5 Communicating in a World of Landlines, iPhones and Tweets: Preaching Across Generations

Fr. Andrew Carl Wisdom, OP


You can just imagine what it is like to go through life as “Fr. Wisdom.” It tends to raise suspicions. Just to be taken seriously can be a challenge. Like the day I called a parish, introduced myself and asked for the pastor. After a moment of dead silence, the parish secretary responded: “If you’re ‘Fr. Wisdom,’ than I’m the Queen of England!” Click!

It also tends to raise expectations. Yet it is not that which gives me a little trepidation tonight, but Chapter 6 of St. Benedict’s Rule. Quoting Proverbs, he sternly warns: “In much speaking, you will not escape sin.” But since the Dominicans were only a thought in God’s mind at the time, I assume his advice was inspired by a few of your more loquacious Benedictine family members. Dominicans, after all, sin if they are not big talkers, right?

In my own journey, I have been circulating on the outskirts of the Benedictine milieu for most of my life. At age 14, I went to your daughter school, Marmion Academy. At 16, I became an oblate of St. Benedict. As a 20-year-old, I stood at the mesa-like hill on the path just down from your magnificent chapel, mesmerized by the beauty of God’s signature scattered across the sky at sunset. I returned at 33, a nonprofit professional on retreat to thank God for my vocation as a Catholic businessman. You see how that worked out!

And here I am today, at the threshold of half a century, on the proverbial fence between the Baby Boomers and the Generation Xers, standing again on the grounds of this great Benedictine institution. Alas, my calling was not to the noble stability of a monk, but to the quixotic, some might say, chaotic or neurotic, instability of a friar.

Being here is also a delightful change from my normal focus. You see, as a vocation director and the chair of our Province Capital Campaign, I spend my days asking people for either, in the immortal words of Jack Benny, “your money or your life.”

Now most of you Millennials probably don’t even know who Jack Benny is, and that’s okay because later when I refer to Lady Gaga, Pink or Black Eyed Peas, the generation that just laughed will be starkly silent. Yes, it is nice to come to town for a change and not have to be asking people for their money or their life. But don’t think you’re off the hook. I am going to ask you for something tonight.

The Issue

My Dominican brother shared an older friar’s advice: “Ask yourself one question before you get up to preach: ‘Do I love my people?’ If you answer, ‘Yes,’ proceed. If you aren’t sure, sit back down.” So I come here to ask those of you who are already preaching and those of you preparing to be preachers to love the People of God enough to intentionally speak to all of them, whatever the preaching moment, without leaving anyone out.

To preach not just to those with whom you are most comfortable or among whom you are popular; not just to the teens or ever-loyal “grey hairs,” not just to the children, or to the pious or dutiful and, most especially, not just to one generation or your own generation, but to all of the generations sitting before you. This is the heart of my message tonight: When you preach the Word proclaimed, love the people in front of you enough to leave no generation behind!

Like Jesus scolding the apostles when they wanted to shoo the youngest generation away from him, we must be adamant in including all who have gathered before the preacher. After all, we invite all ages each week to a sacred meal so special that we have set two tables of Word and Eucharist. Since when do you invite people into your home and give them only the second course? Or only part of the first course?

This is what we do, when after proclaiming the Gospel, we leave a generation out of our preaching. St. Paul says a preacher needs to love those to whom he preaches. Love means paying attention; so does preaching! To love the People of God means you take the time to get to know them: their fears, wants, needs and dreams. To love them means you take the time to learn what is shaping their lives and values. To pay attention means we learn their language; we include them. And the ones left out know when they have been left out.

When my nephew and namesake, little Andy, was 10 years old, he came with me on one of my occasional incognito appearances in the pews at liturgy. I do that here and there to observe the preaching and presiding style of others to improve my own. Well, during the homily, Andy was fidgety and moving about and not really engaged at all.

Later I said to him, “You usually are not that way in Mass. What was going on with you?” Andy answered, “He’s not like you, Uncle.” To which I responded, “But Andy, this is not about having your Uncle up there, as nice as that is. God speaks through the preacher even when he’s not your Uncle.” Andy protested, “No Uncle, I mean, like, that Father up there, he wasn’t even trying to talk to people like me. I might as well have not been there.”

