From nursery to the golden oldies

An issue that has been on our minds lately is that of family inclusive, or integrated, church and worship. We are grateful that our church is mindful of the importance of the family in the covenant community, especially in matters of catechesis, worship, and activities. While there are many ways family inclusivity can manifest itself, we are especially thinking through matters of church education (i.e. Sunday School and catechesis), worship (e.g. nursery and children’s church), and programs (like youth group). We Pearces recently watched the hour-long documentary Divided, produced in large part to be a film promoting the organization Family Integrated Church (FIC).

Uber blogger Tim Challies (and author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment) ironically posted an uncharitable and one-sided review of the film. Though I am in agreement with Challies that the film is one-sided and heavy on the FIC propaganda, I think it is worth viewing for the purpose of stirring up thought on the subject. It is helpful to hear mainstream FIC proponents like Voddie Bachman explain the presuppositions of the FIC movement. Namely, why are youth and young adults abandoning the church in such huge numbers? Does the youth ghetto so prevalent in America’s churches have something to do with it? What should the role of the father (or single mother) be? It is especially helpful for those of us who are wrestling with family inclusivity over against the status quo. That is, why are we segregating ages for education, worship, and activities? What are the foundational assumptions made when doing so? Are we segregating age groups because that’s the way we’ve always done it, or because that’s how all churches do it? What does the fact that age segregation stems from a modern education paradigm mean for the church? What are the benefits? At what cost to us and our children? Are there any repercussions of segregating age groups?

Where I think the film is lacking (and where Challies’ review also lacks) is not necessarily in giving voice to the opposition (it is a documentary with an agenda, after all), but in its foundations for integrating family into the church life. The film and its FIC proponents do base their arguments on Scripture (as well as reactions against Plato, Dewey, and evolutionary thinking), but the film turns almost exclusively to the imperative commands (read: law) of Scripture for integrating the family. A more helpful approach, and one that has more Scriptural and historical staying power, is to make gospel, rather than law, the foundation of the rationale for family inclusivity. More specifically, the gospel as it is embodied in baptism and the covenant, and the covenantal community of grace that springs up organically from the gospel (see what I did there?).

Michael Horton, in his recent The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, discusses the integration of families and youth in the life of the church, but from a different foundation than the Divided filmmakers. He grounds his reasoning in God’s gospel-bathed methods for making disciples: namely the worship of the church, baptism, union with Christ, and the covenant community. He is worth quoting at length:

“One may go from the nursery to children’s church to the youth group to the college campus ministry to small groups to the empty nesters to the golden oldies and never really have been incorporated into the communion of saints. Is it any wonder that those who have never regularly attended the public service of Word and sacrament never join a church in college, although they may be active in a campus ministry? If they do join a church after college, it’s often a new experience.

“A youth pastor in a Reformed church challenged me a bit. Youth ministries are so important, he said, because they relate to kids on their own level, ‘where they are.’ That’s just it, isn’t it? I asked. Where are they? Presumably, their location is ‘in Christ.’ They are baptized and are therefore members of the visible body of Christ, his covenant community. That’s their primary location. Just as they grow up as members of their natural families, with all of the privileges and responsibilities of that home, they grow up in Christ’s body…If [a youth] has grown up in the covenant community, he will realize that he needs the covenant community over the long haul. In addition, he needs to be reminded that his primary location is ‘in Christ,’ not his various social demographics…If they are raised with the contrast between a personal relationship with Jesus and belonging to the church – and their experience living on the margins of the covenant assembly confirms this – it is little wonder that they fail to join a church or embrace their covenant responsibilities as young adults.” (p. 174-175)

Granted, the blind spot of Divided filmmakers and even critics like Challies might stem from their anti-paedobaptism stances, in which a well worked out and established concept of the tie between baptism and covenant community is foreign. Many FIC churches might also be struggling with such issues because many of them are Calvinistic Baptist. But beyond the issue of baptizing babies or not, churches would do well to ask Why? and To what purpose? when it comes to issues of age segregating in church worship, education, and programs.

