What We Need is a Healthy Dose of Desegregation in the Church

I am not talking about racial desegregation. We have an issue in the church of segregation by age/stage of life. We have youth groups, 20s groups, singles groups, young marrieds, and seniors groups. We have ladies groups, men’s groups, and groups for people who don’t want to be in a group groups. The only time a young person might see an older person is during a worship service that is not conducive to interaction. Our churches have a segregation problem and it is hurting the spiritual well being of both young and old.

When I say this is an issue I am not saying it is 100% bad or wrong to have groups like this. There are benefits to having groups of people in similar life stages. It makes sense and is effective. It makes sense that teens need time with other teens and develop friendships with other teens. or young marrieds with other young marrieds. That is healthy, needed and makes total sense. However, we have a serious issue when the only people you know in the congregation are people most similar to yourself. What tends to happen is that people end up isolating themselves into an exclusive group of people who together only have a limited perspective of life experience to share with others.

This is a real challenge in ministry because if I have a new couple come who am I going to connect them with to get the biggest impact the fastest? Someone who is most similar to themselves, right? I am starting to learn that pigeon holing people like that is not always the best or healthiest route. My assumption of what they need might be smaller than God’s understanding of what they need and who they need.

What is the solution? It is a both/and situation rather than an either/or. What I mean by that is that people need both time with others in a similar life stage and time with those in a stage different than their own. There is perspective about life, faith, spirituality, relationships, etc that a teen is not going to get from another teen or maybe even from the 22 year old youth minister. They need their parents to help teach and model a healthy spirituality for them and they need others in the congregation to do that as well. Likewise, there are elderly adults who need the friendship of some young adults in the congregation.

Too often we spend our time planning and organizing segregated ministries. It would be wise to start looking for ways to cross the age/stage lines to promote healthy relationships within the congregation. You may try marriage mentoring, having the youth go to the shutins, bringing people from outside the group inside the group in classes or activities, sending those inside a group outside to others. It is not about trying the right thing. It is about starting see this as an issue and take steps to address it. It is important that more and more people start crossing these lines for the benefit of all. They may not do that until someone helps them see the benefit of it and the drawbacks of isolation by age.

Last, there is a subtle but important bi-product that will result from this effort. There will be less conflict in the church in the long run. What I mean by that is, some conflict in the congregations come from the fact that the different generations don’t know each other, understand each other or even like each other (thanks to Eric Brown for pointing that last one out to me). That results in conflict over worship styles, preaching styles, song selection, and much more. The more we have time spent with those in another age demographic, the more we will care for those who are not in our stage of life and the more we will understand where they are coming from and be willing to bear with our differences.

This all starts with solid efforts to create environments of desegregated time together. What ways have you tried this and what questions do you have about this?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

13 Responses to What We Need is a Healthy Dose of Desegregation in the Church

  1. James says:

    “What is the solution? It is a both/and situation rather than an either/or. What I mean by that is that people need both time with others in a similar life stage and time with those in a stage different than their own. There is perspective about life, faith, spirituality, relationships, etc that a teen is not going to get from another teen or maybe even from the 22 year old youth minister. They need their parents to help teach and model a healthy spirituality for them and they need others in the congregation to do that as well. Likewise, there are elderly adults who need the friendship of some young adults in the congregation.”

    Amen! When I was a youth minister (miss that), we made sure that our volunteers weren’t just parents, but adults from all ages, and the teens became very close to some of our 70+ year olds. We also involved them as helpers alongside adults in children’s classes (three generations all in one class). Our service projects were also more often than not multigenerational. For example, we made sandwiches for underprivileged children in the summer, and had people from 8-80 working together every day. We intentionally planned activities, classes, projects, etc. to provide opportunities to be the church, not a segment of the church.

  2. I have often thought that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week, and only partly because of the racial/cultural divides.

