“Untheologically” Formed Children and the Church

I know that “untheologically” is not really a word. However I think it might best describe the state of many children and youth in the church today.

The absence of theological formation has consequences.  What’s fascinating is that, again, missional guru Sky Jethani is drawing the church’s attention to this. Take a look at what he said in his most recent post (Dec. 1): http://www.outofur.com/archives/2011/12/did_youth_minis.html#more

Did the modern youth ministry movement create the Emerging Church? That’s the question Tony Jones addresses in a recent blog post. While presenting a paper at an academic conference, Jones fielded questions from professors of youth ministry primarily from evangelical colleges and seminaries.

Jones said to them, “You all have strong feelings about the emerging church movement, most of them negative. Well, you are directly responsible for the emerging church movement.”

He went on to describe how contemporary youth ministry shuns the “accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles and rites). Instead, youth are encouraged to engage all of the practices of the community equally.” In other words, the rejection of structural authority and the focus on a flat structure of relational authority which has marked the Emerging Church Movement was learned in youth groups. Jones noted how many ECM leaders first had lengthy youth ministry experience within evangelical churches: Tim Keel, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Condor, and Chris Seay.

To the youth ministry professors who may have a negative view of the Emerging Church, Jones said, “You taught them relational youth ministry, so what kind of churches did you expect them to plant?”

What do you think of Tony Jones’ premise that evangelical youth ministry created the Emerging Church? I think he’s on to something important here–namely that ecclesiology is taught (explicitly but primarily implicitly) well before adulthood. Kids form their understanding of church very early, and it stays with them into adulthood.

Much has been written on the formation of children in other venues. But I think it becomes especially important for the church to realize the significance of how early our children are formed in the faith life—which explicitly includes their worship life and worship experiences.

In a fascinating read, James K. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), picks up on this and emphatically expresses the need for the church to retain and celebrate the role of her liturgy, precisely for this reason:

The Liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God” (p.33)  His point is this: Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. (p.33-34)

In other words, the worship life of the church is significant toward faith formation. For Smith, it’s the precursor and foundation for worldview and doctrinal formation, and thus essential for our children.

Yet, our church culture has been engaged in various worship wars, kid’s church, and youth ministry wars for quite some time. But they have come at a cost. Jethani notes what’s happened:

The problem is a result, at least in part, of what Kara Powell calls the “Kitchen Table Syndrome” that marks many evangelical churches. This is how she describes the isolation and separation of youth from the adults in the community–much like the way kids get their own table at Thanksgiving. It’s a “separate but equal” vision of ministry. The intent is to provide age-appropriate teaching, which is certainly good. But the unintended result is the formation of youth ministries that do not carry the values and traditions of the wider church.

In addition, by isolating students they are less likely to form meaningful relationships with older adults in the congregation–relationships that would provide continuity within the church from one generation to the next. Without this continuity we shouldn’t be surprised when 25-year-olds emerge who want nothing more than to deconstruct the way the church operates, slash the authority hierarchy, or just leave the church altogether. To use Jones’ logic, it was the youth groups of the 80s that created the Emerging Church of the late 90s, which sought to deconstruct the church systems of the 80s.

To say the least, it’s another fascinating diagnosis of the church culture that need’s our attention. And when coupled with Christian Smith’s diagnosis that our church culture has created a “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism” (in Soul Searching: The Religious Lives of American Teenagers), which, as an aside, can be observed in the popular “Christian” Veggie Tales cartoons series—a series where Christ and his life is decidedly absent—perhaps James K. Smith’s words on the worship and liturgical life of the church bring some needed and welcome direction, particularly for a Lutheran tradition that formerly had a historic and cherished use of the liturgy.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


5 responses to ““Untheologically” Formed Children and the Church

  1. How about we make a list of all the “separate but equal” manifestations of attempting to be relevant we observe in parishes, districts, and synodically! Every time I brought youth or my own children or grandchildren into a care facility for the aged, the eyes of the elderly would light up, and the younger folk were receivers of great affection and attention.

  2. As wisdom is proved by her children, so also the lack of it in youth ministry is proved by our children. Great article!!!

  3. O Where is my hair brush?

    The reverse of this compartmentalizing of youth church, kid church, adult church etc… is found scattered throughout rural America in small multgenerational congregations where pre-schoolers sit with mom and dad, and grandma and grandma, and great grandma in the same pew at the same service. The church is made stronger when the focus is on family and not individual.

  4. I think this is a great article and you make some important points, but I would like to add as a DCE it is seems the church has taken over the job of educating the kids and the youth. We will not see any positive movement back to where we all would like it to be until as a church we start living Biblical again. What I mean is that it is mom and dad’s job to raise the kids in their faith and not the church. It is the church’s job to empower mom and dad. What the church has done is just taken it over the educational role, and now they are abandoning it by focusing on relationships.

  5. I can relate to all of the comments that were left in response to the “untheologically” article. I also have taken youth to a nursing home to conduct chapel services and to do Christmas caroling and there is no question when we visit with the residents after both instances the residents faces and the youth faces both light up with the comments that are traded back and forth. What is the final result when we try to take away the value of what the senior citizens can offer the youth and how we can encourage the youth to become part of the church and not its own church.

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