In Fulfilled in Your Hearing, the bishops emphasize, “Preachers [should] preach in a way that indicates they know and identify with the people to whom they are speaking … [Having] a concerned knowledge of the struggles, doubts, concerns and joys of the local community … what our words can do is help people make connections between the realities of their lives and the realities of the gospel” (as quoted from Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., “Why Every Generation Matters in Preaching!”, Touchstone, Journal of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, p.17).

Sounds logical enough, but too often we forget that those sitting before us are actually five local communities united by their Catholic faith, but still considerably distinct because of their generational identities, filters and worldviews. In his book, Googling God, Mike Hayes says, “A targeted approach to [only] one specific type of young person is a recipe for disaster in ministering to the needs of many,” (Mike Hayes, Googling God, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007, p. xiii).

That’s all the more true with a preaching approach to one generation when preaching to the needs of many. Hayes describes generational identity as how an age group “sees the world and how they derive meaning from the world to make sense of their own existence and the existence … of God” (Ibid., p. xiii). A priest friend of mine shared his pastor’s initial reaction to this topic: “Intergenerational preaching? What’s novel about that? We do that here every Sunday.” That response is exactly the problem. The pastor assumed just because there were multiple generations in front of him, he was preaching intergenerationally.

Multi-generational Preaching: A New Paradigm

Multi-generational preaching takes the age-old homiletic maxim, “know your audience,” to a new level of precision. It seeks a paradigm shift in how we see our congregation. Its impetus is the far-reaching paradigm shift hitting us in communications, which we are now living through that began some 30 years ago with the invention of the Internet.

After all, as a workshop presenter recently asked her audience, “When was the last time you saw a pay phone or used one? A newspaper box or mailbox and used one?” The majority of our communication now is by email and cell phone. That’s why our national postal system has a billion-dollar deficit. So how can there not be a paradigm shift in preaching if we are on the far side of a dramatic one in communications?

For preachers today, the concern must be the generational boundaries of the congregation; specifically, the social, cultural and religious viewpoints of the current generations who gather at each weekend’s liturgy. Multi-generational preaching can be defined as: preaching the Gospel message to the five to six generations comprising most weekend assemblies, through targeted generational images, metaphors and linguistic references (cf. Preaching to a Multi-generational Assembly, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004, Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P.).

What do I mean by generational images? Here’s one for you – a picture of today’s Millennial that I came across running the other morning along the lake in Chicago. Coming toward me at top speed was a 20-something Millennial on rollerblades, wired and hooked up to her iPod and texting furiously on her smartphone, all at the same time! Now behind her, mind you, was a Silent Generation couple walking leisurely, her hand resting on his arm, talking quietly with each other while gazing together at the beauty of the sunrise exploding in a festival of color on the surface of the water. You get my point!

Generational metaphors? Listen for the ones in my 77-year-old father’s recent letter: “In the days when radio was king and T.V. a fledgling box of episodic white snow on the screen; when vinyl records were played on the phonograph; the music of the big bands, ballads of love and romance; and one could hold someone special in his arms and glide around the dance floor with certain step …” Did you count them all? Wouldn’t that be an attention-getting homily starter!

And what about linguistic references? These refer to the “group-speak” common among a particular generation, a generational dialect, if you will, which forms a separate speech community complete with its own generational expressions. My niece Katie’s classic one is: “I’ll meet you online at 10 for an IM.” And have we older generations heard “awesome,” “sweet,” “my bad” and the ever-popular, ever-contemptuous “whatever” to the point of nausea yet? Sorry, Millennials and Generation-Xers!

In one of Carl Hiaasen’s novels, a bodyguard is hired for a temperamental, 20-something actress. To rid her of her annoying linguistic references, which are driving him insane, every “sweet,” “awesome” or “whatever” is met with a cattle prod. It seems to do the trick, but I am not recommending that here!

You see, every day we are literally swimming in these images, metaphors and language references in our conversations, in our reading material and now in film, with the release of The Social Network, a movie about Facebook’s genesis. We just have to pay attention. Preaching is paying attention. And it is always far more about listening than speaking.

