I delivered this paper proposing a revised definition for family ministry in May 2017 at the HOUSE Conference in Australia, a gathering sponsored by YouthWorks and themed around the intersection between family ministry and ecclesiology. This post is the second part of a three-part series articulating the need for a revised definition for family ministry.
3. HISTORICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR AN EXPANDED DEFINITION FOR FAMILY MINISTRY
If church-as-family ministry is so vital, why is it so difficult? Resistance to diversity in the body of Christ may be attributed in part to dynamics of sin and spiritual powers. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against … cosmic powers” (Ephesians 6:12). At the same time, spiritual powers work in the context of historical realities. Furthermore, resistance to the implementation of church-as-family ministry frequently develops not because of sin but because of unrecognized assumptions and sincere differences about how best to form people in the image of Christ.
When it comes to church-as-family ministry, many of these differing assumptions and opinions find their origins in attempts to engage in faithful discipleship in social contexts that had been reshaped by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most of life unfolded intergenerationally. Production of goods and training for a trade typically took place in the context of multi-generational households. In the late eighteenth century, however, “the old system of home manufacture … in which the children of the household early made their contribution of labor under the parental eye, and so learned the family trade, [began to be] swept away.” As manufacturing once performed in homes with the involvement of multiple generations shifted to factories, the economic function of the family was redefined. These transitions set the stage for a society in which intergenerational connectedness no longer constituted the default setting of the culture–and all of this is crucial when it comes to our definition for family ministry.
The Era of Societies: Associations Organized According to Age and Interest
As early as the seventeenth century, “friendly societies” had linked laborers together to provide mutual aid in times of illness or loss of income. During the Industrial Revolution, new forms of these voluntary associations emerged to fulfill functions that multigenerational matrices of congregations, communities, and kin had once supplied. Over time, the role of these societies expanded to provide laborers with technical training and even instruction in religion. Most significant for this present exploration of the decline of intergenerationality was the emergence of young people’s societies.
The first Young Men’s Christian Association was organized in London in 1844 to improve “the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.” Sixteen years after the founding of the Y.M.C.A., the pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn launched the first “Young People’s Association.” Although inspired by the example of the Y.M.C.A., the Young People’s Association was linked to a local church and built on previous practices of youth prayer meetings. The purposes of the Young People’s Association included not only evangelism (“conversion of souls”) but also Christian growth and service (“development of Christian character and the training of new converts in religious work”).
“A small minority” of members of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church urged the Young People’s Association to move their meetings to church classrooms, but the youth chose to continue gathering in church members’ homes instead. They gathered each week for an hour of singing, Scripture reading, and prayer, followed by “thirty minutes for social intercourse.” The meetings functioned independent of adult leadership or parental involvement. “The young people,” one church member observed, “want this meeting to themselves, they organize it for themselves, and so long as it continues in private houses they will have it to themselves … to look after the interests of the young as they come into the church.” The Y.P.A. functioned as part of a local church but the leadership was provided almost exclusively by the youth themselves.
“Stimulated and guided” by an article about the Young People’s Association, Francis Clark launched the Society for Christian Endeavor in 1881. By this point, youth societies could already be found in many churches; Clark’s Society for Christian Endeavor seems to have provided a worldwide federation that drew these disparate societies together. In a mere ten years, Christian Endeavor grew from one group with a fifty-seven young people embracing the pledge to 16,274 societies with nearly one million youth enrolled. The connection between local congregations and Christian Endeavor societies seems to have been looser than the link between the local congregation and the original Y.P.A. At the height of Christian Endeavor’s popularity, it was, in fact, “greatly feared that [these societies] would divide the church on the basis of age, and supplant the church in the affection of the young.”
The separation of youth from other generations in the church has at times traced to the era of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. This survey of nineteenth-century societies reveals a different and far more complex picture. The economic boom that followed the Second World War did enable many American churches to professionalize the separation of youth from adults as they hired age-focused ministers. Yet the separation between youth and adults predated “I Saw Her Standing There” by more than half a century. By the dawn of the twentieth century, a single congregation in the United States could be loosely linked to a variety of societies organized by age, by personal interests, or by both age and interest—Sunday schools for each age-group, mission societies, temperance leagues, young people’s prayer-meetings, literary societies, all in addition to a Christian Endeavor society for youth and perhaps one or more Endeavor societies for children and even adults. Each program ran parallel to other programs but the goals and curricula for each group remained separate. The primary locus of discipleship increasingly became groups that drew people together according to their age or interests. The factors that led to this structure had little (if anything) to do with Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century or the rise of rock-and-roll in the twentieth century and much to do with the reshaping of society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.
