An Integrated Church – Truly Human

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Our starting point in this framework for an integrated church is that intergenerational ministry is first and foremost a human reality.

A Human Reality…

Children’s and youth ministry is a human reality, that is to say, it is a necessary consequence of our creatureliness. It’s not a result of the fall, as if kids’ craft and kids’ songs could’ve been avoided if only Adam and Eve didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. No, children’s and youth ministry is part of our humanness.

The divine command and blessing for humans to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ in Genesis 1:28 was always going to involve having children and raising children to carry out God’s ordained purpose for humanity. In fact, Adam and Eve are the first youth and children’s ministers in the Bible and, according to the story, they had the abnormal experience of raising children without ever having been children themselves (think about that!). And yet, the Genesis story also records for us that they were not alone in the task. The long life spans recorded in the genealogies of Genesis are not to be unexpected, given that the Genesis story is one of beginnings, but the longevity of life also adds the benefit of having many generations of children, parents, grandparents, and grand children all living together at the same time.[1]

The human reality is, that as human beings, we are physical, local and transient beings. We are not static. Each of us can say that, to date, this is oldest I’ve ever been. There are some things about human beings that aren’t transient and don’t change, but what is always changing is your age.[2] A baby is only an infant for a matter of moments. A child is fast becoming a teenager. A teenager is fast becoming an adult and so on.

Therefore, in some ways it’s an odd thing to say that you ‘love children’ or ‘have a heart for young people’ or a passion for ‘young adults’ ministry’.

It’s a little bit like saying ‘I only love you for a little while’, ‘I only have a heart for you a little while’, ‘I only have a passion for you a little while’. ‘How old are you? You’re 13? Sorry I only love children, you’re too old, go see the youth minister’. ‘Sorry, what’s that? You’re 27? I only have a passion for ministering to young adults. You’re too old, go see the not-young-adult-anymore minister’.

Rather, it’s a human reality that people move through ages.

For this reason, it seems short sighted and slightly absurd to restrict ministry to a specifically defined age group. Any human community will need to think about integrating diverse generations because it is a reality of our humanness that we are different ages, and therefore, an intergenerational church is unavoidable.

All this is to say, that it’s worth thinking about how we can relate across the generations well and that integrating diverse generations in a community is not abnormal. It seems far more abnormal that we would try to draw up boundaries around certain age groups and isolate generations from each other. A short scan of the internet quickly reveals that there is an ever growing list of age categories and sub-categories that are segregating people in our societies. For example, a human being might find themselves grouped under the title of Antenatal, Newborn, Infant, Toddler, Walker, Preschooler, Primary age, Pre-Teen, Tween, Teen, Emerging Adult, Young Adult, Adult, Mature Adult, Senior, etc.[3]

Of course, it makes sense that we would do this for the simple and pragmatic reason that different age groups have different developmental needs. We don’t want to ignore the particularities that are faced at each stage of life. Specialising in a certain age group for schooling, sport, and age-care is good practice (we’ll get to this in part two). However, though specialising has its place, it becomes an issue when it also becomes isolating.

When a church congregation, for instance, ships off the children and young people to the their age specific programs as soon as the family arrives in the church carpark, specialising has become isolating. It is entirely conceivable that from ages 2 – 18 a young person might never get the opportunity to be in church (let alone serve) with their parents or with anyone in the generation below or above them.

Children and young people will then ‘…only experience church life with people precisely their own age. Adults will find no way to bless children, much less even see them. Young people will be cut off from the richness of almost all adult relationships. And, most importantly, they will not see members of their own families until it is time to meet at their cars and go home’.[4]

After eighteen years of implicitly saying to young people that ‘church is not for you unless it is customised to your age group’, is it any wonder that young people don’t want to join ‘Adult Church’ after they leave high school? In the Christian youth ministry world, this has been called ‘The programmatic, professionalized, age-segregated model’ of ministry.[5] This model of church and its effects on the faith development of young people and families has become the subject of much critique and reflection in recent years.[6]

However, the issue of isolating generations is not just a problem that has been identified in church models, but also a problem in our society. During the Winter of 2014, a range of billboards began to appear around Sydney, Australia, with the slogan ‘Let’s create a nation for all ages’. The billboards were advertising the website www.nationforallages.com.au as an initiative of National Seniors Australia.[7] It is clear throughout the website that this organisation perceives that ‘seniors’ is one specialised age group that is being isolated from wider society and is seeking to address the problem.

It is a human reality that multiple generations exist together in community, and our basic common unity is that we are people first before we are children, teens, seniors or whatever new age-based sub-category there is. This is a simple fact that was probably taken for granted before the word ‘teenager’ was coined in 1941, and has since became part of our social vocabulary  from the 1950’s onwards.[8]

People Are Persons…

This may sound like an obvious statement, but first and foremost young people are people, and people are persons. That is, we are personal relational beings.

