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Our Book Group Response, The Church of All Ages

Nancy Hall reflects on her book group based on The Church of All Ages.

by Nancy Hall, Berkeley, California

Our Berkeley (California) reading group of eight members represented quite a diversity of ethnic backgrounds: African American, Naga (Northeast Indian subcontinent), Filipina, multicultural, and Euro American. We were pastors, ministry staff members, and laypersons, from congregations that are American Baptist and United Methodist, with an age range of early twenties through sixties. We were six women and two men.

The following topics and discussions were a significant part of our three sessions together and came out of our group’s congregational experiences and interests. These are adjacent to the themes found in The Church of All Ages, but are topics not covered in any depth in the book.

  • The importance of singing our beliefs, our attitudes, our hopes, our history. Worship that includes a variety of generations can be an ideal place for sharing the hymns and songs that bring meaning to our lives, our Christian journey, and our fellowship as the body of Christ. Congregations are far more blessed if they will work and plan to include a wide variety of styles: classic hymns, gospel hymns, global songs, contemporary songs and hymns, from as many different writers and composers and branches of the faith as possible. Perhaps more than anything else in our worship we need to reflect this variety of styles, to signal that the desires, tastes, and memories of all generations are honored. It is with great sadness that we note how many churches have settled for one style only of music in worship. The church should be the place where any and all styles can be experienced and shared and celebrated!

To be more specific regarding hymns about generations in worship together (and to focus on just one style, the standard hymn), certainly, John Ylvisaker’s wonderful text, “I was there to hear your borning cry,” is a recent example of a theologically coherent and masterfully poignant text that speaks to all ages, focusing on and celebrating the seasons of life. In our second book group meeting, several of us brought other texts to share and sing. These included the following (with citations of lines from stanzas that especially point to the idea of generations at worship together):

“God of generations” (st. 1), Carolyn Winfrey Gillette © 1998

God of generations, we are all your children;
To your church we bring our gifts, our worship and our song.
Young and old we follow, hand in hand together . . .

“God of our years” (st. 1), Jane Parker Huber © 1993 Jane Parker Huber

God of our years, from our birth to our life’s culmination,
Hear now our praise and our anthems of glad celebration. . . .

“God made from one blood” (st. 1), Thomas H. Troeger 1989 © 1991 Oxford Univ. Press

God made from one blood all the families of earth,
The circles of nurture that raised us from birth,
Companions who join us to walk through each stage
Of childhood and youth and adulthood and age.

“Rejoice, you pure in heart” (st. 4, New Century Hymnal) Edward Hayes Plumptree, 1865; alt.

Yes, on through life’s long path, still chanting as you go,
From youth to age, by night and day, in gladness and in woe:
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing.

  • Our reflections on the above hymn texts brought another topic to mind, prompted by these two lines from the Carolyn Winfrey Gillette hymn above:

In our church’s children, may we see you working;
More than “our future”! They are faithful now.

Many churches emphasize the idea that the children and youth are “our future.” Yet, some of our reading group members observed that children and youth too often are not honored as they should be, within our church families. Without a congregation consciously meaning to, children and youth are sometimes marginalized and not seen as a full and valuable part of the body. They are the present, not just the future. If we are not intentional about the gifts children and youth bring to our worship, there is a good chance they will not even be a part of the church five or ten years hence.

  • The above discussion cascaded into another question: does segregating our children from full participation in worship serve them well? This concern refers to Chapter 5 in The Church of All Ages, where Darwin Glassford notes that through most of the church’s history, “all ages were in the same pew.” Although the advent of “children’s church” (about thirty to forty years ago) and other similar programs on Sunday morning gave a new focus to educating children in the ways of worship, our group asked: were the eventual losses actually greater than the gains? We agreed that the answer to this question varies from church to church, but several in our group felt strongly that the entire family should be together, throughout the worship service, at least on Sunday morning (or whenever the central worship of that church takes place each week).
  • Another area of concern in our group is that the wider community beyond the church has lost sight of the importance of families worshiping together as part of their weekly life. For quite a few years now, the once-sacred Sunday morning has become a time for children and youth (and also adult) sports activities, causing families who might be involved in the church to make hard choices. We are losing generations, and have been for some time (sports on Sunday is not the only reason, of course!) In some of the churches represented in our reading group, there has been a significant drop in families with children becoming part of the congregation, over the last decade or two, and some of this can definitely be attributed to increased secular activities on Sunday mornings in our communities.
  • Finally, our group found that The Church of All Ages did not adequately address the wider range of cultural settings in which our churches are located. The majority of assumptions made about congregations in the book (or examples of congregations used) were Euro American “mainstream” churches. The unique opportunities and challenges of African American congregations were not given a focus. In these churches, the idea of “generations worshiping together” is still comparatively well and alive (although, admittedly, losing ground in recent decades). There is a great deal to learn from how African American churches and multicultural churches worship these days. We appreciate that the authors strove to be at least somewhat inclusive.

