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Multigenerational Community

by Rev. Linda Olson Peebles

Communities which are made up of diverse identities (such as age, race, theology, abilities) can be organized in different ways. Three general modes are:

  1. segregation (separated and forming many whole social strata for groups of each identity);
  2. integration (merged, fused everyone blended together in one social structure—a melting pot—in which differences are tolerated, minimized, or marginalized);
  3. multi-gration (each identity maintains identity and autonomy AND is totally involved in the social organization “stew”).

A long view of human community throughout history reveals that separating the ages from one another is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the modern Industrial Age, all ages lived, learned, played, and worked together. Children learned by being around adults, growing to apprentice with someone with more experience, and developing their skills by doing the work in the actual business of living. As centers of learning from books began to be developed, students still spent only a small percentage of their time segregated from the larger community (their families and the marketplace).

In nineteenth-century Western culture, however, in an effort to specialize learning, it became more the norm for children to leave their families to learn. And a sign of being in the privileged classes was the ability to send your children away from home—to day or even boarding schools—or to hire people to raise and tutor your children in the home. By the mid-twentieth-century, the educated middle/upper class in the United States (which included Unitarians) adopted the pattern of age-segregation as an ideal, a virtue to be sought after which marked them as above lower classes.

In pre-Industrial times, the journey to autonomy and self-discovery for the youth or young adult (such as a vision quest into the wilderness, or being sent away to apprentice in another family) was very different from the modern twentieth century idea that emerging from adolescence requires young people to be separated into an age-segregated community, which has in many cases cut them off from the nurturance of the larger community. We are now in a complex, multicultural post-modern era. What is the post-modern way to help youth find a vision of themselves and also to find value or worth within the larger culture?

The idea of multigenerational community challenges the modern ideal of putting people in boxes for all their needs (babes in daycare, kids in school/sports/scouts, youth in high school then college, and our elders in gated "over-fifties" developments). Our church communities could offer a more dynamic and intricate energy, encouraging the formation of relationships within and across many identities, including age. This multi-identity community structure would encourage people to benefit from both homogenous and diverse groups, to help all discover individual wholeness and connection with the whole.

What does a multigenerational congregation look like? Every age group is a participant, leader, and recipient of every part of the life of the church (e.g., worship for ALL ages, pastoral care of ALL ages, social justice for and with ALL ages, governances including ALL ages, learning happening with many ages together both as teachers and learners). At the same time each generation is empowered, honored, and uniquely served (i.e., there are still programs and ministry unique to that generation). The NORM is a room filled with people of all ages who choose to be there because of a shared interest, such as singing, cooking, talking about books, planning for a fundraiser, talking about who to hire, or selecting good community-building games to play. Age-based groups can also form alongside of these multigenerational activities in order to meet specific needs or interests.