(The first of several guest blogs by Abby Thornton, who’s attending the C.Y.N.K.C. conference in Washington, D.C.)

When I became a Pastor, I also became a Children’s Minister. This was a bit of a surprise; I had worked in Children’s and Youth ministry as a seminary intern and as an Associate Pastor, and figured (with a bit of sadness) that now my time working closely with children was now over. Then I became the solo pastor of a church where, on any given Sunday morning, a solid third of our worshippers are under the age of twelve.  Now at least a third of my time is now spent figuring out how to shepherd this new generation of children who are such a vibrant part of my flock. It is some of the most exhilarating, befuddling, unexpected, overwhelming and fulfilling pastoral work I do.

So you can imagine that, when offered the chance to attend the “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity” conference at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. this week, I snatched up a ticket. As both a pastor to children and a curriculum writer for youth, I realize how much ministry with rising generations is changing every day—and needs to transform even more to reflect a rapidly revolving culture.  I came to absorb the wisdom of the listed parade of speakers in hopes that there might be a crumb of something to grasp on to, something that could deepen my congregation’s work with our inquisitive, diverse, energetic generation of children as they quickly grow towards adolescence.

A few of the 500 ministers and volunteer children and youth leaders attendingThe conference opened less with crumbs than a smorgasbord. Within the first hour and a half, we heard Dixon Kinser talk insightfully about ministry with growing numbers of autistic children and youth; Starlette McNeill prophetically challenge us that “we must choose between believing in race and believing in Christ;” and Mike King push us to consider that if we are to help our churches flourish, we must stay where we are and invest in a place for the long haul. 

In other words, presenters took three touchy topics—developmental and social differences, our tendency to hide behind perceived racial differences, and our inclinations as pastor and as people to pick up and move on when the going gets tough—and laid them bare. It was made quickly apparent that today’s children’s ministry can not focus solely on grape Kool-aid and butter cookies and a nice ride on Noah’s Ark, nor can youth ministry revolve around a well-attended lock-in. As we work with the youngest among us, we will be brought face-to-face with our own perceptions about and fears of tremendous issues: how to handle our perceived differences, and how to cultivate relationship in a constantly shifting world.

Bryan Moyer Suderman, music leader for the conferenceThe call I heard resounded throughout all of the presentations—particularly those of Dixon Kinser and Starlette McNeill—was to do just what we did while gathered in Calvary’s sanctuary this afternoon: to lay truth on the table. One of the best ways to bring a youth with an autism diagnosis into the embrace of your church community, Kinser challenged, is simply to let autism come out of hiding. With 1 in 88 births now a child who will be diagnosed with some form of autism, one of the best gifts churches can give is a safe space for kids disclose their diagnosis, feeling no shame in it and no need to hide it.

We must make things like autism, to borrow Kinser’s fabulous phrase, “talk-about-able.” McNeill made a similar argument about the ways we tiptoe around or try to avoid talking about the way we have “socially color-coded” our bodies. “We may think the church is not the place to talk about race–we’re here to praise God, right?” McNeill asked.  “But God is concerned about the way we worship and learn and serve … separately.” 

Part of me wishes for neat answers about how to strengthen ministry with youth and children—a five step plan, a miraculous curriculum, something to make it simple. But from its opening, the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference is pushing those who minister to youth and children onto the harder road of authenticity. Honesty even about difficult issues must be brought into our life together in raising a new generation if we are to have any hope of reaching them with the good news of God’s truth. How might the way that all ages in our congregations choose to speak truth and have honest dialogue about challenging issues impact the formation of the youngest among us? It is a vital question for pastors, teachers, parents, and congregants of all ages.

[Abby Thornton is pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis, Maryland. We’ll post Abby’s take on Brian McClaren’s Monday night keynote a bit later. In the meantime, Mennonite minister Matt Hickman has posted a nice summary of it here. Matt is Associate Pastor of Youth and Family Life at the Mennonite Church of Normal, Illinois.]

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