The Era of Efficiency: Ministry Roles Specialized and Professionalized
The early twentieth century saw the rise of the “efficiency movement”—a movement that began in American industry but that quickly spread and, in the churches, seems to have influenced a turn to specialists to do the work of ministry. Early proponents of the efficiency movement suggested that production and profits could be increased if organizations employed specialists to assess problems and to develop better processes. What followed was a period of intensive scientific analysis in every field from medicine to engineering, from city planning to factory design, to determine the most efficient ways to regulate society and industry. Industries increasingly deferred responsibilities to specialists who were perceived as having expertise in particular areas. This was necessary, according to efficiency proponent Frederick Winslow Taylor, because ordinary workers were incapable of understanding how to be efficient. “The man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently … stupid to choose this for his occupation,” Taylor declared in his testimony before the United States House of Representatives, “is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”
Churches in the United States readily embraced many aspects of the efficiency movement. In 1915, the editor of the Florida Baptist Witness identified efficiency in Christian service as “the true test of orthodoxy” and declared evangelism and efficiency to be “the two great fundamental things in the teaching of Christ and his apostles.” This movement contributed to a shift toward specialization in church ministries. According to an article from 1909, every church needed three trained “experts” in addition to the pastor: a Director of Religious Education, a Director of Social Work, and a Church Visitor.
The purpose of these staff positions was to do what church members “have not the technical training to do as it ought to be done.” Put another way, ordinary church members—like handlers of pig-iron in factories—lacked the skills to understand what they ought to be doing. As a result, trained experts should take over and do the church’s ministry “as it ought to be done.” It is worth considering whether such a viewpoint is compatible with the apostle Paul’s perspectives on the giftedness of every believer (1 Corinthians 12:4-31) and on the pastor’s calling “to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Not every early twentieth-century church embraced every aspect of the efficiency movement, of course. At the same time, the assumption that ministries are most effective when segmented and overseen by specialists seems to have had a lasting impact.
The Era of Separation: The Generation Gap Goes to Church
By the 1950s, the widespread availability of secondary public education had coupled with the euphoria of post-war economic recovery to birth a new set of American ideals. These ideals included a supposition that, in the most respectable families, youth would be exempted from responsibilities to assist their families through meaningful labor. The youth of this era became the first generation in American history to receive sufficient spending money to impact the economy in significant ways. Eventually, not only teens but also children became targets of marketing campaigns that shaped the perceived needs of particular age-groupings. These patterns contributed to a societal shift in which the needs of youth in the church were assumed to be qualitatively dissimilar from older generations. In some sense, the rise of youth-focused church and parachurch organizations reflected a larger societal shift toward supplying the needs of families by providing unique experiences for each age group.
In the mid-twentieth century, parachurch ministries began hiring specialized ministers to provide teenagers with a Christian experience that was tailored to fit their perceived needs. In organizations such as Young Life, these specialized ministers were the central figures in youth groups, and the leader’s charisma and attractiveness to youth was seen as the deciding factor in the group’s failure or success. The first Young Life manual explicitly declared that “the leader is it!” Soon, local churches began imitating parachurch ministries such as Young Life and Youth for Christ by hiring specialized ministry leaders to attract and to retain adolescents in church-based youth groups.
One student minister depicted the resulting structure as a “one-eared Mickey Mouse.” The head of the cartoon mouse represented the church as a whole, and the ear represented youth ministry. Like the ear of the renowned rodent on Walt Disney’s drawing board, youth ministry was—in his estimation—barely linked to the rest of the body. Although the student ministry and the larger congregation were technically connected, the two operated on separate tracks, each one pursuing its own purposes. The foundations for this pattern had existed since the dawn of the twentieth century. What happened in the second half of the twentieth century was that this separation became solidified through a growing gap between the generations and increased specialization in church staffing.
