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Is Age-Integrated Worship a Historical Norm?

By Scott Brown, 2016/03/15

Aaron Denlinger posted an article on Reformation21, “Is Family-Integrated Worship the Historical Norm?”  In the article, he identified a time in the sixteenth-century Church of Scotland in which children were excluded from worship services.

I’m still chuckling at the YouTube video satire he included on how children’s church started… “Mr. Thompson and the Vicar Invent Children’s Church.”

I don’t disagree with his content in terms of his source documentation of a historical fact in the history of the church of Scotland. Further, I did appreciate that he believes there are advantages to age-integrated worship. 

He quotes from Margo Todd’s book, “The Culture of Protestantism in Modern Scotland” where children were excluded from hearing sermons in order not to interrupt the more mature parishioners. This is neither old or new. Jesus encountered it when his disciples wanted to whisk the children away from him and he said, “suffer the little children…”  It is clear that our Lord Jesus Christ did not believe his teaching was hampered by the presence of children.

The question Mr. Denlinger poses is historical – not biblical. Is the historical pattern age-segregated or not? While Aaron Denlinger is correct that the church in Scotland did in fact practice this form of age segregation, I would like to offer four considerations.

First, our argument has always been that age integration has been the norm in the church, while there have been exceptions and different expressions of it throughout history. We have crafted an extensive document to explain the nuances, “A Declaration for the Complementary Roles of Church and Family.” 

Here is how I describe history on the matter in my book, “A Weed in the Church”:

“for most of Christian history, children were present in the meetings of God’s people.”1

I would have preferred that Mr. Denlinger provide some positive proof that excluding children in the services of the worship of God has been the norm. He is correct if he is saying that there are examples which are exceptions, where age segregation was practiced.

Second, exceptions don’t invalidate the norm. Various exceptions in church history do not invalidate the idea that age integration in worship has been the dominant practice. We maintain that until you get to the latter half of the 20th century, including children in the worship of God was the dominant practice – but not the exclusive practice. Isolated examples do not prove the point.

Third, what happened in those churches in sixteenth century Scotland, as well as with other examples in history like it, was a far cry from what happened in the latter part of the twentieth century. I was surprised that he did not recognize the radicalized forms of youth ministry and children’s church that are very common in our current context that never existed in Scotland at the time of his historical example.

Here is how I described it in my book, “A Weed in the Church.”

Today’s church life is highly fragmented into age and life-stage discipleship opportunities. There is a ministry niche for everyone, including infants, toddlers, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders; junior high, senior high, college, singles, young marrieds, marrieds, senior adults, and the divorced. Thirteen-year-olds hang out with thirteen-year-olds; twenties with twenties, marrieds with marrieds, and seniors with seniors.  

At a time in history when nearly every social opportunity the secular world offers separates the generations and the family, the church has followed suit. We seem to have fallen in love with popular educational philosophy and target marketing. The church has joined ranks with an age-segregated world.2

“… this practice actually came about as a result of easily identifiable forces at work in the culture at large. Various modern movements, which I too had embraced, are the driving factors of the age-segregated world we have created; specifically, the coupling of two major forces apply―the rise of youth culture (something that did not exist in past generations) and the modern public school movement. The church copied the public school model of age segregation and embraced the rising of youth culture.3

In the last 150 years a massive shift occurred in church and family life, completely changing the sociology of the church. This resulted in shifting the discipleship methodology from a biblical model to a secular model patterned after public education and youth culture. This was unprecedented in the history of the church.4

Our argument has always turned on the massive shifts that took place at the end of the twentieth century,

However, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that age-segregated youth ministry became a behemoth. It rapidly gained speed and increased in reach during this period. What was once informal and inconsistent became more and more formal, systematic, and formulaic until it reached industrial strength during the last quarter of the century. I, myself, sponsored a Campus Life group and held Child Evangelism’s 5-Day Clubs. In towns all across America, churches were offering a variety of youth-oriented clubs: Pioneer Girls, Christian Service Brigade, Young Life, AWANA, Boys Brigade, and Royal Ambassadors.

A new kind of church leader

In the middle of the hubbub and clamor surrounding youth ministry, a new category of church leader emerged: the youth minister. Never before had anything like this existed. Youth ministers became program administrators whose job requirement was to deliver whatever would get kids interested in God. 

Modern youth ministry burgeoned and became a big time consumer with high budget facilities, technology, and advertising. Inside the church, it meant doling out significant dollars for youth centers, concerts, and professional stage rigging and lighting. 

I was a youth pastor and a senior pastor during this period of expansion in youth ministry. Even I understood how changeable and experimental it was. We were always tweaking in order to make the ministry more “effective.” We introduced one innovation after another to give it more crank.

While I understood the principle of experimentation, I did not fully realize at the time that this new kind of ministry represented a major shift in church life. What I was doing was a historical aberration in terms of church life.

From novelty to fixed practice

It was the age of creative, pragmatic Christianity. During the last half of the twentieth century, the spirit of the age exalted creativity and experimentation. In Bible colleges and seminaries, the common evaluation grid included: “If it works, it must be good.” Growth was king, and we told ourselves, “If it’s growing, we must be doing something right.” That was how we approached youth ministry. 

