Like in my childhood church, I see too many youth ministries piecing out biblical teaching like a mother cutting her sixteen year old’s dinner into small pieces; afraid that if they are given too much they’ll choke.
I found myself conflicted at writing this post. I debated and debated caught between two opposing thoughts. The first being that the content of the post is so obvious when stated as to cause me to drop into incredulous sarcasm. Yet, each time I resolved to delete this post or reserve it for a youth advocate training specific students, young adults, and churches kept coming to mind. And so, rather than err on side of assuming that well meaning persons will wake up one morning and alter their teaching methods, I decided to undertake the post and risk adding yet one more biting criticism to the inter webs. It is my hope, friendly reader, that you are not guilty of this practice. Or if you are, that you might sheepishly change your approaches for the sake of your students and your church before any more harm is done. And if my critique strikes a nerve, or my flippant attitude is the cause of offense, then you may disregard the nameless internet person that I am or air your grievances in the comments section. I preface this post, because it touches so near to a justice issue I find within the church, namely the treatment of students as “almost persons”. Posts such as these will crop up from time to time and you may infer from my writings that I believe that students are often done a disservice by their congregations. And in doing so, harm is done to the community as a whole.
Life is anything but simple. Hardly, a radical statement, but it seems in the noisy, busyness of life we strive to find some way to make things simple. We often refer to the good, old days when life moved slower and things were much more black and white than they are today or make an attempt to force simplicity on some aspect of our lives. To some degree this is necessary. My daily time for prayer and quiet reflection (which is very simplistic in its practices), places me into a mindset that allows me to go about carrying out my call. Intentionally, we respond to busy lives with simplicity for our own sanity because we know that life is complex. As adults, we acknowledge this. Yet when it comes to students, a practice has emerged to exchange the complex for the simple. Far too many ministries spoon feed simple answers to complex questions and expect their students to be filled. For several years, I have tried to reason out the reasons for this practice. But, I find as many answers for as many churches. So rather than ask why, I will point to what this results in our students. And show why my students are different.
I, myself, emerged from a church culture that did not favor questions. I was never told that questioning was wrong, but like our students, I could sense the expectations of our church as they framed what an except-able teenager looked like. I strove to meet those expectations as the church meted out what it determined to be an appropriate, biblical teaching. My home church resembled what I see in a number of churches. I hear, and you probably hear as well, in discussions on youth ministry curriculum the words of Paul that discusses the movement from needing milk to adult food. Yet, what seems to be missing from these discussions, at least in my experience, is a systematic plan for transitioning students from baby food to steak dinners. Like in my childhood church, I see too many youth ministries piecing out biblical teaching like a mother cutting her sixteen year old’s dinner into small pieces; afraid that if they are given too much they’ll choke. And so, as students age out of youth ministries, they go into the world inept.
There are two wrongs done to students in this practice. First, and most obvious, being the poor training offered to students. In portioning out the Bible for students we create a dependency on an adult to provide the answers necessary to function in their spiritual life. When students emerge from the youth ministry, many already disconnected from the church community from eighteen years of separate church programming, they find themselves unprepared to know how to move along their spiritual journey. Plagued by questions and insecure about their ability to find answers, far too many students stop and wait for someone to tell them the next step and starve to death spiritually because they have no notion how to find food for themselves. The second wrong, emerges from the arrogance of the adults. When we deem ourselves the provider of the student and mete out small portions, we belittle our students and limit them. We send a strong message that they are incapable of searching the Bible.
A number of years ago, we tried something different. Every so often it is good and right for youth workers to mix up our approaches. It is good for us and good for our ministries. Given that our ministry primarily works within a lower socio-economic setting (and that our group is primarily made up of students who do not come from church families) we decided to take a plunge and throw our students into the deep end. For many of our students, the Bible was still a foreign object and (to continue the food metaphor) our change resembled dropping a steak on the plate of a person who had only ever had soup. Terrible analogy I know, but we encouraged our students to dig in with the tools they had available to them. Our in depth study time consisted of small groups and the leaders were instructed to avoid answering questions quickly. As questions emerged, the question was always posed to the group first. Through some practice, we began to see students engaging in ways we had never seen before. Still requiring some amount of guidance and support, our students leapt past the Sunday School answers and began engaging in theological and philosophical discussion. Before, discussion was led by our youth advocates. Our leaders, intending to be helpful, would give easy, vanilla answers to our students, but when the students were given space to answer each others questions we left the simple behind and began engaging with one another on deeper levels. This is not to say that we stand as a pillar for biblical teaching. More often than not our teaching time can look a bit chaotic. But what we are seeing is students dissatisfied with the simple and more interested in diving into the scriptures.
Our students deserve better than easy answers. Our students are capable human beings who can reason and explore the Bible, just as efficiently as any adult, and when we, who should be our students’ number one advocate, treat them as ignorant children we give permission for the rest of the church to do so as well. Respect your students and build freedom into your youth program for them to develop a taste for the great adult food found in the scriptures.