Deacon William Ditewig wrote: “We all have experiences that have shaped our lives one way or another, and we love to share them. The experiences we choose to share in a homily, however, must be filtered carefully through the lens of the assembly; not just any story will do” (William T. Ditewig, “Sea Stories and Sermons,” Preach, July/August 2004, p.10). I propose that the lens through which a preacher looks out at his assembly be a multi-generational lens, because that’s the lens through which the People of God are looking back at him!

Multi-generational preaching is premised on three convictions. The first is that people listen, speak and act from their generational identities. The second is that generation is a subculture like race and ethnicity; and third, we can preach effectively to multiple generations at the same time in the same setting if we are generationally aware in our communication. In fact, we must be! This is the reality of our most frequent preaching venue, the Sunday Eucharist.

The congregation at most Masses includes significant populations of people from childhood to old age. This is the paramount challenge of our time if we are to be effective preachers of the Gospel: the challenge of preaching in such a way as to be heard by people of very different generations. Otherwise, after we proclaim the Gospel, we might just as well sit back down. In today’s Babel of generational voices, multi-generational preaching is not a luxury, but a necessity, if we are to have any credibility as preachers!

The Challenge in Today’s World

Our challenge today is communicating our Catholic faith across the pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations in an age spanning landline owners and iPhone users; in a world serving up Twitter, Tweets and Lawrence Welk repeats; in a pluralistic, 24/7 news media and online social networking society where radio fans of Prairie Home Companion, Black Eyed Peas and the Jonas Brothers sit side by side in the pews.

It is a world of “helicopter Moms” who hover over and “Velcro Dads” who stick to their kid’s every move. It is a world in which digital natives, those teens, pre-teens, and the 20s and 30s age group for whom this technological age is a given, have to put up with us digital immigrants who still find the elemental in technology novel.

Or worse, they have to put up with genuine digital aliens; the curious but seriously disoriented, like my Silent Generation father, who keeps asking: “Son, can you tell me more about this Bookface?” or “I bet you can find vocations on MeSpace!”

“Culture is the medium we all swim in,” said John Paul II. There is no human life apart from culture. The subculture of generation is the world into which today’s preacher steps when he steps into the pulpit. Stepping into the pulpit, he has to step beyond his own generation and engage the many before him if he wants to have an impact.

Small wonder that a preacher today may react like a cartoon I recently came across: The initial frame starts off with a big egg bouncing excitedly up and down. Frame two: a duckling has poked out its head through the shell in wonder and enthusiasm. Final frame: he is diving headfirst back into the egg as fast as he can (cf. Robert J. Nogosek, CSC, “Religious life as an Acceptable Sacrifice,” Review for Religious, vol. 69.3, 2010).

That’s a temptation as we approach this new, “multi-polar” world where we face the challenge to explore new generational frontiers, to perhaps go where we have never gone before as preachers. That was for you “Trekkies.”

Generations as Interacting Poles

“Multi-polarism,” according to John Allen in his new book The Future Church, refers to “a political, military, economic and strategic arrangement in which it’s not just one great power that shapes history (as in the Roman or British empires), nor tension between two great powers (as in the Cold War), but the interaction of multiple points” (John Allen, The Future Church, New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009, p. 340).

This is not unlike what today’s preacher faces: The interaction of multiple age groups forming the poles of a multi-polar system based on generation. Now theorists broadly categorize five current generations. Let’s see how representative we are of these groups tonight. I trust that if we have any Builders on campus, those born between 1901 and 1924, the Archabbot has already sent them to bed.

How about any Silent Generation folks born between 1925 and 1942? This is permission for your generation to finally speak! Baby Boomers, those of you born from 1943 to 1961-64, raise your hands. Now those of you born between 1961 and 1964, keep your hands raised. We overlap with the Generations-Xers. So we are vulnerable to an identity crisis from not quite belonging fully to either.

In fact, we have our own song: “Born between two generations, feeling like a fool, loving the both of you is breaking all the rules.” The rest of you Generation-Xers born up to 1981 can now make yourself known. And finally, the generation that is overtaking us all, the Millenials, born in 1981.

