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

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 III: Storytelling and place-sharing

In Part II: Societies vs Communities, we looked at how church societies shove children off to the fringes while church communities gather children to the center. In this blog post, we take a look at how Bonhoeffer formed a community with his youth.

Bonhoeffer employed a brilliant strategy with those troublesome boys in Wedding that we can and should use as a blueprint. As the boys’ screaming turned into a mocking chant, “Bon! Bon! Bon!” Bonhoeffer remained calm. Very quietly, he began to tell a story from his time in Harlem, NY. Fascinated, the boys quieted and began to listen intently. Bonhoeffer finished his story and told the boys there would be more stories next week. Then he dismissed them.

As the weeks passed, Bonhoeffer continued to tell stories. In a letter to a friend, Erwin Sutz, he admits, “I never prepared for the classes in detail. Of course, I knew the material very well, but then I just went there, talked with the boys for a couple of minutes before class, and then just started. I didn’t hesitate, quite often, just to preach to the children.” This is not to excuse Sunday school teachers from preparing, but rather to show that Bonhoeffer avoided formulaic approaches to teaching; instead, he taught catechism and theology through stories. He always let the theological conversation arise from the stories he would tell and the experiences the class would share.

From time to time disciplinary issues would arise, “but,” Bonhoeffer writes, “here too one thing helped, namely, just simply telling the boys Bible stories in massive quantity, and especially eschatological passages.”

Bonhoeffer was laying the foundation of what children, youth, and family ministry scholar Andrew Root calls “place sharing.” Place sharing is basically empathy in action. It is sharing with another person in their experiences, particularly their difficult experiences. It is walking with someone through the challenging moments of life.

What arose from Bonhoeffer’s story-telling was not mere education but a place of real connection between Bonhoeffer and these rowdy boys. Instead of teaching catechism without context, which is what most of us end up doing in confirmation classes, Bonhoeffer allowed questions about theology and catechism to emerge from the mutual sharing of stories and experience. Bonhoeffer is clear in his letter to Sutz that he taught the catechism and tenets of the faith, and he did not shy away from the hard questions. In fact he went straight for the hard questions with these youth. The stories he told provided a framework for conversation and an opportunity for place sharing. In these moments of place-sharing, Christ was present with Bonhoeffer and his boys as they allowed their common human experiences to lead them into questions about God.

Root writes, “Place-sharing led to a form of teaching that embraced persons, drawing these persons into the Christian tradition through the stories of their own experience and the discipleship of the teacher.”

Essentially what Bonhoeffer did is he used Bible stories as the starting place for deep conversations about God. But these conversations were not abstractions. They were grounded in the children’s experiences. If you teach a child the story of Abraham, he or she will simply not remember it. But what if you talk about the complicated story of Abraham bringing Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him with one of your youth whose father recently abandoned him? What if you brought the story of Lazarus into conversation with a youth whose grandmother just died? What if you discussed Jesus’ parables of forgiveness with two of your youth who have been quarreling?

If you have zoned out, I invite you to tune back in. If you remember nothing else, remember this: youth ministry must move away from programming and curriculum to place-sharing. Our priority must be relationships and valuing youth as whole persons, not education and confirmation.

In his book Relationships Unfiltered, Andrew Root talks about his brief time serving as youth minister to troubled youth in Los Angeles. He says that his days were filled with death threats, vandalism, and verbal abuse as he tried to teach the gospel to impoverished and underserved youth.

After failure after failure, Root writes, “I had to recognize that sharing in the suffering humanity of these adolescents had been secondary to my desire to influence them toward some other end. It took the deep suffering of these adolescents in Los Angeles to alert me to the fact that, though we might call our youth ministry ‘relational,’ it fails to be so if we have another end in mind for our relationship than being with and for each other.”

Youth, like most people, will sniff out an ulterior motive in an instant. If your goal is just to educate them and send them on their way, they’ll notice. If your goal is just to survive confirmation class so you can go home and watch the game or have a much-deserved glass of red wine, they’ll notice. Jesus did not come to earth, teach us some lessons, and then pop-off back to heaven. He came and poured out his whole self into a relationship with us. The teachings were important, yes, but not as important as the relationship he created between himself and humanity. Not convinced of that? Look at the creeds: they have no mention of Jesus’ teachings, only a long description of God’s renewed relationship with humanity. We must pursue relationship for relationship’s sake.

That is what we owe to our youth. We’ve got the cart before the horse.

Education does not create relationships and it does not produce faith; but relationships can lead us to faith and to deeper knowledge.

Our priority must be ministry: it must be joining youth in their hardships, being there for them when they need us, listening to their stories and experiences without the intention of lecturing or offering advice or teaching. We must do as Bonhoeffer did: use scripture not as a means of education but as a means of building relationships. It’s the only way we move from being a society to a community. When we build relationships with our youth—relationships for the sake of relationship, with no ulterior motives—we become for these youth a tangible, real-world example of—or better yet, a vessel for—their relationship with God.

In Part IV: So what can we do about it?, we’ll explore some practical ways we can foster community, storytelling, and place-sharing with our youth.