The other area where we felt too many assumptions were made was in the size of congregations. Without saying so directly most of the time, the book was oriented toward the experiences of congregations that would be larger in size (and in number of Sunday worshipers) than many, many churches across the North American continent, including two of the churches represented in our reading group (fifteen to forty in worship).

We realize that one book can’t be all things to all people, of course. The Church of All Ages is an excellent book! But we do feel that the topics listed above “warrant further consideration” in future research and writing on the subject.

2) Reflect on this pedagogy. Are reading groups like this a helpful mode of learning and discipleship within church communities, and should more of them be encouraged?

Our reading group was delighted to have this opportunity to come together. We were from four different congregations—American Baptist (Euro American), American Baptist (African American), American Baptist (multicultural), and United Methodist (mostly Euro American). Several in the group of eight already knew each other, but none of us knew everyone in the group, when we gathered for our first meeting. So, four congregations were blessed by the book, by the fellowship, and by the wide-ranging conversation of this group. There was definitely “cross-fertilization” as we worked our way through the chapters and topics.

On the other hand, I think that the most helpful mode of learning would be to form a book reading group of people who have a vested interest in a particular community. “Community” could mean one single congregation, or it could mean a cluster of churches that are near by each other, or have some other kind of affinity. If a number of churches are involved, they need to be enough alike to profit from reading and discussing together a book about worship practices, such as The Church of All Ages.

To take this one step further, I think the ideal and most fruitful mode of learning for studying and discussing a book about worship practices is to form reading groups from among members of the same congregation, but from as many different segments of the church as possible (by age, gender, department, etc.).

Yes, reading groups such as the one in which we participated should definitely be encouraged! They are a true blessing, and we all need the mental and spiritual stimulation of new ideas and new possibilities that are the result of reading and discussing together.

3) Comment on how reading groups similar to this in the context of the church’s life can serve to move people beyond the mentality of “reading for enrichment” and into a large collective learning process.

I can share an example of this learning process that is right now serving the church where I am pastor. During the season of Lent, for our adult education forum on Sunday mornings, First Baptist Church of Berkeley has been studying the two-volume work “Ambassadors of Reconciliation,” by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns. Their writing focuses on the topics of restorative justice and peacemaking. Much of what these authors address — both in Ched’s reflections on New Testament passages and in Elaine’s interviews and stories about regular people who have embraced restorative justice and peacemaking in their lives — turns age-old Christian paradigms on their head. This is proving to be not just reading and discussion as “enrichment” for my congregation, but deeply engaging and thought-provoking. Our attitudes are being re-shaped and changed, even as an already theologically open and liberal church.

After Easter I am planning to lead a five-week series on the book “Ten Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe.” My hope is to assign each of the ten “dumb things” to a different person and to take up two of these each week. I am expecting that the discussions will include people’s stories, spiritual journeys, humor, and a time of stretching and growing ourselves theologically.

For years I have longed and hoped to put the right book about worship in front of our congregation. We’re a pretty astute church family, when it comes to the reasons why we worship as we do, and the choices we make about our worship life. Nevertheless, there is always much more to be learned. As someone who taught worship for years at American Baptist Seminary of the West, I want my congregation to benefit from the expertise and experience I bring to the subject and to our practices. And, of course, my congregation is always teaching me about worship, too!

Traditional Bible studies (and often, book studies, as well) frequently focus on one person doing most of the talking and “teaching,” with a brief time at the end of the session for questions from the larger group. I’m finding this to be an ineffective style in most cases these days (both as a seminary professor and as a pastor). Interactive learning builds community, grows minds and spirits, and enriches our sacred life together. In a world where human beings are increasingly sitting in front of their computer screens for many hours a week, in solitary activity, the social and spiritual interaction that communal worship and church study groups bring to our lives is not just enrichment, it is utterly critical and vital to our churches, communities, and to all generations.

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