I’ve been reading John Owen’s True Nature of a Gospel Church (link is to a PDF document of Vol. 16 of Owen’s work – it’s the first book in Vol. 16)
In it, Owen speaks much of the relationship of the Church to the children of those parents who have made professions of faith and committed themselves to that church, viz. membership. He posits that many of the problems (in his own words, the “errors and corruptions”) of the visible church of that time were attributable to the neglect of the visible church to those who were considered recipients of the church’s blessings (preaching, teaching and pastoral care) yet not fully admitted into the full rights of the church, e.g. The Lord’s Supper, church discipline and expressed service in giftings, and so on. Children of those committed parents are an acute example in Owen’s mind.
Owen’s approach and understanding is quite different than much of how modern evangelical Christianity approaches the subject of Children and Youth Ministry. The modern mode of approaching children and youth is to them independently of their families. Children and Youth are approached, taught and brought up almost in a way that is divorced from their parents – they have their own services, their own sermons, their own events, their own teachers, their own pastors.
There is much more that could be said about the way that current structures of Children and Youth ministries are done in exclusion to parents. It is sufficient to say that in our modern context children and youth are implicitly taught that their Christian parents are irrelevant in their spiritual lives. The church treats parents as irrelevant figures (albeit implicitly) in much of their efforts.
This is a far cry from the familial relationships that Owen encourages. Though Owen’s pragmatics on this point may not be entirely sustainable (e.g. what are we to do when a child refuses Christianity who still is under their parents authority?), his underlying point that children are first and foremost to be thought of in terms of 1) their family units first and 2) under their parent’s authority and guidance.
Much of the efforts of the modern church with the youth comes to naught because parents are poorly taught and educated on how to approach the spiritual lives of their children. It is assumed that sending their kids to church camp and the various youth ministries will produce the desired results. The problem is that much of what the child truly learns happens on the day-in and day-out basis with the family, not the church. Though the ministries do their best (we hope!) to educate and train the children in the gospel and godliness, when they are not seeking to change the environment these children are raised in, then the ministry’s efforts feel much like shooting bullets at the city wall – in order to tear down the city, you must go to it’s heart.
Many well-meaning youth-ministers have labored extensively with children and youth only to be continually frustrated, time and time again, to see those same children walk away completely once their tenure in the youth ministries have ended – sometimes even before that time has ended. Not only do these youth abandon the ministry, they abandon church altogether. Part of the frustration, I believe, stems from the methods of many of these ministers and their thinking about the role of children within the family.
It appears that many ministers have not considered the most basic and elemental questions that every minister to the youth must ask (which will be shown later). Many children’s ministers come at the pragmatic question (how do we do this) before they ask the philosophical questions (what is this and why is it). Ministers are accepted and implemented with an assumed body of knowledge on this point – as long as the theological lines meet, their is a measure of godliness, and that there are good intentions, then we must move directly on to method – “How are we going to REACH these students?”
In my several interviews with churches for youth ministry positions, questions about the nature of Youth Ministry were marginal. Few were the questions of “Why do we need a youth ministry” and “What is a youth ministry” but much emphasis was laid upon “how are you going to do this?”
Children and Youth are then trained under pastors and ministers who have thought very little about the nature and purpose behind what they are doing and in the end, they are ministered to in ways that are ineffective against the onslaught of the home-education that greatly shapes them.
My intention in the next post(s) is to show a way of understanding children and their relationship to their parents and then their relationship to the church, both the church visible, and the Church Catholic (invisible – true believers).