Let the Children Go From Me?

We see a glimpse of the assembled saints in glory in Revelation 7, and they are remarkable for their diversity – those of every race, tribe, people, and nation gathered before the Lamb of God – offering him praise and honor and glory.  The gospel is for all people: rich and poor, black and white, fat and thin…young and old.

This truth is (or should be) self-evident.  It is certainly biblically evident.  There is no place for ageism among the people of God.  The Word of God tells us to honor our father and mother.  Gray hair is a crown of glory.  Let the children come to me, says Jesus, do not hinder them.  Of such as these is the kingdom of God.

That’s what is so bizarre about some trends among our churches.  Two examples from opposite sides of the age polarity from the recent headlines:

Old People, Please Go Away! (At Least for Now)

This one seems like it should be a joke, as though it were a Babylon Bee article.  It would make one want to laugh if it didn’t instead make one want to cry.

The story concerns the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.  It seems that the church had determined the need to attract more young families.  This is certainly an understandable desire.  I would hope that all churches would desire to reach more people, particularly among the young millennials so palpably absent from our houses of worship.

This church took a rather shocking approach to its outreach, however.  They asked their old people to go away.  The church would “relaunch” under the auspices of a young new pastor, with the help of $250,000 in denominational money.  But it would be helpful to not have so much gray hair around when the relaunch happens.  I mean, what young person would want to rub shoulders with some old fossil?

So, older members were given the boot.  They “wouldn’t be physically barred from attending, but the expectation was they would not.”  Wow!  I guess it’s nice that there wouldn’t be riot police lined up to prevent those pesky octogenerians from inflicting themselves on the relaunch.  We’d hate for those who had served and worshipped in this place since before the 32-year-old expert re-planter had even been born to gum things up for the droves of fresh new faces.

But, there is good news – after the church gets back on its feet with some younger more vigorous members these oldsters may re-apply for membership in their own church.  That is…if they are willing to get on board with “the youthful new identity of the church…. If they are on board with that, they are welcome to attend and engage.”  How very gracious!

Now, no one will deny that many of our churches face some serious demographic challenges.  In truth, many of our churches are old and aging so rapidly that they will age out of existence in the next couple of decades.  Some serious changes are needed in order to engage with younger people.  But…dishonoring and ejecting our older members is not remotely connected to any kind of way to faithfully do so.  This is gross.  It is disturbing. It is unbiblical.

Now to example two, from the opposite end of the demographic polarity:

Quiet That Kid or Public Shaming for You!

I get a little queasy revisiting this one.  I get vicariously embarrassed even thinking about what happened in a recent worship service at United Church in Gallatin, Tennessee.

In the midst of the sermon, a baby began to fuss.  Certainly, this is a situation that most of us are familiar with (if we are not…our churches are in really big trouble!).  How do we handle such a situation?  What is the right approach?

I would submit that the pastor chose a solution that has to go under the category of the wrong approach.  He chose to stop in the middle of his sermon and shame the child’s mother.

“Hey ushers, can you please show them where the nursery is? I don’t want to struggle with a child the whole time, so please help me out.

“Okay, let me stop. Just because I just did that, everybody’s freakin’ out because I just said that, listen. We love children. And you…sweetie, look at me…we love kids, but if a child is gonna affect the whole service because the child’s cranky or whatever, we do have TVs that are right there in the back, so that’s cool.

If people get offended over that, that’s OK. I’m not gonna affect 250, 300 people in a room because the kid is crying. Listen, I love children. But see, everyone’s focus is right there right now. And sweetheart, as long as she’s fine you stand there and do your thing. But I need you to understand, somebody else got up and walked out. That’s OK. I’m not gonna affect 300 people because of a crying child. That’s why we have TVs in the outside, that’s why we have a nursery. If you get offended over that, I’m sorry, I really am sorry, but we’re not gonna do that. And I know I sound like a jerk right now, but we’re not gonna affect 300 people because of that. Let me try to get back in the mode of where I was.”

Oh no!  I don’t want to pick too much on this fella.  Maybe he had a bad morning.  I’m sure he was distracted and frustrated.  Some have really piled on him and that isn’t my goal.  In fact, apparently he has since apologized publicly, and all is OK with mom.

That being said…you can’t do this!  It is so incredibly hard for a young mom to come to church with a baby.  There is so much to navigate – diapers, bottles, car seats, coats, etc.  But aside from those logistical difficulties – there is the concern that most moms have that the slightest whimper of their child will serve to distract their fellow worshippers.  Many moms decide to just stay home rather than risk distracting others.  I’ve received mortified apologies, “I’m so sorry – she just wouldn’t stay quiet!”  I can usually say in this situation, in perfect sincerity, that I didn’t notice a thing.   Moms are usually overly conscientious at this point.

The response of pastors, pewmates, ushers, (pretty much everybody) should be to be gracious, kind, understanding, and encouraging to parents and kids.  We want them there, and we want to help them integrate the whole family into worship.  Nursery and children’s programs are great (we have these), but some parents prefer to keep their kids with them (and with newborns pretty much need to).   What’s more important? Complete sermon audition, or communicating love and care for these folks?  Not a competition really.

Both examples serve as unfortunate examples of what happens when seemingly important principles take the place of loving and caring for actual people.  In example one: reaching young people with the gospel is more important than maintaining church for these old codgers.  No.  Reach out with the gospel to young people and continue to faithfully love and care for the seasoned saints in your midst.

In example two: the clear proclamation of the Word to the assembled flock is the highest value, more important than the feelings of one inconsiderate mother.  No.  Patiently encouraging this one mom as she seeks to worship preaches just as loudly and clearly as 100 sermons delivered with the rhetorical excellence of Demosthenes.

The Church must love the people of God – the young and the old, just as much as the prime target demographic (whatever that may be).