The story is the most important part. It goes without saying that there should be some specific criteria for choosing a story. I can make no claim that my criteria is any standard for anyone else. But I can say that it works for me. I list a few areas of consideration for your reference.
I almost always think about length. Since I know I am looking at a 50-60 minute service, and I know approximately how many scenes I will incorporate, and the length of each scene, it is a simple matter of doing the cinematic math.
Each scene (ie. Story Opening, Story Part I, etc.) will try and cover a certain amount of ground in conveying the plot. It is often convenient, for me, measuring in words. Each scene works well if there is approximately between 600 and 750 words, depending on pausing, laughter and action. This works out to be about 7 minutes per scene, which usually proves to be a good length before the average intergenerational attention span needs a breather. With five scenes and an epilogue the overall word count is between 3300 and 4200 words.
Perhaps one of the most important considerations is the message conveyed. Specifically, is the message clear, concise and straightforward? The message of the story should be obvious to everyone watching such that anyone watching would be able to tell you what the message is in one or two sentences. If, after reading a story a few times, you cannot boil down the premise to one, clear sentence, then it is probably in need of streamlining.
Hemingway once said that there is not one wasted line in any good book. The same could be said for a good intergenerational worship service. If a scene or character distracts from the point of the service, no matter how entertaining or humorous it may be, it is hindering the presentation’s ability to be understood and transformative. Much of my work and attention in creating an intergenerational worship service goes into trying to clarify the premise.
I also look to see if the story breaks up naturally into different parts. Almost anything can be divided into parts to the advantage of the storyteller with some creative thought. Sometimes a story will lend itself to suspenseful points or episodes of difficult decisions and values clarification. These make particularly effective intergenerational worship services since they lead to creative opportunities to tie in the liturgy.
Another thing I consider important is whether or not the story has a hook. What I mean by this is whether or not the story says something novel, or better yet, takes the worshipper to an unexpected place that allows them to be off balance enough to suspend their natural sense of criticism and look at something in a deeper way. When the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real is a great hook. When Harold, in ‘Lost in the UU Jungle’ discovers that he’d been lost in a department store. When Coyote learns that the very thing he is running from is the thing he is looking for. Those are the elements that get young and old alike to say, ‘huh!?! That’s interesting to think about!’ Most truths are paradoxical, meaning there are almost always more sides to consider. Some of these sides are at direct odds with each other; some require that a balance be found. Because paradox is fascinating, and because it can be perceived on multiple levels, it works well as part of intergenerational worship.
There is almost always a need to do an intergenerational worship service around a holiday or with a traditional holiday theme. Sometimes stories are chosen because of how well they illuminate the meaning of a holiday. Sometimes the best stories tell us something about how we choose to celebrate (or fail to celebrate) our ritual holidays.
Always a good consideration is how many characters are in the story and how many scene changes. Some stories make good telling but they translate very poorly to live action. A good storyteller could probably captivate an intergenerational community without movement. But I find it most effective when there are two characters in a scene – it becomes more complicated when you get beyond three (for the worshippers as well as the presenters). Thus a suitable story will not spread the plot out among so many different characters.
I also consider whether or not the story lends itself to any appropriate ritual (younger members love ritual). In "Peaceful Song of Protest" we had people place rocks on a balance beam with promises of what they could do to make a more civil world – we tried to tip the balance of the world. In Snakesong, an Adam & Eve story, we had an apple communion vowing to come more to life in our lives. When poignant and appropriate ritual can be incorporated into intergenerational worship, it can be very effective way to connect generations together.
Sometimes a certain story will remind me of someone in the congregation. Sometimes a story will make me think of an issue the congregation is wrestling with. But, I have to admit, that most stories I choose have an immeasurable magic quality to me. It’s hard to describe and others might have different opinions. But I believe that the producer should feel excited about the story. Excitement needs to come through the story into the worship and that will only happen if the producer is excited about what the story says.
If you are looking to create an intergenerational worship service of this nature from scratch you can expect about as much preparation as it takes to put on any other worship service.
The choosing of the story and the writing of the script is, essentially, an identical process for preparing a standard weekly worship. Choosing a topic, selecting supporting readings, quotes, insights, commentary and writing the sermon is very comparable to choosing a story and adapting it to a script.
I can generally count on spending approximately
sixteen to eighteen hours choosing a story, adding to or condensing the
plot, breaking it into sections and adding the service leading bits.
Occasionally there is some extra time involved if something needs to be
prepared for the staging or for whatever ritual might be included.
I try to have the script finished one week prior to the Sunday it will be presented. This allows me a few days to assemble a cast of characters and voices. This can be a formidable bit of recruitment if the script is involved or complex. However, the more familiar the congregation becomes with one of these productions, the easier it will be to recruit. After having done this for three years at UU Metro Atlanta North, I have both children and adults lined up who want to participate. The trick is to consistently demonstrate that these endeavors can be successful without being overly demanding on one’s time or energy. I find that if I can give the script to the characters and readers a week ahead of time, it greatly increases the quality of the service and decreases the amount of rehearsal time.
Rehearsal time is something I have varied a great deal over the span of this project. I originally started with at least two rehearsals of about two hours each. I now do one rehearsal – at the most – of an hour and a half (at the most). There have been many presentations that have gone off without a rehearsal. Of course, this is not always possible. It greatly depends upon how many characters are in the presentation, how much character to character interaction the script calls for and the specific staging and movement that is being called for.
