Crossing the Grade Divide: Feb Note from Dri

Crossing the Grade Divide

Since the early 1900’s the US traditional school model has been creating an isolation problem. The first wave of compulsory school laws started in the 1920’s and the second in the 1940’s as states adopted mandatory schooling laws for kids 16 and under. A natural consequence was separating kids based on their age. When it comes to educating students, this is incredibly efficient, because you only have to teach at one age-level. One set of worksheets. One line of teaching. 

However, it is actually ineffective as it severely limits the interaction students have with kids of other ages and even adults. When students are so isolated from people of other ages, both older and younger, it can keep them from developing the necessary skills to grow into mature adults.  Their peers become an echo chamber and they have a harder time hearing from different perspectives. When students spend 8 hours a day with only their peers, there is no one to bring experience and perspective. 

Mark DeVries says in his book Family Based Youth Ministry to imagine a group of middle schoolers trying to teach each other how to scuba dive. How disastrous that would be?! DeVries explains this type of horizontal learning without the vertical relationships stunts relational, emotional and moral development. He likens it to being stuck at the bottom of a waterfall with the current pulling back towards the falls. “Paddle as they might to move away from childhood and toward independence, the current of their own culture conspires to pull them back, keeping them tied to immaturity and dependence.” They need people on the other side to pull them to safety.

It’s not just schools either. It’s leaked into many parts of our American culture, including our churches. We often separate children from youth and youth from adults. It’s not uncommon for churches to have separate buildings for each as well. But if children and youth are not included in the adult world, how can they ever learn to be mature Christian adults? If they rarely see lived examples, not just stories they read or hear about, but actual people they know and watch, how can they imitate what it means to live a Christian life? Paul instructs the Corinthians to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. Someone further along in the faith to watch and learn from can have a huge impact on spiritual maturity. 

Before I had kids, I spent a couple hours each week with Rochelle, under the guise of “just hanging out” it was really an informal mentorship. She had toddlers at home and I watched her parent. She was a very intentional, patient, attentive parent and her kids responded to that. I was fascinated by her parenting style as it was quite different from what I had grown up with. In many ways it was something I hoped to emulate when the time came. Over time, in various situations, I subconsciously learned the scripts that she used and the way that she approached discipline and correction. They became so familiar to me that when I had my own children, the became second nature. Many of them I still use. What a valuable resource to have when trying to learn a new way of living!

The church should be a natural place to find mentors and mentees, but when we divide it along grade lines all the time, it removes these valuable resources. One of FPCSS’s stated values is cultivating cross-generational relationships and we are fighting back against this current in our culture. It’s hard to do because the culture has ingrained in us all that they need and want to be separated. And every children’s pastor or youth pastor has it ingrained in them that the measure of success is how many kids attend their programs, not how many kids are living alongside their Christian mentors and watching. That’s a much harder metric to measure.

There are some little ways we already do this and there is more work to be done. Ever wondered why our Young Children’s Worship isn’t for the entire service? Why they don’t go down until the sermon and why we bring them back up before communion? It is so that they can watch and participate in that liturgy, even before they can fully partake. They can observe other adults faithfully acting out their beliefs each week and learn to belong. 

Family Gathering also provides an opportunity for mixing age groups, as parents and children study scripture together at their children’s level. Parents can practice the scripts of how to teach scripture to their children and see how other parents, maybe further along, relate to their kids. What about youth group? Our fifth graders get to see the older youth practicing their own maturing faith. They see how they handle peer pressure and social media, how they interact with their parents, how they integrate their faith into real life. Middle schoolers watch as high schoolers navigate the tricky waters of adolescence, and then they imitate them as they imitate their parents and adults in our congregation, who are imitating Christ.

Are there times where kids need age-specific instruction, or where it is beneficial to build relationships with their peers? Of course! But how can we hope to spiritually nurture our children (which we vow to do when they are baptized) as they develop mature adult Christians without cross-generational relationships and models of what it means to be a mature Christian? Not just Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, but the people in the pew behind you and the people you invite over for dinner. This is how we pass our faith to the next generation. We continue to provide opportunities for ages to mix, children and youth, youth and adults, children and adults, and for the Christian life to be lived together.