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9 thoughts on “From nursery to the golden oldies

  1. I was just having this conversation with some of our friends last night. They were expressing a concern for parents in their church failing to make their kids go to youth group. I was put in a position to chime in and say I didn't believe in youth groups and I would be one of those parents. This was a big 'huh?' moment for my friend because he is the youth leader. I, of course, had to explain myself. It was yet another occasion where I wished I'd have just kept my mouth shut. But I explained how I believed the church was failing in it's attempt to educate the people of God in the thing of God by dividing them up by age. And how we're meant to function as a unit. And families are meant to function as a unit. And how fathers need to step up to their role as head of the household and be the spiritual leaders their kids need, not the youth pastor.This is a hard concept for folks. The church has fallen into a the mindset that we're doing the children a disservice by not putting them in children's church so they can get a message they understand and by not having youth group so we can deal directly with all the crap they deal with in school. And people still try to throw in that crying and wiggly kids in church is a distraction to all the adults who are trying to pay attention to the sermon. That one really burns me up. We all need to understand that the common goal is to train the children up in the things of God together and as a team. That comes with a little background noise. Get over it.This conversation snowballs into so many topics.I had to explain that the whole paradigm we've come to think of as 'Church,' where we have programs for every possible age demographic is worldly and not of God. And not Gospel centered. Then I had to explain how I don't believe we should be sending our kids to public schools, I had to explain federal headship, covenant theology, etc.All this to say, I really enjoy this topic, but before I open my mouth again I need to educate myself more and formulate a more concise argument. Thanks for the post and I'm definitely interested in checking these resources out.

  2. I feel genuinely sorry for "Children's Church" kids (and parents). I worry for churches with worship services by musical preference.As a Sunday School teacher, I don't see how it is anything but beneficial to accomplish most Christian education by segregated age groups.

  3. "A youth pastor in a Reformed church challenged me a bit. Youth ministries are so important, he said, because they relate to kids on their own level, 'where they are.' That's just it, isn't it? I asked. Where are they? Presumably, their location is 'in Christ.' They are baptized and are therefore members of the visible body of Christ, his covenant community. That's their primary location."This is the crux of the matter. The whole nib of the problem. To assume that kids are 'in Christ' because they have been baptized and are members of a church is the reason there are so many people who hit college and fall away. How many kids are told that they believe in Jesus but never know what that means? Never had to think about that? If you are in a group of 50 people, listening to a lecture, how much impact does it have? If you are a 12 year old in a group of 50 adults, do you even hear words being spoken? The problem: The way churches have functioned for the last couple decades doesn't work. To jump to the solution of dismantling their frame of teaching is wrong. The teaching itself is the problem. Certainly a great teacher could teach all age groups simultaneously. There is a derth of great teachers in the church today. Why wouldn't there be? Most churches do not exist to teach, but to comfort. (My grandparents go to Tulsa's Love Church. It's located between Tulsa's Church of Love and The Church of Love in Tulsa. Actual taglines. [Don't ask me about the blasphemy I've heard there.]) Age specific ministries (College campus, sunday school, possibly even children's church, but I won't attempt to defend that.) exist, and need to exist, because of the failings of many: pastors, parents, etc. It is fantastic to attempt to create a system where the pastor teaches the parents, and the parents teach the kids, and there is no need for anything else. (So thankful to be a part of a church where is the ideal striven for!) I'm incredibly excited to try this in raising my daughters. However: I realize that I am the exception. I started reading CS Lewis by age 11. I started discussing hard biblical problems with Sunday School teachers and Christian Worldview teacher shortly after that. I didn't go to summer camp, I went to Worldview Academy and argued theology. I went to college for graphic design and spent my late nights disproving the theology student's presuppositions.It is important to assume that the pastor will fail in his teaching of the parents. It is important to assume that the parents will fail in their teaching of the children. It is important to assume that the children aren't paying attention. Ever. Assuming that because someone has heard the gospel once, or even understood the gospel once, is enough is a horrible assumption. Everybody fails. Having 15 teachers providing 15 different teaching styles is about the only way you can say you've done everything you can to provide a child with what they need in this world.I was home schooled from 3rd grade until college. I started reading before 1st grade and was reading at a 3rd grade level when I started. I read voraciously. I routinely maxed out two library cards weekly. I studied texts that my wife (a brilliant woman) doesn't grasp. At 13. (I'm hoping she doesn't read this.) If I didn't totally understand a book, I would read it again. Right away. I had read most of Ulysses by 14. And I hated english class. My whole life. Hated it. Nothing we ever did in it was interesting. I made a point of not reading the books assigned (assuming I hadn't read them already, not a good assumption) and being more insightful during class anyway. I hated how stupid it was. Then in college, I met Dr. Pastoor.

