Over the past hundred years, our society has begun to separate families and segregate age groups more and more. Age-graded public education, the movement from extended to nuclear family, and the prevalence of retirement and nursing homes for older persons and preschools for the young have contributed to a widespread segregation of young and old.
Churches have been among the few places where families, singles, couples, children, teens, grandparents—all generations—can come together on a regular interactive basis. Yet, the societal trend toward age segregation has entered churches also. Age-based classes for children and adults, teen programs, and separate worship services for adults and children tend to separate family members and age groups from each other, so that many people experience their faith as age-segregated throughout their lives.
How We Got Here
Initially, the idea arose in response to developmental concerns about children and education. Jean Piaget's work in cognitive development revolutionized preschool and elementary education in the 1960s and '70s. Educators basically implemented teaching-learning ideas that were more age-appropriate for children (use of the five senses, more body movement, more visual aids, more active involvement)—all excellent ideas.
In the 1980s and '90s, developmentalist concerns were applied to the worship hour. It was deemed age-inappropriate for children to sit through "boring" hymns and prayers when they could be more actively involved in children's songs and activities, which allowed for shorter attention spans and more body movement. Thus, the initial rationale for separating children from the adults during the worship service was for the benefit of the children.
Second, churches that experience phenomenal growth reach the limits of their facilities and simply do not have room for all who come. One fairly straightforward solution is to provide a full hour of children's church. For some churches this has freed up a thousand seats—and what was originally a temporary solution became a permanent program.
Third, church growth is tied very directly to attracting families with children. Offering an exciting, entertaining hour of children's church can be a big draw for those who are church-shopping. As one children's minister says, "We want this hour [children's church] to be the funnest hour in every child's week." And if the children enjoy children's church (and if the parents do not need to tend to their children), more families will become regular attenders.
The fundamental difficulty is that spiritual development is not essentially the same as cognitive development. That is, the way children (and adults) grow in their understanding of math or science is not fundamentally the way they (and we) grow spiritually. Children sometimes comprehend spiritual realities far beyond their cognitive development. Therefore applying cognitive developmental principles to a primarily spiritual enterprise could be problematic, even detrimental.
Faith and Family in the Bible
Scripture presents coming to know God as a family and community-based process. God's directives for his people in the Old Testament clearly identify the Israelites as a relational community where the children were to grow up participating in the culture they were becoming. In the religion of Israel, children were not just included, they were drawn in and assimilated into the whole community with a deep sense of belonging. The directives for feasts and celebrations illustrate this point best. These festivals were celebrated annually and included elaborate meals, dancing, music, singing, and sacrifices. All of Israel participated, from the youngest to the oldest.
The purpose of these festivals—which included Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Booths, and the Feast of Trumpets—was to remind the Israelites of who they were, who God was, and what God had done for his people in ages past. As children and teens danced, sang, ate, listened to the stories, and asked questions, they came to know who they were and who they were to be.
Emerging from its Jewish heritage, the early church was also a multigenerational entity. All generations met together, worshiping, breaking bread, praying, and ministering to one another in the context of the home (Acts 2:46-47; 4:32-35; 16:31-34).
Besides meeting with parents and others in house churches, children were clearly present in other spiritual settings. In Acts 16:15, Lydia was baptized "with all her household," and in Acts 16:33, the jailer was baptized "with his whole family." Also in Acts is the story of the young man, Eutychus, who, while listening to Paul preach until midnight, fell out of a window (Acts 20:7-12). Luke also reports that children accompanied those bidding farewell to Paul as he boarded a ship at Tyre (Acts 21:5-6).
These explicit intergenerational concepts in Scripture clarify that religious community as described in the Bible included the idea that children were actually present. Separating the children is sometimes necessary and beneficial, but for children to experience authentic Christian community, they must be present with the worshiping community.
As children are assimilated with a deep sense of belonging into the body of Christ, they will make sense of their experiences with God. They will see their parents and others worship, pray with and for each other, minister to others, and be ministered to. They will come to see that all things in their lives are under God. They will be privy to the normal Christian life as lived by the significant adults in their lives. And they will come to know God better.
—Holly Catterton Allen is associate professor of Christian Ministries and director of the Children and Family Studies program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas; adapted from "Families, Worship, and Children's Spirituality," New Wineskins (May 2004). Used by permission.
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