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soundbytes and stunting sensitivity to the experience of children.

June 1, 2018
Facebook. I shouldn’t look.
A friend posted a quote from a book. A Christian book, a big selling influential Christian book,  by a contemporary theologian of great reputation. It’s a good book. I’ve read it. It was helpful in lots of ways. Definitely read it if you haven’t and buy it and pass it around to others.
I’m not dismissing the book because of this one quote, but this was the quote that was shared, given profile, and so then discussed and reinforced on facebook.
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It appears that a good church upbringing will do many marvelous things for you, but one of the unfortunate things it also does is convince you that Jesus is to be worshipped but not followed.
– Alan Hirsch,  ReJesus. 
Ah, man. I can’t tell you how infuriating this kind of generalisation is.
It’s a good sound-byte.
But I am about to object (some of you won’t be surprised) because its an example of the way the faith experiences of children are dismissed, scapegoated and marginalised in theological discourse in ways that don’t help us understand our own cultural practices well.
Again, I have to ask how we manage to malign the young with language we would not dare use for other minorities or marginalised group. Is there a context christians feel more disinhibited in deprecating that the experiences of childhood?
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So my questions, I admit are running on frustration and fury. Forgive me. I know you would if I were prophetically calling out for reconsideration of the way we spoke about gender, or race or ability.
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It’s a small soundbyte from a wonderful book – but it is the kind of comment, and the discussion that it spawns, the stunts our sensitivity to the actual experience of children in our midst – even as we use them for theological mileage.
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‘Good church upbringing…’ what is that, I wonder?
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Who is Hirsch talking about?
Who does he diagnoses as worshipping Jesus and not following him, and on what basis does he judge this?
What kind of spiritual elitism judges the human who follows the script on Sunday, as expected, and whose discipleship through the week is most likely hidden, like a pearl of great price or salt or yeast in dough. The faithful lives of disciples are not easily assessed by a church that gathers once a week for a one-way communication process.
The rubric for evaluating people as worshippers or disciples is not easily drawn.
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I had a childhood in the church – a very good church upbringing.
The message ‘I shall not offer unto the Lord that which costeth me nothing” was so often repeated it rings in my ears still.
What was faith formation growing up in the church?
It was daily dying to self. It was giving all you had – in real and practical terms – to follow the crucified Christ. It was holding up all of your daily life-style decisions to the light of scripture for revision and re-evaluation.
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I’m sure others had different experiences of church-upbringing; and I can’t see what informs Hirch’s claim about the experience of children in faith communities, but I am sure there is a far greater diversity of formative practices and outcomes than this
off- hand quote suggests.
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So – just as anecdotally – from the perspective of decades out the back in the hall with the young disciples I offer an alternative view. A view not from the platform, but from the pew and from the short legged tables and the carpet square and the craft cupboard and the pages of the Bible with icing sugar smears.
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The orientation of ‘upbringing’ – by which I mean the experience of children in churches has been – to a fault- centred on discipleship. Following Jesus, prayer and engagement with the bible and the way it shapes our everyday actions is the common stock in how we ‘process’ children in faith communities. If there’s a critique to be brought more commonly it is that children are excluded from the worshipping life of the church, denied the sacraments and the contemplative moments of life together. And routinely the discipleship formation experience of children hits difficult waters in the conversion experience orientation of youth ministry. Suddenly children who thought they were following Jesus for a decade – whose prayers were sincere, who were endeavouring to shape their lives on the sermon on the mount at our behest, are told they are rotten rebellious sinners far from God. What is the impact of discrediting their discipleship?
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So I offer this alternative diagnosis. It is not the upbringing/child-raising practices that misdirect faith posture towards “worship-against-discipleship”, but the transition from discipleship-oriented faith formation of the young, to the worship orientation of the adult community.
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I write thinking of children and young people.  But also I write thinking of the adults I know who had church upbringings. Adults who no longer identify with a church. Who don’t ‘worship Jesus’ – but the legacy of their childhood is  faith in following the teachings, the ethics, the kingdom of God that they learned as young disciples of  Jesus.
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Some of them are yet our best prophetic voices, calling the church to return to faithfulness to the architecture Jesus revealed.
What of them? Their church upbringing has precisely left them following Jesus without worshipping him.
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What do we make of that?

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