WHAT IF: we stop teaching youth what we know about God?

Changes in Youth Ministry | Youthworker Circuit | Kevin Alton

Throughout the history of education (no doubt this ends in an over-summation) the current generation has buckled at the knees in an effort to hand down a set of knowledge to the next generation. “Here is what we’ve learned,” we tell them. “You learn it too, then we’ll all know.” Not just in scholastic endeavors, but in industry as well. “Here’s how we’ve built it til now; it works, so you build it this way too.” That process does accomplish a couple of things well. It preserves a process, in most cases. Everybody who gets a doctorate goes dancing through the same hoops of those that went before them, while those that went before look on in giddy exhilaration at what a miserable experience that is. At least the path is clear.

The beautiful thing that gets lost in that process, however, is the original intention to learn about the given subject. To seek new wonders in science or medicine or Victorian French literature or how to build a better eave gutter or dig a better well. When we make it about the process or the set of knowledge, we stifle progress and new discovery. The ultimate result of this is a large body of compliant souls who trod down the path of all that have gone before, offset by a minority of renegades who buck the system and go on to achieve either hero or heel status, depending upon the success of their “new way” of doing a given thing. Sticky notes, meet the submersible car. Change is rarely welcome, requiring a “not that way but this way” attitude from any who desire progress.

And often, if the new way is successful, we immediately seek to hand that down to the next generation.

I’m proposing a change.

First, allow me to outline the church’s hand in the situation I’ve described. In many environments but particularly, it seems, with the church, those resistant to change are afraid that change requires letting go entirely of all that they’ve known–language about God, understanding of scripture, or style of worship, to name a few. And in their exuberance, those seeking change often suggest that. Away with the choir robes/hymns/candles! etc.

What we’re handing down theologically in youth ministry varies wildly by Christian denomination and even sometimes what state or area of the country you’re practicing ministry. I can’t count the times I’ve heard, “Well, as long as you believe ____” from youth ministers of other denominations. Which implies, “As long as you don’t believe ____” about something else. The end effect is that we have kids whose main social environment is school trying to figure out how we’re all labeled “Christian” if we’re so deeply divided on things they haven’t even thought about yet. At school they’ve figured out how to get along, but twice a week or more their church reminds them that we’re all different. Well done, everybody.

One answer to that would be to give up the need to be right about everything, but that’s a different article. My proposal:

What if we stop teaching kids what we know about God and instead teach them how to learn?

Changes in Youth Ministry | Youthworker Circuit | Kevin Alton

What if we re-frame our traditions in a new light of how we arrived at them in the first place? Our traditions remain deeply important to our progress as individuals in a faith community. But if all we pass along to kids is, “There’s our tradition; do it like that” we’ll rob them of the understanding that a certain tradition arose out of a desire to find a way to honor God or another tradition to find a way to galvanize a community of believers around the spiritual development of a child.

If we can go back and engage kids with what motivated us (the big “us,” the decades and centuries of those who came before) in the first place, I believe we’ll arrive at an unusual byproduct: change will happen in us and through us, naturally, and in its own time. If we can rediscover seeking texts that inspire us to draw close to God. If we can remember what it meant to know that a presence greater than ourselves is worthy of worship. If we can lose the fear that listening to the faith of others cheapens or weakens our own. If we can do those things, our way of practicing faith will either be affirmed and enrich our journey with God, or we may find (or help others to find) that different words in a different place are where we encounter the divine. Which I think was the point in the first place.

Much of what we now consider “foundational” thinking or belief in our practice of faith was once radical, brought into being by individuals who were willing to try. Can we cultivate a generation of people who try?

There’s more (I think there’s a lot that answers the vanishing millennial quandary in this) but I’ll stop here for now. What do you see in that? What freedoms or missteps?