Does the Bible talk about intergenerational ministry?
How about generational discipleship?
Is there a biblical basis for this new craze sweeping the children’s ministry and family ministry worlds?
Well, technically, it’s not so much new as it is old…really, really old.
Until recently in church history, the generations did in fact worship together as an intergenerational faith community. In their book, Intergenerational Christian Formation, Holly Allen and Christine Ross (2012) point out that “first century churches were multigenerational entities, with children present for worship, healings, prayer meetings, even perhaps when persecutions were perpetuated.”
That really didn’t change until the 20th century when the work of development theorists such as Piaget, Kohlberg, and Fowler began to gain popularity, the church adapted their practices and it led the creation of specialized ministries to connect to specific age groups (Source). Eventually developmentalists’ concerns were applied to the worship hour and the Sunday morning church experience began to be viewed as a time for teaching adults (Source).
But, I digress. Since the late 1970s there have been movements popping up to help churches regain that more intergenerational feel and today…well, today, it’s a thing. It seems like everywhere you look, this idea of intergenerational or multigenerational ministry and generational discipleship is being discussed, argued, and implemented.
Which leads some of us to ask..is this biblical?
Can we find this in Scripture and, if so, what do the Bible have to say?
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 gets talked about a lot within the realm of family ministry as a verse that exemplifies the work of discipleship done by parents within the home.
BUT it’s important to note that these instructions to share about the commandments of the Lord weren’t given to solely to parents. In fact, when Moses shared these commands, he did so with the whole assembly of Israel, not just to the parents/caregivers that were present.
Deuteronomy 4:9 reads, “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” indicating there were multiple generations present when these commands were given. Now, with that in mind, consider that in one commentary, it’s pointed out that according to the Jewish people, “Teach them to thy children” meant “not only those of thy own body but all those that are anyway under thy care and tuition.” That means the charge to “impress upon your children” the commandments of the Lord extended beyond the home and into the larger faith community.
We call that “generational discipleship”!
And it’s not limited to this moment. Intergenerational community can be found throughout Scripture.
Whenever the nation of Israel would gather for special occasions such as feasts or celebrations, the entire community, all generations, would be present. Like…
- Deuteronomy 29:10-12 when Moses spoke to Israel for the final time
- 2 Chronicles 20:13 when Jehosophat called for a fast of the entire nation
- Nehemiah 8: 2-3 and 12:43 when Ezra read aloud the book of the law and the entire community celebrated together.
Again, Holly Allen and Christine Ross share, “In the religion of Israel, all ages were not just included, they were drawn in, assimilated absorbed into the community with a deep sense of belonging.”
In the book of Psalms, there are references to the passing of faith from one generation to another. Like…
- Psalm 145:4 “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”
- Psalm 78 – The psalmist explains the importance of testifying about God’s works to the next generation so they would remain in the faith and not turn away a.k.a. generational discipleship.
In the New Testament, Jesus modeled this inclusion of all generations and specifically children throughout his ministry, going so far as to tell his followers that welcoming a child into their midst was akin to welcoming Him and the One who sent Him (Matthew 10:42, Matthew 11:25-26, Matthew 18:2-6, Matthew 18:10, Matthew 19:13-14, Matthew 21:16, Mark 10:13-16 & Luke 9:46-48).
In the epistles Paul writes to the churches and asks for the letters to be read aloud to the gathered community. In them, he specifically addresses a wide range of generations, including children (such as Eph 6:1-4, Col 3:20). It’s safe to assume he mentions all the generations because he expected them to be there to hear what he had to say.
So, yes, intergenerational ministry and generational discipleship are found in Scripture.
And the idea of having all generations interacting within a community of faith isn’t a new one. That doesn’t mean we throw out everything we’ve learned from developmentalists or that doesn’t mean that age-appropriate ministry isn’t of any value.
What it does mean is that the normative faith practice is one where generations have the opportunity to be together and pass the faith to one another, so it would be a good idea for us to create spaces where that can happen.
I’m a firm believer that we can do both age-appopriate ministry and intergenerational ministry well in our churches instead of either/or. Rather than pitting these two against each other, perhaps its time we consider how to embrace the new without rejecting the old.
And, I’d love to know… How is your church finding ways to engage every generation in faith conversations and relationships?
For more on this, check out this post on Biblical Support for Intergenerational Ministry
This article originally appeared on this blog in September 2016
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
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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. 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
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I’m sorry but I have to take issue with what seems to be a little Procrustean exegesis in this post, ie, fitting texts to a required meaning.