For all our differences, what cannot be ignored is that young people share more in common as people than they have with being young.[9] In fact, our need for differentiation implies what is common between us because ‘differentiation always implies a unity of that which is differentiated’.[10] Sometimes we spend so much time talking about what is unique and different about children and young people that we neglect what it is we share in common – we are persons.

There’s a whole fascinating study in theological anthropology that we could pursue at this moment, but Psalm 8 gives us a good-enough summary for defining persons theologically. [Read Psalm 8 here]

The central question of Psalm 8 is in v.4. It’s an anthropological and theological question: ‘what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?’. Anthropological because it asks ‘What are people?’. Theological because it asks the question in relation to their creator God.

The answer in v.5 is: we are persons that are ‘made’. We are creatures and not beings that are independent of the God who created people. In fact, Psalm 8 posits the question and answer in such a way that we can only be understood properly in relation to him. The whole structure of the psalm itself revolves around the interrogative pronoun h`Dm Mah (What? How?) in verses 1, 4 & 9. The question that frames the whole psalm is the majesty of YHWH’s name, in essence, ‘what is the majesty of YHWH?’ (vv.1,9). In the centre of that question then comes, ‘what are people?’ (v.4) in comparison to his majesty.

The answer that might be expected in contrast to YHWH’s creative power and grandeur is that human beings are impotent and worthless, and yet, even though people are ‘made a little lower than the heavenly beings’ they are ‘crowned with glory and honour’. We are not the only beings God has created, nor even the highest, but we have been given the royal dignity of being ‘crowned with glory and honour’ from our maker.

Psalm 8 has often been observed as a reflection on Genesis 1:26-30 and as such, it assumes the creation account. It is therefore not a big leap to see that v.6 is an explication of the Genesis image-bearing motif, where human beings are God’s representatives who have been given the privilege of ruling ‘…over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’ (Gen. 1:26), and even naming the other creatures that God has made (cf. Gen. 2:19).

As a good-enough summary for defining persons theologically, Psalm 8 places the question of human value squarely in relation to the God who created people and gives them dignity. Therefore, at the heart of our common unity is the basic declaration that all persons are made for relationship to the creator God. For this reason alone, all persons have value. (Further to this, we will see how Christ transforms and fulfils our humanness in part two).

Persons Have Value…

This introductory theological anthropology provides a stark contrast to being valued by what you do or by what you can contribute to society. By that measurement you might end up with the ethicist Peter Singer who has claimed that a healthy dog may have more right to life than an infant or a person with a disability.[11]

In contrast, Psalm 8:2 declares that God is pleased to see his strength proclaimed ‘from the mouths of infants and sucklings’. Just in case we might be tempted to think that only adults with power to rule and subdue are crowned with glory and honour, Psalm 8 deliberately singles out the smallest (lowest) of the human race.[12]

Persons have value because of ‘who they are’. They are made in God’s image – to be his representatives, ‘made a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honour’. Even in the circumstance that one rejects their creator God and seeks autonomy from him, still ‘we cannot simply throw off our dignity. But the dignity of our destiny then becomes a judgment on our unworthy conduct’.[13] Here then, regardless of age and common to all persons is the need for right relationship with the creator God. All can be saved through the grace of God. All need to be challenged to stand firm against temptation and to persevere in following Christ. What is distinctive about young people is small compared with the similarities that they share with all people.

Pannenberg summarises it this way:

‘We are all persons in our necessary particularity as husbands and wives; fathers, mothers, and children; friends and foes; teachers and students; commanding and obeying; in work, renunciation, and pleasure. Yet personhood transcends all the singularities and changes of circumstances because it finally draws upon the relation to God as the source of its integrity.’[14]

Whatever we want say being made in the image of God means, it at least means that all people have a dignity and a glory and honour that transcends whatever their age or ability is.[15]

What are the implications?

The first implication of this is that we must take ministry to children and young people seriously. It is not a waste of effort or money to invest in resourcing and training people for ministry to children and young people. It means that ministry to children and young people deserves to be seriously thought through theologically and biblically. It means that it’s not satisfactory to just insert the youngest, most convenient, least trained but most enthusiastic person to lead it in the hope that they’ll be just cool enough to keep the young people in line.

However, on the flip side, we cannot glorify ministry to children and young people as if this is the most important form of ministry. Against our Western culture, we cannot make the mistake of idolising youth, ‘for youth and vigour are meaningless’ (Ecc. 11:10). Neither should youth be seen as the ‘future’ of either society or the church, for they are part of society and the church in the present.[16] Nor should the ‘rejuvenative power of youth’ mean that children and young people are nothing more than a convenient tool for implementing change.[17]

Although we might think it obvious to say that children and young people are persons with value, we don’t always treat them in practice with the dignity and value God has given them. A helpful paradigm for reflection on this issue is whether we treat children and young people as either problem, challenge or asset.

Option 1, treating young people as problem:

It’s no new revelation that, at times, adults find children and young people difficult. They often display simplistic or contradictory behaviour. They can be a distraction. They need things to be explained. They don’t always fully grasp the social conventions of what is expected and accepted behaviour.

