Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Total Mess: Age-Segregated Worship

I believe we are about to experience one of the most significant crisis events in the history of the modern church: the unintended, yet devastating results of two decades of age segregated worship. In our attempt to give people what they want, many churches now offer multiple worship services based on musical styles, (i.e., contemporary, traditional, modern) in an attempt to reach specific “target” groups. The result has been that church families have become segregated by age based on the music they like.

In many churches students can attend on Sunday and Wednesday and never encounter a senior adult. Likewise, senior adults who attend every week never have contact with students and young adults. While this may be successful in giving people a musical diet of what they want, it breeds dissension and is contrary to scripture. This approach has resulted in us raising a generation of young Christians with no connection to the body of Christ as a whole. Just as devastating, we’ve paralyzed older generations with irrelevancy and self-centeredness by disconnecting them from modern movements of God. Students need the maturity of older generations, and those who are more mature need the passion of younger Christians.

While the slogan, “Have it your way” may work for Burger King, it’s been a disaster for the church! When we pursue our own preferences we revert to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, in which older generations only find value in our traditions and heritage, while younger generations only find relevance in what is current and trendy. The truth is we need both.

As a result of this focus on ourselves, Southern Baptist churches are paying a huge price.

  • 70% of all SBC churches are declining or plateaued;
  • Baptisms, worship attendance, and overall membership in the SBC declined in 2010;
  • In 2010, baptisms fell to their lowest level in 60 years;
  • 7 in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who went to church regularly in high school say they quit attending by age 23;
  •  Researchers say that one of the main reasons for the decline of the SBC is a decrease in the percentage of younger generations participating in church life; and,
  • Unless something changes one-half of all SBC churches will close their doors by the year 2030.
A Theological Issue
The importance of unity in the body of Christ is central in scripture. Paul reminded us of this in I Corinthians 13:12-14:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Most churches are comprised of four generations with different preferences and spiritual gifts. Scripture teaches this is good thing: the body needs all parts to be healthy. In order to achieve unity, however, it means we must place the needs of others above our own. Folks on both ends of the musical spectrum are more than happy to be supportive as long as you sing the songs they like. On the other hand, many are unwilling to place their own preferences aside in order to achieve unity. In fact, most are willing to “cut off an arm” simply because they don’t like the same music the others do!

So What Now?
We must stop separating people in worship based on musical preferences. As a father of three daughters, I want my girls to sing the songs they love such as “Everlasting God” and “Blessed Be Your Name,” but not at the exclusion of theological strongholds such as “All Hail the Power” and “The Solid Rock.” I also want them to have the benefit of the wisdom and spiritual depth of worshiping with more mature Christians. When it comes to worship, some of us need to grow up and others of us need to get over it! We are instructed to be unified through Christ and that must begin with worship.


  1. It is one of the most difficult things to hear a young person tell you that "that old music" just doesn't "do it for them" and they want to go somewhere else where they feel worship is more relevant. It is also one of the most difficult things to hear an older person tell you that "that new music" is just not the way they are used to worshiping and they no longer get anything out of worship. BOTH are in the wrong as they try to feed their own appetites. BOTH need each other for heritage and for energy; for experience and for relevance. You are absolutely correct, Dr. Gray. Thank you for sharing here (and at the Lifeway Worship Week conference where you expressed similar sentiments). Your ministry is a blessing and encouragement to me as I serve the Lord in leading my friends and family in worship.
    --Brian Weer
    Winston Salem, NC

  2. Personally I like all kinds of music. Leaders who think worship is all about musical style do not get it. True worship is about focus, content, and participation. I have led different styles of worship and been in different styles of worship services. It is interesting to me how the contemporary church seems to have a broader range of ages than our traditional Baptist church. It is also interesting that contemporary churches are more likely to embrace ancient hymns and other elements from past generations than our so called traditional Baptist churches. Yet, worshipers opposed to praise and worship, often complain that contemporary worship is divisive and shallow. Through the years I have often bought into that idea. However, recently I've started to think that just maybe it is the other way around. God is obviously working in praise and worship. As I grow older, I realize more and more how terrible it will be for me to live my whole life and miss out on what God us doing in my time. Instead of fighting the way God is working in the modern church, why can't smart people who love Jesus and the body of Christ embrace new worship styles and help make them better.

  3. I was emailed a copy of this article as presented in the MS Baptist Record by a family member this morning; I must say I agree whole-heartedly with everything you have said and presented in this article. I agree that by "age-segregating" our churches we have led to disqualifying the most valuable resources in our churches, our senior adults, through generational discipleship. I agree that by placing our preferences on a self-centered platter, we have allowed our principles for the church to become vague at best. I agree that by "lying" to our congregations over the past few years that Worship has somehow become about "us", then it has led to a decline in attendance and commitment by the younger generations, because eventually we are not "satisfied" by worship. I agree whole-heartedly with everything you stated so elegantly and precise.

    So what now? I believe that articles like this and continued education to congregation members on what the purpose of music in church will over time lead the church to become more unified in its worship. That however is the purpose of music is it not? To unify the church. At no other time in the life of the church (at least in sbc churches) are all of our worshipers saying the same exact words, at the same exact time. Music is the greatest unifying factor that we have in the church. It is no surprise then that Satan has sought to destroy that unity through bringing diversity and "wars" through what God intended for His Glory.

    Can this ever work? Yes. I have seen God bless the obedience of a congregation who committed to becoming unified body of worshipers in the past four years through true congregational worship and generational discipleship. God Alone is Good.

    Thank you for your thoughts, and please continue to spread this kind of mature education of unified, unsegregated, worshipers.

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    Jonathan B. Coleman

  4. Dr. Gray, Thank you so much for this article. I saw this article in the Baptist Record and was talking with a blessed saint about this very article at lunch today. I am in the generation most effected or infected by this debate and mindset. I am a 24 year old Worship Leader that has held this very same view expressed in your article for close to 4 years now. I grew up in a ultra conservative SBC Church that was KJV only and Hymns only. I have also experienced first hand nearly all of my Church friends that I grew up with have now left the faith. Many of which made firm commitments to Christ, experienced salvation, and have done many great works for the Kingdom of God. Some of our Churches, if given their way, would take to the same mindset of my home Church, but by being vehemently opposed to any change in worship or praise to God, they drive away many believers and unbelievers alike. The saddest part of this is the untold damage to the Church by turning away the needs of Christ's own body. The divide between our Churches generational gaps are sending countless souls to Hell. For years the effectiveness of a Congregation has been measured in giving, missions, converts, etc. But as my own spiritual maturity grows I see that Churches that are unified in Worship are making the most impact in our communities both local and global.

    I have also been asked by many, "Where is your generation". I am afraid that the answer is not pleasant. My generation is exactly where they have be told to go; out of the Church. Music is a very visible conflict between our Church demographics, but coupled with music as a reason for being out of the Church is the simple fact that we as Christians are not living out Christ's example. This is the failure of every generation. "If you love me, then you will keep my commandments". By a few generations not living as they should, my generation is nearly non existent in our assemblies. The generation that follows mine has no hope if we do not make changes for the better.

  5. Lavon,
    Couldn't agree more. We will (maybe even now?) suffer the consequences in the church for what has been created in our worship style. Unfortunately, you, me and the others who 'amen' this article aren't very many in number. There are also some that would agree with your view but can't do anything about it. :( How did this happen? Keep being faithful my fellow NOBTS alum!
    Shelvin Lamb