When and Why Did Weekly Children’s Classes Begin in Churches? (Part One)
From the perspective of Calvin and his compatriots, the institution of catechesis for children and new converts represented the recovery of a long-lost practice that had characterized Christians in the apostolic era. According to the ecclesiastical articles to which Calvin contributed in 1537, ancient Christians had employed “a definite catechism” to instruct children in the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. After being instructed, “the children of the faithful” had presented themselves for examination; if they were capable of rightly confessing their faith, they were received into the full fellowship of the church.
This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017. This post is the first in a three-part series.
In recent years, a small but vocal cluster of church leaders has contended that age-organized programs and ministries in the church should be eliminated. These proponents of “family-integrated church” have called for churches to dismantle programs that practice systematic “age-segregated discipleship.” In churches that follow this model, the congregation has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. “We do not divide families into component parts,” writes one proponent of family-integrated churches. “We don’t even do it in Bible study.” The support claimed for family-integrated ministry is typically twofold, contending both that age-organized ministries are unwarranted by Scripture and that ministries for children and youth are a recent innovation that represents the imposition of “individualistic philosophies” in the church.
The point of this article is not to present an argument for or against family-integrated churches. (For that discussion, see my book Perspectives on Family Ministry.) Although I recognize significant limitations in the family-integrated model, this approach can be quite effective in certain contexts and circumstances. My purpose is, instead, to examine a problematic claim made by certain proponents of family-integrated ministry regarding the history of age-organized programs and ministries. According to one such writer, church programs that teach children in classes separated from the rest of the congregation originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as churches began to imitate “a systematic, age-segregated world.” Systematic age-organized ministries, this author claims, emerged over the past two centuries from “the lofty deposits of platonic philosophy, the loamy organic of rationalism, the ethereal waters of evolutionism, and the breathable but allergenic air of pragmatism.” The promotional materials for Divided—a documentary promoting the practice of family-integrated ministry—claim that the film unmasks “shockingly sinister roots of modern, age-segregated church programs.”
If these perspectives are correct, classes and programs for particular age groups in the church represent an innovation that has emerged over the past two hundred years as a result of imitating practices observed in the surrounding culture. The chronological beginnings of age-organized ministry is located in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with some roots reaching back to the eighteenth century, and the cause was an absorption of non-Christian values.
Is such a claim plausible, however, when examined historically?
What this research will demonstrate is that—centuries prior to the supposed culprits of “rationalism, … evolutionism, and … pragmatism”—Reformed congregations systematically offered age-organized classes led by vocational ministers. Far from being an innovation instituted in an attempt to imitate the practices of the surrounding culture, these gatherings were initiated with the explicit goal of reinstituting what was perceived to have been a practice of the ancient church. These practices of age-organized ministries began no later than the sixteenth century as part of an attempt to restore much earlier patterns. Although a study of the school systems that emerged in the Reformation would also be helpful in exploring this topic, that subject stands beyond the scope of this article; the focus of this research has been limited to the practices of churches. The purpose will be not only to examine the claim that age-organized ministries emerged due to the church’s embrace of non-Christian philosophies but also to explore the willingness of early Reformed churches to modify their methodologies to sustain the recovery of ancient truths.
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