Lilah pulled me aside after service and said, “Can we talk? I have some questions that I think are keeping me from becoming a Christian.” She looked earnestly at me as I blinked. Aren’t you already a Christian? I thought to myself. Lilah, as one my Children’s Ministry volunteers, taught Large Group and served as a 1st grade Small Group Leader. I had seen this young teenager blossom over the previous year as she taught the kids everything from Noah and the Ark to the problem that humanity has with sin. She was young, and not fully formed in her faith, but she certainly taught with enough conviction – not to mention the fact that she had volunteered to teach Sunday school – that it took me aback to hear her say that she wasn’t Christian. I took a breath before responding, “Sure, Lilah, no problem. We’ll get someone else to cover first grade.”
She looked me directly in the eye as she asked her first question: “How do we know for sure that Christianity is right?” We don’t, I thought, immediately regretting it, but she continued: “I mean, a lot of my friends at school at Buddhist or Jewish or atheists, you know? Are they wrong?” I nodded as I thought, Oh – that’s what this is about. The conversation for the next half hour ranged from a discussion of revelation to thinking through theodicy to the nature of believer’s baptism. I was honest with her about my own doubts, and she in turn was unafraid about asking questions. Though the conversation seemed to be a relative success, I continued to wonder, silently, about why she didn’t consider herself a Christian, until she made this comment toward the end: “It’s just that, I don’t think I can take the next step yet. I can’t become a Christian and get baptized until I can answer these questions like you can, right?”
Years later and thousands of miles away from that church, Lilah’s comment still haunts me. The nature of the baptismal theology handed to her by that church notwithstanding, Lilah seemed to believe that her access to God and to the community through the sacrament of baptism – her “becoming a Christian” – was contingent on her ability to cognitively grapple with abstract questions (questions with which theologians have struggled for centuries). Furthermore, she seemed to believe that, even if she couldn’t answer those questions, that I could. Is youth and children’s ministry really about getting kids to answer questions about faith the way that we adults do?
Scripture would seem to tell us no. In Mark 10, Jesus is speaking to and answering the questions of a group of adults, when someone brings some children to the front of the group in order that Jesus might bless them. The disciples rebuke them and try to turn them away, but Jesus turns the rebuke back on the disciples and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15). Hear it again: we are to receive the kingdom of God like a child. We’re not supposed to get children to think like us for them to find God; rather, we’re supposed to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God.
We live in a world where the experience and knowledge of adults is privileged over that of children and teens. But not only does our access to God not improve as we grow older, Jesus seems to suggest that something about the beginning stages of life that is more appropriate in approaching the kingdom of God. So the question is: how do we get youth like Lilah to understand that they don’t need to think like us in order to “become Christian”?
As parents, sometimes the best answer we can give a child who asks a question about faith is “I don’t know.” Relinquishing our adult privilege allows us to explore faith with our kids, and it gives us a chance to learn together. Most importantly, though, it shows our kids that they don’t need to think exactly like us in order to practice authentic faith. Instead, it allows them to more fully live into their identity as children of God and, in doing so, to learn what the mysteries and traditions of the church mean to them.
The purpose of youth and children’s ministry is not to mold kids into little adults or to grant youth the keys to the kingdom of God. It’s a process of encountering and re-encountering God in the midst of community. Over the years that I knew Lilah, I tried to help her see that thinking like me wasn’t the answer to her questions. That she even thought to ask her questions says something radical about her faith, and my role as a minister was to encourage her to keep asking these questions with me, even as I asked my own questions. We might have been in two different stages of life, but we both stood on level ground seeking to approach God and know God better.
Ryan Timpte is the Director of Children’s Ministry at LOPC. A longer form of this article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Immerse, a journal for youth workers. Lilah’s name has been changed.