Category Archives: Conferences

Overall thought…

Overall thoughts on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity

When the conference ended Thursday afternoon I headed to the National Mall to do some sightseeing, and debrief from the long week.

I was struck with the various conversations I had throughout the week; many of the comments were from different people were similar.  Most people did not have a negative critique about the conference, but there was a general sense that it was lacking something they were hoping to find. I felt the same way. While there were many great speakers and a wonderful variety of topics, I was hoping for more.

I did take away some good nuggets. The opportunity to hear from many people in the field who have shaped the way I look at children’s ministry was a gift. Unlike other conference experience, I left feeling like I was not alone in the way I think about children and faith. I was among a wonderful group of people from around the country and world asking the similar questions and wrestling with similar themes. I came away with a lot of great quotes and one-liners.   The major themes key guests presented on provided me with a good framework from which to wrestle with where to go from here.

The majority of the presentations that lasted from 18 minutes to 1.5 hours turned into inspirational speeches using statistics and research reports to help us all gain a similar understanding. This was not new information or new sentiments for many of us. If the conference was shaped around the understanding that most participants were already in that place, we could have moved the conversation to a deeper level. What I felt many people were wanting was a space to dialogue with one another about how to take the research, statistics, and philosophies to transform the way children and youth experience church of today. A “where do we go from here” opportunity. This came out it statements like “I was hoping for something more radical” and  “We know all the statistics, but what do we do from here?”

That is much harder said than done. One struggle in ministry with young people right now is that we know the statistics about how they are leaving the church, we know overall negative sentiments towards Christians in the United States today, we know that church has become like the new country club which feeds into the culture, instead of a community of faith that challenges, impacts, and questions the culture. We know all these things, but we don’t know what to do about it.

This is reflected in the way the conference was put together. I was struck as I sat through the first worship service, and then the first day of presentations. The planning team was made up of incredibly creative people doing new great things in ministry, and yet the actually planning around worship and the structure of the conference lacked the same creativity. We talked all week about experiential worship and yet didn’t experience much. We talked about the importance of sharing story, and there was no formal space for the participants to share and hear other participant’s stories. The need for this was evident when the question time after the keynote presentations, turned into a sharing time. It was designed for us to gleam inspiration from these big names in the field, but people used it as a platform to share their stories, which indicated to me, a need for a space within the conference for that to happen. I found myself blessed to hear from the few who did take the microphone as an opportunity to tell the group something they did or experienced.
The very conference where we were talking about doing something new, was done in a very old way. If it had been shaped around the values that were being preached, it would have looked a lot different.

I walk away somewhat sad, thinking about what could have been. It could have been a place for us to live out among people who think the same way as us, the very things we all dream about. It could have been a place to practice and experiment in an encouraging environment.

And yet, I think this experience defines the struggle of where we are at in the church. We believe in a God that is bigger than the box we have put him in. We believe in a way of life that does not play into our individualism and consumerism. We believe that the church in the United States is broken. We believe that our young people deserve more. And yet here is a disconnect between what we believe and what we do. We are so socialized into the culture we live in, it is hard to turn our beliefs into our reality.

Ff those of us who have dedicated our careers and lives to young people in the church, who read books by Ivy Beckwith for the joy of it, who fly to DC for a conference like this, struggle on where to go from here, it is that much harder for the people sitting in the pews.

While I leave longing for what could have been in the four long days spent in DC with an incredible group of people, I leave with hope and excitement for what can be. While we aren’t there yet, God is working and I am excited to be a part of that work alongside a great fellowship of faithful people.

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Day 3 at Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity

Day 3 was filled was an inspiring day for me at the conference. Though I am going on little sleep and a brain full of mush, I left filled with energy and excitement. That said, I resoluted to sit down and write a summary of the various things I heard today and as I tried to put words down, I couldn’t think of any. My brain is working a little slower than my heart, so I hope to summarize more clearly when I have had time to process the vast amounts of information.

I do want to briefly touch on the panel discussion that ended our night. The discussion included Almeda Wright, John Westerhoff, Brian McClaren, Ivy Beckwith, and Melvin Bray. The topic was violence. The panelists shared with us their various opinions primarily focused on how we deal with violence in the Bible as well as the concept of redemptive violence.

Brian McClaren helped to put a framework for understanding violence and peace in the Bible. He stressed the danger in picking Bible verses and using them as “loaded guns” and the fact that interpretation of the Biblical text shapes how we understand violence and peacemaking in the light of Jesus.  He talked about desire leading to violence using text from James 4.

