I’m leading a class at church called Faith@Home. It was billed as a way to help the participants bring more spirituality into their family’s home lives, but our first class ended up being a support group for parents of inquisitive kids. “Hello, my name is Kory and I have children who want to know about Heaven.” I anticipate the rest of our sessions will be a spiritual version of the Iran-Contra hearings. How much should our children know? When should they know it?
My angst in this area was further roused by my friend Erin on her amazing blog. Reading it is my favorite spiritual discipline, and if you don’t yet subscribe your life simply isn’t complete. In this particular post, she talked about trying to help her young child process the theological questions behind the case of a missing cat (Erin makes it work beautifully; she’s that good!). To summarize, she concludes that, “As a wise seminary professor said–when the kids are 5 (or 4, as it were) all you have to give them is the story. You don’t have to dig into the layers of context and language barriers, and what actually happened. You give them the gift of the story so that it becomes a part of them. As they grow, they will find the many ways in which the story is, in fact, true.”
I agree wholeheartedly. It’s the same reason God didn’t tell the original readers of Genesis about constellations and blood cells and photosynthesis. Minds were created to be nurtured, not blown. Those ancient Israelites didn’t have the capacity to understand complex scientific concepts, so God told them a story about chaos and creation, a hovering Spirit and a sly serpent. Is that version of the story any less true? Of course not. It’s the same reason we tell kids stories about storks delivering babies. It’s much more appropriate – and for that matter, probably more interesting to them – than the real story.
So I’m with Erin when she says we have to tell our four-year-olds the four-year-old version of stories about lost kittens and boats full of animals adrift on the flood waters. But here’s my dilemma: At what point do we start telling them the grown-up versions, the ones where the cat may have gotten eaten by coyotes and where the boat was surrounded by the floating bodies of all the people who didn’t make it on board?
As our children’s minds mature, their ability to comprehend and process the whole story also grows. But here’s where the church gets it wrong. As our kids move into the thorny landscape of adolescence, the church stops focusing on teaching our children and instead worries about losing them. We stop reading Bible stories and instead take them to laser tag and host Sardines-saturated lock-ins to prove we’re “FUN!” and “HIP!” and worth at least one hour a week of their time. And in many cases, they still don’t come.
The outcome of this is that our youth graduate high school with an 18-year-old ability to question and reason, but with only a four-year-old faith. And then they get to college, that bastion of critical thinking, where professors challenge and prod and inflame our youth’s minds, and their four-year-old faith folds like a flimsy felt-board. They haven’t been given the spiritual tools to counter the questions and doubts that are as natural for a college student as a box of Ramen and a club stamp. As Phillip Gulley says so wonderfully, their “view of God is trapped in the amber of childhood.”
And then, after college, they get married and the stork visits and they decide they want their kids to learn about God and Jesus and stuff because that was important to them growing up, so they bring the little ones to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and the Pastor’s Class, secretly hoping the church can provided their kids with what they don’t have: a living, breathing, relevant faith. And the cycle begins again.
So how do we break that? At what point do we start telling our children the rest of the story? Maybe that approach is too pedagogical. Maybe instead of telling them, we should give them the space to discover the truth for themselves. Maybe instead of spouting statements we should encourage inquisitiveness, letting our children develop their own answers to the tough questions they will wrestle with the rest of their lives. “Daddy, why did Cain hurt his brother? Why didn’t someone help all those sick people? Why did Jesus have to die?” Why indeed.
There’s a time and place to address such questions, and each parent hopefully knows when their child is ready to consider that the lost cat didn’t make it home. Four years old is probably not the right time. But it’s not the church’s job to provide those answers; we’re actually much better at helping them ask the questions. Our children’s journey of discovery (of self, of others, and of God) starts at home, where our kids experience all the joys and challenges of being human in this world. I can only pray that we parents have the tools and patience to help them find what they are looking for, be it lost cats or a loving God.