Church education has classified congregations into age groups to provide specific attention to their needs. Children are provided with a separate worship service in many churches. Teenagers have separate meetings with the youth group each week. Adults are divided according to young adult, middle-aged, and senior citizens for Sunday School. Each age group has diverse developmental needs and particular issues related to their phases of life. It is wise to give age groups the chance to share with those in a similar phase of life and experience Scripture and worship in ways appropriate to their development stage. However, the practice runs the risk of creating smaller congregations within the congregation, each learning something different and having very different experiences of the church community. A helpful remedy is to orchestrate curriculum so that, while each age group is partaking in a lesson appropriate for their level, they are all learning from the same passage of Scripture or an “everyone together” approach. Even as the congregation meets in separate groups, they are united around the same shared text. When families come together and talk about their various classes, they can share the wisdom their class or group gleaned from the same passage of Scripture.
An “everyone together” approach to Christian education is most practical in traditions that follow a lectionary. Passages are already selected for the sermon which can then be studied by the various groups. Congregations can share one experience of the text in the worship service and then experience it again in a way tailored towards their specific needs. Denominations and publishers have resources for various age groups based on the lectionary. Churches that do not use a lectionary will have to create their own curriculums or search more extensively for curriculums appropriate for each age group, but with common Scripture texts.
Such an approach requires humility from Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. They are being asked to submit their agendas for their class or small group to the Scripture texts handed to them. They do not have carte blanche to structure their teaching year as they wish to. Instead, they are handed the biblical materials to work with from a lectionary, a pastor, a consistory, or an education committee. Their challenge is to craft a meaningful lesson for their group out of the materials handed to them from a leader or leadership team who does not necessarily know the needs of the group as well as the teacher who is in the classroom week in and week out. Somehow, the leader of the senior citizens’ group has to help their class grieve a recent series of losses through the raising of Lazarus. Somehow, the elementary teacher has to help a group of new Kindergarteners celebrate their growth in starting school through the martyrdom of Stephen. An “everyone together” approach can impose Scripture passages on a class that does not match the group’s present phase of life. Somehow, the teacher is asked to craft a lesson out of the passage which makes sense of the group’s current needs, yet is still faithful to the passage itself. Church leaders will need to work closely with the leaders of the various groups to find effective principles for navigating the diverse needs of the lesson in ways that are faithful to the text.
Not all Scriptural passages are appropriate for all age levels. The Old Testament, in particular, includes numerous stories of violence and murder, rape and incest, graphic descriptions of animal sacrifices, and purity laws related to sexual biology, which would be inappropriate to expose children to. At their development stage, they do not need to be exposed to stories of violence and sex. The Old Testament also presents many morally grey figures, heroes of faith who commit atrocious acts, which kids will struggle to understand. Such figures do not fit the clear good-bad moral binary children have. On the other hand, lessons encouraging more action from congregants based on the active mission work of Paul might not be appropriate for those in the final stages of life. Churches can provide leaders with alternative passages for weeks that feature texts particularly unsuitable for a given age group. If the church will be making extended use of texts inappropriate for a given group, church leaders ought to allow the group leader freedom to utilize an alternative curriculum for a time and return to the “everyone together” passages when they are more appropriate for the age group.
There are other passages, however, which are especially suited to various stages of development, but could be skipped in an “everyone together” model. The book of Revelation, a challenging book for many age groups, could be especially helpful for those in end stages of life to focus on the hope of the resurrection and the life to come. Deuteronomy’s ethical concerns could be especially helpful for teenagers and college students figuring out how to engage in the society around them. Stories from the life of Jesus are especially appropriate for young children. An “everyone together” approach could skip over some of these passages during the development stage an individual could be best serviced by them. Church leaders ought to give group leaders the freedom to focus on these passages during a given season in which the “everyone together” passages are less suitable for the group.
In the long run, an “everyone together” approach to Christian education can be a fruitful way of keeping a congregation united while respecting the differing needs of various age groups and can provide families an opportunity to share the unique strengths of their age group with one another. However, churches must find creative and flexible ways that respect the varying needs of each group. Pastoral wisdom is necessary to ensure each age group feels a part of the broader community and is provided an opportunity for formation which meets their varying developmental needs.