  4. I don't know how, but he made english class interesting. I guess my aunt wasn't a great english teacher. Not her fault, she just couldn't teach me.Under all the braggery my point is: Someone can be perfectly primed to understand something, and given the wrong teacher nothing can happen. Or worse, a teacher can push someone away. (Contrarians, like me, do exist!) Since I should really be doing something else: The more teachers a person can have, the better. Cutting out all of the teachers of sunday school is making the job of 2 people (the pastor and the parent) that much more critical. And if you've ever worked with any other person at any time, you know: people fail.The ideal situation is a parent teaching their child directly from the Bible.. but communism was a great ideal too, and that worked out fantastically, even for the Israelites.(Someone needs to fire my editor, because they are terrible. This is horribly winding and windy, I'm sorry. I don't feel like setting up WordPress anymore. Also, what's with the 4000 character limit?)

  5. Maybe the 4,000 character limit is to encourage people who have a lot to say to start their own blog?But more to your point, you and I are "young" people that are still in the church. Unfortunately, we are in the minority in America. You make a good point about the failures of people – in a sin-cursed world, that's the reality. As long as the church is made up of sinners, that's the reality. My post, Horton's comments, and the film aren't in reaction to churches like ours or the ones we grew up in, which are also in the minority. As I said in my first paragraph, integrating families looks different in different churches. There's no silver bullet for our kids' salvation, and I wasn't proposing one. The only thing I'm proposing in this post was that churches should ask questions – why do things like this? What are the costs and the benefits? Is what we're doing scriptural? I'm glad that our church is thinking through these issues.I do, however, take issue with your first point, that telling kids that they are 'in Christ' and members of a covenant community is what is driving them away. That's contrary to what Scripture says – that they are baptized into Christ and into his covenant community. If that's all there is – baptism and letting them figure it out for themselves, then yes, that's wrong. But as believers, we're in a community for a reason.Again, the point of this isn't in reaction to the churches that are trying to do it right. It's in reaction to the majority of churches in America that don't have a clue. It's the megachurch/parachurch model. If kids are whisked away to nursery, children's church, youth group/parachurch high school organizations, and college "ministries," what will that look like when they are on their own? Then when they are parents, how will the parents know what to do if that's their only model, and they don't have a model for teaching in the home as well?To your point about teaching being the problem, that's true. But teaching is also based on its context. How much teaching can happen when there's no room for it in the over-programmed, entertainment-driven church? And I won't take the "bait and switch" method as a valid answer.My editor is out of commission as well, thus the rambling.

  6. Hopefully shorter since I'm thumb typing:I think that worrying about the megachurches is a mistake. I've been there. The people there are more concerned about community than teaching. But that is not the majority of churches. The majority of churches are small. Less than a thousand people certainly. If we are making changes, they should be not be in reaction to megachurches since I think it is fairly certain they don't care what we do. Our priority is the truth-not "reacting". I agree with this though: the problem is the entertainment, not the product. Solution: make Sunday school hard. Fail people. But don't get rid of it because other churches do it wrong.

  7. Alright, Mr. Thumb Typer. You may have awoken a sleeping giant, as my master's thesis was related to megachurches.1. Megachurches are the minority of churches, but have the majority of church goers in America.2. That attendees are more concerned with community than teaching is arguable, and I would argue (along with many religious sociologists) that they are more concerned with therapeutic Christianity and feeling good.3. I agree that we shouldn't have knee-jerk reactions against megachurches, but their paradigms are creeping into the small churches. Their influence is larger than you may think. The church growth movement is absolutely huge in America, and not just in large churches. Many small, formerly solid churches have sacrificed faithful ministry at the altar of church growth.4. I am in full agreement with making Sunday School hard. And I'll take it one step further and challenge churches to make programs harder, too. Namely youth programs. "Moralistic therapeutic deism" is the term that has been coined for the majority of American Christianity. Something needs to change.

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