Intergenerational Worship, and Young People’s Faith and Doubt

Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. In “The #1 Reason Why College Students Leave the Church Could Surprise You,” Kara talks about intergenerational worship, and also about why we should listen intently to teens who have doubts about their faith.

Here’s a key passage:

Of all the youth group participation variables we’ve seen, being involved in intergenerational worship and relationship was one of the variables most highly correlated to young people’s faith. So in other words, while it’s great that there are better trained, more called, more specialized paid and volunteer youth leaders—the downside is that the gap between the overall congregation and the youth ministry is growing, which ends up being toxic to young people’s faith.

I’m sure this will be of great interest to readers of this liturgy blog.

And though it’s not directly related to worship, this insight is important in ministry to young people:

Doubt is fairly pervasive in young people, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is toxic is unexpressed or unexplored doubt. When young people have the opportunity to express or explore their doubt, it is correlated with stronger and more mature faith.

That matches entirely with my experience.

In my teaching religion to high schoolers in the National Catholic Youth Choir, in teaching theology to undergraduates at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, I have also found that doubt is pervasive among young people. If I respect that doubt, if I promote a “safe space” where every opinion is respected and every question is taken up, the response is positive.

Students get it that I am Roman Catholic and Benedictine and speak from that perspective, and they respect that and want to hear about it. They are not only open, but positively curious what it is like to be rooted in a tradition in a crazily changing world. But as one undergrad just put it in a course evaluation last fall, “Fr. Anthony talks to us like a real person.” That’s the key. (And it’s not something I always succeed at by any means.)

I’ve had much better experiences by inviting young people, as a fellow seeker, on a journey of doubt and exploration (I know how mushy that sounds!) than by coming in as an authority with lots of information “from above” and pre-packaged answers to every question. I’m no longer afraid of getting honest with young people and taking on the big questions – they can handle it and are ready for it.

And of course the time comes when the prof has to share the info and “answers” (settled Church doctrines) that he’s there to pass on. Students are surprisingly open to learning and even embracing that – not just because it’ll be on the test, but because it responds to real life questions about meaning and purpose.

But I’m going on too much about faith and doubt in young people. Intergenerational worship – that’s the key question for this blog. What do you all think about that??




  1. In my mind, worship IS intergenerational. If it were not for the preponderance of teen-oriented Masses, there would be no need for this concept at all. If worship is not involving the entire community, and rather aimed at a specific segment, that’s a real problem. Now, other activities designed to appeal to youth, and then bring them into the full body – fine, as long as you are honest with them. I have been told numerous times that we need to plan music and liturgies to appeal to some group or another. Nonsense. Show them the real thing – they can handle it. If they can’t grasp everything immediately, no big deal – that’s why we have questions and learn. My experience teaching high school sophomore theology was similar – they have serious questions, and they want honest answers. Admitting there was much I didn’t know was a big help to them, because it gave them permission to have doubts. Too often I think we take one of two tracks: (1) water everything down to appeal to them, or (2) be hard-nosed and tell them the way it has to be, and that they must be obedient. Neither is the answer; Anthony’s method is excellent, and ultimately leads to well-formed people of faith.

  2. I agree. One of the problems might be that many view young people as the “future of the Church.” No, they are the Church, now. Adults need to consistently recognize this, especially in the worshiping assembly. I am always struck by Mark Searle’s rich statement, “The ideal liturgical assembly is a gathering of all God’s people in a given place: men, women, children, the elderly, the sick, representatives from every social group and stratum. This is the church most visible as what she is: the work of Christ, gathering the scattered children of God into one” (Mark Searle, “Children in the Assembly of the Church”). Searle’s sentiment relates to children; however, it is the same for youth. Therefore, we need to acknowledge that for both children and youth, religious identity is experienced and developed within the worshiping assembly, and this continues for a lifetime. Liturgy should be different from other youth experiences for it is meant to lure them on a profoundly different level. Well meaning adults need to trust the liturgy and let it speak!

  3. I don’t think the issue is honest doubt among younger Catholics. Testing the waters, pushing back against childish explanations, is part of the passage to maturity, to wisdom. The issue is whether those in leadership are willing to accept (much less encourage!) their teachers to own up to their own honest doubts, dissatisfactions and frustrations. Creation of an official catechism, which is universally cited as the authority on everything Catholic, is all I need to say in response.

  4. I agree about intergenerational worship – as also about intergenerational meals, trips, parties, and so on. It seems only natural, and most cultures have done this, most of the time, since time immemorial. It’s odd that we should now have a category name for something which should not really be a separate category.

