Is Age-Based Ministry Unbiblical?

Recently a group of pastors and former youth ministers issued a statement that aged-graded ministries are unbiblical, that youth groups in church should be dissolved, that having special instructional times for children is damaging, and that the existence of children and youth ministries in churches is the cause of Christianity’s decline in the western world. They used the term “segregated” to describe age-appropriate ministries, a term that reeks with connotations.

On the one hand, these pastors and former youth ministers are not totally wrong; few people are. Christianity is intergenerational, and families need to be worshipping, learning, and serving together. Family altars and home-based devotions are a hallmark of Christian history. Families who sit together on the pew live better together in the home. The family unit is the primary training grounds for children in biblical knowledge and holy living; and the church simply supplements and strengthens the work of godly parents. I do have qualms about “children’s church.” I’m increasing feeling that children (especially elementary children) should be worshipping on Sunday mornings with their parents whenever possible.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:18: It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.

It’s one thing to initiate age-integrated discipleship and work toward empowering dads and moms to better do their jobs. But it’s another thing to excoriate all other ideas and claim you’ve rediscovered the only methodology that God blesses. I can’t advocate the abandonment of all age-appropriate ministries in the local church. I’m the product of age-graded ministries, and I still vividly remember what I learned in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. My youth group at the church I attended provided some memorable experiences for me. As an adult, I’ve benefitted from the classes, groups, and studies I’ve attended.

In Nehemiah 8, Ezra preached to all the families one day; and the next day he pulled out the heads of the families and gave them age-appropriate instruction. The boy Samuel was placed in the tabernacle school under Eli and there he said, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.” Paul gave Titus different messages for the different sexes and age groups in Crete. Hebrew children were taught in synagogue schools, which Jesus Himself undoubtedly attended. On various occasions in our Lord’s ministry, He turned aside to minister especially to the children.

And what about all the youngsters who don’t have Christian parents, Christian homes, or even homes at all? Some kids will only be saved through a bus ministry, a Good News club, a VBS, a youth meeting, or through the efforts of a godly Sunday School teacher.

There’s no need to assault Robert Raikes and the Sunday School movement. We should be studying its history. As I recall, it was the teacher of D. L. Moody’s teenage Sunday School class, Edward Kimball, that led him to Christ. Kimball’s convert later became the greatest evangelist of the 19th century and established a training school that has been sending out Christian workers for the last 125 years. Wouldn’t it be ironic if some of these critics received their training at Moody, or from books and resources provided by Moody Press — all the product of an age-graded approach to ministry?

When it comes to Christian Education methodology, don’t say: “I’m all right and you’re all wrong, and if you don’t do it my way it’s the end of Christianity as we know it.”

The decline of western Christianity certainly cannot be laid at the doorstep of age-appropriate ministries by faithful workers in the local church. It’s demoralizing to even imply that. I’m tired of so-called experts saying, “Here’s what’s wrong with the church” — and then blaming hard-working pastors, children’s pastors, youth ministers and other staffers. I say “Hooray!” for all the children’s workers and youth ministers out there, and I thank God for their work.

The rabid secularization of society has much to do with the decline of church attendance, along with the lack of spiritual revival in our culture, and the loss of biblical theology in many pulpits. I can make a case that the lack of children’s Scripture memorization programs in local churches has a negative effect on a person’s spirituality (and please don’t expect children to memorize Scripture as slowly as their parents).

It’s easy to take a set of good ideas like intergenerational worship, turn them into mandates, make sweeping accusations about all other methods, and present one’s ideas as though they are the only valid opinions on the market. But the Bible allows for flexibility in the organization and administration of the churchs’ ministries. When a person claims they’ve discovered the only paradigm through which it can be done, their credibility is shot.

So perhaps some of these new trends will prove revolutionary…

…but it’s too soon to throw out the babies in the church nursery with the bathwater.

9 thoughts on “Is Age-Based Ministry Unbiblical?

  1. I agreed with your second paragraph and then we started to disconnect.

    “I’m the product of age-graded ministries, and I still vividly remember what I learned in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. My youth group at the church I attended provided some memorable experiences for me. As an adult, I’ve benefitted from the classes, groups, and studies I’ve attended.” God will take the situations and work them for good (Rom. 8:28) even when the situation is not the best. How many times did God use pagan dictators (and still does today) to accomplish His will (discipline His people) when He would have preferred that His people would have been obedient?

