Sure, we had the address of the congregation we wanted to visit, but somehow got all turned around. With the 10 a.m. service time fast approaching, my wife and two young sons followed nervously behind me. On the corner, a Roman Catholic nun waited to cross the road. In my best French, I greeted her then told her what church we were trying to locate. “Turn right at the next street,” she advised. “I think it’s just a few hundred meters down on the right hand side.” Thanking her, we followed the directions and soon found ourselves walking in the front door of the church. Simultaneously, twenty gray-haired worshipers turned to see who had come to visit. When they discovered a young family with children, their eyes lit up and smiles beamed. Unfortunately, their pleasant surprise didn’t last long. We were at the wrong church! Reluctantly, the usher directed us to the next street where he assured us we would find our denominational tribe.
God loves the elderly, yet churches that have only older folks know that their days are numbered. In nature, a failure to reproduce can spell the end of a species. It is no different for communities of faith. A failure to pass along a Christian faith to the next generation will inevitably lead to a church’s demise. Well has it been said that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. To endure, she must reproduce. This happens in two important ways. First, we share our faith with those outside the community of faith, inviting them to put their faith in Christ, to join their story to the story of God and God’s people. A second way is by nurturing faith in our children, passing our faith to the next generation. It is this second way that concerns us here.
How can the church more intentionally and effectively pass Christian faith along to children and youth, making their commitment to the people of God lifelong and not just something they grow out of as they come into adulthood?
A lesson on the importance of inclusion comes from the Xhosa and Zulus of South Africa. When a serious matter affecting the community arises, or a dispute, the chief may call an indaba, a meeting where everyone has a voice. Traditionally, the youngest speak first, followed by those older. Finally, the elders speak. All the while, the chief listens carefully, taking into account all points of view before rendering a verdict on the matter-at-hand. As a Xhosa, this is the inclusive leadership style that Nelson Mandela brought to the South African presidency. It helped heal wounds festering from decades of racial segregation. It brought together black, white, colored and Indian, young and old into a national indaba that allowed a nation to begin to turn the page on a dark chapter and imagine together a brighter and more hopeful future.
Among the people of God, indabas can take the form of prayer meetings. In our church, my parents went to adult choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints not in the choir would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.
The danger of the “grown up table” and the “kids’ table”
At large family gatherings at holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, children are sometimes segregated at the “kids’ table.” In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan, 2011), Kara Powell and Chap Clark lament that too many churches follow that kind of separation between the ages when it comes to church. With good intentions, have we allowed children’s programs, youth programs and adult ministries to function independently with little time to mix between generations? Why are we then surprised when youth find it difficult to transition to adult membership in the community of faith? The gap is huge and – while they may have come to the same building for years – they are virtual strangers to each other.
Recognizing the high church dropout rate of young adults, Powell and Clark give many ideas of how families can instill lifelong faith and church involvement in their children. For our purposes, let’s talk about inter-generational worship, service, laughter and play.
We need not repeat insights about worship detailed in an earlier chapter. Here, the focus is on all ages worshiping together. North Americans used to do this better than we do now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve grown more impatient not only with crying babies but with wiggly toddlers. Yet even toddlers and young children are picking up more during a worship service than we think. As a pastor, one Sunday night I received a drawing from red-headed 8-year-old Amy after the service. She’d drawn a picture of me while preaching. The picture was detailed, including my mustache and tie, but what encouraged me most was the the Bible reference she’d scrawled at the bottom, my sermon text. That little girl hadn’t just been drawing. She’d been listening!
A church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe included all ages in a raucous Sunday morning worship service. People came from distances and weren’t tied to the clock. Three hours together gave ample time to get up and move, as the worship team encouraged us to dance to the lively praise music. That day, I saw a 60 year-old grandma move out into the aisles right next to 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. There was no “adult table” and “kids’ table” that day. We were in it together, and having exercised well during the music and offering, adults and children sat still and listened well to a 50 minute sermon preached in English and translated into Zulu. It was a fine spiritual meal enjoyed by all ages.
The Puritan proverb warns: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Wholesome work gives human beings dignity, and working together side-by-side – young and old in service to others – builds character and fosters Christian community.
While in seminary, my church took a mission trip to the Bahamas. Our task was to help finish off the inside of a new church building, putting up dry wall and installing a suspended ceiling. The trip was life-changing in many ways, but one special dynamic was the broad age range of the participants. There were several grandpas and grandmas on the team, along with twenty-somethings like myself, all the way down to 16 year old “Eric.” Eric was new to the church and had no profession of faith. As he began to feel more comfortable with us, he began to open up about his troubled home life and some of his destructive addictions. For the first time, Eric felt like he had a family as he saw the love of Christ lived out before his eyes, both in our love for him and the Bahamians to whom we had come to minister. By the last day, he had prayed to confess his sins and invite Christ into his life. I’ll never forget the joy on Eric’s face when we went down to the beach and our pastor baptized him in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There’s something about an activity where those of all ages work together that binds us together with cords of love. Youth see that Christian faith is for the long-haul and appreciate the listening ear and wisdom they receive from those much further along in the journey. It’s not showy but it is solid, and that’s winsome.
Laughing and playing together
Life was never meant to be serious all the time. Victor Borge famously said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and he’s right.
One of the mainstays of our bi-annual family reunions is the night when we settle down after a good meal and someone starts to tell the old stories. “Do you remember when….?” And even though most everyone has heard the stories before, they never fail to evoke laughter. When they hear the harmless antics – and sometimes a bit of mischief – my nieces and nephews think it’s hilarious what their mom or dad did, and who better to tell the story than their uncle or grandma? In the same way, the church does life together, and stories of embarrassing mishaps from mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools or Bible Quiz meets get trotted out, a telling of the inter-generational story that binds us together.
In South Africa, churches love to host a braai (barbeque). Often there are games with young and old taking part. Playing and eating together as the people of God makes memories and builds relationships. Braais are an all-day affair. It’s a time to slow down and get to know each other better in a relaxed setting. It’s a place to belong.
Summing it all up
The church needs its children and youth. They are both her present and her future. For Christian faith to be both winsome and “sticky,” being intentional about all ages worshiping, serving, laughing and playing together is key. As older believers invest in the lives of children and youth, commitment to Christ and Christ’s community – the church – becomes a cherished legacy that young adults will long to pass along to their own children. Having studied the people of God, let us in the next section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World sharpen the focus to this question: What is the church’s mission?