An increasing number of Christian families across the US and many other parts of the world are experiencing the benefits and blessings of family-integrated, biblically-functioning churches. However, for some families, this is more of a desire than an actual reality because they live too far away (or in situations like here in New Zealand where there are very few family-integrated churches in existence). So what can a family do, when they belong to a non-family-integrated church, yet have valid concerns about the segregated model?
Here are 6 suggestions, followed by 2 radical options that may help your family experience some of the same benefits and blessings, even if a family-integrated church is not an option available to you at this time.
6 Ways To Have A Family Integrated Perspective In A Non-Family Integrated Church:
1. Understand The Difference Between Context And Content
Family-integration (or age-integration) is a pattern we see in Scripture, both implied and instructed (Deut 16:9-11, Deut 29:11, Exodus 12:21-27, Joshua 8:34-35, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 12:43, 2 Chronicles 20:13, Joel 2:15-16, Luke 12:46, Matthew 18:1-5). However, this has more to do with the necessary and assumed context of biblical discipleship within the local church – that of whole families and all ages worshipping/learning/fellowshipping together, more than it refers to the content.
Content is of vital importance. It must be considered and discussed when a person decides which local church they will attend (see point 2). But a problem occurs when the context is prioritized at the expense of content. For example, some families mistakenly think that age-integration alone will “fix” many of the problems and meet the needs they have as a family seeking to raise godly children. In doing so they may pay too little attention to the quality of content they are exposed to as a family.
When you can have biblical content together with the biblical context of age-integrated gatherings – this most effectively serves God’s purpose for the local church. Age-integration only “works” for families when the parents are significantly engaged in the discipleship and spiritual nurturing of their children. An age-integrated environment helps to support and facilitate that process – but it will never be the cause of it.
2. Know What Makes A Healthy Church
It’s vital to understand the difference between essentials, and non-essentials when deciding whether a church is suitable or not. Although family-integration is very important, has an enormous impact on the culture of a church, and has a significant impact on discipleship - there are practices that are even more important and central to the mission of the local church. Is the Word of God preached accurately? Is the gospel central? Is Christ exalted? Does the church practice church discipline? Are there biblically qualified elders and deacons? These things are essential for a church to be considered a true church. However, age-integration has more to do with the biblical pattern true churches should follow in accordance with Scripture. So family-integration should be high up on the list - but if you gain family-integration at the expense of these essentials, you have actually taken a backward step.
3. Bring Your Family To God’s Word – Don’t Wait For Others To Do It For You
One of the blessings of being in an age-integrated church for families is the privilege of hearing the Word of God proclaimed together as a family. This encourages families to talk together about the sermon, discuss principles and application, and identify and share matters for prayer and growth. There’s no reason why this can’t happen in a non-age-integrated church. So how can families go about this?
An important initial step to take is to respectfully let your pastors know that you will be keeping your children with you during the service. This is not always easy for a family to do. If done unwisely it can cause unnecessary division and discord within a church. In some circumstances, it will be seen as a sign of resistance and even rebellion towards the church itself. However, if a loving, respectful and submissive approach is taken, and if parents are diligent to train their children to sit in church without causing a distraction, many pastors will be quite happy with this arrangement.
In addition to this, you can ask your pastor for the text/topic that he will be preaching on ahead of time – so you can study this together as a family before Sunday. This will certainly bless him, as it probably doesn’t happen that much! On a personal level, this practice of studying the text ahead of time has been a real blessing to our family. There’s something special about the sparkle in your child’s eyes as they look across to you mid-sermon with that “we talked about this didn’t we” look on their face.
Another option is to arrange a regular sermon review on Sunday afternoons/evenings or request to host an age-integrated bible study in your home to discuss the passage preached, and its application. Alternatively, you may volunteer to lead an age-integrated Sunday School class in your church. This can be a very life-giving time and helps families to “work in” the text to their lives.
4. Pray For Your Leaders And Church Family
Just because the pastor of your church didn’t change everything to suit you after you handed him that 10 part DVD series on age-integration 6 months ago after church – it doesn’t mean he is your enemy. Have you prayed for your pastor during the week as a family? Have you prayed that God would bless and lead him in His will? Have you prayed for him as he prepares to teach God’s Word on Sundays?
Knowing that his church members have been praying for him will be a blessing to him (particularly on Saturday evenings when he is preparing to teach God’s Word). Think of the practical help you would be giving him, and the encouragement he would receive from it.
In addition to this – teaching our children, and modeling for our children how to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ (yes even the ones who do what we don’t and don’t do what we do!) is leading them in Christ-like compassion and conduct.
5. Find Ways Your Family Can Serve And Be A Blessing
It’s a far too common scenario: There is a conservative homeschooling family, “stuck” in a church that they mostly agree with on the essentials, but they are disengaged with the church. Their minority convictions on things such as home education, age-integration, music, and modesty have caused them to become critical, defensive, and apathetic towards their church family. They may use these differences as excuses to break fellowship, cause division, practice shunning, and even refuse to give tithes and offerings to the church. This is a serious mistake.
When you are in a church that is a true church according to Scripture - you must recognize that God has sovereignly placed you there. As long as you’re not compromising on the essentials of what makes a healthy church you should assume that this is the church He has ordained for you to be part of. Embracing this, rather than resenting it, will transform the way you live alongside the brothers and sisters in your church.
Spend some dedicated time thinking and praying about what you can do, and how you can serve that church. It is not necessary for you to participate in the “formal” ministry of the church. But you can be involved in simple yet effective things. Consider helping to clean at the church, fold bulletins, or do gardening at the church, or for the elderly/widows in your church family.
