Kids in Church

Kids in Church

Luke 2:40-51

by Daniel Harrell

Except for here in the gospel of Luke, we know nothing of Jesus as a boy. Attempts to fill in his childhood blanks have happened over the centuries, most notably in the pseudo-gospel of Thomas, for those who remember The DaVinci Code. In it, little Lord Jesus brings clay pigeons to life and curses a bully who picked on him, killing him instantly. Mary steps in and tells Jesus to stop that and raise the boy back to life this instant, which Jesus dutifully does. Or something like that.

Here in the actual gospel of Luke, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph for Passover. On their way back, Jesus goes missing. His panicked parents retrace their steps and finally, three days later, find Jesus in church going toe-to-toe with the pastors who were quite impressed with the young Son of God’s theological precociousness—if only they knew. Mary and Joseph who did know Jesus’ secret identity aren’t impressed at all. Mary sternly reprimands Jesus for worrying them sick, not the first time somebody would be disappointed with God. “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” Jesus replied somewhat sassily, “Why were you searching? Where did you think I’d be?”

Most parents have lost track of their kids at some point or another. You turn around in the store and they’re gone. Curfew passes with no communication. Worst case scenarios run through your mind.

My worst case scenario happened with two kids I lost in New York who weren’t even my own. I was a youth minister for many years, inspired to do so after a great experience in my own small church youth group and later Young Life. I studied at seminary under a youth ministry guru, got a job and led dozens of middle and senior high youth groups, led retreats and camps, worked with countless volunteers and parents, hauled students on mission trips all over the world—to Benin and Bolivia, the French Alps and Nepal, some of these fairly dangerous locales, and parents just signed the permission slips every time. I earned a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Boston College, wrote articles and helped author two books, one called Adolescent Development and another outrageously titled, The Nurturing Parent: How To Raise Creative, Loving, Responsible Children. You can still get it for two bucks on Amazon. As an expert on kids I’ve led seminars and taught university and graduate school classes; nobody knows more about teenagers than somebody who’s never raised one. It won’t be long before that finally happens, I know, but I’m so old I’m sort of counting on senility to set in.

The New York adventure was an urban mission plunge I led back in 1992. Our group ran a vacation bible school out of a church basement in Queens, but on one of our last days we tripped into Manhattan for a little sightseeing, which included the time-honored tourist tradition of riding to the top of the Empire State Building. The best views were from the 86th floor, because you could go outside, but you were also allowed up to the 102nd floor for a peek, which some of us decided to do, dividing our group with strict instructions to meet up in the lobby at midnight for the train back to Queens. When the clock struck 12 and heads were counted, two kids, a boy and a girl, were no where to be found. Security guards rode the elevators back up to the 102nd floor and walked the stairs all the way down with no sign of the missing. We called the police who searched the block while the rest of us adults split up and searched all the subway stations. I sent a volunteer back with the kids we did have, then this being the 90s, I found a phone booth (a lighted glass rectangle with a telephone inside) and made the 3:00 AM call to the parents back home. “Hello, uh… so sorry, were you asleep?  This is Daniel Harrell, yes, technically the one who has your child here in New York City? Hey, just a funny question really, but, you haven’t heard from your daughter recently, have you, like in the last hour or so?”

Long nightmare short, the two kids assumed we’d gone back to Queens without them, so “being responsible,” they hopped a train on their own and returned to the church. Arriving back ourselves at dawn, we screamed at them for worrying us sick and making us search the whole city. They explained what happened and wondered why we’d been searching, since, to borrow a line from Jesus, “Where did we think they’d be?” Smart alecks.

None of this would have happened had we each had our own phones—but back then phones came attached to lines running out of walls. Now, kids with phones in their pockets provide safety and welcome access when it comes to knowing who’s where, but there are concerns too. I’ve mentioned how Marie Wonders frightened our fifth grade parents about the temptations kids face from iPhones in their pockets, from sexting to snapchat. As one father put it: “I’d like to meet the genius who thought ‘let’s give teenage boys a camera to carry around so they can take and share photos for fun.’” Scrolling through the data on the perils of technology, some parents long for the days when kids got lost in skyscrapers instead of online.

While on sabbatical at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena (thank you again for that generous gift), I spent time with Dr. Kara Powell, a longtime friend and Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, a research-driven project which churns out the popular Sticky Faith curriculum and a myriad of other resources for churches and youth groups. Over coffee, Kara caught me up on the state of youth ministry. Things have changed since my era of oogah boogah and bat spins. The good news is that faith in Jesus still matters, as do identity, belonging and purpose; but how these emerge is so different. Used to be you could preach a little hellfire on the dangers of dancing and kids would come crying to Jesus. Or in later years you’d play crazy games, do dumb skits and serve pizza and pile kids into churches. But students these days are so stressed and so stretched by academics and rehearsals and sports schedules and fears over getting into a great college. There are reputations to build and sustain, the right look and the right clothes, the right friends (digital and otherwise), music and sex, family responsibilities and learning to drive, obsessing over who’s posted what. Add to all this a constant low-grade panic about climate and terrorism and whether Starbucks will still be hiring and who will be President. Life swallows you whole. Spirituality and personal beliefs, while good and important, are just another item on the salad bar of existence.

