For Age-Integrated Church Life

At All Saints, Heathfield, Sussex. By Paula Bailey.

At a certain church of my acquaintance, I have learned, ‘young adults’ are not allowed to attend ‘college student’ events such as prayer meetings, small groups, large groups, and Sunday Bible studies. Though for the sake of authority I am prepared to abide by such policies of age segregation, I remain unconvinced that they are necessary or even prudent. To cut up churches by age to this degree seems to reinforce the dissolution and remaking of the faith every half generation or so, unless the age circumscriptions be themselves circumscribed to serve specific purposes. After all, boundaries for the sake of boundaries are useless and, taken to their extreme, can result only in each man being a church unto himself.

Clearly, when people are doing different things in life, their concerns will also vary. But the variety of concerns is what needs to find harmony in the unity of Christ’s body. St Paul tells us several times, in several books, that the Body of Christ has parts that are not interchangeable, of which all are necessary and to be honoured. When one part suffers, he says, every part suffers with it; and when one part rejoices, every part rejoices with it. For this is simply our common humanity as recognized in, and enabled by, the love of Christ. In such solidarity, therefore, there is not even anything unnatural: grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. The natural instinct for society is purified by a knowledge of the biblical call to unity in the Word of God who has become flesh, in whose flesh our flesh is to be saved.

Yet what specifically addresses the struggles of high-school students will be largely irrelevant to folk who have already taken their university degrees – or will it be? The particular practical problems differ, of course, but even then I think there may be more to be gained than to be lost from putting together people who are facing different difficulties. Even in the same life stage, after all, no one has the same life. It is from lives that are different, yet have something in common with our own, that we gain new perspective and learn. If we imagine learning from ourselves, I think all of us expect to learn more from our selves of another age – whether older or younger – than from our familiar selves of today.

It seems odd to me, therefore, to have formalized life-stage groups at all, except as accommodations of human weakness for two purposes: teaching and solidarity. The rational basis I can see for the existence of separate prayer meetings in addition to wider ones is similar to the rational basis for sex-segregated small groups for sharing: certain things may be easier to share and discuss fruitfully in an age-segregated group. And it does seem good in teaching, too, to address issues specific to each kind of experience, that Christians may apply God’s word to their specific circumstances. Nevertheless, I insist that this kind of separation – I shall not say wall of separation – needs to be secondary to an experience of unity. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us. And just as culturally different Jews and (erstwhile) Gentiles saw the wall of circumcision broken down between them, so the concerns of all must be reconciled in Christian sympathy. Therefore homophily, or the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others, must be accommodated realistically but also considered relative to higher needs and ordered toward those higher callings.

To me it seems of little importance to ensure that each age cohort has any more unity than the congregation at large. If anything, it is relationships outside of these cohorts that should be encouraged, to turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. Friendships within a generation will almost certainly form; it is across generations that the Church has seen the need to find godfathers and godmothers for its children. Indeed, such friendships between generations are some of the most celebrated in the Bible. As Alastair Roberts notes, ‘Contrary to our typical assumptions, David and Jonathan weren’t the same age. If we pay attention to the text of 1 Samuel, it should be clear that David was only about twenty, while Jonathan was probably in his very late forties or early fifties. This wasn’t a relationship between peers, but a relationship closer to – yet different from – an adoption, where, through the crown prince’s initiative (cf. 1 Samuel 20.8), he chose a young man to take his place.’ The brotherhood of the Church is exactly that of having fought and shed blood together, bound by the blood of Christ; and this communion of saints has nothing to do with the divisions of age which we would impose for the sake of ease. The faith, after all, is not to make us comfortable by giving us sentimental feelings but to comfort us by making us strong in Christ’s sacrifice and able to yield to the Lord a noble obedience. If a partial segregation fails to serve this end, then it has no use, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

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