Taking a walk through most traditional churches on a Sunday morning reveals a trend in church programming.
The children gather with their Sunday school teachers in the church’s basement. A group of teenagers meets with a couple of young-looking adult leaders in an upstairs loft. Most of the adults are scattered throughout the auditorium, while a cluster of senior citizens assembles in the church office.
Other than the involvement of a few loyal workers and helpers, the various generations have almost nothing to do with each other during a typical church’s Sunday schedule.
History of Generational Segregation in the Church
Where did the idea come from that it is a good thing to separate based on age? The current church structure, where the various generations are almost totally disconnected from each other, is a fairly recent trend that has been adapted from a variety of religious and cultural customs.
1. The acceptance of the Sunday school. One of the originators of age-segregated ministry was the wide acceptance of the Sunday school as an essential ingredient of church educational endeavors. According to church historians,
The Sunday School movement began in Britain in the 1780s. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in many children spending all week-long working in factories… Saturday was part of the regular work week. Sunday, therefore, was the only available time for these children to gain some education. The English Anglican evangelical Robert Raikes (1725-1811) was the key promoter of the movement. It soon spread to America as well. Denominations and non-denominational organizations caught the vision and energetically began to create Sunday Schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid-19th century, Sunday School attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood.
2. The influence of Jewish tradition. Ancient Jewish culture included a “coming of age” custom that is pictured in Scripture when Jesus’ human parents took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem as a 12-year-old. (Luke 2:41-52; Deuteronomy 16:16). The historical disconnect between generations was well-defined by this “rite of passage” as described concerning Christ Himself. Children learned at one level of education; adults were taught at another.
3. The mandate of compulsory education. This nation’s compulsory education system also fostered the idea of age-based segregation. Earlier educational methodologies were centered around a strong parental influence over their children. Parents, often especially fathers, were actively involved in their children’s education and vocational training.
This hands-on connection with close adults provided tangible intergenerational relationships between children and adults. Once children were separated from their parents for several hours each day, their closest interpersonal relationships became with their peers — who vastly outnumbered their teachers.
The Rationale for Age-Specific Ministries
Over the years, the church accepted and implemented age-specific education. Sunday schools, youth groups, and children’s clubs became a common practice that divided the younger generations for age-specific programming. Adult educational ministries followed — and the traditional church rapidly became generationally disconnected.
Obviously, there are positive reasons for separating into age group categories for local church ministry: The division into age groups allows maturing young people to learn at their own level (1 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; 1 John 12-14), it provides important fellowship and community with peers (Hebrews 10:25; Acts 2:42), and evangelistic opportunities often happen best with people at the same stage of life (Acts 17:16-34; Acts18:1-4).
The Rationale for Intergenerational Connections
However, there are also very valid reasons to build growing and positive intergenerational relationships in the church. The most obvious reasons are that young people can learn much from the life experience and godly faithfulness of older adults (Titus 2:1-8), and older people can also learn from the example and zeal of young people (1 Timothy 4:12). The scriptures are emphatic that the various generations need each other (Psalm 78:1-8; Psalm 71:18).
Christ, Himself, modeled the importance of building intergenerational relationships with His 12 disciples, most of whom were younger people at the time.
Different Generational Ministries
There are three basic approaches to the way most churches program their services, activities, and functions. The first would be a “one-generational” structure — where the various age groups almost exclusively gather in generational groupings. For example (like what was illustrated above), the children meet in one location, the teenagers in another, and the adults meet somewhere else.
The next approach would be “multi-generational” scheduling where various age groups would gather alongside each other, maybe even in the same room, but who have very little, if any connection with each other.
The last generational style of ministry programming is when a church provides specific occasions for various age groups to connect with each other using “intergenerational” methods and practices.
This is when older people actively seek out younger people to encourage them and mentor them in a way that helps emerging generations to continue to grow in God’s Word, and, in turn, younger generations look to the next as godly examples of faithful living in Christ.
Building Intergenerational Relationships
A balance of programming between the three styles of ministry is probably the key to a healthy church. At present, it seems as if many churches are out of balance on the side of age-segregated ministries. Perhaps it is time to work on techniques that churches can use to help develop intergenerational connections.
Here are some practical ways everyone can build growing intergenerational relationships in the church.
1. Pray specifically and individually for members of other generations. This practice should begin with the older generations in the church, those who can set an example of connecting all age groups through prayer. The older generations in the church should make a habit of praying by name for members of emerging generations in the church.
Praying specifically in this manner will help develop an increasing burden in the hearts of those they are praying for, and there will be less cross-generational tension in the church because of this intentional prayer.
2. Serve the Lord together with people from other generations. Each ministry position and opportunity in the church should include a mentoring component that allows older people to serve alongside younger people. This intergenerational idea should be an integral aspect of serving the Lord in and through the local church.
For example, older teachers could mentor younger teachers, experienced ushers and greeters could be examples for less experienced ones, and even elders and pastors should be motivated to share their expertise and knowledge with younger leaders. Of course, churches must adhere to strict child protection policies and obtain the proper background checks and clearances.
3. Schedule times of fellowship and personal interaction between the generations. Specific time slots should be set aside for the different generations to have time for fellowship with each other. This most likely will not happen unless the church is intentional about scheduling opportunities. Some churches utilize their youth groups to prepare a meal or other activities for older adults.
Other churches just schedule fellowship times (like “board game nights”) to allow time for older members to connect and build relationships with younger people — including time for them to share their stories of God’s faithfulness to them over the course of their lives.
Why Does This Matter?
Maybe it’s time for another “tour” around the traditional church buildings — this time with a vision for balanced church ministries that actually connect every age group, building positive and growing relationships with each other.
Churches do not need to totally segregate the generations but should seek to organize church functions that are generationally balanced. Growing and healthy relationships can be developed between the generations with initiative and intentionality.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 12 books on various aspects of youth ministry, plus he speaks to hundreds of teenagers and parents each year. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth. He recently wrote a book on discipleship for youth leaders, Discipling Student Leaders: A Strategy for Discipleship in Youth Ministry, which can be purchased on that website.