there is in the product.
One of the most helpful assets a congregation can have when beginning to do intergenerational worship of this nature is to have a group, or groups, who do improvisational or expressive movement or who enjoy doing drama or readings. These groups have a way of taking a chore and making it an enjoyable challenge. They do so by taking risks, learning about themselves, revealing their humanness and building community in the process.
In order to do be effective for the viewers, it is essential that the movement that is used in presenting the story is exaggerated. Large movements convey much more emotion and enthusiasm then do small movements. Exaggerated facial expressions, posturing, action, emotion – they are all important parts in conveying the story. That emotion and enthusiasm is what you want to pass on to your congregation. If it is not given with energy and enthusiasm, it will not be received with energy and enthusiasm.
If there is a primary ‘growing edge’ with Unitarian Universalist worship in general, it comes from most congregations being far too ‘in their heads’ and not nearly enough ‘in their bodies.’ We have a difficulty being expressive. We are quite good at being pensive, thoughtful and introspective. But there are two major problems with this: first, it translates into ‘stiff’ when it comes to presentations; and second, younger members are not very interested in pensive, thoughtful and introspective. Thus little intergenerational relationship exists in this context. If we insist on being this way then we will inevitably encounter a generational gap in our intergenerational worship as well as other aspects of our community. And once the more regimented, less expressive members see others modeling a freer, more expressive approach, it provides permission to do the same.
But, even if the most obvious transformation that occurs happens within the team that is presenting, it is still tremendously worthwhile. The purpose of this method is to overcome that generational gap and to be able to make a difference for a few people. If this leads a few individuals to use their bodies, voices, movements and emotions to become more open, animated and alive, then it is very productive.
Another important ministry that this intergenerational method is designed to achieve goes beyond telling a story of transformation. It goes to the root of all intergenerational activity. These worship services should, in some way, close the gap between younger and older members.
When there is a situation where there are older members of the congregation who do not often teach in the RE program, who don’t know many younger members, who don’t have children of their own or who only really know their own children – these are the perfect people to ask to be involved in these projects.
Say, for instance, you have a member of the board of trustees who carries a fair amount of responsibility within the congregation. Perhaps he/she is one of the founding members of the congregation. But he/she has little interaction with younger members or younger parents. Casting such a trustee in one of these roles is a perfect way to expand their visibility and increase their recognition throughout the congregation. It also serves to make them appear friendlier, more approachable, and open up opportunities for new conversations and new relationships.
This is also an opportunity to introduce and integrate newer members into the social life of the congregation. To create ways for certain people to be seen by a large cross-section of the membership is to help someone in the task of becoming known. This makes it a little less scary to be the new person in the congregation. For children it makes it less scary when you are able to identify and feel like you know more of the adults. This kind of familiarity erodes the gap that exists between generations and it becomes an important, often overlooked, form of intergenerational ministry.