I had the privilege of being brought up in a ‘family’ church. What do I mean by that? In the church I only had three blood relatives and yet I had many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents and even great-grandparents to whom I was not physically related. There were four generations present at the Sunday services and most activities of the church. A number of years on, I have the responsibility of pastoring a multi-generational church. Is it important that the church continues to represent all the generations? If so, how can it?
Biblical teaching on church
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul refers to the young and the old because he expects the church to consist of these categories. He does the same in Titus 2 and here there is reference to interaction between the older and younger women. Elsewhere, he refers to the church as the household of God and gives the general principle that all parts of the body are to be valued. This teaching runs through the whole Bible. The psalmist in Psalm 71 desires to declare the Lord’s power to the next generation when he is old and grey. When the church in the Old Testament gathered to pray during the time of King Jehoshaphat, they did so with their children and little ones.
We need to guard against being shaped by the world. Within our society, there tends to be limited social interaction between different generations, even within families. Younger people often don’t see the value of learning from older people and older people may perceive younger people as a nuisance. As churches, this is an area where we can and must be counter-cultural. To reflect the biblical pattern, we must work hard to ensure three things:
- We include different generations, particularly in our services of worship.
- We guard against segregating age groups.
- We encourage interaction between the different generations.
The question is, how? What follows are some practical suggestions from someone without all the answers serving in a church where there is plenty of room for improvement!
We need to answer honestly: are we including all of the generations in our services of worship? Do our public prayers and times of corporate prayer reflect the different generations? We should pray for the conversion of all ages. Perhaps we pray for young people to witness in the classroom and ‘middle-aged’ people to stand firm in the workplace, but do we pray for people with carers to be able to share the gospel with them? When we pray for parents are we mindful of single people who feel the pain of not having children? Do we make them feel less valued?
It is important that we don’t focus activities only on one age group. Is the focus on youth work because we consider them to be the future? We should remember the elderly, single people, married couples and those with special needs in our activities too.
I have to mention the controversial topic of ‘what we sing’. If you’ve visited anyone suffering from dementia, you will know the value of having a relatively constant selection of hymns. By all means add to your collection of singing items but it seems wise to do it slowly and to keep a large selection that will always remain. Because the words we sing matter, singing hymns which have archaic language need to be at least explained, sometimes modified or perhaps no longer sung. If you’re blessed with people who are visitors from other countries trying to learn English then the exclusive singing of Victorian poetry probably will be exclusive! You may also have people in your church who have special educational needs. Singing one very simple item or something with a repetitive chorus will include them.
When it comes to preaching, the message should be applied to all of the church not just certain generations. Illustrations need to be carefully selected so that they are not excluding people. Language needs to be used that includes everyone present. Even the pace of the delivery needs to account for the differing abilities of the hearers.
I am not making a case for no age segregated groups but we do need to be cautious. Youth groups can be a good way of evangelising and it can also be encouraging for Christian young people to spend time with others their age. However having a separate youth Bible study or even a ladies’ prayer meeting every week might be driving an unhelpful wedge into the church family. Similarly, removing children from the services of worship and having a ‘junior church’ does not seem to support the overall biblical principles. I am very aware when I preach that the children are listening. They sometimes answer my rhetorical questions out loud which is wonderful.
Even age segregated groups can encourage interaction between different age groups. By giving regular reports on the activities to the whole church you will be including other people in them. I have been encouraged to see youth group leaders inviting older people along to give their testimonies and answer questions on the Christian faith. What a blessing to have such wisdom and life experience passed on. We need to think about how we can have people from all generations involved in our church activities and beware of the relatively modern concept of retirement, something that is not found in the Bible. In addition to this hands-on involvement, we must value the increased time that some older people have to spend in prayer. I remember a few years back listening to a report from some overseas missionaries, who looked around the room and saw old people with white hair and remarked, ‘if only we had some white hair in our church’. Their church was new and rapidly growing but lacked the stability that older people bring and they missed it.
There are things that parents with children can do. Ask your children over Sunday dinner who they spoke to after the service outside of their own generation. They soon learn to do it naturally! I remember a young boy being encouraged to talk to an older man in the church about a common interest in football. Soon the elderly man invited the younger boy to his house to watch the football as the boy didn’t have Sky Sports at home! Invite people from different generations to dinner. Encourage your children to make cards and decorations for some of the older people in the church. Older people can ask the younger generation about their exams and for prayer items. Older mums can visit younger mums and give them support and be a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on. Married couples with children can involve single people in their family lives to give them opportunity to care for children. All of these things are very informal. They can be supplemented by church holidays where inclusive activities are planned.
It was a joy last year to have a mission week in the church. A couple in their late 70s hosted a prayer meeting in their home. People in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s did door-to-door work, gave out tracts on the high street and served refreshments at a gospel meeting. Children looked on and saw all of these generations working together for Jesus Christ. It is all so counter-cultural and demonstrates to the world the true ‘big society’.