Stop Saying Children are the Future of the Church: Part I

By Jim Vitale

For years we have been driving youth away from our congregations with the best of intentions. This four-part blog series, based on a lecture given at the 2023 Upper Susquehanna Synod Assembly helps us take a look at what we’re doing wrong and offers a framework for how we can do youth ministry differently.

Part 1: Meet Dietrich

You probably know theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his books The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together or for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Hitler. What you probably didn’t know is that he actually spent much of his pastoral career as a youth minister. In the early 1930s, after a failed attempt at campus ministry, his supervisors sent him to teach a confirmation class in the small town of Wedding, northwest of Berlin. This placement seemed perfect for the brilliant theologian who spent most of his time with youth; however, upon arrival he learned his new position wouldn’t be simple: the young boys of this confirmation class had killed their previous teacher.

Bonhoeffer arrived in Wedding and met with one pastor Maller, the previous instructor. As they climbed the stairs to the classroom, the boys stood at the rail above showering Bonhoeffer and Maller with banana peels and paper and screaming at the top of their lungs. Mounting the stairs, Maller shoved all the boys into the classroom, turned to Bonhoeffer, and said, “They’re yours!” Then he slammed the door and stormed away. Within a couple weeks, Maller died of heart failure. It seems his heart could not handle the bedlam the boys created.

It’s tempting, in a situation like this, to view these children simply as a problem to be solved. They are misbehaving, refusing to learn the spiritual and doctrinal lessons their pastor is teaching. The answer, and what Pastor Maller attempted, seems fairly straightforward: discipline them. The teacher must find a way to get them to calm down, be quiet, sit still, pay attention, learn what they must learn, and get through the confirmation class and, later, the confirmation ceremony.

Now, most of us aren’t facing a gang of youths who are contemplating bedlam or murder; yet we still follow in Pastor Maller’s footsteps. Parents and grandparents entrust their children to us to be instructed in the faith. And we do our best to get them to youth group or Sunday school (arguably the hardest step and a whole other conversation), then we beg them to sit still, making the lesson as entertaining as possible so that we might have a fighting chance at holding their attention. And we hope that if we can manage to pull this off every Sunday or Wednesday for a couple years then they will be ready to be confirmed.

I remember early in my second gig as a youth minister, three newly confirmed students had “graduated” from the confirmation class to the high school youth group. At one point in my lesson, I turned to one of these newly confirmed and asked him who Abraham was, naively assuming he’d know the answer. He gave me the blankest of stares and a shrug. I explained who Abraham was and asked if that rang a bell. Evidently it did not. This boy had just been confirmed. Shouldn’t he know the most basic of Bible characters? If he doesn’t, why did we even confirm him? The goal of confirmation is education, right?

We struggle and strive and fight to educate these youth only to find at the end of confirmation that they have retained remarkably little of what we have taught and that they are no longer even interested in attending church. Typically only 1 out of 5 kids continue to attend church after they are confirmed. We have, it seems, educated the interest right out of them.

Education was Maller’s approach and Maller’s approach killed him.

And, frankly, Maller’s approach is killing our churches, too.

When we start from the assumption that our primary responsibility is to educate the youth of the congregation, we make a mistake. When we start from the assumption that children are the future of the church and therefore must be shaped into “good church folk,” we make a mistake.

In Part 2: Societies vs Communities, we’ll take a look at our current church structure and how it is driving youth away, and we’ll look at a new structure that invites youth in.