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United We Stand, Divided We Worship

My earliest memories of Sunday worship are rooted in the simple Rawhide Primitive Baptist church just outside Keokee, Virginia. Most people today would find this tradition unfamiliar. No musical instruments were present. The men and women sat on different sides of the building. The singing was a slow wailing melody line (pretty much the same melody was used for all songs) with a "liner" cantillating the lyric phrases -- and all of this in the voicing used in Celtic and traditional Appalachian music.

One memory of those years that also seems to have gone the way of the dodo was the ongoing presence of children in worship. Look down any pew and you'd see adults, old people, teenagers, and children. Sure, some of children wiggled and there was a pretty steady stream of young ones pleading to take a trip to the outhouse (yep, when I said "primitive," I meant it).

Today, in American evangelical churches, families happily wave good-bye to one another as soon as they walk into the lobby, each group scurrying off to their own made-to-order education and worship experiences.
We recognize that worship is just plain better when ages are separated. No wiggling kids. No grumpy geezers. The kids get Veggie Tales, the old timers get Gaither, and the younger adults get Matt Redman. We, and is there is no doubt of this, enjoy worship more and our churches can get bigger faster in age segregated experiences.

Now, in case you're unfamiliar with the work of Donald McGavran, this whole idea is called the "homogeneous unit principle." We like to be with people like us. Originally, McGavran was commenting on observations of the caste system in India, but the principle has broader applications. Don't try and get groups of people together if those groups aren't together in the broader culture. Absent these cultural barriers, the church will grow faster. Whites only. Republicans only. Vietnamese only. Teenagers only. It just plain works.

McGavran was an astute observer of human nature. Our made-to-order generational segregation has much to be said for it and very little to be said against it: except, of course, that it dramatically distorts the nature of the church as God intended. Ephesians 2:14-18; 4:14; Colossians 3:11-15; Galatians 3:26-27; et al.

A church continually subdivided by generations has some of the same advantages racially segregated churches might have had in the American south sixty or seventy years ago. But our enjoyment of separation and even its clear effectiveness in church growth must take a back seat to the mandate of God that the church of Jesus Christ is to demonstrate to this fallen world the unexpected unity of races, nations, tongues, and generations. Our culture is already full of organizations and groups divided by race, class, and age. The church is supposed to be startling precisely because it breaks down walls, instead of maintaining them.

The road back toward more intergenerational worship will take time, of course. Many will need to learn unfamiliar music. Children will need to be prepared to sit through an adult service, and adults will need to adjust to the constant background noise of wiggling and whispering as neither unnatural nor distracting to family worship.

Linda, who teaches children's ministry, and I have put together materials (with PowerPoint and music) and workshops to assist churches interested in creating intergenerational experiences in worship. We are realists. We understand children's worship is here to stay. Even with this fact, however, we can show how and why intergenerational experiences can reconnect the various age levels within the church.

If you are interested (and these materials would be helpful for any evangelical church) please contact us.

1 comment:

Sam Loveall said...


I'm gone from RBC (financial "retrenchment" rears its ugly head in academia), and back into congregational worship ministry. Let's talk.

Sam Loveall