Family Ministry in Small Churches

The various options of family ministry, as will be assumed here, are what has been termed family-integrated, family-based, and family-equipping (see Perspectives on Family Ministry). A “small church” is one in which there is a high ratio of children needing supervision to adults available to supervise them: typically this will occur most frequently in new churches and in church plants.

And I am not promoting mere pragmatism: “what works” is directed at those practical considerations that influence whether such a small church is able to select freely from the various options, regardless of theological agreement with them, or if such a church is only able to choose one or two.

For a hypothetical example, consider the church plant that begins with eight couples as the core group. Two couples have children who are grown, three have children ranging in age from 4 to 16, and three — the youngest couples — have kids ranging from infant to 4. This might reasonably give the church a mainstay of 30 people: the 16 adults and 14 children (a real congregation with which I am familiar has the equivalent of 16 core adults and 22 kids). conceivably, 7 or more of the children might be toddlers, the sort that adults might find distracting if they are wandering around during the service.

The question, then, is whether this congregation could — even if it wanted — choose a family-based ministry model in which children’s bible study is age-graded, and there is a nursery for every church function? Available manpower suggests not.

Anecdotally, the majority of plants, new churches, and otherwise small churches find that such focus on the children is simply too labor-intensive to prove a feasible option. Consequently, they limit or completely eliminate age-graded bible study and offer no nursery or child care during worship services. In effect, they become family-integrated by necessity.

As churches increase in size, however, the child care ratio starts to reverse, and there are more adults available to teach and tend the nursery, or the church is able to hire child care workers. In most cases, churches seem relieved to have grown enough to segregate by age, and those which have been age segregating for years seem not the least bit interested in questioning the status quo.

But is what the small church must do by necessity actually better practically and spiritually? In words, is it inherently and automatically the best choice to age-segregate congregations as soon as size permits?

There are, of course, many facets to the family ministry discussion. One historical anchor should surely inform our contemplation, though, and that is that the one-room schoolhouse and church gathering where everyone remained together were the norm for much longer than age-segregation has been on the scene. And just as surely, these images are much more reflective of real life: when students graduate, they certainly don’t find life age-segregated, and when they walk off the church campus they find they must interact with people of all ages, not only their age peers.

Should our churches, then, teach an age-segregation that life does not permit, or train people to interact with people of all ages?

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