For little Johnny, it is the best day of the year. The pandemonium that occurs each year makes him feel safe, warm, and loved.

At the Christmas table, little Johnny is enjoying his icing-covered face, while his older sister is explaining in her loudest voice to Grandma that desert is actually not yet served. Meanwhile, Mom is trying to find a gap to change their youngest brother’s diaper and Dad is making sure the aunties and uncles, neighbours and friends all had second servings. Grandpa is making his way to the bathroom after several attempts to bypass the chaos at the table. Aunt Shirley finally offers to change diapers – which in the meantime multiplied. By the time dessert is served grandma has lost her dentures, grandpa is still somewhere between the dining hall and the bathroom, and children are pouring out their last Christmas excitement running, laughing, and making noise.

The form and structure of this Christmas dinner represent a core element of Petra Institute described as an intergenerational ministry.

Before diving deeper into this term one can briefly note that from the outside this Christmas dinner might look like one big mess, but if you allow yourself to sit at the table even for a little while you will experience an overwhelming feeling of belonging and bonding that is taking place.

This festive image of cross-generational family, friends, and neighbours, each with their own shortcomings, physical limitations, and personal preferences can metaphorically represent two terms known as a Messy Church and a Sticky Faith.

Let’s backpedal to 2011 when the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) released their results of a six-year-long study they called Sticky Faith. The study, conducted among Western-culture youth, questioned why 40 to 50 per cent of all youth group graduates left their faith communities after high school; and what can assist students to develop a faith that ‘doesn’t just survive but thrives’.

The FYI-research shows that adults who after school and university keep their faith are those who constantly participate in intergenerational activities where healthy relationships across all ages are encouraged and mature faith, what they refer to as sticky faith, is developed. One of the crucial findings of the research is the segregation of generations within church communities. FYI argues churches plough money and various resources into different youth groups and youth activities separating them from other age groups. This limits intergenerational activities where children integrate with adults and adults integrate with children, ultimately lessening the chance for deep-rooted faith to develop.

Discussing intergenerational ministry, Petra Institute’s Dirk Coetsee, general manager for strategic relations, quote the phrase: “Faith is caught, not taught.”

He explains that ‘first, someone must have faith, then someone must be long enough in the presence of that person who has faith, upon which a person then receives faith through seeing and experiencing deep-rooted faith from that person’.


When Jesus chooses His disciples in the New Testament, He walks a path with them for over three years, teaching and showing them heavenly faith. Jesus acts as a mentor in not only conveying knowledge on the Word of God but also walking with His disciples serving as a Mentor of faith for them. When we look at how Jesus interacted with His disciples, one notices a close and personal relationship between them. For this relationship to grow and stick, the disciples spent valuable time with Jesus. Günter Krallman, in his book Mentoring for Missions, speaks about the with-ness (not witness) of Jesus.

Intergenerational approach 

About 20 years ago the Lord renewed Petra Institute’s approach in children’s ministry. Before the Institute reviewed its approach to teaching children, there was a strong focus on children’s clubs, puppet shows, and the use of visual aids. Primarily, children’s clubs resulted in segregating the children from older generations. Secondly, children grew to know and love the puppets, and not their teachers. The Lord made us realise how this approach lacked a crucial aspect of building relations between child and teacher where both can grow in, and experience, faith.

Today Petra Institute primarily focusses on a faith-transfer paradigm. It is a family or relational paradigm where relationships across all generations are built intentionally to strengthen and uphold faith – faith that sticks.

“Our philosophy working with children is at the outset relationship-oriented, and secondly to bring generations together” explains Dirk. He further notes: “If this philosophy is approached with respect, children, teenagers, students, and parents find a healthy space within their faith communities”.

This means that church gatherings – of all sorts – are adjusted to welcome everyone, from all generations. And this is where it gets messy!

Think about the Christmas dinner-scenario. Because it is intergenerational and everyone, from young and old, are participating, from the outside things might look messy, but being intentionally messy can actually be hard work and asks for good structure. It is in these messy moments faith-based relationships are strengthened. Not only does little Johnny get to see grandpa’s faith in motion, but grandpa can also learn from little Johnny and his teenage sister. It goes both ways, old to young and young to old.

Dirk adds there are exceptions when separate gatherings like women- or youth events have their unique purposes, but this mustn’t be the norm in a faith community. The norm and the aim must be intergenerational gatherings, for example, worship services, church camps, and community outreaches.

An intergenerational ministry, where the church literally or figuratively is messy, can be daunting as it will perhaps challenge our own set ideas of church and what the church can offer me and my needs during services. But small steps will lead to greater jumps.

Where to from here?

Johan Muller, a researcher at Petra Institute, notes that festivals are a fruitful place to bring generations together. During his research from 2013 to 2015, Johan determined that children’s most favourite religious festival is Christmas. The reason? Johan explains that from an adult’s perspective we might think it is because children then normally receive gifts. But this is not the case.

“Their answers were interesting. For the children, it was memorable because they had the chance to play and have fun with their mom and dad, grandmas and grandpas”, explains Johan.

Perhaps this year’s Christmas celebration can be an enlightening start.

Plan your Christmas dinner or Christmas church service where all generations participate. Think messy, and create an intergenerational environment where everyone is welcome, and long-lasting sticky faith can be caught.

 To read more on the terms of Messy Church and Sticky Faith:

What Messy Church

Messy Church Theology

What makes faith stick during college

Sticky Faith Notes

How can Petra Institute take hands with you, your church or organisation?

Petra Institute can assist your organisation or church to understand God’s heart for children. We listen to your unique needs and then we work out a strategy that fits your vision. A key element in the strategy is to train a core group of leaders to do relational children’s ministry in their own context and from this group of leaders, a group is identified that are trained to train trainers.

Over the years, Petra Institute has developed active partnerships in 29 countries, with equipped trainers in 40 countries and trained children’s workers in more than 60 countries.

For more information about our Courses, Advocacy Workshops, Consulting Services, Partnerships and Training:





Petra Institute, Private Bag X9906, White River, 1240, South Africa
+27 82 446 2274

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