The most productive method I’ve found is to write into the script some basic suggestions as far as character movement and staging. If the script can create a vision in the mind of the presenters what the overall piece is going to look like, then a rehearsal amounts to a confirmation of expectations.
One of the biggest elements I’ve learned in the process of developing this approach to intergenerational worship is to have faith. Have faith in the story, in each character’s ability to carry the story where it needs to go and how to sew up the seams between the story and the service leader’s commentary.
It might seem obvious to find the most talented people in the congregation; the people who are uninhibited about moving or expressing themselves in a public setting. Without a doubt, this is helpful. Especially if there are folks who can give life to a story and who instinctively work well with other characters.
However, one of the most important aspects to this method comes in the area of who I ask to participate. The following list includes the categories of persons whose participation has offered something obviously, or unexpectedly beneficial.
It has become a very prevalent approach to insist that since this is intergenerational worship, younger members should be part of the production. Whereas I don’t think there are any absolutes on this one way or another, I believe this approach is put forth for many of the wrong reasons.
First, although children are caught up in the excitement of the production and they are quite in tune with an internal need to be recognized and affirmed for what they can do, they are rarely familiar with the kind of communication, teamwork, selflessness, discipline and delayed gratification that a production of this sort requires to be successful.
To a certain degree, I think our default, knee-jerk reaction to want to include younger members in the casting has to do with guilt. There is some guilt from members, parents and elders around past experiences of asking children to wait, or keep quiet, or be patient for much of their lives. They can sometimes see intergenerational worship is an appropriate time to ‘make up’ for those times.
I would agree with this approach if it showed itself to be successful. But, unfortunately, it usually doesn’t. A very prevalent outcome occurs when younger members are attracted to the glamour of being seen and affirmed and don’t see the work or discipline behind it. When, usually at the last minute, they realize what this role is asking from them, they are struck with anxiety and experience extreme discomfort. Sometimes they are unable to play their part. When their discomfort is allowed to become part of the presentation, it spreads to worshippers so that the discomfort becomes center stage rather then the message being conveyed. Even when discomfort is not part of the equation, such presentations can sometimes turn into an individual’s private showcase in front of a captive audience. Either way, the message – and purpose – of the service becomes hidden, and unhealthy dynamics of attention become the issue.
I do believe that younger members can play key roles in these kinds of presentations. However, it must be clear that this will almost always require the producer to triple or quadruple rehearsal times – something that is not always possible. If there is a situation where there can be a ministry centered around younger-older member drama groups where time can be appropriately designated to teach appropriate preparation and responsibility, this approach can be an amazingly enriching aspect of mentoring, nurturing and community development.
A more appropriate way to include younger and older members in the presentation is through spontaneous participation. To ask the younger members to be part of a scene by making the sound of the wind, or gentle finger clapping to imitate the sound of rain, booing or cheering for a character such as in a melodrama, being part of a ritual introduced by one of the characters such as an apple communion, using a stone of commitment, exchanging flowers in a flower communion, pouring water for a water communion, etc. It doesn’t require that a younger member take center stage in order to have a satisfying participational experience. In fact, creating center stage situations most often does more harm than good.
Perhaps more than any other technique, this approach contributes to the effectiveness and manageability of this method. The idea is to simplify responsibilities by limiting someone’s contribution to either reading or to dramatizing what is being read. Thus, each character in the written script translates into two actual people in the presentation.
This is the one single element that has made these presentations manageable by cutting out vast amounts of rehearsal time. Memorizing lines is very time consuming and it should be avoided whenever possible. Obviously, it is easy to read from a script and, with a little practice, it can become second nature and fun to spontaneously embody what is being read. Even when it may be required, or more effective, to have a character deliver his/her own lines, it is better to have the character carry 3x5 cards with their lines, or even an entire script. This will certainly indicate that the presentation is not professional entertainment quality, but then again, that is not the goal of intergenerational worship.
Having readers also insures that the lines being spoken will be more audible and understandable because a microphone can be used much more easily. This will greatly please members whose hearing is compromised.
Costuming is another area where it isn’t uncommon to over-prepare and spend too much time and money. My best advice is to make the goal of costuming to ‘create the suggestion.’ When elaborate costuming is used, it often leads to unattainable expectations of a presenter’s ability to capture a character’s nature and can take away from the presenter’s freedom to interject part of their own personality (which can be very effective and humorous). I always try to keep a costume down to one or two easily donned articles. Also, the costume should never completely conceal a presenter’s identity. A concealed identity can be scary for the youngest members and it also defeats the purpose of member recognition. Minimal costuming also puts the onus of responsibility on the presenter to ‘sell’ the character – an area where humor and personality can shine through by using or contrasting a presenter’s natural personality traits.
I hope that this method of Intergenerational Worship, in some way, offers something that stirs your imagination. Or, better yet, that offers an insight or a sense of confidence to try something new. Or add something to what has already been working well in your congregation.
If you are interested in using one of the scripts, please do so with the support and encouragement of all the people who have helped to put this site together. Better yet, if you would like to use your creativity to produce your own presentation, I hope there is something in this sight that will be helpful to you.
I ask, however, that if you are going to produce a new script, or if you have others that you’ve done in the past that have worked well, please send them to me so that we can find a way to share these resources with the many congregations who are looking for assistance.