Please welcome Ashley Birt as a regular contributor to the PYM blog. Ashley is the Director of Christian Education at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, she is currently Certified Ready to Receive a Call in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She has worked for nearly a decade with children and youth in Pennsylvania and New York.
During my first year of seminary, I had the honor of teaching Sunday School to a group of children and youth at a local Presbyterian church. My work there was enriching and gave me experiences that shape my ministry today. For example, I remember doing a lesson on Revelation 21:10 – 22:5 during which one of my students said “I’ve heard the Book of Revelation is about what will happen during the apocalypse. Is this true?” I explained to him that the book as a whole described an apocalyptic scenario, but this did not answer his question. He wasn’t interested in descriptions; he wanted to know facts. “Is the Book of Revelation true?” he asked again.
“Well…” I asked, “What do you think?”
I have been asked many questions during my time as a youth leader. Sometimes, like when someone asks about God’s love for all people, I give a very clear and straightforward answer (yes, God loves all people, regardless of what they look like, who they love, their wealth, their health, etc.). Most of the time, I don’t answer questions, at least not right away. I might have answers, strong opinions, or passionate feelings, but that’s not really important. Usually, when a child or youth asks me a question, they aren’t looking for my answer. They’re looking for theirs.
Faith and belief don’t just happen because you say so. We can’t force young people into a perspective just because it’s ours. Much like the disciple Thomas asked questions and needed proof to believe, youth (and people of all ages) often need to ask and work through their questions and feelings before discovering their true beliefs. When Thomas was given the opportunity to have his questions answered, he ended up proclaiming his faith more than the other disciples. Likewise, when we allow youth to contemplate their own answers, we give them the freedom to discover the strongest version of their faith.
This doesn’t mean abandoning them or leaving them to fend for themselves. The role of a youth leader, I believe, is to walk with them as they lead you down their path of seeking answers in their faith. Maybe we’ll come to the same conclusions, maybe we’ll disagree. Maybe you’ll have insight to give them, maybe they’ll teach you something new. Maybe neither of you will have answers and you’ll both have to accept that it’s okay not to know. Whatever the case may be, the important thing is that they were an active part of their own spiritual formation. Their questions were not feared or dismissed but embraced and examined. From school to social media to society at large, so many places tell youth what to think and how to feel without taking their actual perspectives into account. Church, full of God’s love and mystery, shouldn’t be one of them.