This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017. This post is the first in a three-part series.
In recent years, a small but vocal cluster of church leaders has contended that age-organized programs and ministries in the church should be eliminated. These proponents of “family-integrated church” have called for churches to dismantle programs that practice systematic “age-segregated discipleship.” In churches that follow this model, the congregation has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. “We do not divide families into component parts,” writes one proponent of family-integrated churches. “We don’t even do it in Bible study.” The support claimed for family-integrated ministry is typically twofold, contending both that age-organized ministries are unwarranted by Scripture and that ministries for children and youth are a recent innovation that represents the imposition of “individualistic philosophies” in the church.
The point of this article is not to present an argument for or against family-integrated churches. (For that discussion, see my book Perspectives on Family Ministry.) Although I recognize significant limitations in the family-integrated model, this approach can be quite effective in certain contexts and circumstances. My purpose is, instead, to examine a problematic claim made by certain proponents of family-integrated ministry regarding the history of age-organized programs and ministries. According to one such writer, church programs that teach children in classes separated from the rest of the congregation originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as churches began to imitate “a systematic, age-segregated world.” Systematic age-organized ministries, this author claims, emerged over the past two centuries from “the lofty deposits of platonic philosophy, the loamy organic of rationalism, the ethereal waters of evolutionism, and the breathable but allergenic air of pragmatism.” The promotional materials for Divided—a documentary promoting the practice of family-integrated ministry—claim that the film unmasks “shockingly sinister roots of modern, age-segregated church programs.”
If these perspectives are correct, classes and programs for particular age groups in the church represent an innovation that has emerged over the past two hundred years as a result of imitating practices observed in the surrounding culture. The chronological beginnings of age-organized ministry is located in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with some roots reaching back to the eighteenth century, and the cause was an absorption of non-Christian values.
Is such a claim plausible, however, when examined historically?
What this research will demonstrate is that—centuries prior to the supposed culprits of “rationalism, … evolutionism, and … pragmatism”—Reformed congregations systematically offered age-organized classes led by vocational ministers. Far from being an innovation instituted in an attempt to imitate the practices of the surrounding culture, these gatherings were initiated with the explicit goal of reinstituting what was perceived to have been a practice of the ancient church. These practices of age-organized ministries began no later than the sixteenth century as part of an attempt to restore much earlier patterns. Although a study of the school systems that emerged in the Reformation would also be helpful in exploring this topic, that subject stands beyond the scope of this article; the focus of this research has been limited to the practices of churches. The purpose will be not only to examine the claim that age-organized ministries emerged due to the church’s embrace of non-Christian philosophies but also to explore the willingness of early Reformed churches to modify their methodologies to sustain the recovery of ancient truths.
“The Devil…Overthrew This Policy”: Children’s Catechesis as Restoration of Ancient Christian Practice
On January 16, 1537, a pastor named Guilliame Farel presented the Little Council of Geneva with a series of proposals for the government of their city. One of Farel’s co-architects in these proposals was a twenty-seven-year-old French theologian who had only recently been appointed to the colloquium of pastors in Geneva. The next year, this same young man would be dismissed from Geneva and make his way to the city of Strasbourg.
His name was John Calvin.
The purpose of the articles that Farel presented was “to maintain the Church in its integrity.” One of the primary means proposed in the articles to maintain the church’s integrity was the catechesis of children. The articles of 1537 directed parents to “exercise pains and diligence” so that their children would “be individually taught” to confess the true faith—but the articles also called for pastoral instruction of children. Parents in Geneva were instructed to bring their children before the ministers “at certain seasons.” At these designated times, the children would be expected not only to confess their faith but also to be examined before the church and to receive from the minister “more ample explanation” of the catechism “according to [their] capacity.” Even in 1537, the leaders of the Reformation in Geneva saw clearly the need for adapting content and instructional methods to the capacities of the hearers.
Several months earlier, John Calvin had already envisioned how these processes of examining and instructing children might take place in the context of a local church. In the 1536 edition of the Institutio Christianae religionis, Calvin described how
children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church. The best method of catechizing would be to have a manual drafted for this exercise, containing and summarizing in a simple manner nearly all the articles of our religion, on which the whole believers’ church ought to agree without controversy. A child of ten would present himself to the church to declare his confession of faith, would be examined in each article, and answer to each; if he were ignorant of anything or insufficiently understood it, he would be taught. Thus, while the church looks on as witness, he would profess the one true and sincere faith, in which those who believe with one mind worship the one God. If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace.
Calvin—like many others in the sixteenth century, including Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther—viewed children’s development as a process that unfolded in three seven-year stages. Calvin’s description of catechesis in the Institutio focused on children in the second of these seven-year cycles (“children or those near adolescence…a child of ten”)—the stage that began with the dawning of reason and ended at puberty.
The pastoral practices described in the Institutio of 1536 and the articles of 1537 were occasional and seem to have taken place in the context of the entire congregation. Nevertheless, it is clear that Calvin expected the churches and pastors of the Reformation to deepen their commitment to the training of children in the faith. The purpose of this increased engagement was not to replace the parents as trainers of their children but to arouse the parents to become more committed to their children’s spiritual training.
From the perspective of Calvin and his compatriots, the institution of catechesis for children and new converts represented the recovery of a long-lost practice that had characterized Christians in the apostolic era. According to the ecclesiastical articles to which Calvin contributed in 1537, ancient Christians had employed “a definite catechism” to instruct children in the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. After being instructed, “the children of the faithful” had presented themselves for examination; if they were capable of rightly confessing their faith, they were received into the full fellowship of the church.
The practice of catechism and public profession had been, Calvin claimed, “abolished some centuries ago under the papacy.” This abolition was a disastrous act by which “the devil … overthrew” catechetical instruction and set about “miserably rending the church of God and bringing upon it fearful ruin.” What had replaced catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church was, according to Calvin, confirmation—a “sign, which, invented by the rashness of men, has been set out as a sacrament of God.” By the sixteenth century, the confirmation of children had degenerated into a ritual that was—according to Calvin—“decked out like a whore” and filled with “gesticulations which are more than ridiculous and suited rather to apes.” The Roman Catholic rite of confirmation included a slap on the cheek of the child being confirmed; this may have been one of the ritual gesticulations that Calvin deemed “suited rather to apes.”
“I Would Never Have Accepted This Ministry If They Had Not Pledged…to Keep the Catechism”: The Emergence of Age-Organized Catechetical Classes in Calvin’s Geneva
Calvin’s overarching vision was to see a divine “restitution of the church” through a renewed understanding of divine truth. The recovery of catechesis was so central to Calvin’s vision for the church’s restitution that, when he agreed to return to Geneva in 1541, retention of the catechism was one of the two conditions that he required. “I would never have accepted this ministry,” Calvin later declared, “if they had not pledged me these two things; namely, to keep the catechism and the discipline.”
Soon after his return to Geneva, John Calvin drafted a series of ecclesiastical ordinances for the city of Geneva. In these ordinances, he developed the catechetical ideals that he had outlined in 1536 and 1537 into a detailed plan for the discipleship of children. Calvin never retreated from the priority he placed on parental catechesis of children. At the same time, his plan for the catechizing of children grew more precise. Most important for the purposes of this research, these ordinances included a far clearer and more comprehensive role for pastors.
This post is the first in a three-part series.
After viewing this video, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of a family-integrated church?