This is the third part of a series of reflections inspired by Charles R. Foster’s book From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith (2012, Cascade Books).
When I worked as a youth worker in a parish in the mid-1990s some of my key tools-of-trade were my games and youth group activity ideas books. It seemed that the widely accepted approach to youth ministry at that time (at least in my corner of the world) was to catch the attention of young people through various fun activities and keep it long enough to give them some sort of “God message”. We did a decent job of keeping some young people involved with the church (at least tangentially) for some of the time. My sense is that our frantic activity was much less successful in cultivating spiritual maturity and nurturing young people for a lifelong practice of faith as disciples of Jesus. When the fun factor faded or the composition of the group became less palatable to young people (older youth often vanished when a new cohort of younger youth began attending) they disappeared. They effectively “graduated” from youth ministry and moved on from an active association with the church. We had given them little experience of what it meant to live a life of faith in the midst of God’s people, and little opportunity to cultivate relationships with living saints of all ages. We had done little to cultivate spiritual practices to underpin their journey of faith beyond the youth group setting. We had not engaged them sufficiently with the “God story” in such a way that they were able to find themselves in that story and themselves become, in the power of the Holy Spirit, storytellers and story-makers.
I believe strongly in the importance of engaging children and young people with and around the content, practices and callings of the Christian faith. Effective child and youth ministry will seek to appeal to all five senses to help children and young people know, follow and serve Christ. Dry, unimaginative ministry approaches that pay little attention to the developmental characteristics and learning aptitudes of children and youth stand in stark contrast to the wonder, passion and excitement that the Gospel should rightly evoke in those who teach, proclaim and witness in the name of Jesus. But when our interactions with children and young people are aimed primarily at entertaining them (even as a means to a noble end), we sell them, ourselves and the Gospel short! Not only do we communicate to them a shallow substitute for Christianity (a diet of crazy games nights is difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ call to ‘take up your cross and follow me‘); we also disrespect their capacity to see through “bait-and-switch” ministry methodologies.
My prompt for these thoughts has been these words from Charles Foster’s book:
“When I visit congregations today, they often seem more involved in educating to enrich toe religious experience of children and youth than to nurture them as disciples of Jesus Christ. More attention is given to what children want or like than to what children need to follow Jesus together through the challenges they daily face. … More effort is given to creating … “a positive experience for students” that included everything “from having a good time in a hospitable place for young children to initiating a lively discussion among youth or adults.” When the subject matter of educational event is religious these are appropriate goals. They enhance the quality of the education experience. When these emphases dominate the values of the education in congregations, however, the outcomes are entertainment rather than transformation.”
Foster’s distinction between what children/youth “want or like” and “what they need to follow Jesus” is important. What people (of any age) say they want is not necessarily what they need. Moreover, what people feel they need (their “felt needs”) is not necessarily what they need in reality (their “real needs”). Children’s and youth ministry that it is strongly driven by expressed wants or felt needs runs the risk of becoming child/youth-oriented rather than God-oriented. It is much more likely to generate or reinforce what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than genuine Christian faith and discipleship. Ultimately, ministry can only be properly called ministry if it is centred on the person and work of God in Jesus Christ, and draws people into his mission in the world.
It is my experience that some congregational leaders and parents oppose a move away from an entertainment-centred model of church work with children and young people on the grounds that it “will drive them away”. My response is twofold. In the first instance, I do not believe that a focus on “fun and games” is necessary or even particularly effective for engaging the minds, hearts and spirits of young people. I have seen children and young people truly “come alive”, for instance, in being given meaningful opportunities to utilise their gifts and talents in the wider body of Christ; in being led into service of others; in being helped to discover a personal sense of mission in the name of Jesus. For them, the positivity of these experiences has been superior in quality and duration to any rush that might come from a bracket of games. They will tell you that they have had “fun”, but in a much more meaningful and significant way.
Secondly, my experience is that a children’s and youth ministry approach which sets out to “keep” children and young people in the arena of church life by entertaining them has an increased likelihood of losing them from the church in the long haul. While ministries that prioritise entertainment over discipleship may attract more children and young people in the short-term, they are ultimately self-defeating in the long term.
What do you think?