In a book called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Kendra Creasy Dean, she describes the primary God-images that kids have as either a “cosmic therapist” or a “divine butler.”
“The therapist serves as the one who helps you feel good about yourself; the school guidance counselor image comes to mind here when working with teenagers. The divine butler is somebody who comes when called upon but otherwise stays away. Those images were identified in the study as being dominant among teenagers… it's a very acculturated and self-serving view of religious faith,” Dean says, and I agree.
So if this is the view of God that our teenagers have today, what do we need to do to remedy this faulty assumption?
We need to tell them some more stories.
We need to tell them the story of Jonah whose self-righteousness was not in line with God’s vision for the world. But addicted to his pride and his determination to keep God’s forgiveness to his own people, Jonah tried to run away from God (as if we could run away from God). But no matter where Jonah (or us for that matter), no matter where we run, God is always with us, even if we get ourselves into so much trouble that we’re stuck inside the belly of a great fish.
We need to tell teenagers that God’s love is for everyone, even their enemies, even them, and that God has the ability to help them move from the belly of a fish to the sands of a far away kingdom. We need to tell them that Jonah finally swallowed his pride (only after being swallowed by a fish!) and told God’s story of forgiveness and love to the Ninavites. And that even the Ninevites, Jonah’s enemy were able to become people of God, people of love.
We need to tell them the story of Amos. We need to tell our teenagers that, just like the Israelites, they are called to serve one another. If all they do is eat empanadas and text on their telephones and draw in their diaries, then God is not satisfied. They too, as teenagers, are called to love their neighbors, and if they leave their neighbors hungry and sad and in need, then they are not being who they need to be.
We need to tell them how Amos warned the people that if they didn’t allow their hearts to be softened toward their neighbors, if they didn’t share their food and share their clothing and share their love, God would give them over to oppression. And we must tell them how the Babylonians came in and conquered Israel and God let that happen because the Israelites were so focused on themselves. And while probably no country is going to come in and conquer Chile, the unhealthy things that we do have the same ability to make us slaves. We become slaves to our egos and slaves to our jobs, and slaves to schoolwork, and slaves to fashion and slaves to alcohol and slaves to exercising and slaves to sports teams and slaves to anything in our lives that we pay so much attention to that we forget to share our wealth with the people around us.
We must tell our youth the story of Amos and the story of a God who will not always save us from our own destruction for our actions have natural consequences, but a God calls us to serve the poor and the needy.
We must tell our youth the story of the Woman at the Well.
We must tell them how when Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her even though his culture taught him that he should never talk to a woman or a poor person or a Samaritan because people like that were beneath him. We must tell them how Jesus broke down barriers: he broke social barriers, and religious barriers and economic barriers and racial barriers to meet this woman where she was. We must tell them how Jesus loved the woman at the well just as she was, knowing that she had already had five husbands, and knowing that she had a bad reputation. We must tell them how he shared with her a living water that could make her clean and wash away her sin and give her the strength to tell God’s story to the people all around her. Even people who normally condemned her.
We must tell them how we too, after an encounter with Jesus, the living God, can be forgiven, can speak truth to our neighbors, can change our ways. We must tell them that like Jesus, we too can break down superficial barriers of social status and race, religion, age, gender and anything else that keeps us apart so that we can live in harmony side by side as one people under God.
We must tell our teenagers that God is a God of surprises. Wonderful Surprises. God is not Old Man Christmas (Viejo Pascuero) or a butler we call on when we need something.
God is a God who surprises us by loving the outcast, by empowering the weak, and by saving our enemies. And God is a God who asks us to live similarly.
God is a God who surprises us by showing up in very ordinary places: in a bush, in a fish, at a well, in a dream, at a dinner table, but when God appears, it is always an extraordinary experience.
God is a God of mystery whose name is I Am What I Am. No one can understand God’s ways except to say that God’s way is mysterious love.
God is called Lady Wisdom who existed when the world was first called into being and who still blows over creation wherever She wants to blow.
God is called the Word, the Logos, the Truth, the Christ, the Messiah who existed as God incarnate even before there was incarnation.
God is a God who can’t be named, let alone named something as trivial as “therapist” or “butler.”
These are the things we must teach our youth so that they do not learn a false view of God. So that who they worship, or rather don’t bother worshipping, is not a false idol of deism or a self-help book or a self-serving God called the ego.
“It's the church's responsibility to embody vibrant missional communities of faith that are able to tell their story as well as ‘be’ their story in the world,” writes Deborah Arca Mooney after reading Dean’s book, Almost Christian. And she’s right. It’s our responsibility as ministers and volunteers for youth to counter the story our culture is telling them. It is our responsibility to tell teenagers the truth about God.