    “Paul gave Titus different messages for the different sexes and age groups in Crete.” These different gender and age groups likely received this instruction as one big group, not in separate “class rooms.”

    “And what about all the youngsters who don’t have Christian parents, Christian homes, or even homes at all? Some kids will only be saved through a bus ministry, a Good News club, a VBS, a youth meeting, or through the efforts of a godly Sunday School teacher.” Keep in mind that the people who advocate family-integrated churches are not advocating ending your bus ministry, ending Good News Clubs (which normally happen in a public school setting or private home after school), VBS, or Sunday School. I call the kids you describe “spiritual orphans” and as a former bivo youth pastor I have a great burden for them. We in the church have to unlearn some stuff and learn that we are to take on these “orphans” as our “spiritual foster children” during worship times and then Monday thru Saturday. Who has a better chance of reaching the child with the Gospel than a spiritually mature adult and who has a better chance of reaching the spiritual orphan’s parents with the Gospel than a spiritually mature adult? Let’s bring those kids in thru bus ministry and place them with families who will invest themselves into the lives of these orphans. Let’s get them in the door of the church by doing VBS like we have always done, then find them the spiritual mentors that will help them become a viable follower of Jesus and not just a number to brag on. Sunday School (or small group) is still on the agenda, only in a family-integrated setting where the mentoring family can answer the spiritual orphan’s questions throughout the week, provide additional resources to help them understand the lesson, etc.

    “The decline of western Christianity certainly cannot be laid at the doorstep of age-appropriate ministries by faithful workers in the local church. It’s demoralizing to even imply that.” No one is blaming the state of the western church strictly on age-segregated ministries although based on Barna and McDowell’s research it seems to have played a large part.

    “I’m tired of so-called experts saying, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the church’ — and then blaming hard-working pastors, children’s pastors, youth ministers and other staffers.” I think most of the people speaking out against age-segregated ministry are sharing the blame and not pointing strictly at pastors and staffers. We are all to blame, from the pew-sitters to the pulpiteers.

    “It’s easy to take a set of good ideas like intergenerational worship, turn them into mandates, make sweeping accusations about all other methods, and present one’s ideas as though they are the only valid opinions on the market.” Yes, this article is evidence of how easy it is to make sweeping accusations. Has anyone mandated that you have to only worship in a family-integrated church? Again, based on the evidence of how many “church” kids leave the church when they graduate from high school, family-integrated worship is one of the few “valid” ideas of “how to do church” on the table. The old model of children’s and youth ministry is not just far from perfect. It is not “mandated” in Scripture. It is flawed and broken.

    “But the Bible allows for flexibility in the organization and administration of the churchs’ ministries.” Scripture support please? Was Paul inflexible when it came to his instructions in the epistles, which most people would read as instructions on how to do ministry? When most churches today are losing their young people, do we really want to have the “flexibility” to keep doing “ministry” in a way that is not prescribed by and contrary to God’s Word?

    The worst thing about age-segregated ministries to me, and this is my opinion but I think many people who have given this serious thought and study would agree, is that it produces many false converts evidenced by the mass exodus from the church of the 18-year olds. Like the Apostle John said, they left us because they weren’t a part of us.

    1. Time forbids me from responding thoroughly to every objection. But overall, your points are well taken. Yet it bothers me that you insist on using the pejorative term of “segregated” to describe age-appropriate ministries. And that you compare age-graded ministry workers to dictators. Also it’s a pretty big assumption to suggest there were never any children’s classes on Crete and that all instruction was always given in large, general settings. It’s the most natural thing in the world to have times when you sit down with children and provide teaching for them. Parents should certainly do this, but it doesn’t always have to be just parents nor does it always have to be in the parents’ presence. In our home, we did our best to teach our daughters about the Lord. But we were ever so thankful to have gifted teachers in our church who could—outside of our immediate presence—gather them aside and reinforce what we were teaching at home. For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.

      1. RJM: “Yet it bothers me that you insist on using the pejorative term of ‘segregated’ to describe age-appropriate ministries.”

        me: Would you prefer I use the term “age-separated”? “Segregated” is only pejorative if you take it that way. It is interesting that of all of my points, you ignore the most important one concerning spiritual orphans and choose instead to reply to the ones that you perceive as the most negative.

