Three years ago this week, our church removed all age-segregated structures from worship and ministry, becoming methodologically age-integrated.  Each year, I mark that anniversary by posting some grateful reflections on our blog.   

A man ought to know when he’s out-classed.

I don’t argue with Bob Costas about sports.  I will gladly yield the floor to Dr. Phillip Johnson on matters of origin, irreducible complexity and critiquing Darwinism.  I have nothing to teach Mark Zuckerberg about computers or the internet.

And if Andreas Köstenberger speaks to anything related to family or church life, I hush.  I close my book, turn down the radio and take out a yellow pad.  If necessary, I would boldly stand up and “shush” the room so that I could hear him better.  What he knows, I need.

Like so many, I’ve relied heavily on his book, God, Marriage and Family, so when a revised, expanded version of that important book came out, I was interested (and mildly dismayed) to read of his uneasiness regarding age-integrated ministry.

“It is our tentative assessment that the family-integrated approach as defined below has elevated the family to an unduly high status that is unwarranted in light of the biblical teaching on the subject and that its view of the church as a ‘family of families’ is not sufficiently supported by Scripture. We strongly urge the church to make families integral to the ministry of the church, supporting and strengthening them, but not in such a way that the New Testament teaching on the church is compromised or the family unduly elevated above the church.”

He goes on to say,

“. . . any approach or group that focuses on one kind of integration while not equally emphasizing integration of every other conceivable dimension falls short of the biblical ideal of God’s kingdom.  The family-integrated church approach can actually tend to promote a lack of general integration as these churches may at times neglect to include those from broken families.  In fact, some churches may ironically foster the very segregation that they are trying to correct, albeit a segregation of intact families from those with less-than-ideal family backgrounds.”

Before I proceed, I might ask the reader (particularly, those with whom I identify methodologically), How readily do you receive criticism?  Is your first impulse “prickliness” or gratitude?  A warning may be in order:  if we meet every critique with a hasty, defensive, “how-dare-he?” attitude, we will earn for ourselves a reputation as being stubborn, uncoachable and petty.  If our deeply-held convictions are philosophically and Scripturally viable, they’ll bear up under scrutiny.

Solomon said, “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.”  (Proverbs 28:23)  By that standard, Dr. Köstenberger may prove to be a more faithful friend to Age-integrated churches than our like-minded colleagues who are unwilling to challenge one another with a hard word.  “He who listens to a life-giving reproof will be at home among the wise.” (Proverbs 15:31)  It is the fool that is so bound to a methodology that he’ll close his ears to counsel.

So, Dr. Köstenberger’s concerns are directed at a particular subset of the larger church to which I belong.  And as one involved in caring for a specific church, wisdom calls me and my fellow elders to hard examination.

  • Is this true?
  • Is he describing us?
  • Have we “elevated the family to an unduly high status that is unwarranted”?
  • Have we adopted a “family of families” paradigm that is not defensible from Scripture?
  • Have we made the home integral in a way that “compromises the New Testament’s teaching” on the subject?
  • Have we “promoted a lack of general integration”?
  • Have we “neglected those from broken families”?
  • Have we “fostered segregation”?

No church (and certainly not ours) should be given a “free pass” on any of these questions.  We must humbly hover over each one asking,  “Is this us?”

It is certainly possible (likely even) that churches have been deliberately structured to communicate exclusivity.  No doubt, within age-integrated churches, there are those who make no provision for people in less-than-ideal home situations.  Sadly, churches surely exist where broken families — casualties of sin and selfishness — would be unwelcome.   But for the sake of God’s glory, I hope those are rare exceptions — both inside and outside age-integrated circles.

While I cannot speak for the whole “tribe”, I think I can confidently speak for Basswood.  The prospect that we would ever look at a whole subset of redeemed humanity and intentionally exclude them is completely revolting to us.  That kind of thinking, we deplore.  We hate it.  We hate the pride that fuels such thinking.  We hate that we don’t hate it more.  We hate that people who don’t hate it may sneak in.  We hate that some will hate that we say we hate it.  We hate the possibility that we could slip into this mindset and be completely blind to it.  We hate what this arrogance says about Christ and His beautiful bride.  More than ever, I love seeing the full church gathered for worship.  But “family” has never been the point of “family-integration”.  Preeminent things must be kept preeminent.

