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I recently tripped over the documentary, “Divided”. It is arguing against siloing the Christian community into different age groups. What particularly interested me is that it comes from the part of the Christian spectrum that has been arguing for siloing. “Church growth” models have been advocating having services where people are similar to each other – in age, music style, etc. The siloing approach seems to treat the gospel like a commodity – available from different providers, with the idea that the providers are different in order to encourage a wide variety of people to use the one that fits their profile.

The gospel, it seems to me, is actually more about uniting all our God-made differences in one community, around one table. I have argued that children, for example, be as fully part of the worshipping community as others.

How do we make our worship something that we can continue to grow into, rather than something that people grow out of? A healthy community has examples of all ages and stages to encourage people in their life-long journey of faith.

The documentary is based on research that around two thirds of young people are going to leave the church. “We’re losing about 40% of them by the end of middle school and another 45% by the end of high school. In other words, we are losing them way before college.”

We have become so dulled into accepting the capitalist model of choice (eg. never-ending variety of means of transport, powered by multiple-option energy sources, purchased from a variety of providers) that we do not pause to be surprised by a Christianity that is split into ever-fragmenting denominations, in which there are different types of parish service stations, which themselves worship in shifts (8am old people; 9:30 middle aged; 11am young families divided into main auditorium, creche, Sunday school classes of different age bands; 5pm; 7pm youth;…). We preach a gospel of “unity” and practice a gospel of division. And in this case at least, I think the medium is the message…

What do you think? [And please don’t get hung up on the obvious biases of the documentary – to do so merely reinforces my point. Here is one attempt to rethink how to disciple young people that runs against the current of many (most?) Western church approaches].

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45 thoughts on “Divided”

  1. Thanks for this Bosco.
    John Westerhoff was arguing this corner many years ago (although from a more centrist position). It has always seemed foolish to me that we set styles of church up that people can grow out of – kind if guaranties the loss of youth we continually lament.
    I began my ‘professional’ ministry as a youth worker 30 years ago and have remained involved ever since. The irony is that we have fewer young people involved since siloing became popular. What was that definition of madness again? Something about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result …

  2. We are a small church which emphasizes multigenerational integration (mostly out of necessity – to divide by age would mean Sunday school classes of 2 or so; and it would be silly to run a nursery just for the pastor’s baby).

    The greatest joy we have experienced was with our baptism class earlier this year. A brother and sister, 12 & 13. The pastor, elders, the candidates, and their parents gathered weekly to pray and discuss the Christian faith. Everyone was on a journey together, everyone contributed, everyone learned. It was great!

  3. Admittedly, I struggled to get past the framing the nature of young Christians’ faith in terms of Young v. Old Earth. However, I have noted the power of having everyone present in divine services since becoming an Orthodox Christian. When I first started attending church, anyone who was under 16 or so got shunted off into a different space. There was Baby Church, Kids’ Church, and Teen Church. I didn’t have to learn how to pray with a toddler in the room until I had already been a Christian for nine years. The intergenerational nature of most of my Orthodox communities consistently comes to me as I reflect on what I find most beautiful about the Orthodox Church. Specifically, I adore watching a priest, altar servers, and parent/godparent trying to ensure that our most newly baptised actually receive Communion at the chalice. I’ve never before seen such an intentional expression of making the least among us the focal point of the Liturgy.

    I’ve been challenged to grow as a Christian because of it. I have 2-4 year olds looking up to me and wanting my attention in worship. It’s beautiful because God has used the attention of these kids to teach me something about how to love those around me. It doesn’t feel like Church if there are no children getting a little restless.

    I personally didn’t grow up in a “Christian” house. But as these small kids have adopted me as an adult, I definitely feel as though I have a family who loves God.

  4. Love it. Thank you so much Bosco! I’ve watched it time and again. When people say “It’s complicated,” I think to myself, It’s only bad relationships that are complicated. Good relationships are simple. So it is with the Church and God. We complicate to support our brokenness. Restoration is the genius of simplicity.

