A few years ago, our family of six left a congregation full of parents with young children, and joined a church made up mostly of university students.1 This wasn’t an ideological statement on our part: it was simply because my husband works in university ministry, and that’s where we needed to be at the time. But it’s made me aware of some of the benefits and costs of going to church with people from a different age and stage from your own.
It’s easy to spend your entire life going to church with people just like you. Many of us start out in our parent’s church: a place, perhaps, with lots of other kids and teenagers. We graduate to a university church (that’s what my husband and I did), to a worker’s service, to a family service (ditto), to a congregation full of empty-nesters and, finally, retirees. It’s not so simple for those who are single, childless, or divorced; but that’s how it works a lot of the time. Even churches with mixed-age congregations find they tend to become homogeneous: for example, families with young children often attend church in the morning, while young adults go in the evening.2
Then there are the ‘church invaders’, people who make a deliberate decision to go to church with people who aren’t like them. I’ve met some of them: an energetic lady in her 60s who goes along to the youth service so she can show an interest in young people. A woman in her early 20s who attends a church where she’s the only person under 40, because she believes older and younger Christians need each other. A childless woman great at relating to kids, who gives her time to reaching out to children and their parents. A couple with older children who feel a little out of place in a congregation full of younger families, but who go to provide encouragement, support and wisdom.
So what is it like, crossing the frontiers? I won’t deny that I found it hard at first, going to a university church. I worried about my children growing up without lots of Christian kids their own age. I worried that no-one would want to talk to me – after all, what 20-year-old wants to hang out with a 40-something woman surrounded by noisy children? My instinct was to retreat to the back of the church, serve supper, feed my kids, and talk to the few women my age: to leave the boundaries between age groups uncrossed and unchallenged.
I’d love to claim some great godliness that helped me overcome this self-absorption, but I can’t. What happened was that, one memorable morning, I prayed about my attitude to church, and God’s Spirit convicted me that I was acting like a spoiled child: self-centred, self-conscious, self-pitying. Too wrapped up in myself to love those around me. Too concerned about what people thought of me to be concerned about them. Too obsessed with my own needs to consider the needs of others. I wept, repented, and asked for God’s help to start again.
In God’s very good timing – how often he brings us to the end of ourselves before he brings about a change in our circumstances! – the women in our church got together the following week. Older, younger, student, graduate, mother, teenager: we laughed and ate and swapped our stories. We met again, and talked about how we could better encourage each other. We met again, read Titus 2:3-5, and saw how God wants older and younger women to be involved in each other’s lives. Soon, I’ll start meeting regularly with two younger women to read the Bible and pray. It’s no coincidence that, at the very point I stopped worrying about whether I belonged, I felt a sense of belonging.
I’m beginning to see how important it is that I’m here, right now, in this church, being encouraged by and encouraging these particular women. In a few years time, when they get married and have kids, or wonder if they’ll stay single, or start out in work and ministry, I hope I’ll be beside them, helping them find the way into mature Christian womanhood. I look back to when I was a student going to a university church, and I’m deeply grateful to the older single people, couples and families who came along, modelled the Christian life for us, and taught and trained us in godliness. There’s a richness of encouragement that happens between Christians of different ages and stages that’s beautiful to see.
What about our kids? Is it fair to them, going to a church with only a few other children and teenagers?3 Our two younger boys are loved and cared for by a bunch of enthusiastic young people who enjoy having them around, and who are learning to lead as they teach them in Sunday School. Our older son enjoys hanging out with the godly young men who surround him. Our teenage daughter is excited about being mentored by a lovely young Christian woman. Our marriage and family are a lived-out, messy, week-by-week example for many who never experienced a Christian family growing up. In the end, it’s not the patterns of church that matter to us and our children: what matters is that the gospel is taught, and they are loved and prayed for by the members of our church family.
Not everyone is built to be a church invader. We know many Christians – single workers, couples with young children, retirees – who do their best ministry loving and serving people in a similar situation to their own. We’ve advised others, who find it hard to get to church at all, to go to a church that’s designed for their needs. But even if you don’t invade a church, do invade people’s lives. Be aware of the unseen boundaries that cross churches: old and young, married and single, privileged and disadvantaged, we’re all part of the body of Christ (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). Think about who might feel in the minority, even if they hide it well. Invest time in younger Christians, and seek out the wisdom of older Christians. Invite people who are different from you into your life.
But perhaps you are built to be a church invader. Maybe you’re an older person who’s good at relating to young people, a member of a family who would like to reach out to single workers, or a young person who’s never seen a Christian marriage in action. If that’s the case, why not choose a church where you don’t naturally belong? Why not choose a church, not because it meets your needs, but because it needs you? Why not make a home for others in a place that feels far from home? Why not become a church invader? We’d love to have you along!
- Actually, there were a couple of moves along the way, but I’m simplifying the story for the sake of clarity. ↩
- I don’t want to comment on which approach to church is best: homogeneous or heterogeneous. I think there are benefits to both approaches. ↩
- I’m often questioned about this. I was recently helped by an alternate point of view, offered by Kathy Keller in Why the city is a wonderful place to raise children. ↩