These new methods were conceived to reach young people more effectively and grow churches. Because of the initial increase in church attendance, the widespread reception, and the years of practice, these methods are now accepted as a necessary part of church life. This happened in spite of the evidence of the inability of youth ministry to provide the soil to grow committed, mature believers in Christ.

The massive investment of the modern church in this system of youth ministry and the long acceptance of the philosophy, practices, and institutions that promote it, have led many to believe that this kind of ministry is authorized by Scripture. Furthermore, Christian leaders and parents believe that if we abandon modern youth ministry, we abandon youth. They feel it is the best way to teach and evangelize youth. 

A new soil

Modern youth ministry has risen out of a soil composed of many different elements. For over two hundred years, the soil in which the weed of age segregation grew was incrementally prepared with the lofty deposits of platonic philosophy, the loamy organics of rationalism, the ethereal waters of evolutionism, and the breathable but allergenic air of pragmatism. These diverse elements, which created a context for this growth, took time to accumulate; but by the end of the twentieth century, they had produced a new plant that had never been seen before.5

While there are some examples in history before the twentieth century of age segregation , the primary point that we have always made is that near the end of the twentieth century, age segregation in the church reached proportions never seen before.

Historical arguments from silence?

Denlinger states that the historical argument “seems to be one from silence more than anything else.” My reply is that silence is not and never has been part of our argument. The focus of the argument is that it is a historical fact that as the church in America entered the last quarter of the twentieth century, she saw a version of age segregation that was never seen before where nearly everything in church life became age-segregated in most churches in America. Here is how we described it in “A Weed in the Church.”

Historical precedent

Throughout history, godly leaders have mirrored this same pattern of including all ages and life stages in the meetings of the church. For example, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Matthew Henry explicitly expressed their passionate desire to have the Word of God preached to the youngest child. 

Martin Luther understood how important it was to minister to youth during the meetings of the church: 

When I preach, I sink myself deep down. I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom are here in this church above forty; but I have an eye to the multitude of young people, children, and servants, of whom are more than two thousand. I preach to those, directing myself to them that have need thereof. Will not the rest hear me? The door stands open unto them; they may be gone.

John Bunyan, the tinker-turned-preacher who gave us Pilgrim’s Progress, spoke of the importance of having children in the church meeting:

You should also labor to draw them out to God’s public worship, if perhaps God may convert their souls. Said Jacob to his household, and to all that were about him, “Let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress” (Genesis 35:3). Hannah would carry Samuel to Shiloh, that he might abide with God forever (1 Sam. 1:22). . . .

If they are obstinate, and will not go with you, then bring godly and sound men to your house, and there let the word of God be preached, when you have, as Cornelius, gathered your family and friends together (Acts 10).

Matthew Henry, one of the most popular Bible expositors in all of history, sat as a boy under the meaty expositions of his father, Pastor Phillip Henry, and then followed in his footsteps. He would later write: “Little children should learn betimes to worship God. Their parents should instruct them in his worship and bring them to it, put them upon engaging in it as well as they can, and God will graciously accept them and teach them to do better.”

He carried this conviction all his life, as seen in this statement from his well-known biblical commentary: “It is for the honour of Christ that children should attend on public worship, and he is pleased with their hosannas.”

Even though the biblical record is clear that children were included in the gatherings of God’s people, and that for most of Christian history, children were present in the meetings of God’s people, most people still wonder, what can children really get out of Church?6

Fourth, those of us who reject comprehensive age segregation have always maintained that church history is not our authority. The Word of God alone is our final authority. It is not the pattern of the Jewish Rabbis during the time of Christ or the Church of Scotland that gives us our patterns for church life, but rather this:  “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience.”7

Here is how we state it in Article XII in “The Declaration for the Complementary Role of Church and Family”:

Article XII - The Biblical Revelation Is Sufficient for Worship and Discipleship

We affirm that the biblical doctrine, principles and precepts that God has revealed in His Word for corporate, family, and individual worship and discipleship are sufficient for knowing how to worship God in a manner acceptable to Him and for the effective edification of the saints. (1 Cor. 11:1-12; 14:34; Gal. 1:8-9; Eph. 5:22-33; 6:1-4; 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4;).

We deny/reject that the church should invent and institute her own principles and methods for corporate worship and discipleship that disregard or replace the explicit teaching of Scripture.

It’s not enough to point to isolated examples to define church life. This is and always has been the wrong direction for both the church and the family.

  1. Brown, Scott T. A Weed in the Church: How a Culture of Age Segregation Is Harming the Younger Generation, Fragmenting the Family, and Dividing the Church. Wake Forest, NC: National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. p. 63
2. Ibid. p. 25
3. Ibid. p. 26
4. Ibid. p. 35
5. Ibid. p. 48-51
6. Ibid. p. 61-63
7. Second London Baptist Confession 1.1

Scott Brown

Scott T. Brown is the President of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches and pastor at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Scott graduated from California State University in Fullerton with a degree in History and received a Master of Divinity degree from Talbot School of Theology.  He gives his time to expository preaching and local pastoral ministry, as well as conferences on Biblical doctrine and church and family reformation. He and his wife Deborah have four grown children. Scott helps people think through the two greatest evangelistic and discipleship institutions God has provided — the church and the family.