Back to School Day 2 – A Forum of Ambivalence

The spiritual formation of young people is a vital if overlooked aspect of the life of the church. This week, we’re exploring the issue/crisis/opportunity of children and youth in emerging communities. But one of the first things we need to do is uncover our perceptions, ideas, assumptions, and presuppositions about young people. We need to take some time and reflect theologically on what it means to be a child and youth in today’s church.

This theological reflection is especially vital because our society often holds ambivalent views of children and youth—we don’t really know what we think/believe about them. We simultaneously have different and even competing ideas about young people. In Welcoming Children, practical theologian Joyce Ann Mercer states that North America’s consumer-driven society is perhaps the epitome of this ambivalence: “they adulate children as the key to corporate profits, and despise children when they fail to fit into market agendas or when their needs and experiences press our collective interests in the direction of social goals and norms that conflict with those of the market” (119).

This ambivalence was evident in a TV commercial that ran a few years ago. Take a look at it here. A father sits on his couch watching a hockey game as his son peeks around the corner and says he’s having trouble falling asleep. Dad, looking somewhat annoyed, realizes that he can use the miracle of personal video recording to pause the game and attend to his son. Then he shows the boy a goal and they watch the last few minutes of the game together.

Now, this father appears to be a guy who loves his hockey but made the ultimate sacrifice to pause the live game and take care of his son. But I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been a PVR subscriber. What would he have done if he couldn’t pause TV? Would he, to use the words from the commercial, paused life? Would he have turned off the game, sacrificing his only opportunity to see the last few minutes in order to help out his son? Or would he simply have said, “Go get your mother”? I am left wondering… And I’m also left wondering if the lyrics to the song in the background—“I will be the one who love you the most”—are being sung about the child or the TV.

This is clearly an ambivalent view of children that seems to be prevalent throughout North America. And more and more, this ambivalence is creeping into the church as we allow our ideas about children, youth, and spiritual formation to be guided by our mass-marketed, consumeristic, narcissistic society. Through the lure of society’s Sirens, we too have become ambivalent in our views of children and youth. We love them, want to spend time with them, and be there when they need us. But are we willing to sacrifice some of our needs for theirs, to turn the TV off and help them fall asleep, and to really be care-givers? We say that relationships with teenagers matter, but we’re not willing to get to know what makes our teens tick and we don’t take the time to listen to their hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears. This ambivalence can’t go on.

So, today I’m opening a forum to combat this ambivalence. Through responses to this blog posting, share what you believe children and youth to be. Feel free to draw from biblical, theological, and sociological ideas about what exactly it means to be a young person. Let’s get our ideas out in the open and begin seriously considering the young people who we want to shape into authentic disciples of Christ. When we have a better sense of the phenomena of childhood and adolescence, we can be better prepared to nurture their faith and spirituality. Through this cyber-based group theological reflection, we can gain a clearer and theologically-grounded sense of the young people in our midst. So join the conversation.

5 thoughts on “Back to School Day 2 – A Forum of Ambivalence”

  1. Here are some questions one of my readers posed:
    I’m reading “A New Kind of Christianity” for the second time — really “chewing” on it this time. You’ve helped me articulate things that have been formulating in my heart and mind for a while now… and, there’s a sense of relief: I’m not crazy! (Well, maybe a little.) My wife and I have had lots of good conversations lately, trying to work out the implications of all this. If there’s one word I could use to describe how we feel these days, it’s HOPEFUL. Thanks for all you’ve done to encourage/inspire.
    We have two kids, ages 5 and 3, and we want to do a good job of laying a strong spiritual foundation. In the emergent context, do you have any suggestions on how to “raise them up in the way they should go”? How and what to pray for them? How to talk to them about Jesus? Answer questions they have about hell (especially when they hear about it from others)? Questions about sexuality? Sin? Heaven? Basically, do you have any thoughts on how to communicate everything you wrote about in ANKC to kids?

    I’d love to see how folks respond to these important questions –

  2. These are indeed very important questions. Apart from the advice we offer in our article (see yesterday’s posts), there is another vital way to respond to your questions. Often, these questions are framed as “What do I say to my kids?” But another way of thinking about this concern is “How do I respond to my children’s questions?” I would say that we communicate much more to our children and youth in HOW we respond rather than WHAT exactly we say to them. Do we, in the spirit of “A New Kind of Christianity,” welcome and respond to their questions with humility, gentleness, and an attitude of exploration? Or do we tell them exactly what to believe and how to believe it? My advice would be to welcome their questions and discuss them with your children. Don’t worry about having the “right” answers. Why not join your children in exploring possible answers or explanations to your children, sharing how your beliefs about heaven/hell/sin/sexuality have changed as you have continued to wrestle with them? Such an attitude can teach them that it is important to ask questions, that it’s alright to have doubt, and that your family is a safe context for questioning, doubt, and exploration. And don’t forget Dr. Spock’s important words at the beginning of his classic “Baby and Child Care”: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

    1. Hello! — I’m the one who sent the comments/questions to Brian above. I’ve appreciated your thoughts and the articles you’ve posted — and I look forward to reading more.

      I like the way you reframed the question: “How do I respond to my children’s questions?” Tone IS a big deal… having a spirit of humility, and being willing to say, “I don’t know — let’s explore together.” I (try to) practice this principle at school (I’m a teacher) with my students — despite the temptation to present myself as someone who has all the answers!

      I suppose I have a better idea about what this atmosphere of exploration might look like a few years down the road — but in the mean time, while my kids are preschoolers? For us, it seems to be a season of rules (and little discussion): learning obedience, learning to share, dealing with temper tantrums, learning to show love. Anyone who’s been through the preschool years have any thoughts?

      Thanks again. Many blessings.

  3. I have a three year old daughter. We talk about god all the time. My husband and I try to incorporate god into the “every day” just this morning she expressed some understanding of gods presence in our life. She said ” god is like the wind. U can’t see him. But u can feel him.” wow. I was totally blown away. It’s awesome to see that when u invest time in your children. Talk with them. Ask them questions. Read. Teach. Pray. We don’t have it figured out but we are seeking god and trying to teach her to do the same. And we are trusting god to be present in our lives.

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