  5. I was most interested with Anna’s response. This certainly seems to describe the Orthodox Church’s way of integrating congregations. To see children in church with their parents, serving at the altar, etc., these are the marks of a ‘catholic’ foundation, where Christ is at the centre. The Eucharist, the Mass, the Holy Communion is at the centre of the worship of the Christian Church – a facility calculated to bring together ‘all age worship’. What is needed is ‘Food for the Journey’ of our pilgrimage into Christ. This is what makes us into ‘The Body of Christ’.

  6. I do think there is a place for youth ministry, absolutely! However, I am all for all age worship on a Sunday. I like provision for children to be in the same room, and I cannot see that it respects the contribution or intelligence of youth to send them away.

    To me, youth ministry is all wrong if it is just ministry to youth. It must also be ministry with youth and by youth – often in the context of all age worship. And when I go to youth camps and help out, I wish they were all like the ones I attended when I was young – the final evening worship used to be attended by parents, ministers from contributing congregations, and other interested adults, whose spiritual “batteries” were often recharged by seeing what church looked like in the hands of a critical mass of young people every Easter, Queen’s Birthday and Labour Weekend. And then we all went home to all age worship on Sundays and Youth Group (including young adults) on Friday nights. I only hear news of one other from that group these days. We are both still church members. So maybe it worked.

  7. Great questions raised. I remember sitting in a youth ministry lecture recently listening to a youth leader from Fiji who was speaking about the direct integration of young people in the ‘adult’ service. She asked the class “do your young people serve” I.e. do we have young people as crucifers, acolytes, choir members etc., and the answer was a resounding no.

    We have segregated the kids to a point where they have no connection with the worship service of the community. It seems like the traditional model of young people serving in the service and worshipping together wasn’t as negative as we once thought.

  8. Do we segregate children, adolescents and adults at family meals? No. (Aside from, maybe, an overflow “kids’ table” on a holiday when the dining room table proves not large enough for all the guests who show up.) So why would we practice such segregation when it comes to the family meal that is the Eucharist at the Lord’s table?

    I too grew up Orthodox Christian, where there was no parceling off youngsters at worship: it was all-age inclusive. (To be sure, youth ministry and Sunday school were a different story, as they are a different matter.) The experience taught me how to worship, participate in worship, sing hymnody and handle a prayer book quite organically from the example and mentoring of the elders around me. Such inclusiveness also teaches youngsters how to relate naturally with oldsters, and vice versa — something desperately needed in this day and age of generational alienation.

  9. Bosco,

    A wonderful post I’ll be sharing with United Methodist colleagues…

    Could you cite the source of the “losing 2/3 of our youth” statistic (or, as part of your post has it, closer to 85%!)? Do these stats relate to New Zealand specifically, or were they garnered more globally?


    The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    The General Board of Discipleship of
    The United Methodist Church

    1. Sorry, Taylor – I don’t know how widespread the statistics are. My impression was that this was from research at the more “evangelical” end of the spectrum in USA. I think the quote is from Ken Ham. I suspect that the general trend is similar in more than just USA “evangelical” communities. But I am stretched and cannot do further research, currently. Blessings.

      1. This research came from the Barna Group, so it’s looking widely at American Christianity. My personal best guess is that these findings were highlighted in the book “unChristian.”

  10. I am priest to a country congregation and have run for 6 years the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programme for childre from 3 to 12 years during the week. The children have grown thro’ knowing that they are part of the congregation and when they come to church are able to robe etc and take an active role in the service. From there we have several who now take regular responsibility as servers, acolytes, thurifers, readers, sidesmen etc. to see them grow gives understanding to the theories of both Westerhoff and James Fowler. Wonderful and a privilege. The children I have experienced are able to absorb, make sense of deep mystery from an early age, and to progress their faith as they develop into the older child.
    Why do we as ‘church’ seem to disregard the very young in favour of ‘youth’?

