One of the most compelling aspects of the early church described in Scripture is the characteristic of deep, intentional, unusual community. Just look at how the church is described in Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47 NIV
This approach to community, hospitality and welcome made the early church stand out. It was peculiar for a group of unrelated individuals to live in such a way. It was said of Christians, “see how they love one another…how they are even ready to die for one another” (Source).
Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity describes Christians this way: “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture” (p. 161).
Much has been written about this kind of Christian hospitality that embraces the marginalized and poor, takes care of the widow and orphan, and seeks to serve and love humanity, those in the church and those who live in community with the church.
Theologian Miroslav Volf has written an extensive work on Christian community called Exclusion and Embrace. Volf’s work is a in-depth theological work and I cannot do it justice in a short blog (If this piques your interest, be sure to check it out!). But what he writes about really struck my interest in regard to intergenerational community.
Volf characterizes Christian hospitality as embrace, an act that he describes in four parts: Arms open to others (invitation), arms reaching out to others (waiting), arms wrapped around others (embrace) and arms opening to release others (differentiation).
However, there are times when Christian community doesn’t offer that welcome and embrace but rather there is a sense of division and exclusion. What exactly is meant by exclusion? Just as Volf explores four movements of embrace, he defines four acts of exclusion: elimination, assimilation, domination, and abandonment.
In my role as an advocate for generational discipleship and intergenerational ministry, I read this insight through the lens of age integration and multigenerational faith experiences in community. In that light, we can see how the Church has struggled with each form of exclusion.
To be clear, there is not a 1:1 correlations between his work and the integration of ages and intergenerational community in a church….but… I do think it is worth at least considering in the light of Christian community and hospitality. Below is a short description of each type of exclusion and how we might see it play out in a church setting.
Elimination. Perhaps the simplest form of exclusion is simply to remove the “other” from the embrace of the gathered body. How is that done in church? Well, the creation of age-specific spaces severely limits the ability for generations to interact together and regulates where and when certain ages are allowed to be. In some churches. Some ways we can see this accomplished is in things like specifically banning children from attending corporate worship services or setting age limits on participation in church board, ministry teams, or staff.
Assimilation. Things are a lot easier when we are all on the same page. Rather than celebrate our differences and uniqueness, assimilation pushes people into conformity. Intentional or not, we can see this in churches in such spaces as targeted worship services aimed at specific age groups, age-specific Sunday School classrooms and curriculum, generation-specific activities, and events or opportunities based on personal style and taste where homogeneity within the group, service, or event is expected and even desired. When these types of things become a consistent and regular occurrence in a community, the message can be “To truly be a part of this community, you need to be this age or act this way.”
Domination. Perhaps the saddest form of exclusion explored by Volf, domination is when “we are satisfied to assign ‘others’ the status… in their proper place, which is to say the place we have assigned for them” (p. 75). Stereotypes about age can impact a faith community leading to the majority age groups having greater voice and sway over the less represented older and younger groups. We can see this happening if we look at things like salary and budget distribution for ministries or ministry personnel, generational representation in places of leadership, and care of persons within each group, but especially in that of older, aging members.
Abandonment. The final form of exclusion described by Volf is simply abandonment or “minding our own business” (p. 75). Very often children, young people, and older people tend to fall into these categories because they offer little financial benefit to the church, often cannot perform the needed duties of deacons and elders, teachers and pastors, leaders and servers, and instead get abandoned from the communal life of the body. Even churches who spend a great deal of money in creating age-specific areas of ministry can still abandon these generations by not incorporating them into the corporate life of the church, rather leaving them to their own separate spheres.
Volf describes this tendency to exclude as a result of our own discomfort with “anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps” such as a child crying out in a worship service, a toddler coloring and snacking in the pews, an older person needed helped slowly down an aisle, or a teenager dressing in casual or ripped clothing. Presented with these uncomfortable moments, it’s easy to think that these types of exclusionary actions are best for everyone.
But that appears to be the polar opposite of Christian community; in fact, from the descriptions of early Christians and all throughout Scripture, the idea of coming together, being a body made up of many parts, finding room for each member to connect, seems to be the traditional approach to church.
Regardless of one’s view one Volf’s characterization of exclusion and embrace, it would be worthwhile for churches to examine their gathering practices and the structures/programs that are in place to see if there are spaces where Christian community and hospitality is being intentionally or unintentionally stifled, especially as it relates to generational discipleship and intergenerational connections.
Ready to Start, Not Sure Where?
ReFocus Ministry is pleased to present a four-part webinar series on generational discipleship and connection for churches interested in exploring intergenerational ministry both in their church and in their homes. Each session will focus on a unique aspect of gathering generations together, both the challenges and opportunities, as well as practical tips to begin implementing now during this time away from regular church gatherings.
Sessions can be attended individually or all four can be attended as a series.
Session 1 – ReConnect. This first session of the webinar focuses on defining generations, generation gap, and the need for generational discipleship in your church. This is the “What” behind generational discipleship.
Session 2 – ReGenerate. This session focuses on the the research, the reasons, and the heart behind connecting generations from both a secular and spiritual viewpoint. This is the “Why” behind generational discipleship.
Session 3 – ReProduce. This session offers practical tips, strategies, and ideas to being connecting generations in your faith community and in homes in meaningful, lasting, life-changing ways. This is the “How” behind generational discipleship.
Session 4 – ReLease. It’s time to go and do! This session will provide a discussion and debrief around the questions, “What? So What? Now What?” and give you an starting point for incorporating generational discipleship as a meaningful part of your faith community. This is the “Who” behind generational discipleship at your church and in your home!
For More Information about how you and your church can participate in this webinar experience, fill out the Contact Form Below with “ReConnect” as your subject.
For more information about
- Kids in Worship
- Determining which Type of Family Ministry model works best for your church
- Discipleship in Intergenerational community
- Encouraging the continued conversation through Practical Discipleship at Home
- Seminars, Workshops, Coaching
About this Blog
Refocus Ministry was started by Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and church planter at Plowshares BIC. She also serves as the Minister of Generational Discipleship with the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ.
With years of experience in family ministry and children’s ministry, she is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. She recently graduated with a Masters of Arts in Ministry focusing on Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family, ChurchLeaders.com, and Seedbed.