Now, ministering to children another story. ☺
Besides the fact that they pull each other’s hair and bite and throw their food and spill their drinks, and forget to use the bathroom and rip holes in their clothing and stink up a room and break their arms and get into fights and throw temper tantrums, and besides the fact that they have a lung capacity comparable to an elephant… ☺
Besides all that, it’s difficult to take a book that is between 1,900 and 2,800 years old and translate it for children.
After all, we wouldn’t take literary works by Plato or Andres Bello and give them to an eight year old to read.
So how do we tell God’s story to children?
Children’s bedrooms and books are filled with images of Noah’s arc and the animals entering two by two and pictures of doves and rainbows. But how do we tell the story of Noah and the fuzzy animals with integrity? How do we tell the story of a God who gets angry and kills everyone except one family, drowning the world under two months of rain only to regret doing so 40 days later? How can we maintain integrity with regard to the biblical text of what actually happened while at the same time communicate carefully with a small child?
Do we skip the Noah story and move on to a nicer one?
How about the story of Jesus, a very nice man whom lots of people loved but whom lots of other people hated and then had publicly executed though they could find no fault in him?
How do we tell the often-gruesome stories in the Bible to children? How do we tell the story of Goliath and prevent our kids from throwing rocks at one another on the playground?
There must be a balance. There must be a balance between teaching what the Bible literally says and communicating a story to a child who cannot yet think theoretically or abstractly or on higher cognitive levels.
Often times it may be more challenging to write a children’s sermon than it is to write a sermon for adults!
But it is a good exercise, even for those of us who don’t minister directly with children, because it helps us get to the heart of the story.
Let’s start with the 10 commandments. How do we teach the Ten Commandments to children without getting into complicated discussions about adultery and murder? How can we help children find ways of understanding the real message of the 10 commandments in language that is relevant to them?
I learned the following 10 Commandments from the kids at my church this past year.
1. There is only 1 God (hold up one finger)
2. Only worship God (bend two fingers as a bow)
3. Don’t use God’s name in a bad way (three fingers to lips)
4. Sunday is a special day (chapel with fingers)
5. Respect Mom and Dad (high five)
6. Don’t hurt others (poke one hand with one finger)
7. Keep your marriage promises (2 for parents and 5 for family)
8. Don’t steal (5 fingers on one hand 4 on the other, bump it to 4 & 4)
9. Tell the truth (I have 10 fingers! Tell the truth, you only have 9.)
10. Be content (hold hands out, palms up in open prayer pose)
Using new language for this Exodus text and thinking about it in a new way makes a lot of sense for a kid, and when we put hand motions with it, it helps them remember even more easily. And in this special way, they not only begin to understand the heart of the text as opposed to saying, “thou shalt not covet or worship heathen idols…” but they’re memorizing scripture too!
Every year at my church the 10 and 11 year old students lead on Sunday morning in worship. And when I say lead, I mean lead. They do everything! They plan the service, pick the songs to sing, their choirs perform, they deliver the welcome, read scripture, pray and even preach! The children preach!
This year they talked about the story of David and Goliath. They talked about giant things in their own lives that they are afraid of – big problems they weren’t sure they could overcome – bullies, peer pressure, being sad about a parents divorce, things like that.
Only instead of using stones to kill Goliath like David did, we now have better methods of overcoming giant things. We have the Sermon on the Mount and the Fruit of the Spirit.
So each child who helped in worship that day found a smooth stone either in their driveway or on the playground and they each chose a fruit of the Spirit that they would use to overcome that problem in their lives. And they wrote that fruit… forgiveness, patience, self-control… on their smooth stone with a permanent marker to remind themselves of the tools they have to fight the giants in their lives.
I think as adults our congregation learned as much from that lesson as the kids did who were presenting it! Children and Youth have a fresh way of seeing life that as adults we need to learn from.
Often we get so weighed down by schedules and bills to pay and children to pick up and food to prepare that we forget to see life through the eyes of a child. We forget to find the balance.
Even with scripture, we become preoccupied with details of a text, or whether the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same God, or whether or not we are Baptist or Presbyterian or Catholic, and we forget to live life abundantly. We forget to read scripture through the eyes of a child.
Children are not naïve nor do they see the text through colored glasses, children know, perhaps just as well as adults that the world is a scary and painful place. But when the basic principles of the Biblical stories are applied to their lives, principles like the tenth commandment: be content, or principles like the eighth fruit of the Spirit: be gentle, then life can be enjoyed and can be lived abundantly!
It is our responsibility to model a life lived abundantly.
It is our responsibility to teach children to choose to live their lives under God’s principles of Love.
It’s our responsibility as ministers and volunteers for youth and children to counter the story our culture is telling them. It is our responsibility to tell them the truth about God.
And the truth is that God is so far beyond their imaginations and our imaginations, that we would do well to take off our shoes and never put them back on.
For this is holy ground that we are walking on. And it’s a wholly different story we have to tell…