Tim Wright blogs this week about the self-inflicted crisis many churches are experiencing right now. As young adult church attendance continues to decline, Wright points to age-segregated worship services as the main culprit.
Wright observes that that over the last few decades, as churches have attempted to make their worship services more convenient for the boomer generation, they’ve created a separate worship experience for boomers’ kids. The practice has been catastrophic for the younger generation:
…as we shifted kids out of the main worship experience, en-culturated them in their own program, and robbed them of any touch points with the rest of the body of Christ. Another way of saying it: by segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation. They had no touch points. They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults. It was a foreign place to them. And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church.
With good intentions we attempted to raise kids to be Christians, but we didn’t raise them to be Churched Christians. And perhaps that, in part, is why so few of them attend a church today. We’ve essentially “Sunday-Schooled” them out of church—because we never assimilated them into church. We never “church-broke” them.
You can read Wright’s full blog here
While his remarks are directed toward his own Lutheran denomination and similar groups that don’t place as much emphasis on adult Sunday School as my own Baptist church, Wright puts his finger on the un-intended consequence of a fundamental outreach strategy most churches have been following for years. They’ve segregated the generations in their worship. In other words, churches choose to place their children in one style or venue of worship and their adults in another.
The reasoning behind this makes sense—or at least it did at the time. Smaller children especially can get fretful and noisy during a church service and distract people sitting nearby. Also, children don’t often understand what’s going on in an “adult” worship service and so are easily bored. On the parent’s side, trying to keep children still during a worship service can be a trying experience at best.
So separating the adults from the children for the purposes of worship seemed to provide for the best of both worlds. This has been standard practice for some time now, with some churches even prohibiting elementary children and younger from attending the main adult worship services at all.
What actually happened, though, is that we segregated the generations from each other in worship, robbing each of the opportunity to learn from the other. Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church pastor Tullian Tchividjian condemns this approach to worship as “age discrimination” and asks why we allow it in the church when we wouldn’t dream of allowing it in any other facet of American life.
Here’s Wright again:
A few weeks ago I preached on this in our church. One of our members pulled me aside and told me a story: When he was small, he looked up at his dad who had tears in his eyes as the congregation sang, “Spirit of the Living God.” After church he asked his dad why he was so sad during church. Dad said, “I’m not sad. I was just remembering how when I was a boy like you I stood next to my dad singing, ‘Spirit of the Living God.’ And now here I am, singing that song with my son.” How are we creating those kinds of touch points for our kids?
I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t have nurseries for their youngest children! Right now in our church, our nurseries are overflowing and at last count we had fifteen women expecting. I’m not saying bring all those blessed but crying kids into the church every Sunday!
But I am saying that we need to find a better way for families to worship together. The age segregation we’ve practiced in worship for the last couple of decades isn’t doing our kids or parents as much good as we thought. Worship is the first and highest calling of the church, and doing it as a unified congregation is the clearest testimony we can make to both the grace of God and the power of the gospel.