William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book Generations, propose that a classic set of four themes keeps repeating themselves generationally. Each generation is either Civic (the Hero type), Adaptive (the Artist), Idealist (the Prophet) or Reactive (the Nomad).

The Civic generations (Builders and Millennials) are the externally focused ones who take responsibility for the rebuilding and reuniting of the cultural contours of society that the Boomers, the Idealists, found so restrictive. Boomer-Idealists are an ideologically driven generation of dreamers who see the world as it should be rather than as it is.

The Adaptive generations are the Silent Generation and the newest, unnamed generation. They go about their work silently without all the fanfare. They are risk-averse, conformist and positive. Generation X thematically represents a reactive-themed generation, still roaming and trying to find their way.

Now we are all born into certain generations, but are impacted and influenced by each generation’s dynamics. We are all most strongly influenced today by Millennials, who are now the largest and most diverse generation. They are the children of the Xers and the Boomers, but relate most easily to their grandparents and great grandparents, the Silent and Builder generations (cf. William Strauss & Neil Howe, Generations, New York, NY: Harper/Perennial, 1991).

A glimpse of the newest generation: A board trustee of our school told me recently that when he asked his 6- and 7-year-old grandchildren what they wanted to do, they said: “Paw Paw, we want to play games on your laptop.” He watched and marveled as they not only ordered games on the Internet, but paid for them as well – with his credit card, of course!

The Perspective of the Marketer

So how do preachers speak to this interacting, multi-polar system of generations collectively, while not losing them individually? Well, one group has already been hard at work on this very challenge. Preachers need to reach multiple generations at Mass in the same way marketers try to reach multiple generations of consumers.

For years, marketers have had an obsessive, single-minded focus: learn everything you can about your target audiences! We have to be just as obsessed! Marketers have increasingly used multiple advertising messages on one product to try to appeal to today’s many generations. That’s why, if you look closely at your tube of toothpaste, you notice so many beneficial claims asserted.

By promising salvation from the mortal ravages of either bad breath, yellowing teeth, your traditional cavity or the scourge of tarter control (that’s the one that keeps me up at night!), advertisers are trying to attract the attention of different, multiple age groups through one medium, one product. My Crest toothpaste even says: “multi-care” before going on to list five different benefits.

And intergenerational preaching attempts the very same thing, even though our ultimate goals are different than the marketer’s. One product, the preaching, is crafted in such a way as to appeal to many audiences with diverse worldviews. Research demonstrates that this is a highly effective approach when the preacher meets three requirements: solid exegesis of the Word, generational analysis of the assembly, and a strategic use of generation-specific images, metaphors and language.

While scriptural exegesis is standard homiletic practice, what a profound difference it would make if, taking a page from the marketer’s notebook, we took the time to generationally exegete our Sunday assembly! Now maybe you’re thinking as preachers we don’t have the same purpose as marketers and this would take a lot of time. Well, yes and no. We do have the same objective of trying to effectively reach each and every one of our consumers (think here: hungry “spiritual consumers”).

As for time, we are constantly negotiating generational differences and boundaries every day. Now a marketer would never say that this takes too much time to know all these generations and to try and reach all of them with their one particular product. After all, their bottom line is the almighty dollar in a very competitive market! Well, dare we care less than the marketer and allow ourselves such an excuse, knowing we are in just as competitive a market for Gospel values? After all, an imperishable Word is at stake. Our much nobler bottom line better mean even more to us!

The Perspective of the Painter

When the Sistine Chapel ceiling was unveiled on the Feast of the Assumption in 1511, Pope Julius II and all those he invited were beyond being pleased with what they saw painted on the first half of the vault above their heads. The painter himself, however, had definite misgivings. Seeing his work for the first time from the distance of the floor of the chapel as opposed to the intimacy of the scaffolding, his Old Testament figures seemed, well, rather flat.

