Q I teach Sunday school and love every minute of it. The children are often enthusiastic, the parents supportive, the teen helpers a joy to work with. But when I compare my teaching experience with my overall experience of congregational life, it feels like an “invisible hand” blocks the joy; the experience is discouraging and ministry suffers. I don’t understand this contradiction. Where might it come from?
A I don’t know your situation, but I’ve observed a similar dynamic in various congregations caused by a variety of factors, including the following: (a) one or two influential members consistently spread a negative spirit and no one dares to challenge them; (b) church leadership assumes that their calling requires them to exercise power in a heavy-handed way rather than with a gently gracious servant heart; (c) a serious congregational wound from years past has never been properly dealt with; (d) a conflict festers below the surface and is never worked through. There are many other possibilities.
If any one of these realities is troubling your congregation, there are no easy fixes. Responding will inevitably involve a great deal of prayer, calm, heart-to-heart conversations with leaders, and perhaps—at the right time—inviting a wise voice from outside your body to guide the community in discerning possible steps of healing. “Church visitors,” seasoned elders and pastors from the classis can be helpful. The denomination’s Office of Pastor-Church Relations also helps congregations experiencing these challenges.
—Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.
Q Are curfews for young people a just response when a few cause trouble?
A Your question shows how important it is to distinguish between individual and group responsibility for actions. Young people are more likely to receive group discipline because of the behavior of a few, and it is not always fair.
Curfews are used by event organizers, police, and other authorities to restore order after a group incident occurs that could get out of control. They may also be used to prevent gatherings that are likely to lead to group misconduct. Curfews can be overused or misused by authorities as a tool to control certain groups of people, especially young people, when there is no reasonable justification for such control. Penalizing a whole group for misbehavior by a few can be unjust. It depends on the evidence in each case and the alternatives available to those in charge of maintaining a safe, healthy environment for all the people involved.
Based on my experience with young people, it is preferable to establish clear boundaries in advance—and involve young people themselves in setting the boundaries for what will be considered unacceptable and what the consequences will be. When misbehavior happens, immediate consequences can be followed with other tools that allow everyone to learn from the incident.
We know that young people (from about age 12 to 25) are particularly sensitive to fairness, often asking adults good but challenging questions about the injustice they see in our society. I see this as a gift from young people in our communities. Youth activities are an important opportunity to learn how to exercise your rights as a person of worth and dignity and how to respect the rights of others.
—Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.
Q I understand the varied reasons for not reading the creation accounts of Genesis literally. But as a parent, how do I discern when and how to explore such nuances with my children?
A Great question. As a parent I wrestle with similar thoughts. My own reading of the early chapters of Genesis has grown more complex as I have learned more about Hebrew literary styles and ancient Near Eastern cosmologies. Many of us are realizing that these should not be read as presenting us with a scientific account or a blow-by-blow historical account. These texts are actually much richer than such simplistic approaches give them credit for. That said, how do we convey these stories to our children in a way that allows them to embrace the story at a surface reading, while also creating space for them to consider the broader symbolic beauty, meaning, and poetry they contain?
When children are young, it makes sense to read these creation stories at face value, emphasizing the beauty and wonder of creation, and God’s hand as the author of the universe. As our children grow, I think it’s important to create opportunities for them to ask deeper questions and consider how our readings relate to other things we know about the world. How do we read God’s Word in light of what else we know from the book of creation? We should help our children to explore more discerning readings of these and other complicated stories in the Bible. Such readings present us with much more depth, nuance, and richness—and will allow a child’s appreciation for the biblical text to grow.
—Bryan Berghoef is a church planter in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.