        RJM: “And that you compare age-graded ministry workers to dictators.”

        me: I could have used other examples of where God allowed something that was not an ideal situation to still be used to accomplish His will. I think you missed the point I was trying to make.

        RJM: “Also it’s a pretty big assumption to suggest there were never any children’s classes on Crete and that all instruction was always given in large, general settings. It’s the most natural thing in the world to have times when you sit down with children and provide teaching for them. Parents should certainly do this, but it doesn’t always have to be just parents nor does it always have to be in the parents’ presence.”

        me: God makes it clear in Deuteronomy whose job it is to instruct children – the parents. Paul reiterates this as well in some of his epistles. Parents in the American church have abdicated their role as chief evangelizer and discipler of their children. They choose to have more “me” time, more time with people their own age, or just want to unload their kids on someone else for a little while on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.

        RJM: “In our home, we did our best to teach our daughters about the Lord. But we were ever so thankful to have gifted teachers in our church who could—outside of our immediate presence—gather them aside and reinforce what we were teaching at home. For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.”

        me: Praise God that you and your spouse did try to teach your daughters and had other adults come along side you to assist you! No one objects to that. What is objectionable is when parents abdicate their God-given and ordained role as the primary instructors of the nurture and admonition of the Lord and put it off on someone else. We in America by and large send our children to Sunday School, Children’s Church, and Youth Services and never have home devotionals or Bible studies. We send them away while we worship, just us and God, rather than in the most intimate of corporate worship settings – the family. Our children have been robbed of seeing the examples of mother and father worshiping in song, prayer, intercession, and earnest listening and studying of the Word.

        Check out Gregg Harris’ church http://www.hofcc.org/ and Voddie Baucham’s church http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/GFBC2/Home.html to find out more about family-integrated that work. I know of other small home-churches that also are working quite well without age segregation. I see the difference in their 18 and 19 year olds and their 20-somethings compared to those in a traditional church (as a whole, comparing percentages of those plugged in versus those who drop out).

        To carry out the God-given privilege of teaching your own children to love the Lord your God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and not casually just give away that privilege, to have the joy of bringing them to a saving knowledge and relationship with God and then help them mature and walk in their knowledge – well to quote someone “For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.”

        Most people that I read and listen to who are making the most of this issue from the family-integrated side understand that going family-integrated might not ever work in traditional, old churches. It could take a generation to change others over to family-integrated from age-segregated in a way that would not offend and run off members while allowing everyone to learn how to “do church” in this fashion. Many advocate only promoting this model in new church plants. It took years for most of the proponents of family-integrated worship to arrive where they are and I see that they extend the same grace they were given as they try to raise awareness of the problem of losing a generation in our American churches and educate others to the solution. I don’t see a lot of bashing others who don’t believe the same way, but I do see people all over this nation who are leaving a broken model and going to what they perceive to be God’s biblical model for being the Body of Christ.

        Peace and grace to you in the name of your and my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

      2. By the way, currently I attend an Alliance church that is not family-integrated. Some families choose to not participate in age-segregated classes and activities. Others are somewhat in between and allow their kids to go to Sunday School. The objections for changing to totally family-integrated worship are not based on Scripture. The objections are:
        1) we’ve never done it that way before
        2) we’ve always done it this way
        3) parents don’t want to have to get up, go out and tend to their restless children during worship service
        4) children and infants in church might disturb someone

        Parents can be trained to raise their children to be quiet in church. I know many who already have successfully accomplished this. Parents can also be trained that it is ok to take your child out of the sanctuary when they began to disturb others and discipline (train) that child as is appropriate. The rest of us in the church can be trained to thank God for the sound of children who are in the worship service as they are being trained to become worshipers of the One True God by their parents. We can learn to mentor young parents and mentor their children within the worship setting. We can learn to pray for those parents and children, that they will grow more in love with God and with each other as they worship together.

        Peace and grace.

  2. I agreed with your second paragraph and then we started to disconnect.

    “I’m the product of age-graded ministries, and I still vividly remember what I learned in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. My youth group at the church I attended provided some memorable experiences for me. As an adult, I’ve benefitted from the classes, groups, and studies I’ve attended.” God will take the situations and work them for good (Rom. 8:28) even when the situation is not the best. How many times did God use pagan dictators (and still does today) to accomplish His will (discipline His people) when He would have preferred that His people would have been obedient?

