Almost a decade ago, my wife and I moved to a new city. We visited several churches, decided on a large, solid one, and wanted to get involved in Sunday school. We chose a class from the provided list, asked directions in the church foyer from the Sunday school traffic cop (note: not her official title), and made our way to the classroom.
We opened the door to a class bursting with young married couples. Almost immediately, we began to field question after question about our children. We didn’t yet have children, but having been married for three years, we were adept at volleying back our answers. We were surprised, however, by the reaction when others heard we were childless; this news was (apparently) shocking and confusing. Finally, someone broke the news to us: this class was only for young married adults with children under a certain age. Childless couples didn’t belong here. “Perhaps you’d fit better in another class.”
We soon learned that this church had segmented their Sunday school offerings to the extreme. Please report to room 205 if you are young, single, born in the midwest, and have at least two older siblings. Maybe it wasn’t quite this bad, but the number of categories and subcategories on display was something to behold.
I understand the impulse for Christian groups to gather according to age and life situation. Especially when children are involved, it is comfortable and refreshing to compare notes, walk familiar paths, and share common experiences.
But this segmentation is not all good. We miss out when we only spend time with people of our age and exact life situation. Two sandcrabs can’t give each other any wisdom about life on the other side of the dunes.
Here are some of the benefits of gathering with people of all ages, life situations, and backgrounds.
A perspective outside your own
A diversity of perspectives is important not just for sharing wisdom and giving advice. With more backgrounds we get to hear varied testimonies of God’s faithfulness and love. God has a multitude of ways of bringing people to himself, rescuing them, comforting them, and providing for them, and we need to hear these stories. We guard against self-centeredness when we are reminded that our story is not the only one.
Young people learn from their elders
More mature believers have traveled roads that still lie ahead for the young. They have raised their children, faced job layoffs, suffered cancer, mourned for wayward sons, and walked through much other joy and adversity. There is a lucidity that comes from being closer to death than to birth—younger people need to hear that clarity and the accompanying warnings about the entrapments of the world. Younger generations need to know that some of their “important” activities, toys, and pursuits may in fact be evidence of “fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11, NASB).
Older people learn from the young
One glorious aspect of multigenerational gatherings is that helping and teaching is not just a one-way street. The Bible tells us that the “glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). Both directions in this verse are true and relevant for this discussion. This strength of young men is real and can be helpful to those of more advanced age. Young men can use their physical strength to help with practical tasks for their elders, but the young man’s energy and approach to life can have an invigorating effect as well. Have you ever spent time around a new believer? They practically exhale enthusiasm and joy for others to breathe. Similarly, when a younger believer is convicted of a sin or God gives them understanding about a key doctrine, what was assumed and lived for years by the older can be seen with newer eyes. This can help challenge long-standing patterns of sin or unbelief in more mature believers.
It’s easy to see how the older can give the wisdom of experience to the younger, but in a quickly-changing world, younger Christians can provide some wisdom to their elders too. Consider the cliché example of technology. Younger believers who have brought some discernment to their use of new technology can help their parents in the faith to do the same. But there may also be experiences—opportunities associated with travel, work, or family—that the young have had which have eluded the old.
Finally, in a multigenerational gathering, we as a church can affirm the value of every believer. As Christians age and they are able to do less physically, this is a small way to communicate just how precious and valuable every person is. And this is no mere show—if you gather with believers of all ages and talk openly with each other for a significant length of time, you will benefit from each other.
A Different Experience
My wife and I had a much different Sunday school experience when we were first married. We intentionally sought out a class with mostly 40- and 50-year-olds. This was one of the best decisions we made in that church. After the group reminded us about the booming Sunday school class for graduate students and hearing that, no, we were here on purpose, we began a wonderful season of sharing our lives.
Meeting with Christians of all ages is not a cure-all, and there is undeniable value in friendships and gatherings with people of similar age and experience. But we would all do well to make room in our lives for all of the people God has placed around us, regardless of age.