    The church has adapted its educational program in large part from the public schools where children are segregated more by age than by anything else. About the time of puberty, the elementary kids move up to a strange, new environment – the Middle School. There they are thrown into a situation where all of the teachers are new. The only kids they know are the ones from their old elementary school, but there are many others from other elementary schools. Then after three years, they are thrown into a large high school, sometimes with graduating classes of up to 1,000 students (or more). In all of this, is it any wonder that the students and the teachers/staff become an “us and them” relatiionship? I see the Middle School as the place where gangs begin to form – with the high school capping it off. It would be hard for gangs NOT to form the way we do things.

    Compared to that, “church” is a Sunday School Picnic (pun intended). We are not nearly as bad as the public schools – but things are bad enough – and the suggestions/questions you bring to our table are certainly worth our attention!

    • mattdabbs says:

      “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” – Martin Luther King Jr

      Of course, he was talking about another, still pertinent issue. But that brings up the question of whether or not it is acceptable to spend time only with people who are like yourself?

  3. Mark says:

    I’ve been griping about this for years. I watched so many of my friends in the youth group growing up who never learned how to transition into adulthood in the church.

    One thing I’ve done this year is started a Prayer Partners project. I had adults without children in the youth group sign up to participate. They are agreeing to pray for an assigned teen at least once per week for the entire year. I’m encouraging them to send them cards and to be sure to interact with them at church. I’ve had the teens fill out a brief bit of information about their interests, hobbies, and prayer requests. Every teen has an adult that they’ll be (hopefully) connecting with more deeply this year. We’ll see how it goes!

    • mattdabbs says:

      Mark,

      Thanks for sharing what you have tried. I like the adopt a student idea and may implement something like that with our college age.

    • This sounds neat – as one who has a younger child it might be neat to do a big brother or big sister thing where our family could connect with a teen or college age person too – not just empty-nested adults – so I can start to get a grip on maintaining open communication as mine ages…

  4. internet elias says:

    While growing up in a small rural Baptist church, a huge influence on my emerging self esteem was the older people. Every Sunday after church they made their way to me with hugs and words of appreciation. And I believed them. Of course my parents loved and appreciated me since I was their daughterūüôā. But to have those older members continually lift me up was very special. As you can see, I have never forgotten. Therefore, I make a point of seeking out the children at church and recognizing them briefly with personal interaction.

    Very good post, Matt. On target. Thanks.

    Carolyn

  5. hank says:

    That is an accurate observation, I believe. Personally, I have come full circle on this. A while ago, I enjoyed the “men’s class” on Wednesday’s, as well as the “20-30’s class” on sunday mornings. However, over time, I missed and longed for being in the same Bible class as my wife and daughter (as well as the rest of the church). Which is why I enjoy our “life groups” so much. There, we get to talk about God and our faith amongst grandparents and infants.

    Too, it seems that over time, the different groups end up forging their own separate beliefs and concepts us God and the Bible based upon the majority of the group or of the group leaders/teachers. Kind of like where someone may be told “if you believe and/or enjoy such and such, you ought to check out the certain class on whatever days”. I believe we almost end up with a bunch of micro churches within the same congregation. I realize that life groups may do the same thing, which is why I feel its even more important to “come together as a whole” whenever it is that we are scheduled to come together as a whole.

    Great article Matt.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Amen Hank! We definitely need to mix things up more. The problem is we fear that we will lost momentum if we cancel a 20s & 30s or youth class for a quarter to mix with others. But if it is an issue it has to be addressed. We are taking baby steps with this and are trying to improve. We are going to plan a 20s & 30s/Seniors brunch in the next month or so to help bridge this gap some more.

  6. Just ran across this article. I am old enough to be your mother so with that being said, I am so proud of your maturity. For way too long, church leadership has led churches in this way, and the disunity is killing churches, and we do it under the disguise of progressivism. We pray that satan will not come to destroy. The saddest thing in church history is that we are destroying ourself from within. God, forgive us for allowing it to happen.

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