    “Paul gave Titus different messages for the different sexes and age groups in Crete.” These different gender and age groups likely received this instruction as one big group, not in separate “class rooms.”

    “And what about all the youngsters who don’t have Christian parents, Christian homes, or even homes at all? Some kids will only be saved through a bus ministry, a Good News club, a VBS, a youth meeting, or through the efforts of a godly Sunday School teacher.” Keep in mind that the people who advocate family-integrated churches are not advocating ending your bus ministry, ending Good News Clubs (which normally happen in a public school setting or private home after school), VBS, or Sunday School. I call the kids you describe “spiritual orphans” and as a former bivo youth pastor I have a great burden for them. We in the church have to unlearn some stuff and learn that we are to take on these “orphans” as our “spiritual foster children” during worship times and then Monday thru Saturday. Who has a better chance of reaching the child with the Gospel than a spiritually mature adult and who has a better chance of reaching the spiritual orphan’s parents with the Gospel than a spiritually mature adult? Let’s bring those kids in thru bus ministry and place them with families who will invest themselves into the lives of these orphans. Let’s get them in the door of the church by doing VBS like we have always done, then find them the spiritual mentors that will help them become a viable follower of Jesus and not just a number to brag on. Sunday School (or small group) is still on the agenda, only in a family-integrated setting where the mentoring family can answer the spiritual orphan’s questions throughout the week, provide additional resources to help them understand the lesson, etc.

    “The decline of western Christianity certainly cannot be laid at the doorstep of age-appropriate ministries by faithful workers in the local church. It’s demoralizing to even imply that.” No one is blaming the state of the western church strictly on age-segregated ministries although based on Barna and McDowell’s research it seems to have played a large part.

    “I’m tired of so-called experts saying, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the church’ — and then blaming hard-working pastors, children’s pastors, youth ministers and other staffers.” I think most of the people speaking out against age-segregated ministry are sharing the blame and not pointing strictly at pastors and staffers. We are all to blame, from the pew-sitters to the pulpiteers.

    “It’s easy to take a set of good ideas like intergenerational worship, turn them into mandates, make sweeping accusations about all other methods, and present one’s ideas as though they are the only valid opinions on the market.” Yes, this article is evidence of how easy it is to make sweeping accusations. Has anyone mandated that you have to only worship in a family-integrated church? Again, based on the evidence of how many “church” kids leave the church when they graduate from high school, family-integrated worship is one of the few “valid” ideas of “how to do church” on the table. The old model of children’s and youth ministry is not just far from perfect. It is not “mandated” in Scripture. It is flawed and broken.

    “But the Bible allows for flexibility in the organization and administration of the churchs’ ministries.” Scripture support please? Was Paul inflexible when it came to his instructions in the epistles, which most people would read as instructions on how to do ministry? When most churches today are losing their young people, do we really want to have the “flexibility” to keep doing “ministry” in a way that is not prescribed by and contrary to God’s Word?

    The worst thing about age-segregated ministries to me, and this is my opinion but I think many people who have given this serious thought and study would agree, is that it produces many false converts evidenced by the mass exodus from the church of the 18-year olds. Like the Apostle John said, they left us because they weren’t a part of us.

    1. Time forbids me from responding thoroughly to every objection. But overall, your points are well taken. Yet it bothers me that you insist on using the pejorative term of “segregated” to describe age-appropriate ministries. And that you compare age-graded ministry workers to dictators. Also it’s a pretty big assumption to suggest there were never any children’s classes on Crete and that all instruction was always given in large, general settings. It’s the most natural thing in the world to have times when you sit down with children and provide teaching for them. Parents should certainly do this, but it doesn’t always have to be just parents nor does it always have to be in the parents’ presence. In our home, we did our best to teach our daughters about the Lord. But we were ever so thankful to have gifted teachers in our church who could—outside of our immediate presence—gather them aside and reinforce what we were teaching at home. For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.

      1. RJM: “Yet it bothers me that you insist on using the pejorative term of ‘segregated’ to describe age-appropriate ministries.”

        me: Would you prefer I use the term “age-separated”? “Segregated” is only pejorative if you take it that way. It is interesting that of all of my points, you ignore the most important one concerning spiritual orphans and choose instead to reply to the ones that you perceive as the most negative.

