It seemed important that our series on welcome included some thought about welcoming all ages, because the arrival of my little one means that our fellowship now spans nine decades. That is an amazing thing and a real cause for celebration, but it will take some thought and some work if we want to be a church that works for the youngest and the oldest and everyone in between. I suspect many of us feel our age is the least interesting or significant thing about us, and yet while it may often be no more than a number, it is one of the factors which shapes how we relate to and engage with worship, and so we can't ignore it completely. Besides, a wider variety of ages means a wider variety of experiences and abilities, and we should make the most of the opportunities that brings.
I thought it might be helpful here to share something of my experience, because just as my experiences in my previous church taught me about inclusion, so growing up in a thoroughly multigenerational church shaped how I understand what it means to embrace all ages in worship and fellowship.
My childhood church had a real spread of ages, but while we had Sunday school groups, they only went out once a month, so that every Sunday there was a mix of generations worshipping together, and it was wonderful. I had friends my own age, but I also had honorary aunties and uncles and grandparents, and they had honourary nices and nephews and grandkids. Families took it in turn to lead the intercessions, so as soon as I was old enough to stand at the front and read a few words off a scrap of paper, I was taking part in leading worship. We had a cycle of liturgies we used each month, and the repetition meant I learnt confessions and creeds by heart at a young age, so that every age could engage in the same prayer and worship. I sat on a rug at the front of church and had Bible stories read to me, and then I went back to my seat and picked up as much of the sermon as I could understand, so even the bits that were 'for the adults' did not exclude me. I felt fully and completely a part of the worshipping community, and I felt like my faith and my spirituality were taken seriously within that.
I know there are other ways of thinking about how to be a multigenerational church, so for example many churches have separate children’s programmes. I can see where the benefits of that may be, but my experience tells me that there is rich blessing (even if there is also challenge) in keeping everyone together. There were house groups and children’s groups and youth groups during the week, so there were times and spaces where teaching and worship could be more directed by age, but I grew up seeing that Sunday was when the whole family gathered, and I loved it. Of course it will be for SBC as a church to decide how it wants to welcome all ages, but it seemed fair to start by being honest about my background, because this is something I feel passionately about, and my experience is going to affect how I talk about it.
The first reading we heard was Mark 10:13-16, and it may be obvious why. If the disciples thought the children that were being brought to Jesus were a nuisance or unimportant, it was surely because of their age, but Jesus not only welcomed them and blessed them, he also told the disciples they needed to learn from them. He doesn’t elaborate on what it means to welcome the kingdom as a child, but I suspect it has something to do with the wonder and trust I see in my toddler, the enthusiasm and generosity with which he greets each new day. It is a beautiful thing to welcome the world like that, so how much more beautiful to welcome the kingdom in the same way? What seems really significant to me here is the way that Jesus took those children seriously as being capable of accepting the kingdom, of becoming disciples, of being a blessing to the community of faith. That must inform how we see and welcome children.
But this is about welcoming all ages not just welcoming children. My perspective will be skewed in that direction because I remember being a child in church, I have looked after children in church, and I now have a child in church, but all age church really should be for all ages, and I am committed to learning more about what that means for people at different stages of life. That’s why I wanted to hear from Joel 2:28-29 too. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” This verse is often used to highlight the place of women, but it also tells us that the spirit is poured out on all ages. Every generation shares in this blessing and so every generation has a blessing to bring to the church.
There are all sorts of practical ways in which we can seek to welcome all ages, and it may take a process of trial and error for us to find the best way for SBC, but whatever we do it has to start from a conviction that every child, every youth, every adult, every elder is loved and valued by God and by the church. That while the immaturity of childhood and the infirmity of old age may influence our participation and must be accounted for in the way we provide for one another, they do not lessen who we are in Christ or in fellowship. That all are taken seriously as those who are capable of accepting the kingdom, of becoming disciples, and of being a blessing to the community of faith.