As evidence mounts that children would benefit from more integration into adult church life, some advocates face criticism for taking a good idea too far.
Scott Brown, director of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, helped spark discussion with the recent release of his book A Weed in the Church. An ensuing documentary, Divided, has received considerable attention on youth ministry blogs.
Brown's book—which received endorsements from seminary president Paige Patterson and ministry leader R. C. Sproul Jr.—argues that age segregation is harming young people and labels modern youth ministry a "50-year-old failed experiment."
The thesis has proved controversial. In September, organizers of the influential D6 youth ministry conference canceled a display by the filmmakers, saying the documentary had a non-inclusive viewpoint.
Texas pastor and author Brian Haynes, who echoes some of Brown's concerns in The Legacy Path, sees youth ministry as a branch that needs pruning instead of a weed that should be plucked.
"I wouldn't have a problem being a church with family-integrated Sunday school classes," he said. "Where I do have a problem is when you say that's the only way to do that."
Despite the controversy, Brown may have a point: intergenerational discipleship may to be the strongest method of strengthening teens' faith.
In their new book, Sticky Faith, Kara Powell and Chap Clark of Fuller Theological Seminary cite a six-year-long research project that discovered that out of 13 youth-group variables, intergenerational worship and discipleship correlated the strongest with mature faith among students in high school and college.
Powell says the finding helps explain various studies estimating 40 to 50 percent of teens drift away from congregational life after graduation.
"There is a time when 6-, 16-, and 76-year-olds need to be among people their own age," she said. "But balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme. We've ended up segregating those age groups; our research is showing how damaging that can be."
A study published in this fall's Christian Education Journal shows only 50 percent of young-adult-oriented churches formed over the last 20 years adopt an intergenerational model as founding members age and have children.
"The difference [is] ecclesiology—the way these leaders view what it means to be the church," said study coauthor and Wheaton College professor Scottie May. "I'm not an advocate of 'everyone always has to be together,' but the core has to be inter-generational—where everyone is welcome at the table."
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Previous Christianity Today articles about youth ministry include:
Apologetics Makes a Comeback Among Youth | Youth ministry sees the return of reasons. (August 31, 2011)
Missions Boot Camp | As these teens prepare for short-term trips, they learn more about how to talk about Jesus. (February 15, 2008)
Twentysomethings for the Lord | Ministries try to channel the next generation's idealism. (December 16, 2004)
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