…Teach them they are the church. The church is not a building or an institution. The church is the people. Since most adults don’t seem to understand that either, it’s not surprising that we’re not teaching this truth to our children. When we shuttle children away to their own rooms with their own activities and segregate them from “adult” worship, they are learning that the church is a place they go, not an identity they can claim and grow into.
According to research from the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), 40-50% of children raised in the church leave it when they reach adulthood. What inspires the other half to stay? The number one thing that young people identified as keeping them involved in church was intergenerational (i.e., across various age groups) worship and relationships. According to Kara Powell (FYI Executive Director):
Being involved in intergenerational worship and relationship was one of the variables most highly correlated to young people’s faith… [W]hile it’s great that there are better trained, more called, more specialized paid and volunteer youth leaders, the downside is that the gap between the overall congregation and the youth ministry is growing, which ends up being toxic to young people’s faith. As a result…[children] don’t know their church; they don’t know adults in their church. No wonder they drift away from the church because they feel like they’ve graduated out of it.
Stop Hindering Them
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Mark 19:14, NIV
This text is my mission statement anytime I begin working with children or youth.
It reminds me that God already has a relationship with the children; it’s not up to me to create it. Anyone who has worked with children can see they have an innate yearning to learn about and know God. But instead of nurturing this, our tendency is to anxiously run around devising programming to try to cram God into their little hearts and minds.
There are certainly things we can do that will open a door for children into greater knowledge of God (learning Bible stories, for example). But the solution is not the perfect activity, game or curriculum. The only solution is to trust that God already knows and loves your child and watch that love blossom while doing your best to stay out of the way.
Khalil Gibran in “The Prophet” put it like this:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
Strong words, but true. You don’t own your children, you’re simply taking care of them for someone else—for all the people their lives will touch, perhaps the people they will teach, perhaps the children they will themselves house and love, for God.
Getting Involved in Children’s Lives is a Justice Issue
Children’s formation is not the job of the pastor, or the Sunday school teacher. It is not even the job of the parents. Children’s formation is the job of everyone in the parish. Again, according to FYI, children need positive relationships with 5 other adults in their life besides their immediate family: pastors and teachers, yes, but also coaches, mentors, volunteers, and family friends who are willing to support and encourage the children in their community.
If you have never before been interested in working with children, if it seems like a domestic issue of no concern to those without children, I hope to persuade you that getting involved in the lives of children and younger persons is a justice issue. There can be no greater illustration of this that what we just witnessed last week with the horrifying abuse of 13 children and adults discovered last week in Perris, CA. It’s all too easy to blame government agencies, but we need to be looking at ourselves and where we’ve failed.
This tragedy was a direct result of our national philosophy that parents are the only ones who are in charge of their kids, not the community. That as long as your own kids are taken care of, you don’t need to worry about anyone else’s. You do not need to look further than the travesty of school funding to see that as long as people are wealthy enough to live in a good district or send their kids to private school, they have no interest in how kids in neighboring districts are faring.
Christians should know better. We call each other brother and sister (and sometimes mother or father), as a reminder that we are not to be a club of like-minded persons but to be a family.
If you were outraged by this story, that outrage is the prophet within, spurring you to action. Don’t let this moment pass. Get involved in the life of someone younger than you, whether it’s a child, a teen, or a young(er) adult. The life of our churches and the future of our whole society depends on it.