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Generations worshipping separately?

A young woman worships at a Christian music concert.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is said to have called 11:00 on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour in Christian America.” Dr. King was speaking of racial segregation in churches, and his observation still rings too true, particularly in the South. Perhaps less lamented by most congregants, another form of segregation also pervades evangelical worship services: generational segregation.

In addition to ubiquitous “age and stage” Sunday School options, it is now common for children to be excused from part or all of regular services throughout the elementary school years. In some churches, the dividing lines are even brighter. Mega churches such as Northpoint Community Church and 12Stone Church offer specialized worship experiences for elementary, middle and high school students, making it possible for the younger generation to avoid worshipping alongside their elders altogether until reaching adulthood themselves. And it is not difficult to find stories of families who feel pressured to keep their kids out of the adult-oriented worship at some churches.

At the other extreme is the Family-Integrated Church movement. Seeking to model what they view as the historical practice of age-integrated worship, churches with this philosophy choose to limit or eschew modern programs like children’s church and youth ministry. According to the website of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, there are about 20 such congregations in the metro Atlanta area.

Surely church leaders at both extremes—and everywhere in between—believe they are being faithful to Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, ESV). But what path is best for the Christian discipleship of all generations in the church? Is presenting Christianity in an age-appropriate context conducive to a vibrant, lasting faith? Or is such faith best nurtured in the context of an intergenerational community, as argued in The Church of All Ages, a 2008 collection of essays on integrated worship?

As with most faith issues, family-integrated worship is much more a matter of degree than of kind, according to Zach Bradley, pastor of Brookhaven Presbyterian Church, a recent plant in the fast-changing Brookhaven area. “Culturally, we don’t want just not to offer a second option for young children,” he says of his young church. “At the same time, we want to encourage eight-year-olds to participate in large-group worship.”

Bradley admits that his small church is still figuring out how best to create a strong intergenerational community. But his experiences outside the United States give perspective to his thinking. “In the developing world, children are a welcome distraction in worship,” he recalls. “For that matter, so are chickens, dogs and goats! Our lives are equally distracted, though in different ways. If we can’t learn to worship in the midst of distraction, then maybe our faith is too individualistic, even narcissistic.”

Bradley believes the church’s calling is to reflect the principle of Galatians 3:26-28 (that all believers are unified in Christ) with respect to age as well as race, gender or status. To do this, a congregation ought to exhibit unity, not segregation, in its worship, regardless of the logistical model it uses.

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