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

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 II: Societies vs Communities

In Part I: Meet Dietrich, we learned about Bonhoeffer’s first youth ministry gig. We explored the difficulties he faced there and compared them with the difficulties we face today. Now, we turn our attention to the ways that church structure affects youth ministry.

Over the course of his tenure as a youth minster, Bonhoeffer came to note an important distinction: societies push children to the fringe. Communities carry children to the center.

A society has no need of children at present; children are only valuable when they have grown up and are able to contribute to society in tangible ways. Societies push children to the side, shuffling them off to schools and daycares and extra-curriculars, refusing to let them vote until they are 18, expecting them to sit still and be quiet—“The adults are talking.”

It’s a good thing we don’t do that in the church, right? Except we do. All the time. In my years working as a youth director I worked in “youth rooms” either in the church basement or down at the end of the hall. They gather quite literally in the fringes of the church building. In every congregation I have worked for, children and youth ministry is the smallest line item in the yearly budget. We shuffle children to the financial fringes, as well.

Children also sit on the fringes in other ways. We tell children that they are not members of our congregation until they are confirmed (see C8.02.c). They cannot vote, cannot serve on a committee as a voting member, and in most cases they are allowed only to serve in the dreaded position of acolyte until they are confirmed. We keep our children on the fringes of our church societies and tell them to be quiet, sit still, and learn. It’s no wonder that when our youth finally become “adults” in the church they simply walk away. We’ve told them to be quiet, given them no chance to find their voice; so when we finally ask them to speak up, they have nothing to say. We’ve told them implicitly that while they matter to God, they do not yet matter to our community.

Let me correct that statement. They do matter to us. They matter because they bring “youthfulness”. They make us feel young. They fill us with nostalgia for our own childhoods. And so if youth do matter to us, it’s simply so that we may leech their youthfulness from them, so that we may be energized by their energy. When we do this, we do not value their personhood but rather devour them as a commodity. No wonder they leave. (For more on this idea of “youthfulness,” check out Andrew Root’s Faith Formation in a Secular Age)

That’s what a society does and most of our churches are societies. A community, on the other hand, places chief value on children. Children are not shuffled off to the sides but are carried to the center. Everything the church does revolves around the needs of children. Children are not sent to a nursery or children’s church. They are right there in worship, crawling around the altar area, playing with toy trains under the pews, chirping or whispering in the balcony. They are not a nuisance or distraction. They are children doing what God created them to do.

Children are not told they will be valuable when they get older. They are invited to be a part of things now. They serve on committees. They offer up their ideas and their ideas are valued by the community. They come to “adult Sunday school” and the adults shut up, control themselves, and listen to the ideas and reflections of the youth. Youth serve on council. They lead worship in ways they want to lead—not on some isolated (fringy) youth Sunday, but every Sunday. They are acolytes but they are also lectors, communion assistants, ushers, musicians. And all of this well before they are confirmed. In a community the children are reminded constantly that they matter not because of who they will become but because of who they are here and now.

Poor pastor Maller saw his students not as whole persons to whom he must minister but as objects that he must conform. And he burned out, like almost every youth minister (myself included). He was a man born and raised in a church society and he sought to do nothing but continue that society.

Bonhoeffer took a different approach. He wanted to create a community and so, instead of treating these youths as students to be taught, he treated them as whole persons in need of ministry.

In Part III: Storytelling and place-sharing, we’ll take a look at the strategy Bonhoeffer employed to help connect with the youth, to treat them as whole persons, and to gather them to the center.