One of the challenges for those who are immersed in “professional” ministry is maintaining a sense of overall perspective. With so many details to attend to, meetings and events to prepare for, and appointments to keep, it is easy to lose a sense of the “big picture” – of what we are ultimately seeking to achieve and to develop. From time to time it’s important to step back and look at ministry from a “higher” vantage point. In that vein I took time recently to make a list of what I have come to understand as the primary “gifts” we should seek to give to children and young people through our overall “systems” of ministry. As a pastor and a father this is much more than a theoretical exercise … I have on my heart and mind my own teenage daughters and the children and young people of my congregation. What will help them grow and flourish in faith? What in the life of the church will God use to make their faith “stick” into and beyond young adulthood? What do I hope and pray that the church might be for them and gift to them?
So, here goes … below is a list of seven primary “gifts” I suggest we can and should, as church, offer to our children and young people in and through our ministries.
- A connection with Christ who carries them.
- A community of faith which celebrates them.
- A cluster of cross-generational relationships through which they are encouraged and mentored.
- A cause which compels them.
- A case for the faith which is convincing and durable.
- A comprehension of the big “God story” and their place within it.
- A circle of peers who share and reinforce their faith.
Each of the seven gifts involves practical implications for the way we approach ministry to children and young people and the ministry “tools” we use in engaging with them.
- A connection with Christ who carries them: While I have listed this as the first of the seven gifts it is really the ultimate outworking of all of them … and strictly speaking, it is not really ours to give at all. Connection with Christ through faith is God’s creation by means of the Holy Spirit. That said, communities of faith can work purposefully and intentionally to ground children and youth in spiritual practices through which Christ gives himself and acts into their lives – especially prayer, Bible reading and reflection, and communal worship. These are not automatic practices. They are learned and nurtured through exercise over time together with others. Children and young people guided into the habits of prayer, Bible reading and communal worship have significant spiritual “resources” with which to navigate life beyond childhood and adolescence. They are more likely to come to a point of “owned faith” in and beyond the teenage years if they have the skills and confidence to pray, access the Scriptures in helpful and meaningful ways and comfortably participate in our communal worship rituals. For congregations there is an implicit challenge to ensure that our practices of prayer, reflection upon the Word and worship are open to children and young people and accessible for them. Spiritual practices appropriate for adults may need to be “tweaked” to take into account the presence of children and young people and their need to “practice these practices” in ways that are intelligible, relevant and meaningful for them.
- A community of faith which celebrates them: As Jesus welcomed children and asked that they be brought into the very midst of his disciples, we as church are called to value, enfold and encourage the children and youth in our midst as agents of God’s kingdom. This involves building relationships, exercising hospitality, giving them a voice in our life together and enabling them to use their gifts and talents as part of our collective mission and ministry. Instead of segregating children and young people from adult experiences and practices of faith, we can strive to incorporate them as fellow disciples with perspectives to offer and gifts to give. Instead of involving people on the basis of their age we can see that every person has a God-given capacity to contribute in a unique way to our shared life as the people of God, and cultivate spaces and places which enable them to do so.
- A cluster of caring cross-generational relationships which encourages and mentors them. Children and youth see and learn what it means to become mature in faith by interacting with those who have attained (or received) a greater level of spiritual maturity through life experience and the practice of faith over time. By intentionally promoting connections between their children and young people and those who can serve as adult faith role models, congregations gift to them significant opportunities for mutual spiritual learning and practice. Very often this will involve not only facilitating connections between children/youth and adults but equipping and resourcing adults to serve as spiritual mentors to and with young people. The most obvious candidates for spiritual mentoring of children/youth are their very own parents and grandparents! Of all the adults in the lives of children and youth, parents and grandparents have a particular God-given “strategic influence” in passing on faith and values. Congregations can do a great deal to promote the faith development of children and youth by developing strong and supportive partnerships with their parents and grandparents and resourcing them with practical tools and resources for sharing and living out the Christian faith with the children and youth in their care.
- A cause which compels them: Many children and young people desire to make a difference in the world around them. They can be passionate, idealistic and bravely energetic in pursuing causes of justice, environmental preservation, healing, peace and renewal. In many cases, these causes align with the ethics and values exemplified in the ministry of Christ. It is striking then how few communities of Christian faith pursue such causes, inviting children and young people to contribute their idealism and passion. We should not be surprised when children and young people who experience a low-challenge, inwardly-focused, safe and comfortable version of Christianity look elsewhere for “worthy adventures”, perceiving a dissonance between the call to discipleship and the realities of church life. On the other hand, congregations that take seriously Christ’s call to be salt, light and yeast in the world – a transformative presence – may experience their children and youth leading them into new ways of life and being that convey the love of Christ to a hurting and needy world.
- A case for the faith which is convincing and durable: Western society is increasingly secular and pluralistic. The children and young people of the church are inevitably exposed to the truth claims of other religions and worldviews, including the atheist-humanist claim that “truth” is subjective and relative. Congregations focused on preparing children and young people for lifelong faith will seek to gift to them a strong and robust Christian apologetic. It is no longer sufficient (to the extent that it ever was) to simply say “because the Bible tells me so”. Faith communities can become safe places for children and young people to ask their questions, explore their doubts, and receive help to respond to the philosophical and intellectual challenges to the Christian faith which are all around us. (For a deeper exploration of this point, I suggest reading Karyn Henley’s book I Want to Believe But I Can’t).
- A comprehension of the big “God story” and their place within it: One of the primary challenges in ministry is, I believe, to keep the main thing the main thing! For Christians, the main thing is God’s revelation of himself to his world in the person of Jesus Christ and God’s work of redemption, restoration and renewal of life through Christ. That is what lies at the heart of the Scriptures, and functions as the lens through which we are invited to view all of the Scriptures. Tragically, Christ and the Gospel can so easily become “lost” or “buried” in the day-to-day life of the church, and the essential messages that our children and youth receive may be quite different from what we might expect. The USA National Study of Youth and Religion found that churched teenagers had a relatively poor grasp of the core teachings of Christianity and their implications for believers. In a time of information-overload it is not sufficient to simply do “God stuff” with children and young people and hope that they will somehow put all the pieces together. It is one thing to teach children Bible stories, memory verses and moral lessons … it is another thing for them to have a firm understanding of God’s relationship with his world across time, and of how the big “God story” intersects with their own lives. Congregations that adopt an intentional and strategic approach to the faith formation of their children and young people are more likely to see them taking the “main thing” into the minds and hearts and growing as storytellers and story-makers within God’s unfolding narrative of grace, love and new life.
- A circle of peers who share and reinforce their faith: Child-culture and youth-culture are realities of the modern era. Whatever the sources and causes of the contemporary tweenage and teenage experiences, ministry to children and young people must account for the power and significance of peer relationships. While age-specific ministry has its limitations, it can serve an important function in providing a context for children and young people to “attach” to peers who can share and reinforce their faith. As with the other seven “gifts”, strategic intentionality is called for. Rather than simply “letting the cards fall”, congregations can work to prepare children and youth for ministry to one another and support them in ministering to their peers. I recommend Lyle Griner’s Peer Ministry training and resources as excellent tools for those congregations looking to give the gift of a circle of peers.
I do not claim that this list of 7 gifts is exhaustive of all that can and should be given. I am very interested to hear what you might want to add or amend. I invite your thoughts and comments …