Millennials have Kids

Last week Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece about Millennials leaving the evangelical church. Young people are finding faith outside the glossy café atmosphere of the latest hip church. They are reading Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, and Jay Bakker, and attending churches with smells and bells. They care about justice, the environment, equality and simplicity.

But what does that mean for our children?

A few years ago a friend said to me that he didn’t trust any Sunday school to teach his children about Jesus. I was horrified. But what about all of the well-meaning people? What about the essential Bible stories? What about the Christian community? I dismissed his feelings of frustration and focused on convincing him to bring his kids to church.

Years later I apologized.

I wonder if he and I have the same frustrations now. I am now a children and youth minister at a mainline progressive church. There are things about my experiences in the evangelical movement that are a treasure to me, but there are some things that I am ready to abandon:

1. White Jesus 

White flannel Jesus represents the Ugly to us. White Jesus represents a faith that is image-conscience and science/history adverse. White Jesus is usually accompanied by white dolls in the nursery and white families in all the books—especially the Bible storybooks. When the only people of color at your church are people on your missionary wall, what does that teach children? We raise money for the poor brown people. I am ready for a colorful Sunday school.

2. Accepted Jesus This Morning

Don’t tell us that our three-year-old accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior this morning. For so many reasons. Let’s name a few. This is not appropriate for her stage of child-development. This is not theologically responsible. You just added Jesus to the unmitigated, indiscernible list of Santa, Pretty Princess, Abraham Lincoln, and Daddy. And like Santa, he knows that you’ve been naughty.

3. Hello and Welcome to Consumerland

We don’t want to drop our kids off into a sensory overload extravaganza of color, lights, music, and fun prizes.

4. Our Kids Are Special

At our local public school we can find people who care enough about including everyone to adjust the environment, hire aides, turn down the music, and accommodate for all abilities. We are ready for the church to go after the one little sheep who needs a little extra help.  We are excited about churches that have programs for our special kids.

5. Bible Heroes? Not For My Kid.

This discussion has already gained some traction. We don’t want to see a mural on the wall that is based on mass genocide via a worldwide flood. We don’t want our kids to come out of Sunday school with a coloring page about a person that we would never allow near our children. The events in the Bible are not cartoons. When we present them as cartoons we replace the depth and meaning with a moral that is styled after “Aesop’s Fables.” This is not proper use of the Old or New Testament. Sure, teach my child about the Bible, but think about the story first. What is it really saying? What did it mean then? Is God the only worthwhile character in the story? Then let’s call God our Bible hero/heroine. The rest are just people like us, sometimes worse.

6. Cry Rooms

Okay, so we like cry rooms if we are breastfeeding or if our toddler just needs to sing ABC’s at the top of his lungs. But the point is, we believe that children should feel welcome in church. And I don’t mean that children should feel welcome to sit still. Children should feel welcome to squirm, wiggle, draw, process, sing, dance, and move around and visit friends and family. This is best for their learning styles, and this is best for the learning styles of adults. If we were to cater to the kinesthetic learning styles of children, adults would actually learn more. More about this in another post. Bottom line: stop making parents feel like pariahs for our children’s normal, age-appropriate behavior.

7. The B-I-B-L-E

We love the Bible. We want our kids to love the Bible. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask churches to stop teaching our kids the Bible, but for real. Stop.

But seriously, stop teaching our kids to take verses out of context. Stop telling our kids to use the “sword of the spirit” in arguments with friends and online. Stop having memory verse contests that reinforce the idea that the Bible is a big book of one-liners. This is the opposite of taking the Bible seriously. This is paganism. This is not Christianity. This is a fortune-cookie religion and we are not buying it.

We want our kids to ask questions, express curiosity, and wonder about everything. We don’t want instantaneous obedience—we know better.

Like I said, I am in this for the long haul. I am in seminary, I am serving kids in full time ministry, I love planning VBS, and I treasure many of my experiences in the church. But we are not raising an army. We are not raising the “future of the church!” We are not raising the latest recruits in the culture war. We are raising children. We want a Sunday school that will help us do THAT.

13 comments

  1. First, I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way. I’m typing this while I’m at work and don’t have time to season my words as much as I’d like. So, this is kind of my gut reaction, and possibly not a robust one at that.

    For the most part, I agree with what you’ve said here. I don’t see how ANY of this has to do with leaving an orthodox Evangelical church and moving to a progressive mainline church.

    Yes, we as a collective group of local churches, both mainline AND protestant, need to stop teaching Jesus as the white guy from Heaven and teach Him as a Jew. Both in dialogue and in art.

    Yes, we need to remove the “conversion” factor from kids and focus on making disciples. But we need to do that for adults too, and not just in Evangelical circles.

    There’s plenty of talk on the Evangelical side about consumerism being a problem. Maybe some of the local church pastors are blind to how their children’s programs reinforce that and need someone to point it out?

    I absolutely believe kids are special. I also know that the people willing to step into that environment to serve as extra help are few and far between. Maybe it’s not a problem with Evangelical churches as much as it is a problem with adult consumerism and wanting to go to church to “get” something rather than to serve? I do admit there needs to be a healthy balance, but I don’t think that this is any indictment against orthodox Evangelical churches as a whole.