    1. Thanks Liz for your comment (and appreciation also for your parish website!) I am convinced that you are quite correct – we (many adults) totally underestimate what is going on in younger age groups – both in their ability and desire to participate in mystery and to understand academically. Oh that our communities be for all: every stage, every age,… Blessings.

  11. Thank you for prompting me to think about this again, Bosco. Multigenerational worship is a strength of small churches that pay attention to liturgy as the work of ALL the people. We don’t have the numbers to require going to multiple services or the staff to support a smorgasbord of worship options. THe Sunday School does go out before the sermon/morning message, often coming back for Communion each week. One of our greatest joys is heaing young voices grow in confidence each week as they pray the Lrod’s prayer or their own prayers of joy and concern. If someone is able to read aloud, they serve reading scripture. The choir is also open to singers of all ages who can make rehearsal. The one new service we’re looking at offering is for youth, but on a campus nearby, reaching out where there is hesitation to “come in.”

  12. There are some really relevant questions here, but unlike Anna, I couldn’t get passed the fundamentalist reading of scripture. (And thanks Anna for a wonderfully thought provoking response!)
    Sorry, I had to turn it off after the “old earth/young earth” questions. Fundamentalists as we seen in thie video just don’t understand that their claims don’t add up. One huge reason youth leave the church is the inability for church leaders to honestly talk about what we know from science and how that can be “squared” with biblical teachings. Until we can figure out how to speak intelligently about this false dichotomy we will continue to hemorrhage young people who have legitimate cosmological questions.

    1. You make a very important point, Jeff. I try to help young people and others understand the Bible as a library of books with a variety of genres. I have a science degree and a theology degree. The difficulty is the loud voice of (American) fundamentalism that reinforces the assumption that this is what Christians believe (and that this is what I believe!) The issue is not just the science – it is also the theology. Blessings.

    2. I’m an engineer so I can definitely relate to having mouth agape as the Young v Old Earth was discussed. After the video, this reflection by Matthew the Poor on reading the Scriptures was so helpful:

      “There are two ways of reading:
      The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.
      The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.
      The first way is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second way gives God mastery as the all-wise and all-powerful Creator.
      But if a man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from the both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.
      And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and His awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things–the very same forbidden thing that Adam committed in the beginning.”
      taken from How to read the Bible, Communion of Love

      What is the manner of theological inquiry? How can asking God to illumine our paths guide other forms of human inquiry? I’ve been so grateful to some bishops in the Orthodox Church for creating space to consider the nature of theological life. I particularly like, “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.” -Evagrius of Pontus

  13. I agree completely with what you are saying here. I became a Christian in a community strongly influenced by Westerhoff and I have become ever more grateful for that, especially as I finish seminary and prepare for life as a minister in a parish. I want to share two quick stories that I think speak to this;

    First, several of the older ladies were complaining to our priest one Sunday after the service that the kids were too noisy and that in their day, their kids knew to be quiet and respectful. Our priest asked them how many of their kids still went to church and they all just walked away.

    Second, this past Sunday my 3 year old daughter had to go the toilet right as communion started so off we went and when we got back, distribution was over. My daughter was very upset about missing it. So much so that after the service, we went to the altar and had our own communion from the reserved host and wine. She may not be able to explain what’s going on, but she knows it something important and doesn’t like being left out.


    1. What wonderful stories, thank you Jon! I have often been tempted to create a line of large dolls for those churches that say they want children – but we all know they don’t want real ones. Your daughter sounds like she understands eucharist better than some adults. Blessings.

  14. I am reminded of a story from a few decades ago. Our new priest was encouraging all children to receive Communion. “But they don’t understand it!” from one of the mature parishioners. “Madam, I don’t understand it myself”, responded the priest.

  15. In 30 years of youth ministry spanning contexts from Pentecostal to Anglo-Catholic I have never known anyone under 20 to leave because of teaching (except possibly with regards to sex before marriage). I certainly know of older people who have left for those reasons and I have known young people to change churches for those reasons, but not to leave altogether. The most common reason I hear from young people who have abandoned the church is “I just kinda moved on” followed by “it’s boring” to which I’m afraid I often find myself saying “Amen”.

