If you thought a church for every age means a service with the children in, it is time to think again. Philip Mounstephen believes that if you have the right conviction and apply your imagination, a church for every age can be possible.
“A church for every age? Surely you don’t mean having family services every week?” I can picture the clouds of gloom and despair gathering at the very thought. Others will wonder how on earth that can help us in the monumental task of re-engaging contemporary society with the Christian faith. But forget family services for the moment. That’s not what I mean by all-age church, not by a long chalk. However, given where we’re starting, from it’s not surprising that’s what people hear. Let me explain. For the best part of 1500 years when you talked to people in this country about ‘church’ they pretty much knew what you had in mind: a group of people, led by some sort of ordained minister, meeting together for a regular pattern of Sunday worship in a fairly distinctive, recognisable building. The church might have gone through major periods of change, but that basic picture still held good. The Reformation heralded major changes in Christian belief, but in many ways the weekly practice of ‘church’ changed very little. But things are different now! For the first time – perhaps for centuries - people are seriously asking a critical question: 'What kind of Church is it that God wants us to be?' The old certainties about what it means to be church are rapidly disappearing. We live in exciting, but uncertain, times. In our current situation, what kind of Church is it that God wants us to be? Why are churches asking that question? There are at least two reasons. One is pressure. We face a welter of challenges: aging congregations, a lack of younger leaders, an increasingly alien host culture, and a sense that we are simply one option amongst many in a multi-faith market-place. Many question their very survival. In that context the question is being asked with some urgency, in the knowledge that things cannot continue as they are. But people are also asking the question because they know they have permission to do so. For Anglicans the ‘Mission Shaped Church’ report has been crucial, but that report simply reflects a change in culture that is being felt across the church spectrum, leading to a freeing-up of the traditional constraints and a general permission to experiment. Follow culture or sign of kingdom? As churches face up to that question - 'What kind of Church is it that God wants us to be?' they are almost immediately faced with a second, and equally vital one. To what extent should they follow culture, for the sake of the gospel- and to what extent should they stand against it, as a sign of the Kingdom?’ You may set up a successful fresh expression of church amongst Goths in their late teens, and develop appropriate goth-style worship – but at what point do you begin to call into question some aspects of goth culture, as needing to be shaped and transformed by the values of the Kingdom of God? Surely the answer is that we shouldn’t choose between the two, when in fact we need to do both. We need to plant and grow churches that make sense in terms of the culture in which they’re planted. But at the same time we need to challenge the culture we find ourselves in. We need to recognise that the Kingdom of God functions according to an entirely different set of values than those which underpin the cultures we find around us. One feature of those cultures is that they are often very age specific. Whether it’s the people who go clubbing in the town centre every Saturday night, or the local bowls club, we tend to divide according to age. And sadly that’s often the case in our churches as well, where we take separation, and even segregation, for granted. We accept it without bothering to ask whether it is right. But if church is to stand out from a fragmented society, and speak faithfully of the Kingdom, then surely one of the things we need to do is to rediscover what it means to be a family united across the ages, rather than one divided by them. Something to offend everyone? One thing needs to be made very clear at this point. To go back to that fear expressed right at the start of this article, this is not an attempt to coerce churches into having ‘Family Services’ every Sunday. There are huge questions that can be asked about all-age worship as it’s practised in many churches. The fact is that in many churches it’s the least popular service of the month. One south London Vicar I know said, ‘Oh yes. All-age worship – that’s worship with something to offend everyone.’ It’s a truth that’s all too close to the bone. All age worship often falls flat on its face because it doesn’t spring out of an all-age culture – a culture that permeates all of church life. So when we talk about being an all-age church, we need to recognise that that has serious implications for every area of church life, for outreach and ministry as well as worship, from the way we do carol singing in the community, to the way we run the church weekend away. We tend to think that this approach is quite radical. But including people across the age spectrum is part of the warp and weft of the story of Scripture. In the Old Testament belonging to the covenant community began – if you were a boy – with circumcision on the eighth day. And girls were valued as the guardians of future generations. The sense of family vocation, through descent from Abraham, meant that children were highly valued, and the task of teaching them what it meant to belong to the covenant community was immensely important. The command to teach the children does not come because they are outside the covenant community, but precisely because they belong within it. Moses was in ripe old age when the Lord called and commissioned him to be to the leader of his people and the instrument of their liberation. Age was no barrier to the calling and gifting of God. And Moses in old age became the leader of an all-age faith community. There is no stronger symbol of that community than the Passover: liberation came through the elderly Moses, and it is the youngest child who asks why the ceremony is significant. Old Testament covenant community was always an all-age community.
God’s grace for all ages
And as in the Old, so in the New. People of all ages are included in the sweep of God’s grace that is focussed in Jesus. When as a baby of just a few weeks, he is presented in the temple, it is the very elderly, Simeon and Anna, who celebrate his coming and proclaim its significance. When the disciples seek to bar children access to his presence Mark tells us that Jesus ‘was indignant’. He insists that children are a sign of the Kingdom.
The household unit was a crucial building block in the early Christian community, just as it was in Judaism. That community was therefore as inclusive as those households. Children were part of the Christian community because they were part of the family. Two sets of instructions are addressed to children, in Ephesians and Colossians. In Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 the issue of appropriate care for the elderly is raised – but there is never any question that they should be accepted and cared for. Neither Paul, nor the other New Testament writers, argues for the inclusion of children or the elderly. They did not need to. Their presence – not their absence – was assumed.
And it’s not just the church in past that took its all-age nature seriously. Many churches are taking significant steps in that direction today. We’ve highlighted the story of just one, St. Michael’s Aberystwyth, in the special feature alongside this article.
What is certain is that in today’s fast changing world we need to examine our inherited assumptions, the ones we’ve lived with for so many centuries – and not least the one that tells us that separating along the lines of age is normal. The fact is it isn’t. In the 2000 year old story of the church (let alone the age-old story of the people of God) separating according to age is a new thing, and just a blip in our story. Why do we assume for instance that every church has to have a Sunday School? What we need to do instead is to develop a new view of what is normal. Being together is normal. Being apart may be justified from time to time (different age groups learn in different ways – but then so do different personality types) but being together is what is normal. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin in his great work ‘The Household of God’ ‘[the church] is not a segregation, it is a congregation’! We need a revolution in our thinking, to be envisioned afresh as to what Church might actually be. For me that means rediscovering what it means to be a community shaped by - and for - the gospel. That means that the values of the gospel must become the values of the church, so that it becomes a place of love, of truth, of welcome, of care, of accountability: a community of grace and welcome. And because the gospel extends God’s grace and welcome to people of every age, that’s what God’s church must do too: to become a genuinely missionary community that welcomes, values and celebrates people from the very youngest to the very eldest, and everyone in between: to become a community that is blind to age – and only sees what God sees – people, made in his image, who he loves beyond measure.Philip Mounstephen has spent many years in local church ministry and is currently Head of Ministry at Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS).