Theological Principles Behind Intergenerational Youth Ministry
Its Not Rocket Science
Last fall I was conducting a Parenteen Seminar 1 in the Houston area. The parents, youth ministry volunteers and community professionals who participated in the seminar generated great dialogue and insights. Being in NASA country, I was thrilled to have an actual NASA team member in the crowd. I strategically waited until the end of the seminar, when the need for authentic parental and adult engagement of the abandoned teenage culture was being discussed, to use the phrase, “It’s not rocket science.”
The laugh was cheap but the point clear. In the midst of a society that tends to isolate kids from adults, God calls kingdom followers to a different path. Throughout scripture, God paints a picture of kids being raised by parents working hand in hand with the broader adult community. 2
Support from the Old Testament
As we think about Scriptural patterns for educating children, it’s logical to start with the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy, anchored on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, gave the people of Israel cues as to what is expected of them in the spiritual formation of their biological children as well as the children of their community.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV).
Most of us have probably read, sang, contemplated, and written this section of scripture. A deeper examination of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 reveals two principles that support intergenerational philosophy and programming for youth ministry.
Principle #1: Parents and the surrounding community of adults are expected to exemplify what it means to be fully-devoted followers of God. This expectation of total devotion is indicated in several portions of the Deuteronomy 6 passage. First, to declare “The LORD our God, the LORD is one ...” is no small matter. It is a covenant agreement in which the people of Israel agree to follow the “one and only God” with absolute loyalty and obedience. 3 This pledge of allegiance, often read aloud, starting with the words “Hear, O Israel,” is a “summons to those who would be Israel in any age” 4 to align themselves with the work and will of the LORD.
Following the pattern of the Near Eastern ruler/subject relationship (also known as the suzerain/vassal relationship), the Israelites (the subjects) are agreeing to give three parts of themselves to the Lord: their undivided loyalty (their heart), their physical assets and talents (their might), and their own lives if necessary (their soul). In other words, Israel is entering into a legal, covenant agreement through reciting these words. 5
So serious was this commitment to follow the LORD, the term “with all your soul” sparked a martyrdom tradition in Judaism. 6 An example of such devotion is witnessed in the life of King Josiah. It was written of King Josiah, and no other king in the biblical record, that he served the LORD “with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might” (2 Kings 23:25).
What is the connection between wholehearted devotion and a theology of intergenerational youth ministry? Research shows, whether for good or bad, that children follow the spiritual lead set by their parents and surrounding adult community. 7 The results of less than wholehearted devotion from parents, community members and, to be fair, children are highlighted in the Old Testament book of Judges. Recalling the failure of the generation who originally received the Deuteronomy 6 admonition, Judges 2:10-11a records:
“After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil…”
At a very fundamental level, the positive example of Deuteronomy 6 and the negative example of Judges 2 remind us of the impact of modeling in our intergenerational relationships.
Principle #2: Adults, starting with parents, are commanded to be active participants in their childrens’ spiritual formation. Several portions of the Deuteronomy 6 passage indicate parental and community involvement in a child’s spiritual formation. First, “Impress them on your children” is a phrase that indicates the parents’ responsibility and agreement to teach their children about the LORD. At the time that Moses authored this passage, the spiritual formation of children included the use of both formal and informal opportunities to teach and centered on the telling of family, tribal and national historical narratives of the Exodus and the experience of living in covenant relationship with the LORD. 8
Second, the words “...talk ... walk ... lie down ...get up…tie ...write” are action verbs that indicate constant process. The phrase “on your forehead” indicates the LORD’s desire that, through formal teaching and the witness of right living in the lives of parents and the surrounding adult community, God’s ways remain “between the eyes” of children. 9
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 specifically mentions the responsibility of parents in the spiritual formation of children. So what level of responsibility does the overall community have in the process? Historically in Israel, families carried out their formational responsibility in the context of the broad community. Supplementing the education received in the home was a sequence of festivals and observances that provided instructional opportunities for the whole Israelite community. 10 Read the following verses and imagine the impact such an occasion would have had on the children in attendance.
“At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people-men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns-so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:10-13
I believe Eugene Peterson casts an appropriate vision for the ongoing interface between family and community in kids’ spiritual formation in his paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only! Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got! Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (The Message)
Support in the Life, Teachings and Experience of Jesus.
Jesus’ experience and teachings mirror and often intensify the principles of intergenerational ministry already highlighted from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. 11
Jesus lived life as a fully devoted follower of God. Jesus demonstrated the significance of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 by quoting from it when asked by the Pharisees to identify the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:35-40). 12 Akin to the “with all your soul” dedication of Deuteronomy 6, Jesus demonstrated his obedience to God unto death (Philippians 2:8). Jesus requires the same full, cross-bearing devotion from those who make the commitment to follow him (Luke 14:26-27).
