"Family-integrated" simply means that people of all ages worship together, pray together, learn about the Bible together, enjoy life together, and do ministry – together. Babies, children, teens, adults, and elderly people. There is no age segregation or specialized "youth ministry." It's kind of organic that way, like the early church was.
Both Shane and I have worked in youth ministry, Shane for quite a long time. We have certainly seen the need for parents to be involved, and how difficult it is to get them involved. But never did we imagine a church not wanting to have youth directors at all! However, we've enjoyed this family integration thing so much, and it makes so much sense to us. It has really changed our perspective on what we value about church.
Here's why we're lovin' it:
1) Family integration seems more in line with Scripture than age-segregated church.
We can look back through Scripture and see that throughout history, God's people of all ages have worshiped, learned, prayed, etc together. Have you ever noticed that when God addresses his people in the Old Testament, blesses them, displays himself before them... he calls on "the whole assembly" or tells his prophets to "gather the whole assembly" or "whole community." Sometimes when it says "whole assembly," it even adds, "including the women and children."
Bear with me. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of ways to do things, and that God doesn't like age-segregation in the church or he will never work through youth ministry efforts. In fact, I have seen him use youth ministries in my own life and in others', especially for seed-planting purposes. I don't know what he thinks about age segregation, but I do know from his Word that he seems to like having everybody together. Just sayin'!
2) No where in Scripture is there a model for age segregation.
Does anybody know of one? We are just learning and exploring this. But there are no references in the listed church offices of "youth workers" and "Sunday school teachers." It just doesn't ever say "and the children in the nursery were all playing with Legos." This may or may not imply to you that age-segregated church is unbiblical. You can search the Scriptures, pray about it, and make your own conclusions. For more information, consider watching the documentary Divided, made by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches.
3) Jesus had followers of every shape and size – and age!
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" is how he put it in Matthew 19:14. If we expect the Spirit of Jesus Christ to show up in our church service, in our Bible study, in our prayer group... Why would we put our kids in another room? We want them to experience God's presence with us whenever possible, and if we come to church expecting to meet with the living God, we bring them along for sure. Shouldn't our kids have access to the same experience we do in church, hear the same voice, authority figure, etc?
I realize there are certain topics that children are not mature enough to handle yet, like sex, violence, and persecution. This takes discernment. But, if we were all more mindful in protecting the kids' innocence, we probably wouldn't need to talk in detail about these topics in common worship, study, fellowship, and prayer times. There are private ministries and gatherings that are made for special counseling or healing in these areas. Parents can teach their own children about mature topics when they feel their own children are ready. If mature topics do need to be addressed by the whole assembly, could we just do it without the gory details? If you are going to share a personal testimony in public worship, just know your audience and leave out the dirty details if there are going to be kids present. It is possible to say that you were an addict without telling horror stories.
4) Faith isn't about intellect. We believe in our spirits, not just in our heads.
For some, faith is purely a choice of the mind. But all of us are born with a spirit which is not the same thing as our soul/mind (I Thessalonians 5:23). "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" says Romans 8:16. When God's Spirit testifies with our human spirit, we believe and are God's children. I believe faith can be given even to a tiny baby. Or to a mentally retarded person. Their brains may not be working at maximum capacity yet, but whose brain really is?!
Therefore, if a child has faith, I say let him in with the rest of us. Bless him with the privilege of being in God's house with all of us, saved by grace just as much as Great-Grandpa over there. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
5) Children can learn how to sit through church services and Bible studies.
Church often requires sitting still and being quiet, but it's worth it.
At some point we've gotta show 'em church is worth it, right?
We like the idea of showing our son that it's worth it right from the beginning. That way he knows what to expect right from the beginning. And he gets practice.
We live in a culture where we think we have to make everything sparkly, cartoony, and dumbed down for anyone to "get" what we're saying. I like cartoons and sparkles as much as anyone, but may I suggest that entertainment not be made the priority of our lives? Or of our kids' lives. Or of our churches' lives?
Entertaining your kids is kind of like talking to your plants. What your plants really need to grow are soil, water, and sun. You can talk to your plants all you want, and they may really enjoy that, but if they aren't getting soil, water, and sun, they simply will not grow. What kids really need to grow are nurture, discipleship, and education. We can entertain them all we want, and they might really enjoy that, but it's not going to help them grow. We spend so much time using entertainment to keep kids' attention that that they don't learn to pay attention to the important stuff when there is no sparkle.
What's really tempting is to use entertainment as an escape. When kids are loud or misbehaving in church and we take them to the nursery, we are teaching them that disruptive behaviors get them entertainment.
What if instead we expected them to sit through church with us, getting what they can out of it, and showed them by our example how being in church is a privilege – perhaps it's even better than toys?
