Following high school, I joined a seismic oil exploration crew in central Alberta, and worked at a variety of tasks. 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 came other layers of material, sand, gravel, grey clay, and several kinds of shale. I can’t remember the order of the strata, but I do remember that the layers were completely separated, no mixing between layers at all.
I thought of that long-ago job recently when I was paging through the bulletin of a large church and noticed that almost 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 rigidly segregated by age.
That church is not unique, North American churches tend to be organized by age levels. We Christians didn’t get this from the Bible, but from the surrounding culture. For generations, schools have been dividing students into thirteen distinct and separate levels from kindergarten through to senior high school. It goes on through college, and ends in adult communities, retirement homes and finally, the hospice for the dying. Our culture has influenced churches to organize the same way, with relationships being lateral, to others of the same age group. We like to call the congregation the Church family but it’s more a Church school.
I remember visiting a church during a furlough when our daughters were teenagers. After the service at which I brought an inspirational message on missions, we were greeting people in the vestibule of the church. Our daughters were stationed at the information tables, showing Canela artifacts, explaining photos and maps, 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.”
I explained that in Brazil we live on a mission centre, where we are part of a huge extended multi-family group. We all know each other well, we work together, we pray together, and old and young interact with each other not only among peers, but also vertically up and down the age scale.
Our life on the mission centre was much like the Canela society among whom we were working at that time. A Canela mother will have all her daughters living in or near her house, along with their husbands and families. Many societies in Asia value families living close to each other, Grandpa and Grandma, several sons and daughters and their families, often all live in the same large house.
But in our stratified western society, the relationships tend to be lateral, and teenagers talk with each other, not with adults. They don’t know how. Ever since kindergarten, they have been rigidly segregated into peer groups and as a result, they learned to talk only with those within the same age group.
Parents and teachers are the adults who interact with teens. And, based on my own experience as a teen, adults talked to me, not with me. My parents were too busy working and running a household to listen to me. My teachers had a message which went, “You be quiet. You listen to me.”
What would church be like if there were more multi-age, old and young together in sharing groups and Sunday school classes?
What about 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?
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 his grandkids face different troubles. They are exposed to dangerous drugs, their classmates worry about pregnancy, and if they should abort their babies. Grandpas and grandmas need to learn from their grandkids about their so very different world.
What would Church be like if we really were a Church Family?