Skip to site content

Why It Matters When Your Church Segregates by Age

Buzzwords that show up in social media posts, newscasts and daily conversations are often vague.

This inevitably results in misunderstanding when we say a word with a certain thing in mind and the person listening takes a very different meaning from what we’ve said.

The solution to this “problem” is simple. We just need to define clearly the words we use.

But that takes time and it takes intentionality, both things that are not often used in our busy lives.

I had the chance to speak recently with a church about two such phrases: age segregation and generational gap.

Most had heard of the two phrases, but many had not really taken time to consider what they meant.

The first was less familiar and conjured up thoughts of nursing homes and retirement communities. The second was more familiar, and most people applied it to politics and clothing.

For the sake of clarity, we took some time and intentionality and looked at these two phrases.

Age segregation is defined as the separation of people based on their ages. This can be intentional, like nursing homes and graded classrooms, or unintentional, like social media and clothing trends.

Intentional age segregation is a relatively new phenomenon. Graded classrooms didn’t really get their start until the late 1800s to early 1900s and didn’t spread to the whole country for decades after that.

Similarly, before the 19th century, no age-restricted institutions designed for long-term care existed.

Nursing homes and retirement communities gained steam in 1954 when the federal government created a grant that would fund such institutions and in the 1960s when Medicare and Medicaid began to provide payment for those services.

Generational gap is the perceived difference of opinions between one generation and another regarding beliefs, politics or values.

The most important word here is “perceived.” That means that we think there is a difference of opinion, but we don’t know that for sure.

That perception fuels a lot of our interactions and the way we approach issues ranging from political agendas to our preferred cellphone plan.

Why are these things important to the church?

Just like with society, age segregation is a relatively new thing for the church as well. You can trace the rise of separating the church community based on age back to about the 1950s when we see the start of youth groups.

Over time, the church became more and more focused on age-specific ministries and created both classes and services aimed at meeting the developmental and felt needs of different generations.

It’s not unusual for generations within a church to spend little, if any, time with one another.

As a result, just like in society, there is a perception within the church that there are significant differences of opinion on everything from sermon topics to worship styles.

The generational gap within churches can often be seen by taking a look at who attends the “traditional” service and who attends the “contemporary” one.

Because the separation of ages and the perception of differences mirror that of our society, it’s easy for us to think “that’s just the way it is.”

But it’s important to note that it wasn’t that way for centuries. And equally as important to note that the impact on the church is a substantial one.

Why? Because our faith is primarily passed from one generation to another.

That means in order for “one generation to praise [God’s] works to another” (Psalm 145:4), the generations must interact.

They must be in the same geographical space, speaking to each other and building relationships with one another if generational discipleship is to occur.

Studies bear this out. One of the first longitudinal studies done on youth in regard to church attendance post high school once the millennial decline became apparent was done by Fuller Youth Institute in 2006-10; they released their findings here.

Their research found that while most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages.

Further research showed that while there were no “silver bullet” churches that encouraged intergenerational connections and worship, youth who felt involved and connected to the larger church had a much greater chance of remaining in church post high school. The findings are available here.

In 2016, Fuller Youth Institute released a new study called “Growing Young,” which looked at churches that were continuing to “hold onto” their young people and even grow in the millennial sector of their congregations.

One of the key reasons they found for that was “warm intergenerational relationships,” explaining that “involving young people in every ministry has allowed these churches to thrive with authenticity and intergenerational relationships.”

In 2017, The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships explained that intergenerational relationships create essential learning environments for all generations.

Specifically, they find that three things are necessary for intergenerational learning:

1. There must be space to learn about one’s own generation with other generations.

2. All generations must act as learners and teachers at the same time.

3. The learning must motivate participants in a particular way.

In other words, we need each other.

When phrases like “age segregation” and “generational gap” can be applied to our community of faith, we need to take a step back and consider the ramifications on sustainability and disciple-making and take serious consideration if the benefits outweigh the costs.

We need to take the time and be intentional about not only defining our buzzwords but also determining the effect they are having on us, on the generations who precede ours and for the generations who are to come.

Christina Embree is a church planter with Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Wesley Seminary with a Master of Arts degree in ministry focusing on family, youth and children’s ministry. A longer version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.