Times of lock down do highlight what the Bible says about God’s covenant community. Throughout the Bible, God unfolds covenants with His people – a covenant of works with Adam; and then succeeding covenants of grace in various guises, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, and finally the new covenant in Christ. A covenant requires a covenant people, and in the Old Testament this is Israel, whom God describes as ‘My treasured possession among all people for all the earth is Mine’ (Ex.19:5). In giving His Word to Israel, God was doing what He had not done to any other nation (Ps.147:19-20). The New Testament speaks in similar terms of the Church, which is Israel renewed (e.g. 1 Peter 2:4-5).
This has implications for what we do. Over the years it has become common for many churches to hold, if they have the numbers, different kinds of services: a traditional service for the elderly; a family service; and a contemporary or youth service. In places this has seemed to be the way to go, but in the long term the effects may not be wholly beneficial.
There is a place for like mixing with like. When Ezra and thirteen other men read and explained God’s Word to Judah from early morning to midday, these were exceptional circumstances (Neh.8:1-3). It might have gone on for five or six hours! That would have been tough going for youngsters. Nehemiah tells us that the assembly consisted of men and women and all who could understand what they heard (Neh.8:2). That sounds like the youngsters were doing something else. The apostle John too addresses different groups within the one community: little children, fathers, young men and children (1 John 2:12-14). As Ralph Venning says: ‘They are all in Christ’s school, though not all in the same class.’
Not all music appeals to all age groups. The Psalms are meant to be sung. Psalm 136 has a repetitive refrain running through all 26 verses: ‘for His steadfast love endures forever’. Adults are meant to sing it, but children too can follow much of it. That might not be so true of, say, Psalm 88 which is very bleak, and Psalm 73 which consists of a drawn-out argument. Not that a child has to understand everything he or she hears or reads or sings. God’s word can lodge in the mind and heart, and be brought forth later in life (Ps.119:11). That, famously, was John Newton’s experience during the terrible storm at sea in 1748 which changed his life forever. He remembered verses that his mother had taught him on her knee – and she had died when he was only seven.
The covenant community, however, requires inter-generational interaction. If one invests one’s Christian energies in the youth group, one may not ever have to confront the issue of death. That was not true of my experience, as I remember a first year university student was killed in a car crash, and her unexpected death was something we had to work through. But it would be possible not to witness what it means to die in the Lord. That would be to miss something needful and precious.
Wisdom, too, should come with sanctification and age. To draw on Mark Twain, when you are aged six, your parents know everything; when you are fifteen, you think they know nothing; but maybe when you are twenty-one you are surprised at what they know. The younger Christian ought to learn from the believer who bears fruit in old age (Ps.92:14). And something of youthful vigour should keep the ageing, if possible, from simply fading away. Caleb was like a young man even when he was 85 (Josh.14:10-12)! Yet it is not just the vigour of youth that can inspire the older generation. There is something child-like about resting on Christ for salvation (Matt.18:3-4).
In his A String of Pearls, preached in 1657, Thomas Brooks says: ‘Here we know but a few saints, but in heaven we shall know all; … there shall be no stranger in heaven.’ Let there too be as few strangers as possible in the covenant community on earth.