Push through the age barrier

Bethel Heights Baptist Church was small, like many Southern Baptist churches today. We didn’t have enough people to have ministries to discrete groups, except for age-graded Sunday School and Training Union. It seemed more like a big extended family than a well-organized institution.

At Bethel Heights, my grandmother taught my group in Vacation Bible School the week I was saved. My mother was in the house when I made my profession public because we didn’t have children’s worship. My Royal Ambassadors leaders were the fathers and grandfathers of the boys?ancient by our reckoning. The church looked like a lot of the rural and small-town churches I’ve seen around the country.

Ministry at my little church was family-like, though not just because a third of the congregation was named “Ledbetter.” My teenaged aunts sang in the choir with senior adults. Older boys and youth helped their dads take up the offering. It was cross-generational ministry because the make up of the congregation was that way.

The trend for the past 20 years is away from these small churches and toward institutional churches with diverse ministries. These narrowly focused ministries are a big draw for families. The idea of events and teaching specifically for kids, youth, single adults, collegians, young marrieds, single-again people, men, women, working women, moms of preschoolers, and senior adults (to name just several) sounds good, and has borne some good fruit.

The closing or diminishing of a hundred small churches into one mega-church has enabled a hundred new ministries, each beloved by someone. It’s also enabled the near eradication of that feeling of family in our congregations. It’s become very difficult for us to get to know those in another age or stage of life. I think we’ve lost something good.

Think about that big family event you have each year, maybe at Christmas. In that setting the kids get to know Grandpa and nutty Aunt Thelma.

They listen, perhaps involuntarily, to stories about the family farm or WWII or putting the principal’s old car on the roof of the country school. The older folks listen to the younger ones haltingly play the piano or tell of some sports triumph or making the honor roll.

The kids tell the stories they’ve heard to their friends, the old folks brag about nephews and granddaughters to their own buddies. The generations subtly, naturally develop some respect for one another. It’s family.

Where do those respectful relationships develop at your church? No church is too big to encourage this sense of family. No church is too hip to need it. Here are some ideas.

Think twice about segregating your church by age.

The ability to have children’s church, youth worship, age-graded choirs and so on is not always a mandate to do so. The fact that the church down the street does it or that visiting families ask about it also lacks moral authority. Put church unity on the list of things you consider before providing something new.

Consider mixed age or family mission projects.

Some churches do this and the response of families I’ve talked with is enthusiastic. Parents love to see their own children growing in ministry and kids gain a lot from watching their parents give and serve in a new context. Working alongside one another is also a great way to get to know someone you’ve previously only seen across the auditorium.

Serving together allows you to know someone’s story, his skills, his character. It allows us to look beyond the merely external things that put us off in casual acquaintance.

Do a little tokenism.


Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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