Risks and Benefits of Age-Specific Ministry
“All my guys want to do is play video games. I need to figure out how to get them off the couch and engaged in discipleship and ministry.”
This lament, voiced by the youth pastor with whom I shared a seminary carpool back in 2009, would have been unremarkable in most situations. His frustration was representative of a myriad of youth workers over the last several decades.
But as we crept along on the construction-laden Texas interstate that early fall morning, two other realities forged with his complaint to create something of a eureka moment for me. First, during seminary I was serving as the associate director to the senior adult ministry at our church. Second, I had just read a news story the day before about how big box stores were having a hard time keeping Nintendo Wii gaming consoles on the shelves due to the high demand at senior living facilities.
“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “This might be crazy, but do you think you could get your junior high kids to come play Wii with my senior adults?”
Fast forward through some brainstorming sessions, and our church’s teens were doing nursing home and assisted living visitations, bonding over virtual bowling alleys and tennis courts with men and women who were sometimes 80 years their senior.
At its height, we hosted several Wii bowling tournaments in our church’s Fellowship Hall. We’d have eight to ten “lanes” projected on the walls, whiteboards with Senior Adult vs. Junior High brackets, and prizes for the winners. Each ministry coached their demographic on what kinds of conversations would be edifying and encouraging to have.
“Hey Hailey, see the lady in the red sweater? She was a young girl during the Great Depression. You should ask her what that was like and how she saw God’s hand of provision.”
“Mr. Benton, you should be sure to introduce yourself to Taylor. Knowing your story, he reminds me of what I bet you were like at his age. Ask him what it’s like trying to live as a Christian at his school.”
Reflecting on that season of ministry, I’m freshly reminded of the two sides of the age-specific ministry coin. On one hand, the junior high and senior high ministries were incredibly fruitful in their own right (not to mention other age-segregated ministries in between). The ability to hone in on age-specific needs and opportunities served everyone in a personal and powerful way.
On the other hand, the combined events were reminders that there are many riches to be discovered with cross-generational ministry. There is a massive benefit to an integrated ministry approach that unleashes the saints to do the work of ministry with everyone in the church, rather than a small segment of it. We all have much to learn from—and much to offer—brothers and sisters who are in different seasons of life.
Let’s reflect a bit more on the pros and cons of ministry which is divided by “age and stage.”
RISKS & REWARDS OF AGE-SPECIFIC MINISTRY
The initial impulse is to make a list of the potential benefits of such ministry followed by a separate list of the potential deficits (or vice versa). However, I think it might be helpful to take a categorical approach because the pros and cons are linked together around various aspects of ministry. Consider the following six areas to weigh the risks and rewards of demographical ministry.
1. The comfort of community.
Positively, age-segregated ministry is more comfortable. We’re with people who get our jokes, understand our issues, and use all the same cultural references.
Negatively, age-segregated ministry is more comfortable. Yes, you read that correctly. The pro can also be the con. When one considers biblical community, it doesn’t seem like comfort was of prime importance. Perhaps pushing people out of their comfort zone is what we need most.
2. The gaps in discipleship.
A benefit of age-specific ministry is that it helps us think well about huge realities staring us in the face. College students can help each other think well about the pressures of course loads and what to do post-graduation. The young singles Bible study can encourage each other regarding the stewardship of their specific season.
At the same time, if we’re not careful, we’ll typecast everyone in our church. We’ll foolishly proceed as if our teens don’t need to consider the brevity of life along with our senior adults or that our senior adults don’t need the same encouragements toward discipling children as our young marrieds do.
3. The struggle with sin.
Similar to the discipleship consideration, pigeonholing takes place when it comes to our battle against sin. Helping the 25-year-old deal with lust, the 45-year-old grapple with greed, and the 65-year-old face anxiety is a good and needed ministry. And an age-specific approach can aid us in dealing with sins that tend to pop up more prominently in specific seasons.
However, anyone who’s spent any length of time in intentional ministry has had their categories shattered on this front. It may be that the 65-year-old is struggling with lust, the 25-year-old with greed, and the 45-year-old with lust, greed, and anxiety.
4. The witness to the world.
One of the great things about age-specific ministry is how attractive it is to outsiders. It’s easy for someone to come to an event—be it youth or college or young adults—and see folks who look and dress and talk just like them. It’s attractional, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.
But there is the danger of attracting people to one segment of the church when the Christian life is to be lived out across all segments of the body. Additionally, the segregated approach misses out on the beautiful opportunity to unveil a “compelling community” that is diverse but united around a common love for Jesus.
5. The health of the family.
By “family,” I have both the biological and church family in mind. It’s the same consideration. On one hand, age-segregated ministry can serve by offering truly edifying events, instruction, and fellowship for our kids at various stages of development.
However, those same activities can pull our kids away from the family and the larger church gathering. This doesn’t mean we ought to cancel the youth group; it just means we need to consider the timing and frequency of any such events.
6. The development of leaders.
The hyper-focused ministry that takes place within narrow demographics will allow our leaders to develop a sharp skill set in that area of ministry. Youth leaders can hold an attractional event with the best of them. No one can touch the college ministry when it comes to contact evangelism. Young adult pastors can officiate a wedding with a minute’s notice.
You get the point. But very often, our youth pastors aren’t prepared to preach a funeral. Our children’s ministry leaders don’t feel equipped to walk with a couple in pre-marital counseling. Our senior adult pastor has to reach way back in his training to coordinate an evangelistic outreach. If we’re not careful, laser focus can become tunnel vision, and our leaders’ growth will be stunted.
NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
We could go on and on, and maybe it would be a healthy mental exercise for you to think about your church and how age separations—or lack thereof—either help or hurt any given aspect of ministry.
But if I may say one final word, it’s that this doesn’t have to be an either/or.
Your church may provide a youth group but do so at a time and with a frequency that doesn’t constantly separate the children from the congregation. You may decide to provide age-specific Sunday School classes but do it occasionally rather than as the regular diet of the church. You can have a college ministry but make intentional decisions to connect them with families in the church. You can provide events for senior adults but ensure that your small group structure integrates generations in a way that has everyone rubbing elbows and learning from one another.
Praise God for the beautiful diversity in the local church! May we faithfully consider how to leverage “age and stage” for gospel purposes while avoiding the prevalent pitfalls. May the Lord give much grace.