This was not surprising as the figures depicted “were painted as if on an upright wall … and not on a vault soaring over the head of the viewer” (Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003, p. 256). “These figures looked one way to the artist when he was painting them up close and quite another way when he was viewing them from afar” (cf. Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., “Multigenerational Preaching: What The Painter Can Teach The Preacher,” Preach, May/June 2006, p. 16).

The artist’s perspective has to take into account the viewer’s perspective, if he or she wants them to see what they see. This is the reason the second half of the vault of the Sistine Chapel is different from the first, because of what Michelangelo learned that day: that the view from the ceiling is not the same as the view from the floor.

Like our famous Italian painter concerned with this other view, the preacher has to be concerned with the view from the pew. The preacher’s perspective will not be the same as the view from the pews any more than the painter’s perspective from the scaffolding was the same as that from ground level. Preachers need to know not simply who is “out there” sitting in the assembly, but the angle or distance from which they are listening.

At a weekend vocation fair several years ago, I slipped into Mass to hear the young priest preach on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Later, going by my booth, he said, “Oh you’re Dominican, Order of Preachers, what did you think of my homily this morning?” “Theologically flawless,” I responded. “You made all the right points, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it was in a foreign language.”

When asked to explain, I told him that while he got his theology right, he got his audience wrong. They were not a class of seminarians his age, but a generationally diverse gathering of the baptized. “You have two Masses left today,” I told him. “Go up there and look at the people to whom you are preaching, all of them: the children, teenagers, Moms and Dads and grandparents, and say the same thing theologically, but flush it out with words, images or metaphors mindful of their different, generational worldviews” (cf. Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., “Why Every Generation Matters in Preaching,” Touchstone, NFPC, p. 17).

In the first June general audience given by Pope Benedict this last summer, he made this statement while speaking about Thomas Aquinas: “It is a great gift that theologians know how to speak with simplicity and fervor to the faithful. The ministry of preaching, on the other hand, also helps those who are experts in theology to develop a healthy pastoral realism and enriches their research with stimulation” (Pope Benedict XVI, Papal Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Rome, June 2, 2010). That stimulation is the use of imagination to stand in each generation’s shoes.

Homiletic Exercise

To approach this intergenerational challenge, the preacher can utilize an exercise that offers the perspective from the pew. When preparing a homily, mentally place yourself at the pulpit. Think of the overall focus of your preaching. Consider the step-by-step points you want to make. Now before you imagine the examples and illustrations you could use to weave them together, leave the pulpit.

Go sit in the front pew with the grey-haired, 88-year-old Builder grandmother who grew up in the Depression and two world wars, but also in a Catholic ghetto where Catholicism was a clear and cohesive system of religious thought. What examples can you utilize to bring this Baltimore Catechism Catholic into the preaching? What metaphors would speak to her most effectively?

Walk all the way to the back of the church where the 35-year old Generation X businessman is sitting, perhaps wondering why he is even there and if this church in which he grew up is relevant anymore to his daily issues. How would you bring home the homily to this institutionally disillusioned person on the threshold of middle age, looking, not for a Church recitation of rules and regulations, but one offering a personal experience of Jesus?

Discouraged by the social and religious chaos in which they have grown up, Generation-Xers want to retrieve some of the structure and authority of which Boomers eagerly let go. Now, look over at his “pre-teen” niece of 14 years who has little to no familiarity with the catchphrase, “the changes of Vatican II,” but immediate resonance with the “War on Terror.” Ask yourself if there are any common generational phrases in your homily or symbols that would draw her into your preaching.

Who are her cultural icons? Miley Cyrus? Team Edward or Team Jacob? How do we deepen her sense of Team Catholic? What are the concerns of her generation growing up in a global village with 24/7 news cycles routinely reporting on suicide bombers and violence against women? What of other Catholics around her age who, before 9/11 and 9.6% unemployment, only knew national and economic security and never experienced a gas shortage scare or the President of the United States going on national television to caution conserving energy until Hurricane Katrina?

Now walk up the aisle and notice the 55-year-old Baby Boomer Dad formed in the chaos of the Woodstock ’60s with all the horror of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Kent State shootings and the first war America lost: Vietnam. Raised in the sexual revolution and the sweeping changes of Vatican II and now a parent, what generational filter does he bring to your preaching? His suspicion of authority, his generation’s value of free choice in all things?