Almeda Wright explained her uncomfortability with our focus on redemptive violence and elevating suffering at the hands of violence as a means for redemption.

Brian followed that up with the theory of penal substitutionary atonement and how that plays into what Almeda was describing as a negative connotation of redemptive violence.

John Westerhoff reminded us that the language we use is important to describe. What one person means when they say violence or peace making, is different than another.

All of this brought up some really good thoughts and questions from participants. Unfortunately, time was short and there was not a lot of time to discuss what this all means when we talk about the faith formation of children and  youth. One important sentiment held by many is that we must talk about it more.

I left with a lot of questions. My questions mainly stem from violence in the Bible and how we create dialogue with children in an age appropriate way to address issues of violence. As I said in an earlier post, kids are not sheltered from a world of violence, even ones living in middle class suburbia. Whether it is from the news, from video games, from cartoons, and from eye witness accounts, kids are faced with violence. It comes out in the art I see them do in Sunday school. So we can address it or ignore it. We tend to lean on the side of ignoring it.

I think that can start with engaging a conversation when we see the violence come out in what children draw, say our write. Ask questions. Invite them to think about where God is in the midst of it.

When and where do we teach Bible stories and at what age? I wonder if we do things a backwards. Often the primary experience children have in the faith community is in a classroom learning Bible stories. The stories are presented in different ways utilizing reading, teacher lecture, storytelling, drama, music and more.  Whatever way it is packaged, they are learning the story. Rarely do kids engage in practices of the faith, rarely are those practices modeled. Rarely do they experience the narrative of the faith community in which they are part of, losing out on the chance to somewhat intrinsically understand the rituals and rhythms that make up that community and the lives of the members of that community. And many of them come from homes where church is compartmentalized, it is just another activity on the calendar filled with sports and extra curricular activities, a full schedule gearing that child up for “success.”

Without the framework of a community of faith in which children are immersed in the God’s story, not only as we know it in the Bible, but also God’s story unfolding today, are the Bible stories left stagnate? In order to meet our need to teach Bible stories, we turn stories like Noah’s Ark, which begins as a story of the destruction of humans, into a story appropriate for preschoolers with cute animals and silly songs.

So maybe that works when they are young, but when those kids grow up, they haven’t had the chance to wrestle with a God that wipes out almost the entire human race and later says things like “love your enemies.” I know many adults who struggle to read the Bible because when they read stories like I read this morning in Acts 5 about about Ananias and Saphria dropping dead and there is a disconnect between what their Sunday school teachers told them to believe about God and what they read in the scripture. They are missing the bigger narrative in which to interpret and wrestle with those stories.

That leaves many people with a few options…stop reading the Bible, only read Biblical passages that “fit” what we want to hear or that are easy, or stop believing in this God that is supposed to be good, but is the main character in a book that is filled with violence.

And so I wonder….

What if we started children out not with just learning Biblical stories, but by being immersed into a faith community that offers a framework for wrestling with those stories? What if the primary focus wasn’t on kids “knowing” God’s story, but “being” part of God’s story?

Day 2 at Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity Conference

It has been a long day so I will end the night with a few quotes and themes from the day, and hopefully expound on my thoughts later.

My interpretations from inside the walls of Calvary Baptist Church today:

Themes that came up several times today:

-The power of story and rituals for shaping a community as well as individuals of faith

-The value of pan-generational worship

-We don’t play enough

Quotes or key points:

From Catherine Marseca

“Children have a faith in God that we can nurture, but must not control.”

From Christopher Rodkey

Does religious education invite our youth to leave church? Have taught them the sanctuary is an adult space?

The church is one particular place in our society when generations come together and experience empathy building between one another. Children have an innate sense of empathy that we essentially unteach them. Pan generational opportunities allow us all the space to experience and practice that empathy.

From Cathy Ode:

Play is: inviting, engaging, creative, memory making, safe, and community enhancing.

Play is stifled by: Being too serious, a happy clappy approach, shame, and entertainment.

Enthusiasm translated means “Full of God” or “God within”

From Dr. John Westerhoff 

We need communities of faith in place of institutions of religions.

Communities have: a common story, a common authority, common ritual and common life.

Day 1 at Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity Conference

Day One at Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity

I am spending the week in DC at a conference titled Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity. My goal is to write at least one blog post a day, and so I am determined to do it. It is mainly as a place for me to wrestle with the thoughts or ideas coming my way, and put them in my own words so they become more than just an interesting point, but something that I am internalizing. However, after the first day, that was really only a half day, I am already overloaded with many different thoughts going in many different directions making it hard to focus on a particular concept or idea that I can expound upon here.  As I think about the pathways of my thinking spread, I find myself using the words that have become an integral part of me because of Godly Play, “I wonder.”  In an attempt to provide a platform for these snippets of ideas or questions running through my head to become more thoughtful reflections, I will begin with highlighting the topics of my “snippets of ides” and the wondering questions that follow.

