I’ve been blogging on Synod and denominational stuff lately, and didn’t post my monthly article for our church newsletter, The Courant. I’m sure you were waiting eagerly So, here it is:
Age and Involvement: Challenging a few Assumption
Upon my arrival at PRC a little over 2 years ago, I started hearing a phrase that I hadn’t heard since my first few years at Dunningville (I heard it often back then as well). It went something like: I used to lead the youth group (or teach Sunday school, or be more involved in x, y, or z) when my kids were that age….
It’s a phrase that doesn’t usually require any kind of response. Its sole purpose, after all, is to indicate that, although the individual is no longer particularly active in the life and ministry of the congregation, they used to be and they wanted to make sure I knew that.
Behind that all-too-common statement, is the belief that the education and development of our young people is primarily the role of their parents and the parents of their children’s classmates. At some level, I agree. Studies have shown that parents are the most important influences on the development of their children’s belief systems. If parents do not carefully and sincerely engage themselves in fostering their children’s spiritual development, chances are disturbingly high that their children will grow up with little or no commitment to the faith (and, sadly, little or no access to the stability and support provided by a solid and well-developed belief-system). Faith development does not happen in children (or adults, for that matter) by accident, and Sunday school, youth groups, and camps are no substitute for daily, ongoing involved and focused parenting.
As important as parents are to the development of their children, there is no question that children also need other caring, supportive, and involved adults in their lives. Indeed, every time we celebrate infant baptism, we (the Church) promise to help the child’s parent(s), to support them, and to be involved in the child’s development.
At best, every child should have (a) parent(s) who are committed to raising their children in the faith and a community around them equally-as committed to ensuring their spiritual development and well-being.
Thus far, I don’t imagine I’ve said anything controversial. Don’t worry, it’s coming!
An Important Preface to the Controversy
Before I get to the next part, let me explain a little theory of mine. As I see it, there are at least 5 stages of an individual’s involvement in the life and ministry of the church (these are my own observation – if you think I’m missing something important, please don’t hesitate to let me know!):
Adult (approximately 21-40): Non-Parents
Adult (approximately 21-40): Parent(s)
Maturity (approximately (40-???)
Demented (i.e. suffering from debilitating cognitive impairments)
Individuals in the first and last stages primarily receive care from the congregation. Although they are important to both the community and God (and should be repeatedly and sincerely reminded of that), they have little energy or personal resource to offer to daily and weekly work of the congregation.
The second stage (Childhood/Adolescence) is also primarily a “taking” stage. Children and Adolescents can (and should) be involved in the various activities and ministries of a congregation, however their primary role is to learn and develop not to teach or give. While there’s no question that they offer important skills, resources, input, and energy to the community, it is exceptionally important for adults in the community to ensure young people are not over-used, mis-used, or excused from their own learning and development simply because they may be the only willing volunteers.
The third stage of involvement (Adult) is split into “Parents” and “Non-Parents.” Both are equal in quality, both are (often) deeply engaged in their careers, both (often) struggle with time and financial commitments, but the distinction is as important as it is obvious: Parents have children. Non-parents do not.
Finally, we have maturity. This is a stage marked by empty nests (for parents), increased experience, increased flexibility (after advancement in their career, retirement, etc.), and often (but certainly not always) increased financial stability. Those in the maturity stage tend to have the experience and wisdom to effectively teach and lead as well as the resources and flexibility to actually be teachers and leaders. In many congregations (including PRC), the bulk of the financial and material support for the congregation comes from this group as well.
Here’s the Controversial Part
In our congregation (like many) it has become the practice and expectation that parents in the Adult stage provide the time, resources, and leadership for the church-based education and development of their own children and adolescents. In short: We assume that parents will teach their children at home and lead the Sunday school and youth groups their kids are in.
At some level, it simply seems fair. Parents had the kids… they should take care of them.
Importantly, however, Christianity isn’t about being fair. (Christianity is about God’s grace, which is – thankfully – not fair!)
Parents are responsible for raising their children in the faith, but let’s not forget: so is the Church. As mentioned before: At best, every child should have (a) parent(s) who are committed to raising their children in the faith and a community around them equally-as-committed to ensuring their spiritual development and well-being.
All of which is a long way of saying that children and adolescents need to have engaged Parents as well as caring Non-Parent Adults and Mature individuals teaching them, leading them, mentoring them, listening to them, and reinforcing the ideals their parents are attempting to instill in them at home.
What does this mean in practice? It means that I’d like to see us challenge the assumptions behind the statement I started this little article referencing. I’d like to imagine a congregation where parents are supported by not leading Sunday School or youth group and children are blessed by having Non-Parents and Mature individuals actively engaged in their lives on a weekly basis.
It’s important to recognize that I am not writing this as a desperate attempt to guilt people into teaching Sunday school next year. Joyfully, our program is already basically lined up for 2012/13. (Although, if each of our Non-Parent Adults and Mature individuals volunteered as a room attendant even once, we’d be set for years!) I am writing in the hope that we can start changing the congregational assumptions that feed into the idea that church involvement peaks with child-rearing and then fades away. Regardless of age, experience, talents, or resources, there is some kind of ongoing ministry role for every individual in our congregation!
Want to know more? Want to talk about what I’ve just written? As always, that’s what I’m here for!
Grace and peace,