I had some terrific Sunday school teachers when I was a child at First Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Illinois. Well, until my combined seventh and eighth grade group of kids became so unruly that we ran off several teachers in a single year.
As I wrote in my book, “The Value of Doubt,” as kids “we were inexplicably relentless, uncontrollable, manic almost. I still cannot quite explain what happened to us. But over the years I’ve developed a theory, drawn partly from my own later experience of teaching sixth- and seventh-grade Sunday school for several years. My theory is that our teachers did not take our juvenile minds seriously enough. They did not anticipate the fact that we already were beginning to think abstractly and to ask – at least to ourselves – the eternal questions rooted in our earliest doubts about faith. Those teachers seemed stuck with some kind of denominational curriculum that encouraged nonabstract answers to complex questions, and eventually we knew we would not have our deepest longings for insight and comfort answered in ways that would matter to us.”
It’s hard to overstate how vital it is in children’s ministry today for teachers to be trained to understand the questions children want answered even if the youngsters can’t quite articulate them. That’s because children are living in unprecedented times of social, political, educational, technological, scientific and especially racial upheaval.
People of faith must engage their fears, their goals, their traumas, their dreams.
I just read a new book that deals with this very topic: “Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” by Montague R. Williams. It’s based on a lengthy study the author did of youth ministry at three different multiracial congregations in the northeast part of the U.S.
The author, who teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University, insists that avoiding questions young people have about race is a terrible strategy, but he found a lot of that avoidance in the congregations he studied.
“A church that does not see color,” he writes, “demands young people to leave their bodies out of Christian discipleship and accept bifurcated identities. A God who does not see color is a God who cannot see their bodies, hear their stories and take their experiences seriously. A God and a church that do not see color cannot know what it means to be human in their neighborhoods.”
He argues that avoiding the subject of race is simply a useless strategy because “young people feel the weight of white supremacy that has shaped the systems and norms in American society and the world. The last thing we want to do is help young people get used to these things and conclude that it simply has to be that way.”
Matters of race, of course, are certainly not the only subject about which the children in our congregations have questions. They also want to know why people before them have let the Earth get so badly degraded, why the economy produces a few fabulous winners but so many poor people, why professional shortstops make so much more money than their own teachers, whether Genesis or their earth science teacher is right about how creation came about.
And if our Sunday school teachers and youth leaders can’t or won’t engage students in learning about all of this (if, in other words, the students feel their questions are not being taken seriously), they won’t come back except if forced by their parents — and that destroys the atmosphere required for learning.
I sometimes wish I could return to my junior high Sunday school class and see with adult eyes what happened there. If I’m right about teachers not taking our juvenile minds seriously enough, let’s make sure that’s not happening in any of our congregations today.