Tuesday/Thursday Book Club: Total Church: What Does This Have To Do With Ministry to Children?
It has been a few weeks since I posted a brief review of the book, Total Church, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. At that point, I intentionally put off commenting on chapter 12, which the authors dedicate to the subject, “Children and Young People.” I wanted to save the chapter for this new weekly feature--the Tuesday/Thursday book club, where I will share a few highlights from what I'm reading during the week. Here is part 2 of this week's book club. If you missed it, take a look at part 1.
Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugar-coated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early 1990s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but from practicing their faith at all (Sonja Steptoe, "In Touch With Jesus," Time magazine, Oct. 31, 2006).
Those are pretty amazing words from Time magazine! Chester and Timmis think it is a good sign. Rather than putting a bunch of "hormonal teenagers" in one space, wind them up with energetic games, and then expect them to listen to a Bible talk, our authors suggest (as throughout their little book) that a church's ministry to children and youth begins with the gospel Word and the gospel community:
The key to successful youth work is the Bible. This is how God does his work in young people. And the measure of success is not attendance but gospel fruit in their lives (184)
In Chester and Timmis basic aim, there is little with which to argue. But what are the implications? I count at least 5
(1) There will be different measures of success. Chester and Timmis argue that one should not judge the success of one's youth ministry by the number of attractive activities or the number of kids in attendance, but by gospel faithfulness. On the surface, I think this is right. It is trendy in some circles to look down upon "attractional" approaches to youth and children's ministry. But biblically speaking, there is nothing wrong with being attractional. The gospel is attractive! It leads us to celebrate (maybe even to party; see the OT festivals), and often it draws a crowd. Where the church has gone wrong in the past is that it has partied for pragmatic reasons. The gospel word and love for the gospel community has not been central in the party. Yes, the key to success is faithfulness, but faithfulness should lead to attractive celebration--and in youth group this may include pizza and silly games.
(2) Gospel and community will be the attractive thing. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is where Chester and Timmis are at their best. In a related article, Timmis states, "[In the household church, there] is no 'bells, whistles, and bright lights' show to entertain [children and young people]. There is just an ordinary, not very sexy, diverse gospel community of people loving one another and relating to one another. The kids are loved and the young people are discipled. They have people around them who care for them, take an interest in them, bear with them, face up to them, pick them up, and welcome them back when they’ve screwed up. Of course, you can add to this anything you want in terms of peer groups and big gatherings, but if this isn’t the core of what you do with kids and young people, then don’t be surprised when they lose interest because no matter how sexy your meetings, you can’t begin to compete with the sizzle in the world outside (Timmis, "Children and Young People," The Resurgence). Children need the church family. Neither parents nor youth/children's minister can do the disciple-making alone. They need the church.
(3) Older Christians will know and intentionally care for youth and children. Chester and Timmis state, "Our experience suggests that more significant than peer relationships are relationships with Christians who are older than the teenagers but not as old as their parents--adults who may not be "youth workers" but who are committed to young people just as they are committed to other people in the church and who model gospel living and make young people feel part of the Christian community" (186-87). This is really good. In the house church context, this often occurs in the "family-integrated" house groups. In larger church settings (like at Sojourn), intentional mentorship--where older believers are paired with younger teens--is a worthy goal.
(4) Youth and children will contribute to the life of the church. When they are more visible, leaders begin to take the presence of young people into account as they plan church life. "If the Bible is taught with the range of people in the church in mind, then it is more likely to be accessible to non-Christians whenever they are present" (187). "The questions of children, and unbelievers for that matter, force us to move beyond our erudite but superficial answers" (189).
When talking about the contributions of kids to the church body, Chester and Timmis use the same arguments as advocates of the "family integrated church" in America--a movement that dismantles all age-segregation in favor of keeping families toegether in church life. I've addressed these arguments elsewhere. While the authors are more flexible with their methodology (see below), I should highlight one area where I strongly disagree. Chester and Timmis state, "The integration of children into the life of the church is consistent with an understanding of the church as an extended family" (189). Counting unbelieving children amongst the "family of faith" is unhelpful and potentially dangerous. It muddies the church's identity and it softens the need for child evangelism. While I agree that there are advantages to integration, I cannot accept this argument.
(5) Methodolgy will be flexible. Late last year, I quoted Chester and Timmis when reviewing the book Family Driven Faith. Their cautions, which I quoted there, are helpful and balanced. Some churches will adopt a "family integrated" approach, and I honestly think this works best in a "house church" model. Others will adopt other methods by which they can equip families:
It is helpful for children to see their parents and others taking the Bible seriously and grappling with it at both the level of understanding and of obedience. One way of doing this is to have the same teaching program for the children as for the adults. Each group is then being taught at the level of their understanding, but the church as a whole is being shaped by the gospel. One church kept the children and adults together for the main teaching session and then had a specific group for children when the congregation broke into application groups (188).
All in all, I'm thankful for Chester and Timmis' chapter. Each of these five emphases is terribly improtant. We must measure success by faithfulness. We must live life together in a way that is attractive. We must be advocates for mentorship in youth and children's ministry. We should include children and youth in the life of the larger church community. We must be faithful to the gospel word and gospel community even as we are flexible with our methods and means.
What do you think of their conclusions? What implications would you add?