In Are Bible Classes Winnowing Out Young People, the case was made that certain practices in children’s and youth ministries may be winnowing out young people who don’t fit the mold we’ve created for how they should learn about God and grow spiritually. Furthermore, there is an attitude on the part of some ministers and volunteers that certain young people are somehow destined to fall away – to fail to grow up to become faithful, productive Christians. These young people may be treated differently or given the unspoken message perhaps, that they will ultimately fail. We know for many young people, sensing the adults who are teaching or coaching them don’t believe in their ability to be successful, causes them to quit trying.
In addition to problematic attitudes that may exist, there are practices we use that may winnow out young people who struggle to grow spiritually using them. They can become frustrated, angry or even disheartened. Eventually, at some point, they may decide “Christianity” is not for them. This is unfortunate, because God wants all young people to be given every possible opportunity to learn what He wants them to know, build strong spiritual foundations and grow to their godly potential.
While we are still contemplating the various aspects of the idea of winnowing ourselves, these are some areas where we believe making adjustments could help address the problem.
- Identifying special spiritual needs. Each young person is unique. He or she has unique traits, gifts and experiences. Each young person also has unique struggles. This uniqueness can create a need for special strategies to help them grow spiritually. A foster child who has suffered abuse, will have a need to process the trauma in order to be able to be as spiritually strong as possible. A child who has a unique gift from God may need special mentoring to discover, develop and use that gift to serve God and understand his or her place in the Kingdom. A child from a home where the Bible is taught regularly will need more challenging Bible classes than a child who has never heard any Bible stories. Failing to discover what each individual child needs to learn and grow, means we are teaching to some imaginary norm. Only young people matching that norm will get everything they need from whatever we are offering. While the idea of an Individualized Spiritual Education Plan is perhaps a bit much, the idea of talking with each young person and his or her family to identify as many special needs as possible could prove helpful. Your ministry may not be able to meet every special spiritual need of every child, but an effort should be made to identify and support every young person as much as possible.
- Differentiating Bible Classes. Secular teachers used to be expected to differentiate curriculum within their class of students. Young people able to handle more challenging work were given what they needed to be challenged. Students who were struggling were given what they needed to provide the additional assistance to master important material. It is important to find effective ways of differentiating Bible class curriculum. In many churches, young people who are knowledgeable about scripture and have a faith that is robust are often bored and unchallenged, causing frustration and exasperation. In the same classes are young people who have little, if any, exposure to scripture. They believe they know less than other students, but aren’t sure how to catch up. They are often embarrassed and afraid someone else will realize they “don’t belong”. They can easily become discouraged and give up on trying to learn and grow. Of particular concern is that young people with special needs are often ignored entirely, meaning the estimated 85% of young people with special needs who will eventually reach the age of accountability will most likely never be given enough information to make an informed decision. Teachers talented at differentiating curriculum can suggest ways to alter activities, questions and other aspects of Bible lessons to help challenge students who are ahead of the norm and ensure those who are struggling will get the extra help they need.
- Choosing stronger learning activities. In almost every Bible curriculum we have reviewed, the activities provided are at best uneven in the learning support they provide. Some are too didactic, causing problems with boredom or proving too difficult for children with learning disabilities or special needs. Others are fun, but have almost no spiritual educational value. Often activities are only engaging students who enjoy arts and crafts or games. Spending more time in carefully crafting learning activities that add real, meaningful value to the lesson and engage children with a variety of interests could help many children get more value from Bible classes and lessen the chances they are winnowed because they never learn what God wants for them and from them.
- Training volunteers to be coaches and mentors as well as teachers. Teacher training has fallen out of vogue in many churches. The idea is that the less you ask of volunteers, the easier it will be to recruit. Actually, we need to have the opposite mindset. Teaching young people the Bible is perhaps the most important ministry in any church for a number of reasons. These volunteers should be people who are passionate about reaching young people and beg to be trained to be more effective in helping young people grow to become faithful, productive Christians. Too many young people are winnowed out because a volunteer said or did something inappropriate or hurtful. Or because the volunteer failed to provide what they needed to learn and grow. Instead of continually lowering the bar for volunteers, we need to be raising it. Ironically, many churches who do often find they have a waiting list of people wanting to teach and mentor children and teens.
