Note: this is fourth in a series of posts I am doing specifically based around leadership issues. If you haven’t read Parts 1, 2, or 3, you have time to catch up 🙂.
When I was growing up, I was Catholic and my best friend was Methodist. When we would spend the night at each other’s houses on Saturdays, we would go to whichever church went with the household. I loved going to church with her, because it seemed so much more interesting than Catholic services. At the Methodist Sunday School, we would sing songs and make collages and draw pictures. During the service, the minister would call all the children up to the altar and have “children’s time,” which was enough to make me want to become a Methodist at the age of 7 or 8. I loved the concept that a whole part of the service was done in a way that I could understand and explained things to me, on my own level.
That was something that, while the Catholic Church did place emphasis on children’s education, I had never experienced in the way I did in that Methodist Church. Despite the fact that I had, by this point in time, spent a few years in Religious Education, it didn’t speak to me in the same way. This would change, as I got a little older. It was duly noted that in that same Methodist Church, opportunities for the youth waned as kids got older and became appropriately identified as youth age. In contrast, the Catholic Church (especially in the 1990s) put a lot of emphasis on youth being a part or somehow involved in the church. When you’re growing up Catholic, you receive four of the seven sacraments before the time you are 17 years old (baptism, first reconciliation/confession, first communion, confirmation). This means the Catholics wanted you to stay in the church, and they saw it as the last stretch before adulthood. Whereas most of our churches emphasize adult continuity and study, Catholicism’s foundations were built upon the concept that if you got the kids involved as teenagers, they would stay in the church as adults.
Once a month, we had a youth liturgy. Every student in the Confirmation prep program was allowed to do something to participate. We would do the readings, serve as ushers, take the collection, offer the gifts, sing in the choir, and even walk in during the processional. We couldn’t preach or serve in place of the priest, but the priest would make a point to deliver his homily on something that related to us, as youth. It made us feel connected and give us a sense that, whether it was reality or not, we were a part of that church and it was something we belonged to.
When I was first a Christian, I was 17 years old. I went from being in a Catholic Church with 168 teenagers preparing for Confirmation to a small, Rhema-affiliated Charismatic Church with about 200 people in it total. They had one of the best Children’s Church programs I have seen to date, but the one thing they did not have was anything for the youth, nor for college students (sometimes incorporated into youth ministry). When they finally did decide to start something about 7 months after I first got there, they started with kids who were between 12 and 15 years old, which meant I, at 17, was left out. It was obvious that there really wasn’t a place for someone who wasn’t a child, was on the upper end of youth ministry, and who wasn’t an adult or someone with young children. The other churches I worked with or affiliated with for awhile later on had other options: one Full Gospel group had a school, and a youth program that revolved around entertaining youth, understanding them to be bored, and the Apostolic Church in our area still had a third option in there: they had next-to-nothing for children, but a thriving youth program for students in junior high and those at an early high school age.
Once I became an ordained minister, first a pastor and then an apostle, I was shocked to learn how many churches did not have children’s or youth programs, for a variety of reasons. One of the major reasons boiled down to the fact that the leaders in the church described themselves as “not being called to it” or “not seeing the need for it.” It was obvious when, in these churches, how out of place the kids were. They were antsy and the teenagers were bored, annoyed, or ready to get out of there at a moment’s notice. They couldn’t relate with what was being done because it wasn’t for them and they knew from the general tone and attitude they received that it didn’t matter that they weren’t getting anything out of it.
So much of what is done in organized religion (or not organized religion, or not organized not religion, or whatever you want to classify what you do as) revolves around adults and adult forms of worship. There are many reasons for this, one of the primary ones being a different approach to faith as is seen in more traditional churches. Because we don’t see membership as a life-long opportunity (from infant baptism to adulthood) but that it begins when a person is old enough to believe in Jesus for themselves, there are many churches that don’t put a lot of emphasis on children’s or youth ministry. It’s almost like there is almost an assumption that kids are going to be kids, they are going to be wild and “do their thing,” so we shouldn’t even bother taking much effort in reaching out to them. Some of the reason, I also believe, is economic. Most small churches don’t have the money, nor the willingness of a volunteer staff, to handle a matter such as Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, or a youth conference or rally. If a church only has a handful of children or youth, especially if they are all different ages, the temptation may be to let things slide.
Personally, I admit that I am not called to children or youth ministry as a full-time endeavor. I don’t mind doing it on occasion and I always make a point for “children’s lesson” when there are children in my audience, but I know that I can’t take it on as my full-time calling. I also know that my calling to it or not to it is of no excuse to making sure the youth and the children in our churches are taken care of. No matter how we might like to spin it, children and youth need things explained on our own level. They aren’t adults, and we cannot expect them to reason as such. They need things explained and taught to them in a way that will speak to their level of understanding, even if all we can offer is a short message for them for a few minutes. This doesn’t have to be done in an expensive manner, nor does it have to be done in a big, huge way. Youth and children’s ministry do not need to be grand, expensive things. Let them be involved in the service. If someone can sing, let them sing. Let the kids take up the offering (supervise them while they count it), let them do the Scripture readings, let them lead prayer, let them greet people and usher, let them play instruments for worship, let them dance, let them pick songs, let them help plan services that are done from time to time specifically for youth, let them pray for each other, and yes, let them help clean the church and maintain the grounds. I am not suggesting that they don’t need to be supervised, but they do need to know that this is their church, that they are welcome here and that there is a place for them, participating, like we expect of everyone else.
We all know Luke 18:15-17: “Now they were also bringing [even] babies to Him that He might touch them, and when the disciples noticed it, they reproved them. But Jesus called them [the parents] to Him, saying, Allow the little children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such [as these] belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not accept and receive and welcome the kingdom of God like a little child [does] shall not in any way enter it [at all].” (AMP) Have we considered what this means? We use it in the context of salvation, but Jesus was talking about more than just His relationship with Him. Jesus outright told the parents to stop keeping their children from Him. There are many, many ways that people in authority can inadvertently keep children and youth from Jesus, and one of the ways it is done is by refusing them the right to participate in their church. Any time we tell a youth or a child that they can’t do something, without giving them something they can do that reflects their age and their level of understanding, we are keeping them from the Lord, and denying them their place in the Kingdom.
I am not suggesting that we start operating free-for-all churches with kids screaming and youth running to the bathroom every five minutes to take selfies for Facebook. But maybe there is another way we need to start to look at the youth and the children that will help us expand our own ideas about the Kingdom and participation in the Kingdom. We are always complaining that we can’t get people to participate. Your youth and children are right there, ready, and needing to help. Yes, it needs to have structure and yes, I am not suggesting you let them just do anything and everything…but let the children and the youth come to Him. Let them participate in church, rather than feeling like everything is being done for or to them all the time. Let them serve, and in that service, find Him – and find their own grounding as they grow to become Christian adults.
Love y’all in the Kingdom,
Apostle Dr. L.
(c) 2015 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.