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.