Is Your Church a Family? Probably Not.

After high school, I worked with a seismic oil exploration crew in central Alberta. As driller’s helper, I noticed the specific layers of material that lay beneath the sod and black soil. The first was usually a thick layer of yellow clay, then layers of gravel, sand, grey clay, and shale of different colours. None of these layers were mixed, they all were clearly separated.

Stratified Churches
I thought of those layers recently when I paged through a church bulletin and noticed that every event was stratified according to age. From babies, toddlers, and elementary school age children, right through to teenagers, young couples, midlife adults and retired older folk, the congregation was segregated by age.

North American churches tend to be organized by age levels. But why? We certainly didn’t get that idea from the Bible! No, we got it from our secular culture. For generations, schools have divided students into thirteen distinct and separate levels from kindergarten through to high school. It goes on through college, and eventually ends in adult-only communities, retirement homes and finally, the hospice for the dying. We like to call the congregation the “Church family” but it’s more a “Church school.”

News Flash: Adult Has Meaningful Conversation With Teenager.
During one furlough from Brazil when our three daughters were teenagers, we visited a church where I had been invited to speak on missions.  After the service, we chatted with people in the vestibule of the church. Our daughters were stationed at the information tables, showing Canela artifacts, explaining photos and maps, and handing out literature, etc.

When the crowd thinned out, several people came up to Jo and me to compliment us on our girls. One said, “Your daughters are unique. They talk with adults! It’s been years since I had a meaningful conversation with a teenager. But your daughters relate to us easily and naturally.”

The Explanation.
“In Brazil we live on a mission centre.” I said, “We live as part of a large extended, multi-family group. We all know each other well, we work together, and party together, and old and young interact easily with each other not just horizontally among peers, but also vertically up and down the age scale.”

Our life on the mission centre was much like the indigenous Canela society we lived in. A Canela mother has all her daughters living in or near her house, along with their husbands and families. Many societies in Asia value extended families living close to each other, even in the same large house.

But in our stratified western society, the relationships tend to be lateral. So, teenagers learn to talk easily only with each other, not with adults.

My Experience As a Child.
Parents and teachers are the adults who are forced to interact with children. And, based on my own experience as a child, adults talked at me, or to me, but not with me. In our immigrant family, my parents were so busy working multiple jobs that time or energy to listen to me was scarce. My teachers had this message, “You sit and be quiet, and listen to me.” Fortunately, I now know of many families and school situations where children do have a voice, and adults a listening ear.

Children have much to learn from older people, but older folks also need to learn from the younger ones. A grandpa likes to hear, “What was it like when you were my age, Grandpa?” He tells about getting into trouble for chewing gum in class. But our grand kids are exposed to dangerous drugs, their classmates worry about pregnancy, and if they should abort their babies.

What If?
What if grandpas and grandmas took time to listen and learn about their grandchildren’s very different world?
== What if adults asked thoughtful questions of children and listened carefully to the answers?
== What if there were more multi-age, old and young together in home-sharing groups and Sunday school classes?
== What if churches sponsored social activities where old and young come together, tell stories and jokes and share experiences, or where teams made up of all ages go bowling together?
== What if everyone in our churches learned to relate vertically, up and down the age scale?
Would our churches eventually become the Church Families that our Father God intended them to be?



2 thoughts on “Is Your Church a Family? Probably Not.

  1. A good and valid observation. Having been part of a variety of missions, MK and international ministry communities I can relate also to young people who can interact effectively with various age groups. We also saw the same with our children. Given our stratification, the challenge is to find creative ideas and programming that will allow the “What if” to become a reality.

    • Thanks James, for your encouraging corroboration of this theme.
      I received quite a few direct emails from people who told me this de-stratification is a growing trend in churches. Many are having multi-generational activities.

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