I spent this past week babysitting an adorable little boy who is two months shy of turning three. I’ll admit right off that perhaps I don’t handle children in the “best” or “safest” way. For one thing, I often use sarcasm. “Oh, you want to hide under the table and cry? That’s so cool and super dramatic…let me know when you want to act like an adult and come out.” For another, I’m hardly what you would consider overprotective. I suffered plenty of bumps and bruises as a child, but I lived to tell the tale, and I learned important lessons from each one. For instance, one of the scars on my right knee taught me that it’s not the greatest idea to ride a bike off a 3-foot drop hoping you’ll land smoothly (I never did it again). I believe in letting children make mistakes and figure things out for themselves.
The child I’m babysitting (we’ll call him Thomas) is sadly underexposed to the world for his age. He still sleeps in his parents’ bed, is not fully potty trained, and, as I discovered the first day, is still spoon-fed.
It was snack time, and Thomas and I took a break from playing to eat a banana and some pretzel sticks. I peeled the banana part-way down and started to hand it to him without a second thought. He wouldn’t take it. “No, you hold it!” I was a little surprised by this and replied, “How about you hold your own banana, punk.” His dad interjected, sounding almost embarrassed, “Actually, he doesn’t feed himself…you’ll need to hold the banana.” I thought to myself, “This is not happening.”
When lunchtime rolled around, I made Thomas a sandwich and cut it into pieces for him. As I buckled him into his high chair, I informed him, “Today it’s time to be a little man. You’re going to do something super cool called eating your own food and being independent. I’m going to go make my own lunch now, but I’ll be back in 5 minutes. Have a blast with this new-found skill.” When I returned, he had eaten a couple of pieces of the sandwich but was looking at one piece, a little confused. “This piece is too big.” The solution was simple. “Pick it up and bite it in half. You’re welcome.” And Thomas ate his own lunch.
Much to the glee of my Facebook friends, I posted these adventures on my timeline, receiving more “likes” than any other status in the past couple of months. Someone commented, “It’s scary that this 3-year-old doesn’t feed himself and hilarious that you didn’t let him get away with it.”
But how scary would it be if he didn’t have my sarcasm to spur him on to greatness, and he was spoon-fed until he was 4? 6? Even 10? If, when he graduated high school and left home, he starved to death because he never learned to feed himself? The idea sounds ridiculous, but what if I told you that it actually happens? We paralyze our children by spoon-feeding them the gospel; and as more and more young people leave the church, we have to recognize and take responsibility for what’s happening. We design elaborate children’s and youth ministry programs to ensure that kids have fun and that our church looks cooler than the one down the street. But when, Sunday after Sunday, we put on a concert for the kids and call it worship, and then give them a gospel lecture that they tune out to play with their iPhones, we may be doing more harm than good. We run our programs a certain way because we think we know best. We think it’s our job to impart to kids all the information we have, forgetting that it took us a lifetime of mistakes to acquire it. When you have all the answers, the hardest lesson to learn is how to shut up.
When Thomas was one year old, he began to want to feed himself. He would whine and cry when he was spoon-fed. But his mom hated for him to get his clothes dirty, so she ignored his tearful pleas for independence and continued to spoon-feed him because she had skills of dexterity which he still lacked. She wouldn’t let him learn, because she could do it better. But if we want to equip children, often we must sacrifice efficiency for the sake of teaching. Sometimes we sigh and tap our foot impatiently while they clumsily put the puzzle pieces together wrong, because the solution is obvious to us. But instead, we should be actively encouraging them to learn, helping them work through their mistakes, and teaching them to clean up after themselves. Instead of doing things for them, maybe we need to do things with them.
If youth have been given doses of the spoon-fed gospel their whole lives, when they leave youth group, they’re anything but prepared. If we do everything for them rather than teaching them to do it for themselves, we’re turning out helpless babies whose faith starves to death when there’s no longer anyone to give them the answers. They may have heard a million other people pray, but do they know how to pray? Have they ever cried out to God in a crisis? Do they know where to go in the Bible to find comfort? Or have we done it for them all along without teaching them how to feed themselves? Do they have a personal relationship with Christ, or have they borrowed their faith from their parents or pastor? These are uncomfortable questions to ask, but we’ve got to start asking them. And trust me, as an aspiring youth minister, these are questions that I have to wrestle with too. Have you trained, equipped, and taught your students? Or have you just put on a show for them?
I think the solution can be found in authentic intergenerational community and deep relationships in which we teach and challenge one another. A community in which no voices are silenced and no questions are dismissed, in which children are free to make mistakes and encouraged to speak out, and to do, and to live the Christian life. My vision for ministry is not a program, but rather a resource. We need youth pastors willing and eager to work themselves out of a job. We need to replace leaders with equippers.
The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll have fed him for a lifetime.” Let’s start teaching people how to fish. Let’s teach them how to chase after Jesus for a lifetime.