By Mel Walker, Crosswalk.com
Take a walk around the facilities of most traditionalchurch buildings on Sunday mornings and notice where the various generations gather. The children are likely in one place; the teenagers meet in another place; and the adults gather somewhere else.
In fact, in many churches the senior adults are isolated from other adults and get together by themselves in a completely different room.
Numerous churches segregate the generations, but the church didn’t always function this way. Actually, the church probably adopted the custom because this is exactly what happens in Western culture today; even if the overall historical context differs.
The most obvious models for age-segregated programming are institutions like elementary and secondary schools, businesses with child labor laws, and juvenile detention centers. It has been society—and relatively recent practices of isolating young people from the larger culture—that has influenced church programming.
In some ways, the habit of separating the generations makes sense.
Children and teenagers learn differently than adults, and age-group specialists can concentrate on training people at certain ages and learning levels only. This approach is why many churches hire youth pastors and recruit trained children’s workers.
The Bible gives credence for young people learning at different levels than adults. Passages like 1 Corinthians 13:11, Ephesians 4:14-15, and 1 John 2:12-14 seem to point out that young people are distinct from adults and that they learn quite differently than adults do.
Recent scientific studies also substantiate the fact that teenagers learn differently than adults. Two veteran youth workers have recently researched this subject and have written extensively on this idea. See Walt Mueller’s article, Inside the Teen Brain, and Mark Oestreicher’s book, A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains.
Also, Christ Himself invested most of His time during His earthly ministry discipling young people. Most likely, all of Christ’s disciples, except Peter (who was old enough to pay the required temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27 and who was already married), and perhaps Matthew (who was old enough to have a previously established business as a tax collector in Luke 5:27-32), were teenagers at the time when Christ called them to follow Him.
Plus, the Apostle Paul also demonstrated a pattern to train young people when he discipled young men like John Mark and Timothy, both of whom were probably quite young when they met Paul.
There are some Biblical and practical benefits for an age-segregated approach to ministry. However, perhaps it’s time for the church to swing the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach.
However, isolation from older generations is a factor in youth departure from Church.
Isolating young people exclusively from older generations has been proven by recent research to be one of the factors leading to a departure of young adults from the church following high school graduation.
For an overview of some of this research see “Conversation #3” in Going On For God: Encouraging the Next Generation to Grow Up and Go On for God. Emerging generations are much more likely to connect with the church as a whole if they have developed positive and growing relationships with Godly and caring adults as they progressed from childhood through their teenage years in the church.
Not only does research support the fact that connecting the generations is a good idea, the Bible also makes it clear that an inter-generational approach to ministry is essential. One foundational passage for this imperative is Titus 2:1-8 where older people are explicitly instructed to “admonish” or encourage younger people.
The key to intergenerational connection is a balance in programming.
Churches benefit from providing peer ministry, like children’s ministry and youth ministry for instance, alongside of inter-generational connections. Both approaches are presented and highlighted in Scripture.
The problem has been that so many churches have ministry structures that are weighted toward segregating the generations.
A move toward balance begins by identifying some of the benefits of developing growing inter-generational connections in the church. Here are four major benefits of inter-generational connections:
1. Connection fosters encouragement and mentoring from Godly older adults.
As mentioned above, Titus 2:1-8 sets the pattern for older people mentoring younger people to teach, exhort, or encourage them in specific life-related matters. This text seems to assume that even in the first century there was a “generation gap” in the church. However, Paul instructed Titus here to intentionally break down those generational barriers.
Emerging generations desperately need instruction and shared wisdom from older people. Plus, this practice definitely helps connect the generations in the church.
Broad mentoring relationships throughout the church, like those described in this passage, are not likely to happen via age-segregated programming.
2. Youth can receive valuable training for ministry and service from older adults.
Another key passage that contains valuable insights about connecting the generations in the church is 2 Timothy 3:1-17. Of course, the last two verses in that familiar passage talk about the importance of the Scriptures, but there are key principles and illustrations in the preceding verses that emphasize the importance of inter-generational relationships.
Paul wrote in verse 10 that his disciple Timothy, “carefully followed” the pattern of Paul’s example. Plus, verse 14 contains instructions for Timothy to follow the teaching that he learned from significant and influential older mentors.
In this passage Paul reminded Timothy about the training he received that helped prepare him for his future in ministry. Young people profit greatly from the hands-on training for ministry they can receive from people who have gone before them.
3. Senior members can offer younger generations connections within the overall church.
1 Thessalonians 1 & 2 also speaks to the importance of growing inter-generational connections. In Chapter 1, Paul mentions that the believers there “followed” his example in that he followed the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
In 1 Thessalonians 2, the Apostle presents a glimpse into what his ministry with the Thessalonian believers looked like. In 1 Thessalonians 2:8, he identifies two specific elements of his ministry with them: (1) “the Gospel” – certainly this was (and is) an advantage of older, more mature believers in the church who can effectively share God’s Word out of a life of maturity and wisdom; and (2) “his own life.”
Another significant advantage of inter-generational ministry is that older people have the life experience that comes from faithfully living for the Lord and serving Him over the long haul.
Younger people in the church can learn much from the invaluable insight that older people have from following the Lord for so many years.
4. Inter-generational opportunities provide youth a variety of adult models.
The narrative of young John Mark in Acts 12 and Acts 13 contains an interesting illustration of the value of inter-generational connections in the church. This story takes place during a dark time for early Christianity. Church leaders were being martyred and others were imprisoned awaiting their certain death.
During these days the text tells us that church gathered for what must have been intense, all night prayer. And God dramatically answered their prayer by releasing the apostle Peter from his incarceration under Herod.
It’s important to note in this chapter that the church’s youth group may have been present for this time of prayer. The prayer meeting took place in the home of John Mark (see Acts 12:12); and a young, servant girl, Rhoda answered the door (Acts 12:13-15) when Peter showed up at their prayer gathering.
Chapter 12 concludes, and Chapter 13 begins with the account of what became invaluable inter-generational connections for young John Mark in that he was selected by older missionary leaders, Barnabas & Saul (soon to be the apostle Paul) to accompany them on the church’s very first missions trip.
Of course, there is much more to this story, but this young man, who grew up in the church that met in his mother’s house (see Acts 12:12), was mentored and discipled by some of the leading influencers in the early church: Peter, Barnabas, and Paul.
It’s no wonder that John Mark, who went through some struggles along the way, ended up being greatly used by God. He was the human author of the Gospel of Mark, and Paul referred to him as being “useful for ministry” in 2 Timothy 4:11.
As mentioned earlier, separating the generations may have some merit, and there are examples in the Scripture of times when that model was effective and important.
However, it’s also essential for young people to develop healthy and growing connections with Godly older believers in the church. Balancing these two approaches is the key. Building inter-generational connections alongside of peer ministry is crucial for the church.
Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and is also is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. Mel is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his ministry can be found at: www.GoingOnForGod.com. One of his recent books is Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. He and his wife, Peggy, are the parents of 3 adult children, all of whom are in vocational ministry. Follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.
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