Treating children and young people as problem is to relegate them to the ‘too hard basket’. To try and put them somewhere else until they aren’t a problem anymore and can contribute to church and society ‘properly’.

Children’s and youth ministry here looks more like ‘babysitting’. It’s managing the problem until they grow out of being a problem. This is a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality.

Option 2, treating young people as challenge:

Again, children and young people can be difficult at times, but they show great potential if they can just be harnessed and utilised properly. In this way, they present a challenge to be overcome. ‘If we could just get them together and shape them into useful members of the community, if they could be more like adults then young people could be of great value’.

Children’s and youth ministry here looks more like instruction, discipline and schooling. It’s wrestling with the challenge in order to subdue and cultivate it into something else more manageable. This is a ‘children should be seen and not heard unless they sound like adults’ mentality.

Option 3, treating young people as asset:

Again, young people can have difficulties and challenges like all people, but they have a valuable contribution to the community in the stage of life that they’re currently at.

Children’s and youth ministry here looks more like ‘full participation’. It’s opening up space for children and young people to participate in the community as they are now and recognising that, as valuable human beings, they already bring something precious to the community with all their particularities.

There will still be problems that need to managed, challenges to overcome, instruction and discipline and schooling, but above all, a recognition that they can fully participate and bring a unique contribution that will add value to the community in the present. This is a ‘children should be seen and heard’ mentality.

Upon reflection, hopefully this three part series will help you to see children and young people as a fully participating asset in the church that provide unique opportunities for the church as a whole to worship and glorify Jesus.

Persons Are Particular…

In part two of this series we will explore the unity and diversity of the church and the particularities of children and young people as an asset that provides opportunities for the church. For now, use the discussion questions below for reflection.


Discussion Questions:

Reflect personally:

> Identify whether you treat children and young people as either Problem, Challenge or Asset.

Reflect with others:

> Identify where your church treats children and young people as either Problem, Challenge or Asset.
What can we do differently/better?

> What other groups of people do you possibly treat as either Problem, Challenge or Asset?
What can you do differently/better?

 ——————————————————————————————-

Footnotes:

[1] By the time Adam dies at 930 years of age, there are 8 generations living together with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is not difficult to imagine that this was of great benefit for people who were working out how to raise children and exist in the world, who were able to pass on knowledge from generation to generation whilst they all lived together.

[2] Your sex (according to your chromosomes) will not change, your ethnicity will not change (though your nationality might), and your finger prints, etc.

[3] These specialised age groups are perhaps more the result of a consumer marketing culture which can create new age based markets as consumers continually transfers out of one sub-group into a new one. Cf. Martin Lindstrom, Brandwashed (Kindle ed.; Sydney: Random House Australia, 2011), Loc. 222.

[4] Timothy Paul Jones, ed., Perspectives on Family Ministry: Three Views (B&H Academic, 2009), 12.

[5] Jones, Perspectives on Family Ministry, 180.

[6] Cf. Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry (Kindle, Revised and Expanded edition.; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2010); Jones, Perspectives on Family Ministry; Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Kindle ed.; Indianapolis, Ind: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011).

[7] In case you’re wondering, they consider over 50 as being ‘senior’.

[8] Jones, Perspectives on Family Ministry, 26.

[9] Phillip Jensen, ‘S.O.C.M Discussion Paper 10/87 ‘Youth Work’’, October 1987.

[10] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; vol. 2, Kindle.; Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), loc. 2450.

[11] Peter Singer, ‘Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life?’, Pediatrics 72/1 (July 1, 1983): 128–129.

[12] Cf. Matthew 21:16, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2 as the children recognise who he is.

[13] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, loc. 2245.

[14] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, loc. 2533.

[15] Cortez has great summary of the many and varied views concerning the imago dei. Marc Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (Kindle ed.; New York ; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2010), loc. 196.

[16] It is nothing more than a marketing strategy to capitalise on young people today because of their future potential. Cf. Lindstrom, Brandwashed, loc. 222ff.

[17] Cf. Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (W. W. Norton, 1968), 134; cited by Graham Stanton, ‘The Value of Adolescence’, Heads Up, Cited 26 Aug. 2014, Online: http://grahamstanton.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/the-value-of-adolescence/.

2 thoughts on “An Integrated Church – Truly Human

  1. Thanks for the article, and I’m keen to hear more. I’m always interested in how you put the theology into practice too.

    As an aside, I’m wondering if there is a better word to use than asset. The word asset imports economic language into a view of human worth. It makes sense on one level because you’re talking about the worth of something but it feels cold.

    • I agree Paul, ‘asset’ is a bit cold and business-y… ‘Opportunity’ was an alternative to ‘asset’ but I think it has similar problems with exploitative connotations… so I’m open to suggestions but hopefully you can see the more profound dynamic that an inadequate word is trying to express 🙂

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