Turn around and look up to the side of the altar at the 20-year-old Millennial formed in a cultural vacuum of sacred symbols with a virtual plethora of religious ideologies and denominations, all of which are, suspiciously, equal. Socially-conscious, service-oriented, this representative of the JP II generation desperately wants “the real thing!”

Yet, their generation feels “the terror of uncertainty.” In their 20s, they are often referred to as the boomerang kids who fail to launch or “emerging adults,” since they delay classic adult commitments like steady employment, living on their own and marriage until late 20s, early 30s.

In terms of religion, 85% of Millennials are more aligned with faith than Church and are not traditional. The 15% you and I generally see are active in their faith, are traditional and want examples of fidelity in which to stake their belief. They want a no-nonsense faith rooted unapologetically in God and the Church.

Behind the Millennial is that heroic witness to fidelity the Millennial looks up to: a 72-year-old Silent Generation Catholic faithfully married for 52 years to the same woman. This aging Catholic man wonders, as he enters the third trimester of his life, how his beloved Church and faith can prepare him to meet God. With what words would you draw him in, aware that in the span of his life, the world has seen the dangerous, but at least visible, Cold War protagonist as well as the irrational and less visible terrorist? He’s scared for his grandkids.

He has also seen people his age returning to work at places like McDonald’s and Home Depot because much of their life savings has been lost in the worst stock market meltdown since the “Crash of ’29” (cf. Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., “Multigenerational Preaching: What The Painter Can Teach The Preacher,” Preach, May/June 2006, p. 17-18).

This exercise is a creative means to draw out the multi-generational “view from the pews.” If the homily is not cognizant of the worldviews of each generation present, the unconscious “default” will usually be the preacher’s own generational perspective. It’s hard work to step out of one’s own generation, but the investment is so rewarding for both preacher and congregant when one does. Our 80-year-old friar in Denver is a Life Teen Mass favorite because he consistently puts that hard work in, meeting young adults on their generational landscape.

A Shared Catholic Culture

While preaching to multiple generations presents a considerable weekly challenge, it also presents a tremendous opportunity. Why? A shared Catholic culture can build bridges between generations by utilizing a common language. All generations in our Church share a common parochial menu of Catholic ritual, symbols and belief-systems and, therefore, a familiar language.

Religious educator C. Ellis Nelson asserts that “faith is communicated by a community of believers and the meaning of faith is developed by its members out of their history, by their interaction with each other, and in relation to the events that take place in their lives” (John Roberto, Becoming a Church of Lifelong Learners, New London, CT: Twenty Third Publications, a division of Bayard, 2006, p. 30).

The Catholic sacramental tradition, in fact, forms natural transgenerational “hub symbols” with which to design a multi generational homiletic. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ….” How quickly and instinctively many of you responded to that example!

What do I mean by “hub symbol”? Theologian Joseph Webb describes it this way: Everyone has certain emotionally charged experiences that occur early in life upon which they place a range of value. Those experiences with the greatest intensity of value form the “hub” of one’s symbolic worldview. They become central pillars in our lives; the way hubs form the center axis of a wheel (cf. Joseph M. Webb, Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism, St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1998).

When a homilist and person in the pew encounter each other in the preaching moment, separate, symbolic universes meet and are in conversation with each other. Thus, our homilies aren’t just made up of spoken words and grammatical constructions, but carry significant unspoken symbolic weight.

This highlights the challenge and opportunity a preacher faces every weekend; one in which he is less wordsmith than symbolsmith. You see, we humans are not only “meaning-making machines,” but “symbol-selecting,” as well. We seek a home for those sacred meanings we already carry within. The rosary, a novena, a religious habit, Eucharistic adoration, Centering Prayer all carry symbolic meaning as Catholic cultural artifacts that are appropriated by several Catholic generations and can bridge generational divides.

