Are We Fracturing The Fellowship?

Good strategies for ministry are a bit like new drugs: they offer excellent outcomes initially but you can never predict the side effects. It is so easy to try new angles in the Lord’s service with all good intention not realising that there may be some very real down sides. The old formula of three steps forward and two back is uncannily accurate most of the time.

Specialist approaches to ministry:

  • Consider the increasing specialisation of ministry in our churches. These days churches are on the lookout for skilled youth workers, trained pastoral carers, experienced musicians and qualified children’s workers all for the admirable purpose of targeting specific groups of people. You can add to this list many more: workers with ethnic groups, seniors, singles, the disabled, single parents, the divorced, young families and so it goes. Now no one can complain about the motivation for this. It is all part of recognising and meeting the needs of identifiable groups in our churches and communities.
  • Indeed, the larger the congregation, the more likely it is that specialist ministries and departments will flourish. Each will have the aim of making effective connections with a range of groups for the sake of the Gospel. This is a little less likely to happen in a small congregation which, because of limited resources, often has to work hard at meeting a variety of levels of need simultaneously and without the benefits of specialist pastoral team members. The small church pastor has to be a general practitioner able to resource a much wider range of activities personally than the pastor of a large church where the task of leadership has much more to do with nurturing the vision and direction together with overall co-ordination of the leadership team.

The specialising of worship services:

  • This movement towards focussed ministries is now very much reflected in the way many churches conduct their worship. For example, the “family service” is a short hand way of describing a service using contemporary songs, may be drama and certainly a flexible format. The “traditional service” is aimed at an older generation who prefer the grand old hymns of the church and who often do not see any pressing need for creative attempts to vary their worship of God. Then there is the “youth service” which is increasingly characterised by its own jargon, upbeat loud music, and surprises every other minute. Indeed, in some churches now, the young people only attend “their” service in the evening, the seniors and families in the morning. This development of totally different worship styles and environments produces a range of church sub cultures which may seemingly never get to intersect anymore.
  • One of the side effects of specialised worship services and ministries is the hiving off of one generation from another. How often do the retired people of our churches genuinely connect with the young people? Now some will argue that the senior citizens do not really want to go bowling, or have a sleep over, or have camp outs over weekends in the bush, or go car rallying in the late hours of a Saturday night. Well, some might but most will see these as outlets for youthful energy – which indeed they are. There is no intrinsic problem here either but there is when activities in a church become so mutually exclusive that there is no common ground at all, no meeting place for the hearts of all ages, no opportunity for the young to sit at the feet of the old or for the old to listen to the dreams and anxieties of the young.
  • There is a price to be paid for this lack of intergenerational communication. Is it just possible that one of the reasons for the continuing tensions regarding the styles of music in our churches arises because no provision has been made for our older brothers and sisters in the faith to relate the stories of their spiritual journeys to a younger generation and tell why the older hymns of the church hold such a precious place in their expression of faith? Have we failed to give youth the opportunity to share their journeying with Jesus (even though it may be relatively short by comparison) and how their music has meaning for them?

Some leading questions about the specialisation of ministry:

  • How do we arrive at an authentic, biblically sound grasp of what it means to be a community of faith and then put this into practice?
  • How can we bring people of all ages, backgrounds and interests together for worship, mutual learning and friendship building? Or is it just too hard?
  • Have we considered the theological bases for developing strategies which reduce contact between believers of differing ages, marital status, needs and interests?
  • At what point and in what way can the wisdom and experience of those who have walked for a long time with Jesus be shared with those who have started out with Him a little more recently?
  • If we are actively concentrating on specific groups in order to meet their needs more effectively, are we missing the opportunity for learning how to accommodate the interests and preferences of the larger church family?
  • In summary, is the initiation of specialist approaches to differing needs groups robbing us of the richness of functioning as a truly accepting yet diverse community?

