Written by Rachel Roche

Like never before we need to dig deep, figure out who we are as a body of believers, and call on the past to lead us into the future. Why? Because we are living in an unknown world, navigating new territory, and leaders need to lead like never before. Franklin Baptist Church (FBC) has had a rough time. It is not all doom and gloom, but they have had their share of natural endings, abrupt change, health issues, and lockdown stresses. The reason I acknowledge this is because this is the church I am connected to, I used as my research context for my Master’s thesis, and will base this article on. The second reason I bring this to your attention is that I know many of you resonate with the consequences of a challenging year in your context, and I think we can help each other. Through sharing our hope filled stories, and supporting one another, we know the church can rise up stronger than ever.

When Covid hit, my graduation ceremony was cancelled and the presentation of my thesis to the Carey library has been postponed three times. I initially gave up. I thought my work was lost, irrelevant, and would be part of the academic landfilled I vowed it never would be. In one short year the world changed, FBC changed, I changed, we changed. I could not see how what I had concluded for the pre Covid church could be relevant in a Covid world, let alone a post Covid world. Recently I was reminded when success seem too hard or far away, it is because we are focusing on the wrong things. I needed to trust our mighty God, and trust the fruitful process I had led FBC through.

I would like to share with you what we did at FBC, what our findings were, and I hope it is a story that in spite of all that has happened will inspire you to focus on the positive. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything excellent and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” Phil 4:8. The past is filled with stories of God’s faithfulness and that can inform the way forward. The past life of FBC helped them come up with new ways of being, using their prophetic imagination FBC remembered, processed, dreamed, and formulated a way forward. The abrupt changes that have unfolded in the past year should not be viewed as an end of a narrative, or even a new story. We now are entering a new chapter in the continuation of God’s story unfolding, enveloping, guiding, and leading FBC in their journey.

The Research

I facilitated an intergenerational participatory research process, using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to generate stories and determine key success factors of the intergenerational journey for a congregation.[1] Everyone was invited to join in and contribute. Everyone. Christian scholars make the case that churches need to be inclusive of all generations and that intergenerational Christian formation is essential. They claim that it is vital for people to be together and share their stories, to create a sense of welcome and belonging in congregational settings.[2] Furthermore, this research closely followed Branson’s framework which enabled FBC to bring their own narratives into conversation with the biblical and historical narratives of their faith.[3] The AI process empowered FBC to take ownership of their life-giving stories. Through exploring the ways they have been together in the past, FBC then went on to envisage future ways of being together so they could grow to be more faithfully the church that they are called to be. The congregation then continued pursuing an appreciative culture, and experimented with projects after the research period of this project had concluded.

An initial Storytelling event was held in 2017 and attended by 145 participants (obviously well before we even knew what Alert Level 2 and 3 restrictions meant!!) This was followed by eight weeks involving collecting other stories, sessions to interpret the data collaboratively, discern themes, create proposals, and recommend innovations to take into the future. 

The Findings

Amongst the many findings from this project and process, two significant insights to emerge were the importance of welcome, and storytelling.

Using a story-based method was an empowering and inclusive technique. All ages were given a voice and a space to be involved in outcomes affecting their church community’s vision and direction. As participants listened to the stories of others, relational connections were revisited, established, and provided aspirations. The act of contributing a story and giving of one’s self is a process and has a benefit beyond the words shared.

The most life-giving moments that will frame FBC’s future direction include all ages participating and embodying aspects of welcome. Stories included phrases such as, “we were made to feel welcome,” “FBC felt inviting and warm,” “people talk to me,” and “I feel accepted.” When there is genuine welcome people feel a sense of belonging and are empowered to contribute. Communal practices, events, and relationships that include all generations appear to be conducive to intergenerational Christian formation, but possibly more importantly it is how people are made to feel during the event or relationship that makes the experience meaningful. When asked for future dreams, participants did not mention activities or programmes. Statements such as “not lonely but loved,”able to share and feel valued,” and “valued for ourselves,” reveal desires for genuine whānau connection and a sense of belonging.

The Impact

FBC found their best intergenerational moments that have had a positive impact and can be strengthened for more opportunities for growth. The underlying threads of welcome, inclusion, and belonging through the process of storytelling exposed a community desiring to be known for their unusual togetherness. Through connecting as whānau, the intergenerational community fostered a sense of belonging and welcome which is conducive to faith formation.

After the conclusion of the research, the church community continues to operate appreciatively. This includes things such as:

  • A Hospitality team emerged and used research insights to guide their actions.
  • Awareness of mentoring and discipling others in different age brackets.
  • Men’s and women’s events have continued including teenagers.
  • Greater diversity of participants in worship services.
  • Research outcomes were used by the Leadership to reformulate the church vision and goals.
  • Church meetings are often led in an appreciative way.

 

The local church has been impacted! The Baptist movement could well learn from this project how to continually seek to engage and embrace all ages at a local and national level. Ultimately, the literature and this research affirm our spiritual lives are enriched when the entire church community worships, prays, learns, and serves together.[4] In these challenging times, the Baptist movement may need to consider that growth and health are found in intergenerational community. Two steps the Baptist movement could adopt are, firstly, acknowledging that a wide range of people can contribute; and, secondly, ensuring a representative group are present during decision making and important occasions. Baptist churches need to provide opportunities to practice embrace and inclusion so that being a welcoming intergenerational community naturally becomes part of who we are here in Aotearoa.  

The Future

The FBC leadership continue to work with the research findings and insights. They realise that Covid, burnouts, lockdowns, and whatever else is thrown at them should not define who they are or will become. The journey they began a few years ago has helped maintain perspective throughout this difficult time. They want to ensure the environment for storytelling is created, the culture for being intergenerational is intentionally cultivated, and the missional conversations that were started are continued. By having these dreams, insights, and proposals written up there are concrete steps the church community can take as they rise with hope.

Taking your congregation, youth group, or ministry through an appreciate process is lifegiving. By focusing on what we have rather than solving problems we are not ignoring the issues, but building on strong foundations, drawing from who God made us to be, and lifting our heads towards the light. You can learn from FBC’s findings to shape your future going forward, but I would also encourage you to discover your own unique story so you can unlock doors from the past and expose possible treasures of the future.

Takeaways and Action points

  • What are some great stories from the past that you need to keep telling?
  • How can your context take steps towards being more inclusive?
  • When are some moments that generational interaction could be encouraged?
  • Have a read of the full version of Rachel’s thesis found here:

https://cdm20012.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p20012coll2/id/25

[1] Intergenerational means intentional and meaningful interaction between two or more generations. This is not simply an ‘all in’ church service, but a way of being as a community during weekdays and weekends. Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship (Downers Grove, IN: IVP, 2012), 19.

[2] See for example Allan G. Harkness, “Intergenerational Education for an Intergenerational Church?,” Relig. Educ. 93.4 (1998): 440; Allen and Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation, 47.

[3] Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement and Congregational Change, 2nd ed. (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2016), 21.

[4] See full thesis for arguments. Rachel Roche. “Our Stories: Journeying together in an appreciative inquiry with all ages at Franklin Baptist Church.” (Masters Thesis, Carey Baptist College, 2019).