Is this too much to ask of a small child?
Allow me to share about our very, very active three-year-old boy. One Sunday in church, I was juggling toys, trying to keep him entertained during the sermon. He proceeded to get louder and whinier, dissatisfied with all the toys because he had already played with all of them. Shane eventually took him out and talked to him about staying quiet in church.
The seven-year-old boy next to me – who had been quietly sitting in his chair listening to the sermon (though I'm sure he didn't understand all of it) – looked up at me. With no front teeth, eyes sparkling but in all seriousness, he says, "You probably shouldn't have brought the toys."
"Why do you say that?" I asked, surprised. Mostly I was just trying to figure out how to reply to a young kid with no front teeth who had just given me parenting advice.
"Because it's just distracting him."
I could imagine what this boy had been taught about the value of God's Word being spoken by spiritual authority in church.
When I finally found the words to reply to this... wisdom?... coming out of such a small person, all I could muster up was, "Um, yeah... maybe you're right..."
He just smiled and returned his gaze to the preacher.
Since this incident we have brought only a picture Bible and a magna-doodle to church. It's working a lot better.
When our son gets older, we hope his expectation from church won't be entertainment. We hope he will expect his spirit to get fed through God's Word, communion, prayer, and fellowship as it talks about it Acts 2:42.
6) Kids learn by example.
Best way to teach is to model what you're teaching, right? Kids learn to love and respect God in church by watching their parents regularly read and study the Bible, listen to the preacher, tithe, worship, pray, get quiet to listen to the Spirit, serve, and evangelize.
7) Kids get to contribute for the common good.
If a child has faith, he has gifts to share. Inborn gifts, and random gifts that God will unexpectedly give through him simply because he's now a vessel for God. Some kids can read Scripture aloud, some know how to play the piano. God can use kids to channel his healing power. Some kids really like to give their money. God sometimes chooses to prophesy through the mouths of children. We once attended a church that had a sign-up sheet for holding babies, because they considered that a ministry from the babies. Consider I Corinthians 12:4-7:
"There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good."
The same Spirit lives inside all Christians. If we can believe that, we can value the presence of our children in our church services. For their edification, and for ours.
Children are a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5)... even in church... even when they make noise... they are a blessing to all of us and our spiritual body wouldn't be complete without them.
8) Christian children show us how to receive the kingdom of God.
"Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Luke 18:17I want them to "receive the kingdom of God" in my presence, so I can watch them and learn from them. I want them to receive the kingdom of God in church, so we all can watch them and learn from them and witness this kingdom coming together.
9) Kids loosen us up to express our worship.
Children worship freely. When they sing loud and dance wild, we do too. I dare someone to be around my little boy anywhere there is music – and not start dancing along with him. Or at least just smile.
10) Parents are the primary faith teachers.
This is true of any church or ministry, whether parents are intentional about teaching faith or not. You can have the coolest youth leaders on the planet, but kids will still end up believing what their parents say over everyone else. That's just the way God designed us.
But we parents can and should use our God-given position as our kids' primary teachers of the gospel. Teens can and should feel like their parents are their closest allies, not a youth director. The Bible talks about if wives have a question during church, they shouldn't ask it in the service but instead ask their husbands about it when they get home. It's the same principle with kids; their spiritual education is ultimately our responsibility, not the church's, and God has given us everything we need to answer their questions. If we don't know the answer, we can look it up or ask someone, and it will probably just cause us to grow in our own faith. In Christ, we are good enough and "cool" enough and our kids would probably believe that if we did. :)
Shane was in youth ministry for 10 years and many seeds were planted. But without the leadership of parents in the kids' lives, youth ministry is not usually a stable enough foundation for a kid to continue following Jesus for the rest of their lives. Shane saw this firsthand. He now says, "There is a greater possibility that our faith will be 'caught' by youth through a common family experience, than through putting everybody in age-segregated classrooms."
11) The family of God is just that, a family. We are all important, even the children.
At supper time, do we tell our children to go eat in another room? It would certainly make meal time more peaceful, less messy, and we wouldn't have to wait for those slow eaters to finish! But usually, family members eat around the same table. Everyone together. If eating dinner together as a family is so important, why wouldn't we receive God's word together, worship him together, recite our creed, and pray together in our church community?
Shane and I want to clarify that we think God can work in limitless ways to reach his children. Furthermore, he has used youth ministry in our own lives to plant very important seeds. So, we're not totally against youth ministry, but we are beginning to see that youth ministries are not the "most excellent way" or God's original intention. We still love our many friends who have dedicated their lives to youth ministry, and support them in their endeavor to further God's kingdom on earth! The goal of this post is to share our new perspective and let everyone consider the role of children in the church... hopefully for the common good of all our ministries. :) Blessings!!