    Bible heroes. Yes, we’ve done a horrible job at this. I go to The Village, and Matt Chandler often points out that when David fights Goliath that David isn’t representative of us. We’re the Israelite army cowering on the side lines while David represents Jesus killing the giant of sin and death that we could never kill. That doesn’t remove from David the heroic act in itself, but it points it to Christ, as it should. So, yes, teach Bible heroes, but teach their flaws and humanity in the proper context as well as the message the heroism should actually communicate. But, I wouldn’t let anyone other than Jesus near my kid, so I think that’s a stretch. I mean, that rules out David, Sampson, Peter, Paul, Jonah, Moses, Abraham…all of them.

    Cry rooms…I’ll be honest, I don’t have kids, so this is a tough one for me. There does need to be freedom in this area, but there also needs to be enough order that there isn’t distraction. I remember being a kid though. All the squirming and talking and doing what a hyper four year old boy does. I also remember my mom telling me to sit still every time. Not because she wanted to withhold from me some childhood freedom, but because she was focused on raising men vs raising boys, and part of that includes knowing when it’s ok to squirm and talk and when to show enough respect to sit still and be quiet. Jen Wilkin, a blogger who is just brilliant, reminds us that kids learn by doing. That may not mean kicking them out of the service and relegating them to children’s church all the time, but it certainly means that they shouldn’t run around the worship center during the service either. But I don’t see this as a uniquely orthodox Evangelical problem either.

    When it comes to teaching the Bible, I agree. Teach the Bible in its context and point them to Jesus. Whether that be done having kids memorize verse by verse through a whole book so the context and questions build, or whether that means teaching them in story form.

    And, I’m sorry if this came as a tirade against this post, because it’s not meant to be. I think you make good points, but I don’t see how it’s limited to Evangelical churches. Maybe what we need are people who hold these views and have these concerns to step up WITHIN orthodox Evangelical churches to help make them a better place for the next generation.

    Ok, I hope that made some kind of sense and that I don’t come across like a total troll.

    1. Hi Don, thanks for the comment. I agree, these problems are not limited to or unique to the evangelical movement at all.

  2. I agree with almost every single point you’ve raised except one:

    Cry rooms.

    I’m sorry. I don’t have kids and I know I should be tolerant and loving to the children in my congregation, but it is really difficult to pay attention to the message when a child is disruptive.

    During praise and worship, sure! Jump up and down, dance, sing, shout, whatever you need to do to praise God… But once that message starts, I want to pay attention and learn, and I’d like to do it without the squealing and whining in my ear. I don’t mind quiet talk or wiggling or drawing or other occupying activities that keeps everyone quiet and happy. It’s the loud tantrums, “When is this over?!” and “I’m bored!” whining that gets to me.

    This isn’t about me shaming the parents for having children who are behaving in an age-appropriate way, nor is it about making anyone a pariah. Disruptive is disruptive, though. This is about having respect for those who are there to learn and (maybe) turn their lives over to Christ at the altar call.

    Again, I’m sorry if you feel shamed about it, but hearing a loud shrill scream followed by “NO NO NO!!!” from a 5 year old that can’t handle one more moment of sitting still in the middle of a message? I honestly feel like the parents could have done something (like utilized the cry room so the kid could run around or play or do whatever it is kids do) before that poor kid ever got to that stage.

  3. Lovely…Thanks for saying everything I’ve wanted to say for ages. You’re exactly right about all of it, including #6, though I don’t leave worship to breastfeed, anyway. We need to relearn the art of multi-generational socialization.

  4. The problem with all this progressiveness and teaching of the Bible contextually and asking questions and open mindedness is that it inevitably leads to crisis of faith and agnosticism. Ecclesiastes 1:18 Purposeful ignorance and reliance upon blind faith are the twin pillars supporting all religions.

      1. Facetious tone notwithstanding what I mean by purposeful ignorance is the tendency of Christians (myself included) to never take in the Bible as a whole. We break it up and as you point out, just teach the good parts. We build Sunday School lessons from verses cherry picked to support some positive aphorism to help our “daily walk” with the Lord. A close reading of the entire Bible by a modern and educated Christian mind will inevitably lead to gigantic questions and doubts in that mind. I sometimes wonder if church leaders know this either outright or instinctively and avoid addressing the issues or purposefully avoid teaching the Bible in this fashion. For instance, there are a multitude of verses in the Gospels that clearly indicate Jesus had full faith and total grasp of Old Testament scripture particularly Genesis. Christianity rests on the idea of original sin and the necessity of redemption. Science and particularly evolution has obliterated the notion of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, etc. Why would Jesus not know this? Why does the modern church not tackle this question? What of the question of Free Will and an Omniscient God? What of Matthew 24:32 or the fact that Jesus and the Apostles consistently spoke of the Second Coming as if it were literally days, months, or just a few years away? No evangelical church ever tackles these questions and Christians either ignore them, are ignorant of them, purposefully ignore them, or simply refuse to think about them OR most likely, rarely read the Bible at all beyond what is spoon fed at church and Sunday schools across the country.

        1. It’s been months, but I finally saw this post, David. I’m sorry I didn’t respond in August. I wasn’t being facetious at all. I think the idea of purposeful ignorance is helpful and quite descriptive of how most of us read the Bible.

  5. I am not Christian, but living in the US, Christianity has a great impact on my life in many ways, whether I choose it or not. I read your article with great interest and I think you have a lot of excellent things to say that do not just apply in church.

    The one point I must take issue with, and I’ll make it short, is your statement “This is paganism.”

    This is *not* paganism. Paganism has nothing to do with how Christians teach and learn the Bible. Paganism is a set of religions with their own existence, independent of Christianity. One is completely unrelated to the other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>