The impact of our culture

  • We must also acknowledge that our secular culture has not really helped us. In recent years we have casually accepted a whole range of labels which the sociologists and marketers have been quick to introduce. So we have become used to hearing about the boomers, the busters, Generation X and Y and the millenials. In our effort to be on the ball, we have too easily adopted these categories and accommodated them in a whole bag of new ministries. Yes, there is enormous value in seeing how each age group thinks, functions and shapes its values and to be sensitive to these.
  • But where would all this leave Paul? Would he think twice about discipling Timothy as a Gen X or Y? Would he have adjusted his pitch to Timothy perhaps? Would he stick with the view that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free? And might he then have to offer the quiet advice to retirees that they might not enjoy tonight’s service because the visiting band is known for its energy and volume levels?
  • In other words, have we fallen for a secular view of society and blessed it in the name of the Gospel? Our proper and commendable longing for people to come to Christ has lead to a reinvention of church life rich with specific strategies for this group and that group without noticing that the whole concept of being a Christian community has just floated out the window. We have sanctified the secular. If we have albeit for good reason unthinkingly accepted such categories for the purpose of ministry, what makes the Christian community any different from the community at large? What makes us distinctive if we are not able to delight in the mixture of differing groups and generations?

Some implications:

  • To lose our experience of community as the family of Jesus is a great loss. We find ourselves affirming that there should be gaps between old and young, between singles and marrieds, between cultures, between parents and their teenagers. It is saying that the old will never be able to contribute to the young, that the energy of youth will not complement the wisdom of the years, that the values of one generation will never be enriched or understood by another, that one culture cannot really communicate with another. And it comes as no surprise that singles and divorced persons can so quickly feel out of place in a church which only promotes programs for families. Given these divisions are we really being the good news for everyone? Clearly, we are not.
  • It has also to be asked, therefore, if this creation of increasingly mutually exclusive groups really does meet needs in the way that we might think? The danger of losing warm and understanding connections between old and young, between marrieds and singles, between men and women assumes that needs can be met from within these groups rather than from without. A most persuasive case be made for the view that the young need the insights of the old, that the seniors need to be inspired by the passion of youth, that singles need the care of the families and that the families can be enriched by the singles. Is not this what community is all about?
  • Actually, there is a deeper question here: if the church is demonstrably not functioning as a community, is there any hope for the Gospel in the market place? A congregation which creates specialist approaches to meet needs may be seen to simply reflect the divisions which exist within the wider community. There is no real prophetic voice or example. If the seniors are quarantined in their own worship service, for example, then there is lost to the larger family of the church the richness and depth of the years spent on the road. The problem here is that if the worship is divided, there is a tendency for other divisions to exist also.

Are we giving stones for bread?

  • The truth of the matter is that a real experience of community does not come as the result of a cleverly designed program. It is the result of connections being gently nurtured over a long period of time. But such growth can be helped along.
  • Why not create sharing environments? Where the stories of young and old, singles and marrieds, people of differing cultures can be lovingly told? In any congregation there is bound to be a fund of fascinating stories just waiting to be shared.
  • Why not sing each other’s songs? And share the meanings they hold for those who love them? Certainly there is much good ground to be covered by those who are mature in the faith recalling the meanings of the songs of their youth and vice versa.
  • Why not ensure that there are links of prayer across the congregation? There is great strength and pastoral care to be derived through the prayerful adoption of one for another. A parent praying for someone else’s young person has much going for it as does one older person praying for a younger one. These alliances of prayer are bound to build and nurture strong and caring community.
  • Why not bring parents into environments where they can tune into the experiences of young people from other families? Let there be some real learning going on between families not just within families.
  • Why not ensure that there are openings for everyone in leadership? Surprisingly, many churches have not found ways to involve their young (and sometimes their women) in the leadership of the church. Too many leadership groups are off limits to the young simply because a constitution or set of church rules bars them. This is not reason enough. Churches need to be informed by those who bring a different view of life to the leadership. The creativity of youth will bring great ideas and insights out of left field and should be seen as a crucial resource by the church as a whole.

On being whole and effective:

  • Whatever is undertaken to bring wholeness to the Body of Christ is bound to render a greater effectiveness for service. What else matches the miracle of one congregation accommodating the diversity of the entire church family? Of unexpected unity flourishing healthily when the normal expectation would be splintering and breakdown?
  • Too often our fascination for programs and structures is not matched by an equal concern for nurturing effective relationships which really are at the heart of the life of the church. Rather, to find ways to enable people to grow together with respect and understanding will give rise to initiatives which will deliver many good outcomes naturally. It will also save us from the unattractive alternative where isolation breeds stereotypes and caricatures: all young people lack commitment, all old people do not like change, people of other cultures do not want to mix with others.

This does not mean that we should give up on being sensitive to the different stages of the journey of life or the differing interests and needs of many groups. It does mean that we should work hard to prevent such a specialising of ministry which compartmentalises people simply because of age, gender, marital status or culture. We need to be bringing real meaning to the claim that we are indeed the family of Christ!

Rev John Simpson