The kitchen at our church has a pass-through window with a bird’s-eye view of one of the children’s ministry spaces. During Vacation Bible School last August, within earshot of this open space, I was chopping candy bars and other build-your-own sundae ingredients while listening to the morning’s carpet conversation.
The kids were peppering the youth ministry leader with impossible-to-answer questions about heaven and hell and I was terribly relieved that they’d only asked me to make a snack: making sense of the hereafter is something I’m still struggling to do for myself, let alone for impressionable youngsters.
Children and youth aren’t the only ones who want answers about what happens when this life ends, but their line of questioning can be so dogged and determined, particularly if they catch even the faintest whiff of uncertainty. Only the most iron-clad explanations can survive their pointed cross-examinations.
I had just diced a stack of Oreo cookies when I heard a familiar voice-the impressionable youngster to whom I gave birth-openly challenging the VBS leader:
“My mom says there’s no such thing as hell!”
I was busted. My face and neck flushed fire-engine red. I would have welcomed an actual bus to throw myself under at that moment.
What I had told my son was, “Hell’s not like that“-as in not like the fiery underworld he had started to imagine, thanks to his religious education thus far. (I’ve also tried to explain that heaven is not a bouncy castle, but my attempts to dispel hyperbolic imagery at both ends of the spectrum haven’t been very successful.)
Children gravitate toward clear, concise messages they can understand: a punishing God who sends you someplace terrible if you do something bad is easy to conjure in the mind’s eye. And it’s a one-dimensional picture that is reinforced by a lot of religious curriculum-both at school and at church. There is such a premium placed on moral virtues, dogma and indoctrination: the “Be a good boy!” finger-wagging that may well give birth to yet another generation that doesn’t want to have anything to do with the church.
I’m not trying to set my son up to be a heretic or a Sunday school dropout, but I’m anxious to push past the preoccupation with good and evil to get to the good stuff.
In a May 2000 essay for First Things magazine, entitled Leading Children Beyond Good and Evil, James Davison Hunter examines the role that empathy plays as being foundational to ethical living. He says, “For many moral educators, it is our capacity to imagine ourselves in the situation of others that is the source of our moral sentiments. And it is through our capacity to imagine the suffering of others, even those in circumstances that are utterly alien to us, that we learn compassion and mercy.”
Empathy, compassion, mercy-these are the places where I’m most eager to take my son and to watch him be taken by those who are involved in his religious education.
There’s a lot of hope for the kind of children and youth ministry that is emerging across the Canadian church-the learning through outreach model. To learn empathy, compassion and mercy first-hand-as difficult and uncomfortable as that is-may be the best way to lay a strong foundation for a lifelong relationship with God.
And if whole congregations can demonstrate leadership by living into these ideals-not just leaving it to the energetic few in the youth group-then the next generation might just want to have a lifelong relationship with the church, too.
Michelle Hauser is a former fundraiser, turned newspaper columnist and freelance writer. She and her husband Mark live in Napanee, Ontario, with their son Joseph and worship at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Her work includes contributions to CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and The Kingston Whig-Standard. She can be reached through her website at www.michellehauser.ca.