Thursday, April 7, 2016

Building mighty walls

She's ten years old.  She has been coming to kids' church since she was three or four. And she has never felt like she fit in

She's not overly shy, but she thinks deep thoughts and feels things deeply.  She's a loyal friend - to those who take the time to be friends with her.  But people don't.  Not her peers, and not the children's ministry leaders. You see, they think of her as a troublemaker, even though she's not a bully and not misbehaving. She just wants to understand ... and a lot of things about what they are teaching don't make sense to her.  How, if God is love, He could command people to kill entire towns filled with people and animals (as He did in the Old Testament).  How, if God is just and wants only our good, He could let people die of cancer.  

Her questions are tough, but they are valid. That the teachers don't have the answers (nobody does) is not her fault.  But the frustrated teachers make her feel like it's her fault, that she is somehow spiritually defective for not taking things on blind faith. Because they disapprove of her, she thinks that God disapproves of her too.

Her parents are poor.  They cannot afford to dress her in the latest fashions, and sometimes the dresses she wears are stained in places, or there is a run in her tights.  She hates that she has to conform to a dress code, but she does it to please her mom and dad.  She doesn't tell them how the other girls in her class snub her because her clothes are not designer, how they wear things from the high-end stores and show them off to each other and to the teachers, and she watches wistfully from the sidelines while the teachers play favourites.  And after a few times of coming home and telling her folks about an upcoming event or activity (for which the admission fees are beyond her parents' budget) she doesn't even bother telling them about those things anymore.  

She is not slim like the other kids. She's kind of overweight.  She has health problems that have made her unable to be an athlete, and while she can keep up with them in the games in the gym, she doesn't excel and is not super competitive.  She feels keenly the rejection of the other children as they pick everyone else for their teams except her.  And more and more, the teachers pick events and group activities that revolve around athletic ability: skiing, skating, rock-climbing, and hiking, that pander to their favourite (slim) students.

The leaders also emphasize Scripture memorization and give candy prizes for bringing a Bible, and more candy for bringing a friend. She soon wonders if this - this expectation of performance, and the underlying idea that God is all about following the rules and not questioning - is all there is.  If it is, she must be a horrible person. But she can't stop the questions ... those unanswerable questions that make a lot of Christians uncomfortable.  After a while, the frustration of the teachers (and of their favourite helpers) turns to open animosity toward her.  She starts getting singled out and punished for things that are not her fault. 

She puts up with it only until it is considered legal to stay home without supervision... 12 years old. And then she lets her parents know how she feels.  Her parents, wisely, do not force her to keep going to a place where she feels attacked every single time she sets foot inside the door. 

The church workers had turned her against the church, and against God.  She did eventually have a relationship with God, but in spite of them, not because of them. And she still has a deep and abiding resentment against the church. 

Yes, the above example is based on a true story which really happened in a church that preached the gospel, taught that God is love and emphasized the infilling of the Holy Spirit. This church welcomed people of other races, and had outreaches to immigrant communities. The leadership seemed to bend over backwards to be welcoming toward people from diverse communities. 

So what went wrong in the children's ministry? Let me break it down for you.  

Racism is wrong.  It is wrong, wrong, wrong. And it hurts not only the victimized, but also the racists.  But there are other things that are equally as damaging.  And unfortunately, they are rampant in the church.

When you think of someone else who comes from a family that has a lower income than yourself as "less than" yourself, that is CLASSISM.  It's just like racism, only the "difference" is dollars, not skin colour. 

When you treat someone who is not as slim as you are as "less than", that is FATISM.  It's discrimination against someone on the basis of body type, and it hurts just as much as racism does

When you single someone out and punish them for things that are not their fault, exclude them, nitpick, contradict, or dismiss what they say due to one or more differences between you and them, that is BULLYING.  It has no place in the church. NONE.

When you reward children based on their performance (be that scripture memorization, Bible-toting, "evangelism" through dragging a friend to church) just so they can get some goodies, you send the message that God is more about people toeing the line than He is about loving people just as they are for the sake of loving them (i.e. that behaving is what life is about and that people are so depraved that they have to be bribed to behave). You are perpetuating RELIGION and undermining RELATIONSHIP.  You are saying that God has no power to transform people's lives and that they must obey rules to be accepted by Him.

God is not interested in religious robots.  He is looking for real people - warts and all - and by not accepting people (and children ARE people!) as they are, you are actually (a) encouraging the formation of robots and (b) driving away the very people that could bring life into the church and make the message that "God is love" really relevant to those in their world.

Photo "Teenage Girls Gossipping" by Ambro at
Many (but not all) churches do not understand the dangers of these sorts of attitudes creeping in and destroying the sensitive spirits of those who are vulnerable, rejected, and searching for answers.  Many (but not all) children's ministries are carried out in the week-to-week reality by people who are undertrained, overworked, and sadly unsupervised. Children's ministries in mainstream churches have typically been treated as glorified babysitting services where one or two teachers have the responsibility of overseeing dozens of children ranging in age from (four or) six to twelve: an impossible and thankless task!  Plus, the unspoken purpose of many children's ministries is to get the kids out of their parents' hair while they do their [boring] adult worship/giving/sermon rituals in the sanctuary, and the only qualifications that the children's ministry volunteers have are (a) membership in the church and (b) a willingness to plunk their behinds in a chair for an hour once or twice a week. 

The fact is that those who work with children in a church setting are determining the future of that church.  If they display intolerant, insensitive, and bigoted attitudes, the children will get the idea that God is intolerant, insensitive and bigoted ... and some of them (most likely the ones who stay) will buy into that fallacy and get the idea that it is OKAY to be intolerant, insensitive and bigoted - and will pass this on to the NEXT generation.  

What am I saying? Simply this - it doesn't cost anything (except perhaps pride) to be kind and compassionate to those who are different from us in some way.  However, people need to be aware that these (and other) ugly attitudes do exist (and not just in the church) and that they need to be exposed for what they are.  If they are not, then be prepared for church after church to close their doors as more and more of the founding fathers and mothers pass away. 

We are - without meaning to, I believe - building mighty walls, as Russ Taff sings in "We Will Stand" (yes this is a link).  Can we not see that this is damaging to the cause of Christ? Can we not see that labels and liberty are incompatible?

The cycle must stop.  Those people who are drawn to (any kind of) ministry need to examine themselves and determine if they are prone to any of these (or other) attitudes.  Church leadership must invest resources into not just the technical (how-to) training of their workers, but also discipleship and sensitivity training.  Pastors and children's pastors need to just "drop in" unannounced to the kids' classes.  Children need to be given feedback tools (like a child's version of a suggestion box) to describe anything that made them feel unwanted or uncomfortable in class without being singled out. If we foster acceptance and discourage exclusion, maybe we have a chance of seeing our children embrace our faith ... instead of pushing them away from it.

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