Hospitality is another great opportunity to serve the people in the church. But don’t use this as an opportunity to “preach your convictions”, but to genuinely love and care for others who are different to you. Listen to their stories, and ask how you can be praying for them. It won’t take long to find ways to serve if you have the heart to serve.
Lastly, one of the most effective ways in which your family can serve the church is by doing your part to fulfill the Great Commission. There are countless ways in which you can get involved in sharing the gospel with the lost – through hospitality, out on the streets, community outreach, mail-drops, etc. Very few pastors will fail to see the blessing your family is to the church if you get out there and share the gospel. It won’t be easy, but it’s so good to “normalize” this practice for our children in obedience to God’s call.
6. Know When, And How To Communicate Your Concerns To Your Pastor
Your pastor has many settled convictions, opinions, and ideas in his mind. He receives many suggestions from the members of his church. And guess what – they all think what they have to say is the most important! It’s not a pastor’s role to lead a church according to the majority view, the loudest voice or squeakiest wheel. Instead, he must walk in the fear of God, seek the Lord, and yet be open to the fact that God will use others in his life to shape and mold the ministry he has been called to.
Speak to your pastor/leadership, but do it right. As a pastor, I’ve had people come to me over the years with their ideas (and tapes, books, and DVD’s!). They come with strong suggestions about what we should be doing as a church, and how we should be doing it. It’s pretty obvious whether they’re coming in a spirit of humility, and desiring the best for the church as a whole - or whether they just want to migrate the church towards their convictions.
After prayer, and more prayer – arrange a suitable time to meet with your pastor. Be like Nehemiah who prayed for 3-5 months before he came to King Artaxerxes to ask him for resources to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Be well prepared, and use this time to respectfully share your convictions (from Scripture) and concerns about age-segregation, but also the blessings and benefits of age-integration. Unless there’s a real openness to hear more I wouldn’t make any suggestions or pass on any resources. If he has concerns or misunderstandings, point him to the NCFIC’s “Declaration for the Complementary Roles of Church and Family” if these seems appropriate. You could also have a printed page that lists various books or website links that your pastor can choose to look at in his own time, or not. Don’t rule out the passing on of a resource (such as Weed in the Church), but be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and respectful to your pastor’s time and season.
Then, I would conclude by making it clear to your pastor what you appreciate about the church. Affirm your desire to support and serve the church. Finally, reassure him that after this time you won’t be pushing the subject of age-integration again. Make it clear to him that this is not the first step in your mission to attack the church for being age-segregated. These things will go a long way to preserving good relationships, avoiding division and maintaining unity.
2 Radical Options That Give You No Excuse To Abandon Church Altogether:
Unfortunately, some families will still think their only option is to abandon the local church altogether, either because they cannot find a family integrated church, or because there’s a legitimate concern over the absence of essentials in the churches they have considered.
Rather than pull out of the local church, I want to suggest 2 radical options that I believe every family should consider before making a decision that Scripture warns us against (Heb 10:24-25).
1. Move To A Good Church – No Matter How Far Away!
I know this seems extreme to some, and in certain situations (caring for sick or elderly parents for example) it still may not be possible. However, when we consider the saints of old, or the Puritans for example - and the lengths they went to, and sacrifices they made to experience healthy, biblical church life – we have little excuse to make our own exceptions. Let’s face it – most people in this situation won’t need to move to another country – but it may require a significant sacrifice to position our family in a healthy, biblically functioning church, which long term will only prove to be a worthwhile blessing. We need to be firmly planted in a local church. If you can’t find one nearby, consider going wherever you need to, to find one.
2. Start A Church Right Where You Are!
For some families, the solution they are seeking is right before their eyes. A bunch of people meeting together for fellowship and a bible study is not a church. However, a biblical church doesn’t have to meet in a building. A true church simply needs to have biblically qualified elders and follow the pattern of Scripture for the local church.
Is this something your family could consider? Are you a father reading this who meets the qualifications of an elder (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4)? Could you not gather with other families in prayerful consideration of planting a church, allowing time for your suitability to be affirmed by other mature believers? Could you not engage in passionate and purposeful evangelism, bringing the gospel to the lost in your community – and then disciple them?
If it doesn’t look like such an option is on the horizon, why not get a vision for the future? Are you raising up your sons, to be potential solutions to the problem you are facing in your day? Will they be equipped to lead a church, preach the Word, and share the gospel? There are many possibilities to be prayerfully considered. Are you daughters being nurtured with a clear vision for God’s purpose in the local church? Would they be suitably prepared to be the wife of a pastor or the mother of a pastor should this be God’s will for them?
God does and will continue to work with imperfect people in imperfect situations. There will never be a perfect church, but we can do many things in our generation, to prepare the next generation to strive towards a more biblical and therefore true church. When we look at the Scriptures we see the pattern for the church is that of biblically qualified elders and deacons walking in the fear of God, preaching the pure Word of God, exalting Christ, practicing loving church discipline, and teaching all ages together all things that Christ has spoken. When this takes place, you will see more spiritually healthy and spiritually strong, believers, living in sweet fellowship together, and being equipped to go into the world and reach the lost for Christ’s glory.
Of course, there are many issues, and situations this article hasn’t covered, in relation to the dilemma many families face. The fact is, there are far more family-integrated minded families than there are family-integrated churches. However, it may just be that although you feel you need to change your circumstances, God may just want to bless you with a change of perspective.