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.