        RJM: “And that you compare age-graded ministry workers to dictators.”

        me: I could have used other examples of where God allowed something that was not an ideal situation to still be used to accomplish His will. I think you missed the point I was trying to make.

        RJM: “Also it’s a pretty big assumption to suggest there were never any children’s classes on Crete and that all instruction was always given in large, general settings. It’s the most natural thing in the world to have times when you sit down with children and provide teaching for them. Parents should certainly do this, but it doesn’t always have to be just parents nor does it always have to be in the parents’ presence.”

        me: God makes it clear in Deuteronomy whose job it is to instruct children – the parents. Paul reiterates this as well in some of his epistles. Parents in the American church have abdicated their role as chief evangelizer and discipler of their children. They choose to have more “me” time, more time with people their own age, or just want to unload their kids on someone else for a little while on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.

        RJM: “In our home, we did our best to teach our daughters about the Lord. But we were ever so thankful to have gifted teachers in our church who could—outside of our immediate presence—gather them aside and reinforce what we were teaching at home. For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.”

        me: Praise God that you and your spouse did try to teach your daughters and had other adults come along side you to assist you! No one objects to that. What is objectionable is when parents abdicate their God-given and ordained role as the primary instructors of the nurture and admonition of the Lord and put it off on someone else. We in America by and large send our children to Sunday School, Children’s Church, and Youth Services and never have home devotionals or Bible studies. We send them away while we worship, just us and God, rather than in the most intimate of corporate worship settings – the family. Our children have been robbed of seeing the examples of mother and father worshiping in song, prayer, intercession, and earnest listening and studying of the Word.

        Check out Gregg Harris’ church http://www.hofcc.org/ and Voddie Baucham’s church http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/GFBC2/Home.html to find out more about family-integrated that work. I know of other small home-churches that also are working quite well without age segregation. I see the difference in their 18 and 19 year olds and their 20-somethings compared to those in a traditional church (as a whole, comparing percentages of those plugged in versus those who drop out).

        To carry out the God-given privilege of teaching your own children to love the Lord your God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and not casually just give away that privilege, to have the joy of bringing them to a saving knowledge and relationship with God and then help them mature and walk in their knowledge – well to quote someone “For the life of me, I can’t understand objections to that.”

        Most people that I read and listen to who are making the most of this issue from the family-integrated side understand that going family-integrated might not ever work in traditional, old churches. It could take a generation to change others over to family-integrated from age-segregated in a way that would not offend and run off members while allowing everyone to learn how to “do church” in this fashion. Many advocate only promoting this model in new church plants. It took years for most of the proponents of family-integrated worship to arrive where they are and I see that they extend the same grace they were given as they try to raise awareness of the problem of losing a generation in our American churches and educate others to the solution. I don’t see a lot of bashing others who don’t believe the same way, but I do see people all over this nation who are leaving a broken model and going to what they perceive to be God’s biblical model for being the Body of Christ.

        Peace and grace to you in the name of your and my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

      2. By the way, currently I attend an Alliance church that is not family-integrated. Some families choose to not participate in age-segregated classes and activities. Others are somewhat in between and allow their kids to go to Sunday School. The objections for changing to totally family-integrated worship are not based on Scripture. The objections are:
        1) we’ve never done it that way before
        2) we’ve always done it this way
        3) parents don’t want to have to get up, go out and tend to their restless children during worship service
        4) children and infants in church might disturb someone

        Parents can be trained to raise their children to be quiet in church. I know many who already have successfully accomplished this. Parents can also be trained that it is ok to take your child out of the sanctuary when they began to disturb others and discipline (train) that child as is appropriate. The rest of us in the church can be trained to thank God for the sound of children who are in the worship service as they are being trained to become worshipers of the One True God by their parents. We can learn to mentor young parents and mentor their children within the worship setting. We can learn to pray for those parents and children, that they will grow more in love with God and with each other as they worship together.

        Peace and grace.

  3. For what it’s worth, I have written a three part series defending the concept of age segregated instruction from Scripture. You can read part one here: http://reformedbaptist.blogspot.com/2013/05/is-age-segregated-sunday-school.html

    there is a link to part 2 at the end of the post, and a link to part three at the end of part two. I essentially try to set out a kind of Biblical theology of church and family within which to understand the issue. Scott Brown of the NCFIC has said that such a defense could not be made, and I have repeatedly sought to elicit a response from him, yet to my knowledge he has never offered one.

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