UPDATE: Read Greg’s story prompted by this post, and feel free to add your own.
I’m listening to John Piper’s program, Desiring God Radio, for July the 2nd, and the topic is “Pastoral Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election.” (Available in print and in audio.) It’s a good topic and a well-done program, but in one of his points, Piper says something extremely relevant to the issue of how we bring our children into a mature embracing of the faith.
In a point on how we need to know the doctrine of election and believe it even if we don’t understand it, Piper uses this illustration:
One of the implications of this point is that we will not always know how some particular doctrine in the Bible is good for us. We Americans are especially pragmatic and demanding. If we don’t see the payoff of a doctrine immediately, we tend to ignore it. We are like foolish children when we do that. Every parent knows that children must be made to learn things without knowing how they will someday be useful. We teach them the particulars of table manners when they are small, for example, so that later they will be able to navigate every social situation with grace. And they don’t have a clue why you are telling them to hold the spoon a certain way and keep their elbows off the table. They have to take your word for it that the sun is standing still, the earth is a ball, the green vegetables will make you healthy, and the little bag of rat poison will kill you. If children must know these things before they know why or how, imagine the distance between us and God and how much we may have to know without knowing how it will help us.
The effects on our lives of what we know are always more than we know or can explain. Sometimes we must simply learn something because God says it’s true. Then later we may see how the knowledge protected us, or strengthened us, or humbled us, or purified us, or guided us, or enabled us to see other things as true. The issue boils down to trust. Do we trust that God has revealed what is good for us to know?
One of the things I have lived through in my ministry is a shift away exactly what Piper is talking about to an approach that says “Ignore or change whatever can’t be understood by a child or young person on their own level of comprehension.”
So “catechesis” is now a word almost no one knows, while skateboarders and comic book characters teach life lessons to our children with plenty of entertainment and special effects. The heritage of Christian music has been virtually wiped out by the twin waves of contemporary Christian music and secular music used in a seeker context. Christian media and publishers provide warehouses of entertainment driven resources for young people. Celebrities- especially those needing to revive lagging careers- are given automatic credibility as teachers in evangelicalism. (No possibility this is someone’s idea of how to make quick money off a name. Naaah. Couldn’t be.)
The vocabulary of the Bible can’t actually be found in a lot of Bibles anymore, replaced by trendy words that sortof kindof like get to the meaning and stuff. (I’ve written before that the faith is at stake in our abandonment of our unique vocabulary. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be good communicators and use good words and better words. It is to say that “justification” and “righteousness” and many other terms can’t be lost without an effect.)
When I was working at a seminary church in Louisville, the subject of children’s church came up. Our parents wanted more children’s church, extending up to older kids. “Youth church” even made it into the discussion.
I’ll never forget how our pastor held the line. He said he wanted every child possible to be in church as soon as possible and to be confused about what was going on. (This, btw, was that odd bird SBC church with liturgy, the Christian year, the lectionary, etc., so there actually were things to be confused about.) It was our job to teach and the job of Christian parents to explain. It was healthy, he said, for children to see church as somewhat mysterious.
Hmmmm. It’s ok for our children to be a bit confused? Talk about counter-culture. But go back and read Piper’s larger point about election, and realize that it applies to all sorts of things in Christianity. It is those doctrines that are not easily grasped that seem to have the most deepening effect, giving reverence to the mind and stability to the entire framework of faith.
If Piper is right, then the question isn’t “What direction are we going?” The question is “Is there anyway back from what we’ve done?” Can we salvage future generations?
This is one reason I believe church planting, and the intentional rethinking of foundational issues that should go on in a new church, is the way to go for reformation in evangelicalism. We need new churches that won’t make the mistake of allowing the culture to dilute our worldview or dictate our methods. We need faithful small church pastors who won’t let numbers or mobs of parents control the direction of children’s and youth ministries.
Let’s consider an intentional effort to confuse our children about the faith. It beats having everything reduced to the lowest level in the name of “keeping the kids interested.”