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Our Churches Must End Sin of Neglecting Next Generation

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A dialogue about “a systemic sin” in the church grabbed my attention recently.

The followed quote from John Wesley’s “On Instructing Children, Minutes of Several Conversations” was posted to Facebook by a senior pastor I know:

“John Wesley on the pastor’s responsibility to minister to children, ‘Talk with them … pray in earnest for them, diligently instruct and vehemently exhort all parents. … Some will say, “I have no gift for this.” Gift or no gift, you are to do this, or else you are not to be called a Methodist preacher.’”

Here is part of the exchange that followed in the comments:

Response: “And I remember reading somewhere that the average church spends 2% of its budget on reaching kids.”

Reply: “This neglect is a systematic sin in the general church.”

Response: “I would add that church needs to be done in a way that lets children know they belong there. I never mind the noise as it means life and growth and sometimes the only response to my questions.”

This was not a discussion between children’s pastors or youth ministers.

The very real impact of not effectively ministering to the next generation in ways that tell them they belong, that they are a part of the community of faith, of segmenting our churches into aged blocks that don’t interact and where the lead pastor delegates all the work with children and youth to others who are “gifted” was being felt at a different level.

This is a big deal to me. Why?

Not because senior pastors or lead pastors are somehow more gifted or more called or more important than other members of the church.

That would be a terrible overstatement and frankly, one that many churches and pastors do struggle with.

But let’s engage in some honest reflection for a moment (and please indulge some generalities and stereotyping: don’t immediately rush to defend your church or critique these statements so you can hear the sentiment behind the words).

Who has the most influence on a church or congregation? Hint: It’s not the children’s minister or youth pastor.

Who (typically) gets paid the most for their work in the church? Again, same hint applies.

Whose voice carries the most weight, is often required to sit on the most committees and is needed to make most of the vision and mission decisions of a congregation?

You guessed it: the senior pastor.

We could debate the rightness or wrongness of these statements. Personally, I find those things to be most troubling.

I hope churches are getting to a place where, instead of being a pastor-driven church, they become mission-driven, and each member of the body serves according to his or her gifts.

But that’s a topic for another time.

This Facebook poster was right. His description that “this neglect is a systemic sin in the general church” is spot on.

We, the body of Christ, are called to make disciples.

In our churches, we are gifted with multiple generations, all at different paths on the journey, all in different life circumstances, all with so much to give to one another, all called to disciple.

Yet, in many cases, they don’t even know each other’s names, let alone speak to one another outside the church walls.

How can we answer the call to go and make disciples if we can’t even stay and make disciples?

I was so glad to see this Facebook discussion because I am convinced it is time.

It is time for churches in America to recognize that doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the next 20 years will simply yield the same results of neglect and loss.

It is time to recognize the structural and personal constructs that keep us from engaging with one another, across generations, in meaningful ways that lead to relationships and discipleship.

If your church building has entirely separate wings for separate ages, it is time to figure out how to literally break down the walls.

If your curriculum is targeted at only one age group so your Sunday school classes or Wednesday night groups are limited in who can attend, it’s time to get creative and figure out how to include more generations in these conversations.

If your church board or leadership team or welcome committee or worship team or outreach group doesn’t have a chair for a member or two of the next generation (yes, youth group kids) to have a voice and be a part of the mission, it is time to recognize the mission and vision will end with the generations that do.

Open the doors. Have the conversations. Listen to one another.

Hear the babies cry, the toddlers play, the children laugh, the teens whisper, the young adults converse, the new mamas sigh, the old mamas advise, the new husbands wonder, old husbands share, and the elders remember.

Listen to the life of the church. Don’t be afraid of each other and of change.

Let’s be the generation that says “No!” to the systemic sin of neglect and “Yes!” to the call to make disciples right in our own pews.

And senior pastors, do not neglect the children and the youth. They need you too.

As Wesley said, “Gift or no gift, you are to do this!” If our churches are going to change direction, they are going to need you to embrace this reality.

If I am passionate, it is only because I truly believe it is time.

We cannot keep wasting our time arguing about whether we want to do this or debating that we like things this way or that.

It is time to get serious about being the body of Christ, to one another and to the world, without limits placed on age or generation.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Embree’s website, Refocus Ministry. It is used with permission.

Christina Embree

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.