I recently posted some initial thoughts on the topic of ministry ethics: namely, that they deserve more attention. One of the most challenging but important areas about which we must develop better ethics, I believe, is the realm of ministry to children. This includes how we teach them on Sunday mornings, as well as at home.
I certainly don’t have all of the answers in this realm. My only significant experience teaching children about the Bible comes from about a year and a half working with preschoolers at church when I was in high school. Even back then, however, I noticed certain problems. Some of these were more about philosophy of parenting or education—how much order vs. creativity, etc. There was a very sweet woman who led one of the classes but was very old school in her approach, which I found frustrating at points but ultimately was a stylistic difference more than anything. Another issue which frequently came up was gender roles. Even as young as two or three, the children were policing each other about what colors they used for crafts and absorbing adult assumptions about what boys do and girls do. I also saw some disturbing things, like when a middle-aged man essentially made fun of a four-year-old for already being nerdy. (He was admittedly one of my favorite children, so I wrote a sad/angry email to the director of our megachurch’s preschool program complaining about the jerk.)
Despite these many issues we could discuss, two areas stick out to me as needing especially serious attention:
1) Children’s programs at church must be inclusive.
I can’t tell you how intentional we had to be about making certain our ethnic minority children had examples of themselves in the books, craft supplies, etc. we were using. (Ex: If we had magazine clippings for a collage, we had to go out of our way, it seemed, to ensure that we had plenty of diversity in the pictures of children we found—an effort I’m sure not all teachers would make.) And perhaps even easier to miss were the invisible minorities of our class. I’m sure there were other categories, but some of the most neglected at our church seemed to be those children whose parents were divorced or whose parents might not even be nice people. There was a lot of, “God loves you just like your mommy and daddy!” type talk, which didn’t automatically include our child living with her grandparents or two daddies or our children living with one parent or even ring true for children whose parents might have been emotionally abusive or otherwise bonafide jerks.
It’s not necessary, of course, to go on a long diatribe about how different some children are or how screwed up some families may be, but it is important to pay attention to those statements made in front of the whole class. Getting to know your children’s situations and making certain nobody is going unaddressed helps them feel seen and heard. Though they might not think too much about this at two or three, they probably notice exclusion more than we realize, and it a good habit for us to get in as teachers so that we don’t end up behaving hurtfully when they’re 8 or 18. I believe inclusion is one of the very important ways we can help people new to the church feel good about coming back and help prevent adolescents from needlessly giving up on church.
2) Children’s programs and parents must both do a better job teaching about the complexity of the Bible.
I recently read Pete Enns’ book Telling God’s Story: A Guide for Parents, which is part of his larger Telling God’s Story curriculum series. Enns recognizes the complexity of the biblical narrative and the theological issues it raises and thus encourages a three-part division of emphasis in teaching which corresponds with increasing maturity. He thinks elementary kids should focus on Jesus, middle schoolers should get the rest of the story, and high schoolers should continue to deepen their understanding by being learning about the cultural context of the Bible in greater detail and able to ask tough questions about tricky passages and our theology.
I certainly understand the merits of this approach, but I think it might also be possible to talk about certain more complex issues with younger children. In any case, the most important thing—whether or not we wait to discuss certain topics—is to avoid teaching children things they must unlearn later. We shouldn’t teach children things only to have to correct them later. Of course, there are some things that are never being corrected in most of our churches that might only be corrected in seminary, and there are unfortunately many seminaries which could use some correcting, too. The question is less whether the children will later be told something else (they may or may not) and more whether they should be told something else because the first thing they were told misunderstands, oversimplifies, or perhaps even lies about the Christian journey or the Bible or God.
If we think lament is important, let’s emphasize that from the beginning instead of only when our children are in college and sick of saccharine praise songs. If we want them to one day understand the way Genesis 1 draws from other Ancient Near Eastern literature, let’s expose them to this concept as soon as they are old enough to begin to grasp it. If we want them to be able to deal with Pauline epistles which may not have Paul as their historic author, we shouldn’t insist Paul wrote them when they are young. If we want them to accept multiple atonement theories as legitimate, we should not pound penal substitutionary atonement into their heads with a hard mallet. In order to teach with integrity we must teach accurately. More importantly, perhaps, we must teach proactively so that the Bart Ehrman Boogie Man and other frightening characters can become (to both children and their parents) merely academics writing books about things they’ve already heard of and generally accepted. There is no good reason to be afraid of the majority conclusions of academia unless one has been bred to fear them and see them as incompatible with faith. Let’s not set our children up to lose their minds to keep their faith or vice versa.