The Era of Segmentation: The Church Segregated by Generations
In the era of societies, voluntary associations based on age and interests had emerged to fill the gaps that long-term connections of kin and community had provided prior to the Industrial Revolution. In the era of efficiency, roles began to become increasingly specialized and professionalized, not only in industries but also in churches. In the decades following the Second World War, specialist-led ministries for particular age groups proliferated and multiplied. By the end of the twentieth century, the preschool ministry, children’s ministry, youth ministry, singles ministry, college ministry, and senior adult ministry might share a common vision, but each one tended to be segregated generationally and segmented organizationally from other ministries. The template for these segmented structures could be traced back earlier trends toward ministry specialization and groups that were gathered on the basis of age or interest. Both segmentation and specialization were deeply shaped and imprinted with distinctly American values such as pragmatism, efficiency, and the satisfaction of individuals’ perceived needs.
Ideally, comprehensively segmented church ministries allowed each family member to experience Christian training in age-appropriate ways in the context of his or her peers. And yet, the consequences that followed this attempt to meet the needs of each particular demographic in the church separate from others were not all for the best. The one-eared Mickey Mouse metamorphosed into a multi-eared mutant—or, to use another youth leader’s memorable image, something like “an octopus without a brain, a collection of arms acting independently with no central processing unit coordinating their actions.” “In the past,” intergenerational specialist Holly Catterton Allen pointed out,
spending family time together and going to church were the same thing. Now, family time and church time are not compatible ideas, because families are rarely together when they are at church. … Learning how to be God’s people has become less a joining in … community, and more a gathering of age-segregated groups to study about being God’s people.
This segmentation of ministries in churches mirrored the increasingly generationally-segmented shape of American culture—and this pattern of generational segmentation was not limited to a gap between youth and parents. In the 1960s, a wealthy American entrepreneur named Del Webb worked to redefine the retirement years as a time for older adults to withdraw from their extended families so that retirees could “pursue hobbies, play golf, and socialize with their peers.” This new template for senior adulthood spread rapidly and earned Del Webb a spot on the cover of Time magazine in 1962.
By the end of the twentieth century, senior citizens in the United States could secede from their families and communities to live in locations like The Villages, Florida. The Villages boasts a population of more than one hundred thousand and offers a different golf course for every day of the month. Only one thing is missing from this city: children. The Villages has legislated the segregation of generations. No one under the age of nineteen is allowed to live in The Villages. The presence of anyone eighteen or younger is strictly limited to visits which may not total more than thirty days a year. The residents of the Villages do not attempt to conceal the fact that “at The Villages we spend our dollars on ourselves,” and “[we] don’t have to think about the problems of our former communities and distant families.”
While the legislated age segregation of The Villages may be an anomaly, the deep societal pull toward the segregation of older adults from youth and younger adults is not. In the words of sociologist Christian Smith, “Most American adolescents live the vast majority of their extra-familial lives in age-stratified institutions. … The schedules and institutions that organize youths’ lives tend to isolate and limit their contacts, exposures, and ideas to those available from others their own age. This age-stratified pattern has profound moral and social implications. “A great deal of America’s moral sickness,” Mary Pipher contends,
comes from age segregation. If ten fourteen-year-olds are grouped together, they will form a Lord of the Flies culture with its competitiveness and meanness. But if ten people aged two to eighty are grouped together, they will fall into a natural age hierarchy that nurtures and teaches them all.
In churches no less than in society as a whole, inherited structures of specialization and segmentation may reduce or even eliminate opportunities for participants “aged two to eighty” to be grouped together at all. This lack of intergenerational interaction can lead “each generation to see itself as a separate subculture rather than as an integral part of an entire community, perspectives that often lead to conflict and competition rather than cooperation.” Nevertheless, these models of ministry have been widely replicated not only in Western cultures but also in Asian, Hispanic, and African contexts.
This post is part 2 of a three-part series articulating the need for a revised definition for family ministry. You can find the new definition for family ministry at the end of the third post in the series.
What is your definition for family ministry? In what specific ways do you see segmentation and specialization at work in your church? List the positive and negative aspects of these two developments. Describe how these might shape one’s definition for family ministry.