Discipling young and old together? Aye Right

I have been reflecting on many heated discussions with one of my oldest friends, a passionate youth and children’s pastor. He argues that excluding children diminishes church; I on the other hand could see many reasons why separating out the age groups made a lot of sense and anyway has it not always been this way.

In a representative church there are usually two or three services on Sunday. At each service there will be streamed activity for different age groups. During the week there may be small groups or missional activities that are, in the main, populated by a single age group. Conservatively we have say10 distinct and focused Sunday groupings and possibly 20 or more other mid week community groups that also tend to be heavily streamed by age. We separate out the groups so that each can receive age appropriate teaching as they go through the process of formation into their own likeness of Christ. What could be wrong with that?

It is obvious that a two-year-old perceives the world differently from a sixty-year-old baby boomer. Different capabilities need different communication tools to catch the attention of the targeted group. When we are communicating narrative or scripture then matching the message to the capability of the audience improves communication and understanding.

Who are these strange people?

We can trace the focus on age appropriate development to the Protestant Reformation and the immense effort put into ensuring that everyone could read Scripture for themselves. This separation of age or interest groups is endemic in our western worldview. Pre-school, school, university, teenager, parent, each develop their own culture and language, unintentionally excluding others by focusing effort on the individual, the customer, the unsaved, the attender, the tither, the children. By splitting church into groups we create “them and us” views. We know a lot about us but little about them. We make assumptions about the others such as:

  • Teenagers are disruptive
  • Crèche is just nappy changing
  • Gray hair means boring
  • People who have not done Alpha don’t understand
  • Young church is just play
  • They will make a noise
  • I don’t like their music.

There is some basic truth to each of these prejudices. It is how we manage and react that can overcome them.   We must re-learn how to relate to people who are not exactly like us, behaving like a family rather than comfortable peer groups.

Can it be fixed?

A lot of what we do is good; some of it is very good. Many church organizations intentionally take note of intergenerational issues however I believe that as with the church of my youth we leave too many exit points and unexplained handovers, we leave too many mysteries and barriers between the different groups. I am inspired by what Lynn Alexander calls simply “Discipling Children and Adults in Church Together.” She describes a process by which intergenerational relationships are developed while maintaining the good parts of age appropriate teaching and worship. Although being clear that there are many other solutions she identifies five activities which will go a long way to repairing the relationships.

1. Intentionally Schedule

Include children in the sacraments; explain the symbolism in the Eucharist, Baptism, Marriage and Death. If possible have mutigenerational participation. Treat objections by the congregation as topics for investigation. Share decisions and answers; provide space for all age testimony. Manage and endorse from the top.

2. Incorporate simple elements

Many of our churches including my own, have monthly services where the whole community is brought together with simple teaching and worship. Lynn Alexander quotes an example where “a pastor preaches a thousand messages on the worshipping heart, to stony hearts and folded arms”. She then describes an event where in the main service  “one after another children read out psalms they have written to God their Father as part of the worship”. We would all be impacted.

3. Establish intergenerational groups or activities

She describes house groups, prayer groups, and mission groups with a mix of generations taking part. This one is not easy, calendars, topics, attitudes, and “never done this way before” will all get in the way. In one such event the questioner asked, “What is frightening?” A small boy burst into tears but was comforted by being hugged by a granddad who prayed for his fear of nightmares. There are millions of reasons, all good, to not try this, as leaders we have to seek out where and how we can get this kind of relationship going.

4. Specific discipleship groups for children

This is a chance for the real issues of being a child to be heard by intentional adults. Lynn Alexander says that we tend to default to narrative with children rather than discipling. Teaching rather than leading. Issues such as why we give, how to pray and hear from God and what happens to dead people don’t fit easily into our programs.

5. Share the vision with all of the adults

We can share the theology behind multigenerational relationships and the value of community. We can talk about what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”. (Mark 10:15) Lynn Alexander challenges us that fewer than 1 in 20 church families engage in a family worship event outside church. I fear this could be lower in NZ. Church is now something that happens if time allows.

I would add to these the organisational issue that our division of the church into age appropriate communities creates challenging exit points when the child or young adult reaches the end of one program and has to start with a new group. If we have established cross-generational friendships and communities then these transitions can be made easier and less frightening.

Preparing the Bride

When Paul was talking to the Philippians he said “they are to live as light in the midst of darkness, as resurrection people.” (Phil 2:14) They must look to the job they have been given.

I have often wrestled with understanding what that job is, where do we start as resurrection people? Saving the trees, the oceans or even fighting poverty is all good stuff. Making disciples, healing the sick freeing the prisoner and feeding the lambs is all mandatory. However we must also re-establish the sharing between the generations in the church, each age group learning from the others. We must look again at what we mean by formation and development.

We not only have a chance to share the excitement of the good news through all the generations but to also understand what it means to see Jesus from a child’s eyes and possibly if we are very lucky see ourselves as Jesus sees us. My hope is not just in the resurrection of the new earth but also in us being a truly beautiful bride of Christ ready to meet him when he returns.

One Response to Discipling young and old together? Aye Right

  1. Robert Gillard says:

    Scripture verse on the wall of the Creche; “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” Seriously though, I have long believed that the church should model a society where the “generation gap” is most notable by its absence. Our major calling as Christians, after all, is to love one another. If that means putting up with a drum kit or another verse of “And now O Father Mindful of the Love…” then so be it.

    Having met you at Laidlaw, my brother Sandy, it is good to hear of your sterling efforts on behalf of our Lord and His kingdom. Keep up the good work!

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