andykid copy

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.

This week I threw out the rest of the Easter candy that my son had been saving. Only peppermints remained in the bag and I was tired of seeing them around the house. When he discovered what I had done, he was upset.

“But those were important to me! I wanted to eat them!”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll just buy new candy.”

A week ago my son accidentally melted one of his toys against a lightbulb. When I realized that my son was performing this dangerous melting experiment, I told him that he had ruined this toy, a little police officer.  Sergeant Murphy’s face was now a black hole of melted rubber. My son had no idea that he was causing real damage during his experiment, so I felt empathy for him.

“Can you take it off!?!” He sobbed, wanting to peel off the melted face.

“No, son. It’s ruined. But we’ll just get you a new one.”

I use this phrase to comfort my son when things break or are lost because I imagine that I am helping him not to put too much emphasis or concern into things. If I tell him not to worry when things break, then I’m teaching him not to be materialistic, right?

I am convicted that the opposite is actually true.

First of all, I am teaching him that when something breaks, it can and should be replaced, as long as we can afford it. Only in a privileged, wealthy place could this possibly be relevant. In most of the world when something breaks, it is gone. There is no next time, no second chance. When I “just get a new one” I am teaching my son that everything is replaceable. Not to steward his wealth. Just to consume. If we consume this item again and again, it is okay.  What’s one more Sergeant Murphy if we can afford him? But Sergeant Murphy or a bag of peppermints cost more than the $1 per day that many people earn in this world. Would I spend a day’s wages to make my son feel better?

I am convicted that it is just as unethical to spend someone else’s dollar wages to make my son happy again as it is to spend my own. Why should our family purchase two bags of peppermints instead of sending one bag to someone else? Yes, we earned the money, but is it truly ours to squander?

Secondly, when we “just get a new one” I am teaching him to avoid pain and suffering. Don’t cry, just look forward to the new one. When I do this, I presume that I am teaching him not to worry about physical possessions, but this cavalier attitude actually reinforces the material value of the item. The message I am sending is that possessions are so important that we won’t spend a minute being sad.  We will replace the item immediately to avoid that pain.

I am convicted that I must teach my children to mourn and grieve well.  This means material possessions as well. As they learn to mourn, they will also learn that some items are worth mourning more than others. If we want to use our time and resources wisely, we will mourn for a moment and then find joy elsewhere — not “just buy a new one.”

Thirdly, when we “just buy a new one” we are robbing our children from the opportunity to confront the chaos and danger that is inherent in a material and spiritual world. Things fall apart. People make mistakes. Stuff breaks. Other kids don’t take care of your precious toys like you would. Moms throw out candy. Experiments can end up with a melted mess. Actions have consequences.

I never would buy a toy for my son to replace one that he had deliberately broken, but I have often replaced toys, food, and clothing that had succumbed to chaos. Our dogs eat whatever falls on the floor.

I have replaced dropped food countless times. Rubber balls deflate. Balloons pop. Paint fades. Plastic deteriorates. Batteries lose power. Music stops playing. Toys die. That is a reality that cannot be fixed or replaced or bought or borrowed or put on a shelf to mend.

I can see my son having a good old car someday. He pulls out of our driveway and accidentally totals it, backing into a tree. Will I run outside, dry his tears and say, “we’ll get you a new one?” Probably not. And most people in the world can’t make that promise for something as small as a peppermint candy or a toy police officer.

So why do I rely on that option whenever my son is sad?

It’s time to make a braver choice whether I can afford to buy something or not. The comfort is in the grief and mourning, not in the promise for a replacement.

Son, we can’t get you a new one, but we can mend your broken heart.