Sometimes I think it would have been easier to be Jesus—being able to walk on water and change weather would have been cool. Then again, the expectations that came with being Son of God must have been brutal. Scholars debate as to when Jesus understood his true identity. Perhaps it was here: Mary jumped on Jesus for scaring her silly, “Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you,” she said. But Jesus replied, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” meaning God and not Joseph. Developmental psychologists would call this as an identity statement, already at twelve Jesus knows who he is. He also knows to whom he belongs, and understands his purpose, in ways Luke says his parents did not. Ahead of the curve and advanced for his age, he’s more self-aware than most twelve-year-olds, or twenty or thirty or fifty-year-olds for that matter.

The Fuller Youth Institute’s aims for spiritual formation apply at every age—faith finds its flavor and depth with attention and time. Faith in Jesus is both internal and external, evident in our thoughts and emotions but also our choices and actions. Faith  in Jesus is both personal and communal, unique to each person yet embedded in a shared community of commitment and purpose more important than me by myself and big enough to give your life to it. Faith in Jesus is both mature and maturing, there is always room to grow and more to know and experience with God. Jesus said no one gets to the Father except through him, but there are a lot of ways to Jesus. Christians believe Christ to be present everywhere through his spirit and always ready to embrace, always at work to redeem and restore and to love. Our job is to join in God’s work in progress. True spiritual formation is not something you simply sign up to do for a day and make happen. It’s a long game with people we love and need and with whom we struggle and share life on life, worries and accomplishments, grief and grace, the whole salad bar.

I ate a salad with Dr. Andy Root this week, a Fuller grad and Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, an author of books people actually read and a leading scholar in the youth ministry field. He’s convinced that finding deeper faith for fragmented lives means getting more adults involved in teenagers’ lives. Faith forms best in intergenerational and multivariate environments rather than trying to squeeze everything into a single programmatic box.

A mom emailed this week about how Colonial has done a good job over the years providing youth ministry programming, which like Sunday mornings, gets people in our doors and offers a place to connect and hear some messages about Jesus. “But just like church attendance,” she wrote, “some people like to come occasionally, some come regularly—and for others it’s part of their larger/deeper experience of this community because they are involved with small groups, Bible studies, making food on Wednesday nights, gardens, knitting, chorale, volunteering with children, outreach, committees, Innové and other things. What if we added that layer for our kids? If a kid is loving youth group and wants to be involved in a Bible study, or choir or something, great. If a kid isn’t connecting at all with youth group, but loves to sing, or cook, then they are invited to do that instead.” There are a lot of ways to Jesus.

One really different way will happen in a few weeks when Andy Root and his young son along with our own Tony Jones and his family, and Nicole Smalley and Charlie McGlynn and a Chicago pastor named David and a UW history professor, will all join ten outstanding high school students from Colonial on a journey in the footsteps of Galileo. Among the biggest challenges to a young person’s faith can be freshman biology and the misuse of science by some to discredit Christianity. We forget how Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler and Newton and most every founder and many current practitioners of modern science were and are deeply committed Christians whose faith is a catalyst for discovery.

Andy and Tony got a big grant from the John Templeton Foundation to take this intergenerational study trip of ten students and nine adults and a few younger kids in the actual footsteps of Galileo, starting at the Vatican Observatory in Rome and ending at the CERN particle accelerator, a marvel made possible by Galileo’s opening our eyes to the realities of physics. Dawn, Violet and I get to go too, my first time in Rome and Geneva since I went as a high school student on a study trip and had my mind blown open to history and culture and how God permeates it all.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “If you want to know God you need to know me.” There are so many ways this happens. Jesus brought together little kids and old people, rich and poor, fishermen and Pharisees, geeks and freaks, sinners and zealots, soldiers and civilians, insiders and outsiders—with the same invitation to each: “follow me and be my disciple.” Find your true identity as a child of God, belong to the family of God and live with purpose and meaning, beauty and flavor.

Many accepted the invitation, but many rejected. Youthworks recently ran a nationwide survey and found that nearly six out of ten young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away. The unchurched segment among millennials has increased in the last decade from 44% to 52%, mirroring a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing in America. The onslaught of information and alternate world views, the social practice of science and greater resistance to Christianity among peers and so much more makes it hard for young people to hold onto their faith, forget about thriving. The larger culture has changed. You used to have to explain to the neighbors and friends why you didn’t go to church; now you have to explain why you do.

Those kids I lost in New York lost interest in church after they graduated and went to college. They got into other things—indifferent and prodigal and perverse by some standards. The young woman flitted from one precarious encounter to another as she stumbled through school. She’d suffered yet another relational meltdown when her mother called me one year, long after I’d been the youth minister. Mother had me come over and talk to her daughter who was living at home and needed some help. I felt a little silly, except that I had known this young woman her whole life and could remind her how it could be better than she was experiencing, that she believed this and knew this herself. There are a lot of ways to get to Jesus and a lot of ways to get back. I’d lost track of the young man but he found his way back. I randomly bumped into him and his wife a few years ago in a church, in Westminster Abbey in London on a tour. He and his wife are now involved in a small congregation in Massachusetts where he’s on the search committee for a new minister.

The young woman I lost found her way back too. She has three adorable children with her husband, a theology professor much more conservative than I’ve ever been. The last time we talked, I told her, with a wink, how I was aware of the irony. Yes, she said. There are a lot of ways to Jesus.