This recent article in The Atlantic raises some very challenging issues for any Christians involved in children’s work. It highlights the way in which many Christian children’s clubs and organizations consistently rely upon false representations, both to parents and children. Parents are led to believe that the groups running such clubs will be teaching a message to their children that would be acceptable to a general interdenominational Christian audience, when in actuality the message being taught is one that would be highly objectionable to many. The article also draws attention to the ways that the organizations that run such clubs can subtly undercut or reject the authority of parents and their churches through their teaching.
Children can also feel that they have been sold a bill of goods. Promised lots of fun and games, such activities may prove to be incidental inducements, while the actual form of the events are dominated by and organized around activities that weren’t clearly advertised up front. The relationship that exists between schools and Christian children’s clubs can also be misrepresented, lending the clubs an aura of the school’s authorization that they do not actually possess.
One of the central concerns of the article is the teaching of a message that focuses heavily upon the threat of death and hell, something with which many parents would be very uncomfortable. In many cases, this discomfort does not arise principally from a denial of hell’s existence, but from the way that it exposes psychologically vulnerable and impressionable kids to a form of teaching that exploits those weaknesses, exposing them to psychological forces and processes that they are not yet mature enough to handle in a healthy manner.
It is very easy to brainwash and psychologically to overwhelm a young child. It is also easy to abuse a child’s unquestioning trust in authority figures to get them to act and believe in the way that you desire. It is much harder to address your message to a child at a level at which they can truly respond to it in a manner that isn’t a mere manipulated or pressured reaction.
A few years back, Jesus Camp was released, a documentary film which illustrates these dangers very powerfully.
Within this film you see kids being pushed to a point where they lack the ability to respond, but can only react. You see their bodies shaking, in floods of tears, rhythmically dancing or clapping, shouting maniacally, caught up in the crowd’s energy and the enthusiasm of the moment, they are berated and harangued by speakers whipping up wildfires of emotion. The language is martial and passion-fuelled.
Many Christian children’s organizations would be appalled by such practices and utterly deplore such methods. However, given the fragility of young children’s minds, it doesn’t take much to exploit their weaknesses. Even well-meaning Christians can be at risk of doing it. This often – usually – isn’t something that is done intentionally. Instead, it arises from a lack of mindfulness of and attention to children’s vulnerability in these areas. If you are not consistently and carefully assessing your methods to see whether you are doing this, there is a good chance that you will slip into doing it. It is the easiest way to get ‘results’.
For many, the real trauma of childhood sexual abuse is often primarily retroactive. The utterly sickening truth is that many kids do not feel abused at the time and some may even seem to be enjoying it. It is only when they grow up and realize what was done to them that the trauma hits. Much the same can be true of childhood spiritual or psychological abuse. Many who seemingly responded to a Christian message in their childhood can later completely turn away from the faith when they realize that their vulnerable emotional, spiritual, and psychological states were exploited – whether wittingly or not – by people that they thought that they could trust. On occasions, the stumbling blocks that we have put before our little ones may not show their true effects for decades.
The onus is thus on Christian children’s group leaders to relate to the children they teach in a way that, when the grown children look back on their experience, they will affirm that the fragile minds entrusted to those leaders were treated with all of the gentleness, care, and honour that they required. Just as the trauma of our stumbling blocks may take many years to break the surface, so trustworthy seeds sown deep in a child’s heart seldom bear their full fruit until many years down the line.
The children’s worker is primarily a sower, not a reaper. When the primary focus is placed upon the number of children converted in a summer camp we can easily forget that fact. The most important question that the children’s worker must always be asking is ‘did I sow trustworthy seeds today?’.
If and when I have children, the most important lesson of all that I want them to learn is that Jesus is someone that they can and should trust. As someone representing Christ to them in various ways, it is imperative that they can trust me. If I manipulate and pressure them to enter into a relationship of trust, I have poisoned that relationship at its roots. But if I honour their weaknesses, treat them with gentleness and care, act towards them and – in the case of children not my own – parents in a manner that is forthright, open, and honest, never taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, those trustworthy seeds sown early in life may bear lifelong fruit.