John Westerhoff, a religious educator, observed that, “Formation is an intentional process by which culture, a people’s understandings and ways of life, their world view (perceptions of reality), and their ethos (values and ways of life) are transmitted from one generation to another” (Roberto, p. 31). If we are to transmit the ethos of the Catholic culture, then we need to understand the ways of life of the Catholic generations filling our pews and speak not at their reality, but from within it.

Each generation receives the faith in a particular ecclesial context as well, whether pre-Vatican II, Vatican II or post-Vatican II. In a recent workshop on intergenerational dynamics, Dominican theologian Michael Demkovich noted that, “Formative elements of the faith, once appropriated, speak across generations. [For example], the Jesus story, the Gospel, may be appropriated multi-generationally: for one generation it may have been through ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told;’ for another, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar;’ and still another, ‘The Passion of the Christ.’”

Now there are other transgenerational hub symbols as well from popular culture that can serve as generational bridges, such as: Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Star Trek and the Beatles (my 15-year-old nephew, Josh, and his friends debate their favorite Beatle songs), to name a few.

But before one can proclaim the Word effectively, the homilist must understand the cultural nuance of the words he is choosing. For example, are the words “sacrifice” and “self-denial” heard in the same way by a 75-year-old retired businessman who grew up during the Depression and two world wars in the 20th century, and a 21st-century 16-year-old who has only known economic and national security until 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

What about the 33-year-old Gen-Xer just returned from his sixth tour of duty overseas? These new veterans are already being called the Combat Generation. War is all they have known in their young adulthood.

Preaching as Intergenerational Catechesis

In his book, Becoming a Church of Lifelong Learners, John Roberto argues that “we are at the beginning of a major transformation in faith formation in the Catholic Church. Parishes large and small, urban and suburban, big city and small town, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual are embracing and implementing events-centered, lifelong intergenerational faith formation” (Roberto, p. 153).

This emerging vision is a paradigm shift in faith formation that aims at: “utilizing the whole life of the Church as its faith formation curriculum, … re-engaging all generations in participating in Catholic community life, especially Sunday Mass; and involving all of the generations in learning together through intergenerational learning” (Roberto, pp. 153-154). For our purposes, think of multigenerational preaching as an example of one of these crucial “event-centered,” intergenerational faith formation efforts.

Roberto proposes that intergenerational learning is designed around an all-ages learning experience for the whole assembly. “What people learn in an intergenerational program is experienced at the Church event [in this case, preaching] and lived out at home in the world …. Participation in the ‘event’ [of preaching] is so central to the learning process that we can conclude that the failure to learn is the normal result of exclusion from participation” (Roberto, pp. 83-84).

The upshot is that multi-generational preaching is an event-centered, intergenerational learning that leaves no generation behind. It is preaching as catechesis. This question of intergenerational catechesis could be a paper in its own right.

Practically, one can begin embracing the intergenerational preaching challenge through four simple steps: 1. Developing a parish generational blueprint specific to the population and issues of your regular assembly; 2. Building a Generational Lexicon of common terms and phrases used by the different generations, 3. Organizing a Generational Preacher’s Notebook where material gathered from print, film or Internet media can be stored for easy retrieval and 4. Studying ongoing profiles by current reading and updating on generational personality and trends (cf. Preaching to a Multi-generational Assembly, chapter 7).


Finally, why do we preach? Why do we get up into that pulpit and even dare to say anything? Do we preach to impress ourselves with our own theological prowess? Are we up there to perform or entertain? Is it an exercise in ego or superiority to impress? Are we there to offer therapy or fulfill a duty before getting on to the real stuff of parish life: buildings and boilers and budgets?

We preach to bring the Word of God alive, to make it live and pulsate with a saving heartbeat in the daily comings and goings of those to whom we preach. We preach to animate the spiritual conversation that has illuminated the love affair of God and His people since the beginning of time.

Fr. Michael Demkovich says: “A good theology ought to romance a person into a relationship with God.” So should good preaching! For we don’t romance people generally, but specifically; therefore we have to know who they are, their generation, their language, what they love and understand, if we are to love and understand them.

In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers remind us that “the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (Roberto, p. 158). That is our mandate. That is our summons as preachers: to channel a living hope out of the Word to all generations entrusted to us in the privileged moment of preaching!