It has become extremely popular to have specific ministries for specific ages. It makes sense on one level…I will even say it “works” depending on how it is done. People who are in the same stage of life can easily relate to each other. It isn’t a stretch to spend time with people who are going through the same thing you are going through. Making friends is easier in these environments and common interests are exactly that – common interests. We know that friendships and personal connection is a big part of what helps people stick with a church – they are there for the people, even if other things are lacking.
At the same time any ministry that is segregated by age needs to be proactive and intentional in how it handles a few things:
1 – Integrating people into the larger congregation:
Once you split the church in two or three or four it can be really hard to expect unity and connectedness across the lines that you created. If you are going to split people up make sure to find ways to continue to connect across the lines (have fun together and learn together). I believe this is a big reason young people “leave church” is because their ministry had them but the larger church did not. When it came time for transition all the burden was on the younger to join in with the older.
2 – Maturity issues:
Hanging out with your peers can only take you so far when it comes to growing in maturity. This is why Paul took great care to tell the younger and the older to spend time together and for the older to be intentional about teaching the younger (Titus 2). That doesn’t mean that young people cannot be mature in their faith but I do believe that the more mature young people almost always have an older mentor, parent, etc in the picture who has taken the time to help (there are exceptions, of course).
3 – Over-reliance on ministry staff:
Once you pay someone to minister to a specific group of people, it can be assumed that the work in developing the faith of that group is taken care of. The truth is, parents often check out of their responsibility to disciple their kids because they have paid ministry staff to do that. The issue is, staff spends a fraction of the time the parents spend with those kids each week and have a fraction of the influence that the parents have. Parents need to disciple their own kids and what happens at church is a supplement to the ongoing work at home.
4 – Creating unrealistic environments that don’t have a parallel at the next stage:
There is often a disconnect between what happens in youth group vs what happens in the adult side of church. Young people are forced to move from an environment that is perfectly catered to them to one that hasn’t considered how they might incorporate the young people coming in.
We can set people up for failure if we don’t lead them to and through these transitions. That doesn’t mean you need to make your youth ministry more boring or your adult side of church more energetic. It does mean that you might consider fostering meaningful relationships far in advance of these transitions so people have connection and buyin with the people.
These are a few of the pitfalls that happen in age segregated ministry that reminds us of the need for connection outside of what is often easiest for us. You can grow an age-segregated ministry fairly quickly but are the roots deep, are the connections solid, and is the hard work of finding unity with the broader church made a priority before it is a problem?
What would you add?