Death, despair, and art

On the train ride from Virginia to DC this morning I finished the book The Promise of Despair by Andrew Root, a book that I would like to expound on later. As I finished this book the questions remains where in our churches is there a place to face the monster of death and despair. After I got off train I headed to the American Museum of Portraits and the American Museum of African American Art. I was struck by the realization that art is one place in our culture where it is somewhat socially acceptable to wrestle with the reality of death, and as Lodor calls it “proximate forms of death.” In the museum I saw picture and paintings, along with descriptions from the authors that dealt with identity formation, issues of race, poverty, loneliness, and more. And then I thought about music and how various genres have allowed artists to wrestle with the pains of humanity (thought contemporary Christian music doesn’t necessarily fit into this category). And then I thought about Godly Play or other times in Sunday school when we allow children to use different materials for artistic expression with no parameters. I remembered the many times when boys especially but also girls, end up with pictures that involved blood or fighting or knives, and how many times I have said or heard the words “That is not appropriate for church.”  It is important for us to recognize and dialogue about artwork that may portray violence and wrestle with kids about our response to violence as Christians.

I wonder when we brush it off with a simple “you know better” kind of attitude, what is that teaching children about the churches ability to have conversation about issues that go deeper than our simple religious positivity and optimism?

The Sunday School Superstar

Janell Anema spoke about being a Sunday School Superstar and the pervading negative impact the church culture she grew up in has had on her ability to interact with others on a deeper level of faith connection. I resonated with all her sentiments, being a “Sunday School Superstar.” The shelf in my bedroom that was lined with trophies of marble blocks topped with gold plastic statues of girls playing softball and soccer, also held two gold plastic cross trophies I earned from memorizing two to three scripture verses each week, as well as the Apostles and the Nicene creed. I went on all the mission trips in high school, served as a student leader, and was involved as I could be. For me it was after college when all that I grew up learning and studying in the church felt meaningless. I had to begin my journey of breaking down what had been ingrained in me about being a “good Christian” to develop a faith that was about more than optimism, memory, and doing the “right” thing. And yet when I work with the kids, I still find myself going back to that place where I grew up. It flows out of me so easily, and trying to figure out a different way to engage children in their faith development gets muddled with experiences from my past.

I wonder, how do we stop another generation from having to breakdown the church culture they grew up in, when many of us teaching and mentoring them have the “Sunday School Superstar” mentality so ingrained in us?

How We Use the Bible

In one 18 minute presentation the speaker urged people to stay where they are in ministry for many years in order to cultivate a strong faith community. I won’t go into my direct thoughts on his content, but something he did disturbed me. As he was stating his case he obviously felt it necessary to use Biblical examples as arguments. He used Jesus as an example, saying that Jesus went no more than 100 miles outside of his hometown (except for the flight to Egypt). My first thought was…um he was walking those 100 miles, that is a long ways. The part that irked me the most was when he acknowledged that Paul did travel and move around a lot in his ministry, but his statement about that was something to the effect of,” I don’t think that was as important.” Um, really. I feel like we do this so much. Make a decision about something we personally think is important or right and then find a way to use the Biblical text to support our position. I am just as guilty of it, especially when it comes to working with children.

I wonder, how can we present the Bible more as a living narrative than purely a book of answers or moral guidance?

A New Package or a New Message

I asked a fellow conference attendee what drew her to this conference. She gave me a bit of her background in the church and said, “We (as in the big church) have the right message, we just need a new way to package it.” I think that may be part of the problem.  We think we have the right message, but we just have to make it more appealing to get people to buy into in. However, our “message” is covered in an individualistic, consumer driven society. When Brian McLaren shows us statistics about how many youth and young adults are leaving the church, I don’t think his point is that we need to make it more attractive. That is when we fall into the trap of making the message fit with what the culture is attracted to, so the message can get muddled in our attempt to entertain and keep people happy. The transforming power of our God is attractive enough. Instead of looking at how we can repackage our message, maybe we need to look at why the message we are indoctrinating into our children and youth and adults isn’t transforming them enough, allowing many to walk away with from the church with ease maybe to return when they have kids or during holidays, and others to walk away never looking back.

I wonder, when our conversations continually focus on the surface level of attractive packages, will we

Those are just a few of my thoughts from the day….now time to get some sleep.