Jesus’ spiritual formation was impacted by his parents and surrounding adult community. This impact is seen in the various temple dialogues, his temple experience as a twelve year-old, his “lost experience,” and his submission to his parents’ will (Luke 2:21-52). Jesus’ knowledge of the law and ability to read Hebrew indicates that Jesus may have been a participant in the local school system established by the high priest in the first century. 13 This would be a further indication of the community’s involvement in Jesus’ education.
Jesus spoke of adults as active participants in a child’s spiritual formation. Jesus strongly opposed 14 the disciples who were attempting to keep children away from him (Mark 10:13-14). Jesus welcomed children into his crowded schedule and urged others to do the same in his name (Matthew 18:5). The use of the term “in my name” in Matthew 18:5 highlights Jesus’ desire that his disciples accept children because that is exactly what he would do. 15 So passionate was Jesus, he said of those who cause children to sin that it would be best for them if they would jump into the sea with a large millstone tied around their neck (Matthew 18:6).
Support in Pauline Literature
The Apostle Paul, highly educated in the Jewish education traditions (Acts 22:3-5) and the New Testament’s most prolific writer, demonstrates similar connections to the principles highlighted from Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Paul was a fully devoted follower of Jesus. Paul’s wholehearted devotion to God is seen before and after his conversion. He demonstrated his devotion to Christ by remaining faithful through tremendous persecution and knowledge of his own impending martyrdom (2 Corinthians 11:22-30; 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Paul called his hearers to live and model a fully devoted life in Christ. Paul speaks of his efforts to deepen his relationship with Christ as a race to be won. This is the level of devotion, demonstrated in his own life, Paul expects “mature” believers to posses (Philippians 3:12-21). 16
For Paul, modeling demonstrates the harmony between doctrine and lifestyle choices. Harmony (i.e., practicing what one is preaching) assures that the watching “younger” audience understands the source of all moral behavior centers on Christ and not societal standards of conduct. 17
Paul’s own life and faith journey was shaped by adults. An examination of the scriptures highlighting Paul’s religious and cultural upbringing demonstrates the impact Paul’s parents and community had on his spiritual formation. 18 The impact of Paul’s parents and surrounding adult community is implicit in Paul’s defense before Agrippa (Acts 26:2-23). Here Paul highlights his extensive religious training and experience that led up to his conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:4ff). Furthermore, Paul claims his training and experience has been evident to the Jewish community from his childhood (Acts 26:4).
Paul spoke of parents and adults as active participants in a child’s spiritual formation. Paul’s admonition to fathers in Ephesians 6:4 that they raise their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” indicates his expectation that fathers be major players in their children’s spiritual formation. It is clear that Paul wants the older Christians and those in authority to teach younger Christians (either by age or experience) what it means to follow Christ in word and action (Titus 2:1-15). His emphasis on familial and familial-like relationships in the body of Christ is evident when he describes the respect and honor he expects each believer to give across generational lines (1Timothy 5:1-2). 19 As in Deuteronomy 6, passages such as Titus 2:1-15 and I Timothy 5:1-21 indicate a continual process that makes the most out of both formal and informal opportunities for intergenerational interaction. 20
A New Way of Life Together
During the break at my Houston seminar, the NASA scientist and I discussed the various factors influencing the societal abandonment of young people by today’s adult culture. As in so many conversations that I’ve had with youth workers across the country on this topic, our discussion kept coming back to the same conclusion-parents and other adults need to recapture the thoughtful and intentional engagement with teenagers described in Scripture.
I haven’t seen the NASA scientist in several months, but I am sure he’s taking his role as parent and adult community member seriously. He and I-and countless others nationwide-have realized that it’s really not rocket science.
Action Points for Youth Workers
- Spend time evaluating the theological principles supporting intergenerational youth ministry philosophy and programming within your ministry context. Using the simple scale below, record your answers to the following questions and then discuss them as a team.
1: Strongly Disagree, 2: Disagree, 3: Not Sure, 4: Agree, 5: Strongly Agree
____ Our youth ministry teaches that declaring Jesus as Lord is a total life commitment that is evident in both word and action.
____ The parents and adult sponsors assisting in our youth ministry are expected to be devoted followers of Jesus (i.e., they practice what they preach).
____ Our youth ministry publically acknowledges and encourages the role and responsibility of parents in the spiritual formation of teenagers.
____ Our youth ministry publicly acknowledges and encourages the role and responsibility of other adult community members in the spiritual formation of teenagers.
____ Our youth ministry offers worship opportunities and other rituals designed to engage both adult and child audiences.
____ TOTAL SCORE
- Spend time discussing and praying over the results of this evaluation. What ideas do you have to make progress in these areas? What practical steps can you implement in your ministry?