    I love this (from T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone, 1938): “The Wart [future King Arthur] did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked to hear him talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of a porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.”

  5. Intergenerational worship, yes, is vital – for all ages. But also intergenerational social events, as well as age-specific events. I remember being struck in a rural parish where I served, that social events included all ages. All members of the one body! We need one another.
    On belief and doubt, there’s a letter of Thomas Merton which I’ve found encouraging and challenging. “God is where God isn’t”: Thomas Merton’s Letter to KC on Unbelief” can be found at
    The final paragraph:
    “So, friend Katherine, I am not Father Merton inside the warm Church calling you to come and sit by the fire of positive thinking or something. I am out in the cold with you because (forgive the flip saying) God is where He isn’t. And maybe that’s where the Church is, too (when all the miters are off and the vestments are hung in the closet). I won’t run on anymore, but I think I have said enough to make clear that I think the whole business of faith and the message of faith is in the process of finding a whole new language—or of shutting up altogether. Hence the answer to your question: if God does not speak to you, it is not your fault, and it is not His fault, it is the fault of the whole mentality that creates the impression that He has to be constantly speaking to people. Those who are the loudest to affirm they hear Him are people not to be trusted. But, nevertheless, there is a way of understanding that non-hearing is hearing. Maybe it is all too subtle.”

  6. I’m thirty-one now, and so I suppose I’m at least little dated in my perspective. One thing in particular drove me away from liturgical worship for several years, however; I would ask, “Why do we do X?”

    The answer was usually some form of “Because we do” or “Shush. Just do it.” It was never “I don’t know, but I bet (insert subject matter expert here) could answer that question for you.” So, I settled down at the least common denominator worship for a while because it made no demands of me (except outward displays of emotion), and its meaning was immediately obvious. Once in college, I read myself back into the liturgy and grew to love it. It also made me bitter for a time because most of the questions I was asking were not, as it turns out, all that difficult or obscure.

    Intergenerational worship is important, especially if the older folks encourage the younger ones to ask questions and learn what is going on, and if the older folks are in turn interested in learning what is going on so that they can mentor the younger folks.

    1. Shaughn’s comment at #9 reminds me of my youth. Oftentimes priests of my childhood parish also refused to answer my questions. One priest simply told me that I was bright, and that I would be able to ask all these questions when I got to college. I could not wait. By the eight grade I was reading Calvin and Luther alongside the catechism. When a vicar of the parish told me angrily to not ask any questions about Tridentine liturgy, I soon talked my mother into driving me to a schismatic chapel for Low Mass. I was attending indult Latin Mass every Sunday as soon as the ink dried on my driver’s license. Perhaps if the priest were more attentive, he could have steered me away from a twenty year affair with traditionalism.

      Now that I am exhausted from running through fields plucking TULIPs, I now have the greatest task before me: humility. Earlier on the mandatum thread, I noted that the rite must be open to the “marginalized”. This openness also requires the knowledge that privileged people often bear prejudices and misconceptions about who is ‘marginalized’. Indeed, Pope Francis has washed the feet of non-Christians, ostensibly to demonstrate that Christ serves all humanity and not only his sheep.

      Similarly, a parish’s outreach to teenagers and young adults must cast its net wide. Yes, precocious youths might disdain bass guitar riffs during the Gloria and feign boredom during so-called simplistic sermons. As a child and young adult, I did not have the humility to learn from what I considered to be simplistic. Often that which is simple is actually simply profound. Is it not better that a young person who knows little of Christ and the Christian faith join the fold than for clergy to cater to sophomoric “intellectual sophisticates”?

  7. It’s too early for me to write something wise or in depth, but I feel a few words should be said about preaching. It seems to me quite a few preachers leave out vast swaths of generations in their homilies.

    When I hear a preacher say “at home or work” and I cross my fingers hoping he’ll add “…or at school.” But they rarely do. Simple opportunity lost by not adding 3 little words.

    And, it goes the other way, too. Although we may try to block it out, we probably all have some painful memories of our adolescent/teenage years. It seems highly unlikely an occasional homily targeted to a younger demographic would leave parents and grandparents confused.

