Age, gender, and race are the three predominant social categories we place people in. Some researchers call them “automatic” or “primitive” categories. They are primitive because they are necessary for our survival and reproduction. When we meet people on the street, they are assessed in the blink of an eye. “A good looking girl in her 20s.” Simple. Natural. Harmless. But we now have a society that has taken age categorization back to the time of the Pharisees in the form of ageism.
Ageism is a modern concept that began in the 20th century around the time of the industrial revolution. Older workers were not able to relocate to different jobs and the value of their experience was replaced by the ability to change and adapt to new technology. The invention of the printing press was also responsible for the fall in status of older workers, since their traditions and history could now be recorded in books. These social changes also crossed over to religious life and gave the church hierarchy even more rules to enforce, all the way down to today. Not only is ageism seen against older people, but against children as well. For traditional Protestants, it can be seen in form of Sunday School an hour before worship service. I’ve seen every age division possible: 4-11, 6-12, 2-6, 50 or older, grades 4 and 5, 4 and up, 40-50. On top of this, we have ever changing definitions of youth groups, middle age, and senior citizens. Give me a number and I can match a church for you. But when you stop and consider how fast the morals of our country are spiraling downward, shouldn’t we ask questions about even the most basic, the most taken for granted, the most traditional customs in our society? Haven’t we reached a point where everything is on the table? I hope so.
Age segregation is not scriptural. The Bible never mentions dividing up a group based on age. As a matter of fact, Jesus made light of it on several occasions. In Matthew 19:13-15: “Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” Apparently the Pharisees had already gone down this road of age segregation. So when people started to bring children to Jesus, the disciples didn’t just roll their eyes in disapproval, they said “hey! don’t bring those kids in here!” It only took Jesus three words to trump the rebuke: “Suffer little children.” The word “suffer” means to permit or to allow. The Pharisees may have had their little ones in a children’s church. Maybe they were talking about their adulterous lives. Sound familiar? Maybe there were some sick kids who needed to touch his garment and this was their chance. Maybe that’s why they were brought to Jesus. But of course the Pharisees wanted to place tradition over scripture and pride over common sense. You know, they probably had their own parking spaces in the parking lot. Sound familiar? So this is not a case where the Bible was silent on an issue It speaks definitively. Jesus also showed how meaningless age was when Elisabeth became pregnant with John in her old age (Luke 1). And Noah was 600 years old when the earth was flooded. Since age does not put a limit on anything in God’s eyes, are there negative consequences today when we do segregate based on age?
The gravest consequence is that it prohibits the younger generation from hearing the stories of the older generation and prevents Christian values from being passed from one generation to the next. Could that explain the rise in teen sex? If a Sunday School class is made up of only 4th, 5th, and 6th grade boys, how will they ever hear the stories and instructions from older men in the church? What is the driving force of ageism today in churches? What motivates parents to want to keep their children amongst those of the same age? A lot does come down to sex. Parents are afraid little Johnny will find out something “dirty” from older teenagers. After all, parents today have been duped into believing that they always know best, that they are the only ones who can protect their children. The body of the church, including those of all ages, working in unison is a foreign concept to them. Now many youth come to church without their parents. They love the idea of age segregation. “Hand me that guitar and crank up the amp dude!” A couple of hours to do what they want. What could be further from heaven? And the cycle will continue until we take the numbers off of doors, mix young and old, swallow our pride, and create an atmosphere where we learn from each other.