- Giving young people practical help in living a Christian life, including using their unique gifts to serve others and share their faith. We have learned over the years that knowing what God wants you to do and being able to do it are often two different things. This is particularly true for young people being raised in homes where their parents may not know how to model or teach specific godly skill sets. For example, handling conflict in godly ways is much easier to do if you have seen it done regularly in your home or were taught the steps to do it. Asking a young person to handle conflict in godly ways when they have never seen it be done or been taught the specific steps involved sets them up for failure. In the same way, a teen who is good at sports or organizing may honestly believe God and the church have no need for their talents. Helping them understand how those gifts can be used to serve God by serving others and sharing their faith, also gives them a sense of purpose, belonging and meaning in their church and the Kingdom. Without help in these areas, young people may begin to believe obeying God is impossible and God has no need or use for their particular gifts and passions. They winnow themselves out of church in favor of secular groups that can show them where they belong and are needed and train them how to be successful in that environment.
- Valuing relationships over convenience or entertainment. Too often young people are siloed into their “age appropriate environments”. Often the reason given is that they will be more engaged/entertained and/or will be less disruptive than in the multigenerational environment. They are denied opportunities to build strong relationships with people who are older or younger than them. It’s ironic that the trend in the secular world is to acknowledge the value of not separating people by age groups. They have realized that especially with the breakdown of nuclear and extended families, young people are missing out on the benefits of spending extensive time with people of different ages. This is even more important in a spiritual environment. Limiting access to a handful of volunteers lessens the chance that an individual young person will get the time and attention he or she needs from an older Christian who has the same character traits, interests, talents, struggles or passions. Giving them prolonged exposure to the entire congregation gives them a larger extended spiritual family to love and mentor them in a variety of ways.
- Mentors trained to help young people work through doubts and struggles. Every young person has doubts and struggles. Often they are left to try and work through them on their own. Or when someone does try to help, they may not be the best person to help with that particular doubt or struggle. In either case, when the appropriate help isn’t received, young people often winnow themselves out because they believe God doesn’t have the answers they need. Why not have a teen interested in science but struggling because science teachers are saying things against the Bible or Christianity talk with a professional scientist who is a strong Christian? Or one who is struggling because a parent is addicted to something talk with a strong Christian who has experience or training in the topic? Not every congregation will necessarily have every person they need (although in my personal experience God has provided), but knowing who has expertise in what areas and encouraging young people to express their doubts and struggles will make it more likely they will get the support they need and in ways that will actually help.
- Providing support in spiritual disciplines. Young people are often winnowed out because they have not learned enough to live a Christian life in ways they consider successful. Or they don’t know how to use the Bible, prayer, reflection and other spiritual disciplines to stay close to God when they are on their own at school or in other situations where they may feel isolated from other Christians who could help them. Others struggle because they have never achieved Bible reading comprehension because the reading level or vocabulary words are too difficult. Or they aren’t sure how to pray or reflect on scripture. Or they haven’t heard or memorized enough scripture to help them make godly choices in real time. While some Bible class teachers encourage independent participation in spiritual disciplines, by and large young people are left to figure it out for themselves if their families don’t provide ample support. Teaching and encouraging young people in spiritual disciplines will expose them to more scripture and give them important tools to stay close to God, make godly choices and continue to grow spiritually no matter their circumstances.
As you read this list, you may have thought of other areas where our practices are encouraging young people to winnow themselves out of Christianity. We would love for you to share your ideas with us. This is not a theological debate, but rather analyzing how we teach young people the Bible. Our goal is to refine our methods so we are using the ones that encourage rather than discourage young people in their efforts to learn about God and grow spiritually. As we continue reflecting on the idea of winnowing, we will share anything new we uncover with you in future posts.