    1. It’s boring. People appear not to take seriously (believe in) what they are “celebrating”. Long sermons with neither intellectually stimulating grunt, nor much connection with everyday issues. Unwelcoming. Not many others there from my context (age, etc). Dull music… Blessings

      1. One of the main principles that I have for any worship service that I work on, regardless of the style (traditional, contemporary, ancient-future, etc.) is this: “If it’s boring, you’re doing it wrong.”

  16. I was raised Catholic in the days of the Latin. My earliest memories of church are of being embraced into a mystery that I grew into. I swear even the babies were silent during the Canon of the mass (great thanksgiving). Faith is caught not taught as the old adage has it.

  17. I find myself wanting a ‘like’ button here, as on Facebook! Some great comments and stories and discussion which warm my heart. I am the only Sunday School teacher in my parish, and think about some of these issues a lot. I often ask myself, What does this look like to the children? How do they view it? How does it feel from their point of view?

  18. Umm–I hate to point this out but, in the US at least, middle-schoolers can’t drive.

    That’s to say that a large portion of this doesn’t have to do with kids but parents. I know in my Lutheran (ELCA) upbringing, Confirmation was often referred to as “graduation from church”. Parents made their kids come until confirmation occurred and then no longer were willing to press the issue. Parents had little commitment to church and the kids learned it.

    Parental involvement, commitment, and faith-sharing is perhaps the most critical issue here concerning whether kids will stay in church or not…

    1. Derek, it looks like you are making an important point here – but it deserves your unpacking it a bit more. Are you talking about parents driving their children to church and leaving them there while not attending themselves, or what? Blessings.

  19. Really important point thanks Derek.
    Conventional wisdom used to say kids didn’t want their parents around so we shouldn’t use them as youth leaders. Contemporary research out of the US (sorry, can’t link to it online) reverses this and shows that parents remain the most influential people in a young persons life much longer than once thought and, as Derek notes, have a huge influence on attitudes to and involvement with Church.
    In NZ we are now into a third generation where church attendance is not the norm, so whereas for a number of years grandparents brought children, who then remianed invoplved during their youth, increasingly neither parents nor grandparents have any church connection. This is impacting the whole church, youth involvement included. A very big issue!

    1. Thanks for these points, Brian. We can also do it in reverse: if a church gets children/young people involved and expressing that they are wanted at church and want to be at church – parents, and grandparents will come with them. I’ve also seen statistics, can’t point to them also, about the importance of parents in the faith-life of children, including the importance of the father. It would be interesting to see more contemporary analysis of this sort of question. Blessings.

  20. Bosco,

    Thankyou for putting this vid up. I am watching it at the moment. While I don’t agree that there is a correlation with young people leaving the church due to the issue surrounding whether the Earth was created in 6 days or not, I certainly agree that the emphasis on youth ministry being about bringing teens to Christ through ‘theo-tainment’ is very unhelpful.

    The problems with this approach I thik are:
    1. i shows a lack of confidence in the gospel being God’s power to save people (Rom 1:16). So we have leaders who
    believe that God’s gospel is power to save people, but for God to save people, the teens have to have their heads covered with shaving cream, play chubby bunny so that they are more
    receptive to the gospel.

    2. it creates an very unhelpful dichotomy between what is Christian and what is fun. So Christian = boring; non-Christian = fun.

    3. It feeds consumerism – teens graduate from youth group expecting to be entertained and want church services to be entertaining. (I think consumerism is a huge issue for churches – another topic though).

    4. It does not enable teens to critique their culture through the grid of Scripture.

    I don’t think that not having youth ministry is the right way to go, but rather having a youth ministry that is on about discipleship; building teens up in Christ and seeing them being equip to reach out to others with Christ

    Back to the vid.

    Thanks again.
    Joshua (from across the ditch)

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