A number of folks are blogging about the spiritual formation of children and youth this week – for info, see Brian McLaren’s blog for information on the “Back To School Week” synchroblog.
I have two sons who have grown up going to church … Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Choir, Mission Trips, Church Camps, Weekend Retreats, Youth Groups, Bible Studies, Concerts and so on. All in all it was a positive experience. They made some good friends, received the support of a large community, and learned to serve others. They were taught a lot about God, Jesus and how a good Christian should live. But, to be honest, I have some concerns about the spiritual education my sons received through the church.
Before I continue I should share a couple of things. First, I want to say that I have never expected the church to be solely responsible for giving my children a spiritual education. I believe that Christian parents are mainly responsible for the spiritual education of their children, and my husband and I have been committed to that. We also believe that there is much that our children can and should learn in a larger community of Christians and believe that the church is in a position to offer much to children and youth when it comes to their spiritual education/formation. Second, I should share that our family has been going through some sort of spiritual transition the last 4 or 5 years. We began to question some of the things that were being taught and some of the things that were happening. We didn’t write the church off, but we began to take a serious look at “stuff” – what we believed, why we believed those things and how it all fit or didn’t fit with what we knew about God. In some ways, we tried to start over. This process has left us with a more distant relationship with the church, and yet we still have love, respect and hope for the church as we continue our quest to be followers of the way of Jesus Christ.
As I look back on the spiritual education that my sons received from the church and, at the same time, look forward through the lense of what I have learned over the years about children, youth, God, Jesus and the world that we inhabit, today I offer just one thing that I believe would improve the spiritual education that the church offers to children and youth.
I believe that the church should be less concerned with attempting to teach children and youth what to believe and more concerned with teaching them how to seek for themselves. They should be encouraged to be inquisitive, to ask tough questions, to listen to opposing views.
We all know the joke about the Sunday School teacher who was teaching a lesson about being prepared and working diligently….
A Sunday School teacher wanted to use squirrels as an example of prepared workers. She started the lesson by saying, ”I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and somtimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …” Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?” “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.”
Jokes are often funny when they offer a sense of exaggerated reality – but I’m not sure that this joke is that exaggerated.
Children and youth (and a lot of adults) quickly learn that there are expected and acceptable answers at church. They quickly learn that they are not supposed to bring up things that don’t make sense to them – like why a loving God would insist on his son dying a brutal death because he was so angry about other people’s sin, or why a loving God would want people to kill other people, or why women can teach children and youth but not men – and if they do bring up such things, their questions will be quickly explained away, or they will be labeled a troublemaker, or worse … their belief in Jesus might be doubted and maybe their eternal salvation will be in question. Church has not typically been a place where children and youth are encouraged to ask honest questions, to bring their doubts, to share what they really are really thinking.
I believe the church should teach children and youth that not only is it okay to ask tough questions, to notice and bring up conflicts in scripture and belief systems, to have doubts, to share honestly, but that it is the mark of a person who is serious about following the way of Jesus. The church should teach children that spiritual growth leads to asking hard questions and although we may not always find concrete answers there is value in seeking the answers and sometimes the answer we find might be different than we expect, or different from what someone else believes. They should be taught that there is a possibility that a person’s beliefs may change over time and therefore, it is important for them to remain humble about what they believe and how remaining aware of the fact that they could be wrong about what they believe will help them maintain a more teachable spirit – being able to learn more from God, others and life itself.
In addition to teaching children and youth such things, we should also model these things. Adults, teachers, leaders and pastors should share their own questions, that they don’t have answers for all of their questions, how they and someone else have different views about a specific interpretation of scripture, how they once believed one thing and now believe something different, that their belief is based on their interpretation but another person might interpret differently.
Finally, children and youth should be taught about living in the tension of having conviction about their beliefs in the midst of uncertainty and doubt and about the idea of seeking the heart of God even when there is not a specific, black and white answer to their question.
The bottom line is that the church needs to stop spoon feeding answers to our children and youth.
After all, if it sounds like a squirrel – it just may be a squirrel.
What do you think would improve the spiritual education that the church offers to children and youth?
Here are some other contributions (send me your link if I don’t have it here):