Friday, October 7, 2005

Quarantining a Generation

My friend Beth sent me an article by Suzanne Hadley entitled "Quaranting A Generation." Hadley spends her days as an editor for the children’s magazines Clubhouse and Clubhouse, Jr., but for this article she decides to change her target audience a bit and address her own young adult generation.

The thrust of the article is that by creating services and even churches devoted exclusively to young adults, we have actually harmed them more than helped them. The conventional argument is that this group has left the church (or never bothered to enter the church) because they feel ignored. In response, churches reached out and created these special services. We even have a whole movement of tragically hip young adult Christians we call the Emerging Church.

Hadley believes that our generation has effectively been cut off from the older generation of Christians, which is to our detriment. As she looks at the New Testament church, she sees a group that is integrated in all areas – even age. She feels that age integration is essential for our generation to mature in a healthy way.

I agree that age segregation is a growing problem in the church. My church is blessed to have a wide range of age groups. I have actually seen first hand the impact being around mature, older Christians has had on my life.

But age segregation still happens. My wife and I are beginning a new small group. Everybody in it is under 30. I didn’t try for that to happen; it just kind of did.

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with before, and I always end up with some of the same questions:

  • Should the church “legislate” age integration or should it let things happen organically, even if that means segregation?
  • Are these new church services, congregations, etc. really attracting unchurched people, or are they just gathering spaces for young adults who think they’re edgy and who want an excuse to be mad at the mainstream church?
  • Will young adults leave the church or never enter the church if we do not have church services designed specifically for them?
  • Or is it more important to simply be authentic, whatever that looks like for each church?

7 comments:

Jim said...

I've thought about this issue quite a bit over the years. I'm definitely not in favor of legislating anything. Treating the church as an organism, as a living thing, as, well... as a body is the way to go.

Still... I have to agree with the thesis that age-exclusive services, even if they arise organically are not what the church needs. My concern is not primarily for the younger folks but for those who are older. It works both ways of course, but for a whole host of reasons I won't list, I think it's the older (40+) crowd that misses out by becoming comfortable with the kind of age segregation that "just seems to happen." The reason it happnes is the same reason cultural segregation is the rule in our churches. In fact, this is yet another example of cultural segregation. We stay separate because it requires too much effort to bridge differences while still retaining them.

Somehow (and here is where I come up short of solutions) there needs to be some intentionality about this organic process. The word cultivation springs to mind. I think it would be worth the effort for congregations to do the hard work of cultivating mixed age involvement throughout their various ministries, without squeezing people into a mold. That's not even easily said, if it were easy to do I know I'd have done it already. What do you think?

Ben said...

Jim,

I like the image of cultivation. Like you said, it seems to imply a certain level of involvement while still letting the organic process happen. But I also hit a wall when I try to think of how that could happen in the church in a way that does not seem forced.

I hate to sound cliche, but I wonder if prayer is a foundational element we seem to have overlooked in this process. I have been extremely blessed by a variety of people in my church who are from a variety of age groups. I doubt I would have interacted with them apart from the church. I also know that a lot of prayer went into the church I'm a part of well before my wife and I came on board.

I suppose what I'm getting at is simply that the Holy Spirit is both the uniter and the motivator of the church. He makes it possible for all to coexist. I wonder if we were more devoted to prayer and seeking the will of God, if we would find ourselves uniting across boundaries in light of the mission God gives us (both as a church universal as well as the local congregation).

Maybe the Sunday School answer is the right one. I'm not sure.

Jim said...

Ben,

You didn't overlook prayer. You were assuming a vital prayer context.

So was I.

Yeah, that's it.

Dee said...

Good question. Since gas prices jumped last year I began going to a neighborhood church during lean weeks. More so now. The church that I am member at has services designed to accomodate all ages except young children. They have nursery and a youth chapel for kids up to eighteen, but kids are welcome in sanctuary service. However, on first sunday we have traditional service, and each Sunday following represents another age group with the youth hosting servive in the big sanctuary on fifth Sundays. I like this idea, because both old and young fellowship together at some time during the month. More importantly, younger people learn to respect the traditions that were set before us.

On the other hand, my neighborhood church doesn't have many older members. They have moved to other churches. Or they only attend the eleven o'clock service.

i like the title of this entry.

Abigail said...

Ben,
I've given this topic some thought through my years in church, and haven't come to any firm conclusions. The church I spent most of my growing-up years in was small, and simply by virtue of its size people had strong cross-generational community bonds.

After college, I attended a large Baptist church, and spent most of my time there with people my own age, or a bit younger. Then I took time off from church, then ended up at an urban church which had a very strong community, but most people in the church were within the same 10-year age span (25-35). Now I'm in a different urban church with a similar demographic, although there are also some older folks. From what I can tell, there's not much community involvement at all, although there is some.

Looking at my own experience, I think the size of a church has something to do with how integrated across demographic lines it is. I think its location has a lot to do with it -- we get a lot of folks in a certain demographic who live downtown, people like to go near where they live. And I think the goals of church leadership has a lot to do with it. I think if you're not cognizant of the dynamics of inter-demographical interactions, and working to encourage those at the top, I don't think people naturally gravitate in that direction. I don't think it has to be fakey, but I do think it means creating opportunities for folks from different states in life to fellowship.

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Julie said...

Ben, you make a good point. Completely segregating people under 30 from the rest of the church may be ultimately damaging to a strong church family, but I think that it does serve a purpose in meeting people, particularly 20-somethings, right where they are. I do find that this is a uniquely North American problem right now though. In Northern Ireland, you can barely get anyone to attend church and there are not enough pastors to go around for the churches that are still meeting. We definitely don't have the problem of people in their 20s spending all their time at church together. This may sound naive, but right now I think that would be a great problem for us to have.