You say that Dt 4:9 (teach them to your children) indicates that “there were multiple generations present when these commands were given.” Surly it indicates the exact opposite?
If I give you a message and ask you to pass it on to your sister, then your sister is not present.
Sorry, but Dt 4:9 really does not mean what you say it does.
You cite the times when the law was read to the entire community stating that that includes all generations. Generations, perhaps, but that does not mean everyone. Remember that it was common practice at that time to only count the men (eg, when numbering tribes) and many commands are specifically only given to men (who would make sure they were enacted among their women, children, cattle and other possessions). Eg the Ten Commandments – very clearly spoken to males (the ‘you’ is masc sing in Hebrew) More info https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-ten-commandments-a-gender-analysis/
Your Psalm references similarly (as I read them) do not say what you are having them say. Yes, pass on the faith. Totally agree. But ‘pass on the faith’ does not say where, and most refs to this in the Bible show it being done at home. Eg Dt 6:7
Yes, with Allen and Ross, Jewish communities did everything together as a masse. Including slaves, visitors etc. When the Philippian jailer found faith, his whole household was baptised. Not because each had individually found faith, but because that’s how they did stuff then. If the man becomes a Christian, then Boom! all his family were Christians, no matter what the wife, children, slaves etc might individually believe. Same when Constantine became a Christian and Boom! so did the whole Roman Empire. But that was their culture and it’s not ours.
As for Jesus and the (specifically *young*) children, I refer to these verses to draw out the exact opposite meaning from you. Children below a certain age were not required to keep the law, so when Jesus told people that they should be as little children, I understand him to be referring to the fact that they were as yet too young to be under the law and so depended on God’s grace alone. (Bar / Bat MItzvah means becoming a child of, ie under, the law). I understand this as an example chosen specifically because the young children were *not* in the synagogues on Sabbath. These verses are examples of young children *not* being part of the worshipping community. Which is the opposite of what you are saying.
The disciples shooed the young children away because they were not considered old enough to hear Jesus’ teaching. Today we’d see that differently. Everyone can come to God, no matter what age. But that does not imply intergenerational ministry.
The NT refs indeed address children, but we cannot assume all ages from that. A child might be an unmarried 20-something living in their parents’ house. The epistles in general are quite clearly addressed to adults only. There are only these couple of verses in the whole of the letters that even touch upon the topic of children. It’s a long way from these verses to this being ‘normative faith practice’. Sorry, but I don’t see that in Scripture at all, and certainly not in the scriptures you have quoted.
I don’t disagree with your conclusions, I think having generations together is helpful, but this article is about ‘Does the Bible teach us this?’, and I have to say, based on your chosen texts, No, it doesn’t. It does feel a bit like you have decided what you’d like the Bible to say then read stuff into your chosen verses to make them say that when they don’t.
My apologies, and please understand that I find your blog in general very helpful and insightful. But I do take issue with your exegesis in this post. Please accept a conciliatory chocolate biscuit as a peace offering.
I want to thank you so much for this very thorough and insightful feedback to my post. I see that you are also a blogger so you know that a blog post rarely if ever allows space for a full exegesis of text and therefore only a cursory view of these topics was put forth in my post. I also understand that even if I address the concerns you have brought up with my reasons for exegeting the text as I did, we will likely still disagree and to that end, I am grateful for an array of voices within the church, for that keeps us growing and learning.
To your first point regarding Dt. 6:4-9 the reason I state that there were multiple generations present is because the Bible states that. In Dt. 5 it is recorded that “Moses summoned all Israel” to gather. For Dt. 4:9, we have to go all the way back to Dt. 1:1 which states that Moses spoke to “all Israel.” Even if we, as you point out, only believe that applies to men (and based on later comments, men only older than 13), it is still an intergenerational gathering. Intergenerational doesn’t just mean young children are present. It means that multiple generations are present, learning and worshipping with each other. While I am an advocate for including all generations at some point in corporate worship and intentional discipleship within our faith communities, that is not the only application of intergenerational. If multiple generations are together and ministry is taking place, even if the youngest or oldest aren’t present, then intergenerational ministry is happening. Unfortunately, that is less and less the case in churches as it reflects a society that is more and more fragmented and segregated by age.
If we look at other accounts in Scripture where “all Israel” is gathered we will see that women and children were counted in their number. For example, Joshua 8:35 “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.” And Dt. 31:12 “Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.” Nehemiah 8 is particularly interesting because it actually differentiates between all people (who are there as one together for verses 1-12) and the heads of households (men) who gathered on the second month. Ezra 10:1 goes even further in describing those gathered saying, “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.” It certainly does not seem to me to be a far stretch to assume with “all Israel” gathered, that would include all ages, genders, and races (foreigners were also included in “all Israel”).
Another place where we see the specific inclusion of children is actually in the practices of worship. In his book, The Church of All Ages, Howard Vanderwell states, “…God’s people have always included all ages in their worship” and he points to the practice of Passover as a concrete example: “It is significant that the children of the Hebrew family not only be present, but to participate by asking probing questions…” He further states, “In many instances the Scriptures clearly show that all generations were present. We might expect that only the father of the family or the elders of the nation would be present but reference show that these times of worship are intergenerational events” (p. 21,22). He goes on to exegete the accounts I have listed above as well as several others, include Psalm 148 which states “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above the earth and heaven.”
I absolutely concur with you regarding the difference in culture from then and today with respect to the “whole household” becoming Christian. As far as I can see I didn’t actually bring that up in the blog post for the very reasons you pointed out.
In regard to Jesus and his interaction with children, I’m intrigued by your thought that Jesus told us to be like children because they were not under the law. I admit, this is a new take on this particular statement and I’m definitely going to dive into that. However you also state, “The disciples shooed the young children away because they were not considered old enough to hear Jesus’ teaching. Today we’d see that differently. Everyone can come to God, no matter what age. But that does not imply intergenerational ministry.” I would say that Jesus came as a greater revelation and his welcoming of children was actually an example to us to do the same. Just like he did with so many other traditions of the law, Jesus offered the better way. We can look at his treatment of women in much the same way. He gave us a better way, a way that included all genders and ages in worship, worship that was in spirit and in truth, not in a synagogue or in a certain location. No one was excluded in worship and to me that does imply that worship is intergenerational. I understand that we may see that differently.
There is a fantastic book entitled “Children in the Early Church” by W. A. Strange which does a fantastic job of digging into the historical and cultural context of the early church as well as the Scriptures that reference children and their presence in the early gatherings. If I could, I would copy and paste the entire book here since the academic work he has done is exemplary, but that is, of course, impossible. He does offer some examples from early church writings and the Bible that show the inclusion of children as a normative practice. I’ve listed a few below (again, the book is a much better reference for all of this).
“Young children are mentioned at Tyre, where the wives and children joined the male disciples in kneeling in worship on the beach at Paul’s departure from the city (Acts 21:5). An early manuscript (Codex Bezae, 5th century) adds children to the picture of the first church in Jerusalem. In Acts 1:14 it reads, “All these with one accord were constantly at prayer, together with a group of women and children”…Pliny said of the people of Bithynia during his governership that “many of all ages” were in danger of contagion from the Christian menace”. He had evidently noticed that children were involved in Christian worship and was trying to stamp it out. Cprian wrote in his book On The Lapsed of a mother bring her child to the Eucharist. There is no doubt that children were present at worship in the New Testament period, and continue to be present in succeeding generations of the church. It is less clear precisely what their status was and what significance was attached to their presence.” (p. 70, 71).
I do understand there is a difference between Scripture and these writings but they certainly do help with cultural and historical context, especially when we exegete Scripture. That being said, when we see the moments where Paul addresses children specifically, I still believe it is safe to assume that children were present. Even as Strange points out, “to some extent, the presence of children in the worship of the first Christians was therefore a matter of necessity. But Paul’s acceptance of children of the church as “belonging to God” or “holy” suggests that children were not only there because they had to be. They were there because they belonged there” (p. 72).
It has never been my desire to prooftext the Bible, to read into what I want to see. There are so many times where I wish I could read something different than what is plainly there and I must accept that God in his wisdom inspired the authors to write as they did. However, in regard to this topic, I have spent quite a bit of time digging into Scripture, researching context, seeking out a variety of interpretations and I cannot help but arrive that this conclusion: The church of Jesus Christ is one for all ages and all ages are needed in order for us to fully live into the calling we have to reflect the love of God to this world as his church. Whether we use the term intergenerational ministry or just church, I feel that the Scriptures I offered support a gathering where generations are intentionally connected together in their love for God, worshipping together and learning from one another. As I said up front, it is likely we will not agree on the exegesis of these verses and that is absolutely okay. I did however at least want to let you know that I read and considered your comments and that there was more to what I offered on the limited post than I could reasonably include there.
Thank you so much for the offer of a chocolate biscuit! Perhaps one day the Lord will allow our paths to cross and we can share one together. Blessings!