We are gospel people.  The proclamation of the death, burial and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ is the one recurring theme in our preaching.  Our only assurance that we can be reconciled to an offended God is centered in that life-giving sequence of events.  So, while we love the family, we worship Christ!  Matt Hudson recently cautioned us that if we fail to keep Christ preeminent in our message and method, we risk becoming the very caricature that we reject.

From time to time, I’ll illustrate this to the church by describing two hypothetical “moms”.  Mom #1 arrives for the first time with her husband and her adorable, catechized, impeccably-dressed family.  The boys are sharp, attentive and polite.  They floss.  The girls exhibit feminine reserve and propriety.  And wear bows.  Matching bows.  This family homesteads, homeschools and home-births.  To Mom #1 we say, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.  Make yourself at home.  Can you stay for lunch?”  Mom #2 is different.  She comes to us without her husband because she has no husband.  Her two reluctant middle-schoolers — a boy and a girl– are withdrawn and sullen.  They mumble when spoken to and avoid eye contact.  Mom #2 didn’t even know homeschooling was legal, but wouldn’t regardless.  She doesn’t like her children.  To Mom #2 we say, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.  Make yourself at home.  Can you stay for lunch?”  Both are warmly received.  Why?  Because Mom #1 needs the gospel.  And Mom #2 needs the gospel.

So, given that, are we a “family of families”?

Not really.  At best, that’s an imprecise, partial or misleading description. We are a family.  And there are families in our family — alongside widows and foster children and wives of unconverted men and single parents and children without their parents and numbers of single adults.  All of these are treasured, integral members of our local body.  This Sunday, somewhere around 35 active, involved, enthusiastic, gospel-besotted young adults will worship with us.   They will park their little two-door coupes beside 15-passenger vans, scatter across the auditorium, serving young moms, encouraging their brothers and sisters, ministering to the body and worshiping — a vital and greatly-loved part of the “we”.

In fact, love for the “we” was what motivated us to pull everyone together three years ago!  There needn’t be 9 or 10 different “we’s” on a Sunday morning.  We’re convinced that one big, happy “we” is better — and Biblical.  Must a church that aspires to Scriptural fidelity divide their people by age, sex or affinity?  Certainly not.  Can we embrace the simple practice of worshiping together while resisting the distorted picture of the church that Köstenberger warns against?  I’m convinced that we can.  I’ve seen it done.

The Second Helvetic Confession defines the church as, “the company of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion of all saints — those who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God in Christ the Savior, by the Word and Holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all benefits which are freely offered through Christ.”  This entry is descriptive of a people who share a common end and are dependent on the Word and Spirit of God to produce those graces in hearts made new.  That’s the “we” and that kind of “uniformity” we value.   So when people show up bearing the scars that grace has covered, we throw our arms wide open. We know those people because we are those people.  

It is Christ that made us a “we”.  And any church that flies the flag of “family” higher than the flag of “Christ” ceases to be — by any Biblical measure — a true church.  (A gathering of friends, possibly.  A homeschool support group, maybe.  Not a church.)  It is, in Dr. Köstenberger’s words, “a distortion of Scriptural ecclesiology” (to which we would add a hearty “Amen.”)

Any assembly that crowds out the gospel by redefining church life in a way that sets home and family atop all other priorities should repent or fear God enough to close their doors.  The church belongs to Jesus.  It is not ours to re-shape to fit our preferences.  Resting in the assurance that God has set forward the design for the church He loves in His Word puts me where I’m far more comfortable — on Köstenberger’s side.

 If you’re interested, here are the previous year’s posts:

Grateful Reflections after a Year of Letting the Little Children Come!  (2010)

104 Sundays!  (2011)