  8. I am not sure that everyone has the same definition of “intergenerational worship” While my church does not have a “teen Mass”, we do have three Masses that have more traditional worship music and one that has more contemporary music. People of all ages attend all of the Masses. But, what I tend to hear through conversations like this is the loud voices proclaiming that our teens should not be patronized by the use of contemporary music. That they are surprisingly mature and can handle “the real thing” I assume the “real thing” to mean only traditional hymns–because the people espousing this view don’t believe any other music genre to be “real” liturgical music. I submit that in terms of the music of worship, true intergenerational worship would mean a blend of genres at the Mass. There are songs in all genres that are wonderful–and both traditional and contemporary music that is appalling. Traditionalists need to be open to new music and instruments in the Mass and we need to expose our younger generation to the beauty of traditional hymns. Encourage older generations to mentor the young and participate in youth activities. Their wisdom and experience is invaluable. This includes sharing their own faith journey. Encourage teens to be an active part of the liturgy as choir members, lectors, greeters, and, if confirmed, Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. Each group must share…and listen….and work together. That is what intergenerational worship means to me.

    1. @Michele Vallet:
      Michele, this is a philosophical discussion. People are free to draw their own conclusions regarding music, but that’s not really the point. Regarding appalling traditional music, yes, there was a lot of it, but appalling historical music rarely stands the test of time.

    2. @Michele Vallet:

      Amen, Michele!

      I have been advocating what I call “mixed grill” Masses for many years, in a context where decreasing numbers of priests necessitate people of different backgrounds, experiences and tastes worshipping together. Up to now, this has been largely related to musical style and idiom.

      I know of parishes where one week it’s the choir Mass with Gregorian chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns for the people; the next week it’s the contemporary folk group; the third week it’s cantor and organ; and the fourth week it’s predominantly Taizé-style. The problem with this approach is that it condemns anyone who can only stand one style or idiom to have to wait for two or three weeks before there is any music in the Mass that speaks to them.

      Having a mixed-grill liturgy means using a variety of different styles, so that everyone can identify with and have a stake in at least something that is going on, every week. It also means that everyone has to make sacrifices for the good of the whole community. For people who have never historically celebrated together, this can initially be problematic. It also carries within it the risk of chaos. I have often said that the styles needs to be used systematically, and not just scattered across a celebration, seemingly at random. Thus the introductory rites will have one style, the Liturgy of the Word another, the Liturgy of the Eucharist a third, the Communion Rite a fourth, and the closing rite a fifth. An alternate way would be to have all the acclamations in one style, all the litany-forms in another, and all the hymns/songs in a third, etc.

      All of this can also be related to age and generation. In my experience, young people want to be part of what the whole community is doing; and they want to be part of the planning process. We should encourage this. A large quantity of praise-and-worship style religious music is fine in some contexts, but is often inappropriate for use at liturgy. The problem is explaining to young people, and adults too, that just because they like something does not necessarily make it suitable for use at Mass. Much of the praise-and-worship music that they encounter on YouTube and elsewhere is in the context of a concert or a rally, complete with applause. Educating them — and us! — in seeing the difference between different genres and different suitabilities is something that can easily be done in the context of the planning process.

      One area where Contemporary Christian Music can fit well (and I am talking about the theological content of the texts as well as the way in which they are expressed) is during adoration, a devotion which seems to appeal increasingly to younger folk. So use it there. It’s a similar case to music that is inappropriate for a Requiem Mass but which could find a home at the Vigil the night before. Let’s be positive in our recommendations, rather than simply damning the stuff we personally may not happen to like.

      As a final thought, the most vibrant parishes I have encountered are those where young people are involved in ministries that usually are “reserved” to adults. I’m thinking especially of the ushers who take the collection. When young people are allowed do this, it’s a very clear signal to them and to the whole community that they are trusted and an integral part of who we are. The older “sidesmen” who have traditionally taken this role may grumble, but that’s a risk worth taking. Giving each man an “apprentice” teenage boy or girl can be one way of effecting the transition, in the same way that a new cantor can sing alongside an experienced one until they are capable of “flying solo” and new servers learn by serving alongside those who have been doing it for longer.

  9. As I am reading through this thread I am finding myself asking more questions. The primary one would be what do we mean when we say intergenerational worship? When I read that word at the end of the post I was thinking of all the Masses from Saturday night to the last one on Sunday having ministers (Servers, lectors, ushers, EMs, etc) representative of the whole community young and old. Having a teen lector or usher as well as adult lector and usher. But I also hear in that term is an implication of “good” way and “bad” way which some of the comments have expressed. My question to help continue the conversation would is: How do we help the community at large embrace the questions and presence of teens in ministries for intergenerational worship, while at the same time helping the teens to get involved? I serve at a parish that has very little teen presence in ministerial settings, (to my knowledge we only have one high school server). So I am looking for ideas to help engage the teens in ways everyone is describing.

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