What Should We Teach Our Youth?

August 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

In my previous post, I made a case for teaching Quakerism—and I would add the Bible—in our First Day Schools and in our other institutions for youth ministry. Teaching not just Quaker values, but the basic elements of our tradition—what we believe, how we work, and what our experience is of the Divine, as individuals and as a movement.

Most important, though, we should be using our time in First Day School to help young Friends discover what the life of the Spirit means for them. We should be doing this for the adults, too, of course, so this aspect of our religious education can very often be multigenerational. We should be answering that of God in our members of all ages.

This is especially important for us as (non-pastoral) Friends because we have no paid professionals to do it for us, as I had when I was in my Lutheran confirmation classes. Our meetings will be strong in direct proportion to how well equipped our members are to practice their Quakerism, and our youth should not have to play catch-up when they decide to participate in meeting life more fully. Nor—worst case scenario—should we take the chance that their lack of knowledge would prevent them from even trying.

So—what to teach?

First, a plug for the Godly Play and Faith and Play programs. In my previous meeting, a number of parents and Friends concerned for the health of our First Day School program took this training and it completely transformed our youth ministry. Those Friends gained confidence, a sense of direction, and excellent curriculum materials. I didn’t do the training myself, but my sense is that it would be a great framework for pursuing the goals I’m outlining below. I highly recommend it.

I would like to approach the larger question of what to teach our children—and all our members, for that matter—by defining what I think our goals are:

  1. Spiritual formation: awaken our youth to the Light within them. I said in my series on What Is Quakerism For? that I thought the purpose of a Quaker meeting was to bring people to G*d and to bring G*d into the world. For our youth, this means creating a safe, inviting environment in which to explore the Quaker approach to the spiritual life, some exposure to the other paths that we trust besides our own, and especially, to explore their own experience of the Spirit in a Quaker context. In practical terms, I think this could work on three channels:
    1. older Friends telling stories about their own direct experience of the divine;
    2. stories from the Bible and other religious literature of epiphanies, guidance, healing, consciousness raising, witness, etc.; and
    3. discussions that seek to help young people recognize and understand the spiritual experiences they have already had.
    4. None of this requires any curriculum materials or elaborate planning, though number one requires willing adults, number two requires some knowledge of Scripture, or at least, a Bible with a decent concordance, and number three requires a little skill at listening and encouraging young people to open up.
  2. Quaker faith: equip our youth to talk about their faith with confidence. That is, teach the basic elements of Quaker faith. What are they? Very simply:
    1. the Light—everyone can experience G*d directly;
    2. the covered meeting—the meeting can also commune directly with the Divine;
    3. continuing revelation—the Spirit is always there with guidance, insight, healing, forgiveness, personal transformation, and love; and
    4. the testimonial life—that our lives should speak, that we should be guided in our journey through this life by the Light within us, listening always for promptings to leave the world a better place.
    5. You can unpack these four to discuss all the rest of our tradition—why we don’t practice the outward sacraments, why we don’t program our meetings for worship or have priests, why we don’t vote to make decisions, how we feel about the Bible, why we pursue justice, equality, earthcare, etc.
  3. Quaker practice: prepare our youth to practice their Quakerism and participate in meeting life.
    1. Worship. Begin and end each session with some silence. Gradually extend this time, as it seems to work for the youth. Talk about their experience, what’s been going on in their heads during that time and share your own practice and experience in worship, seeking ways to deepen theirs. Encourage their vocal ministry. Take them into the meeting’s worship, eventually and gradually, for more than just a few minutes at the beginning or end, whatever your meeting’s practice has been. At some point, encourage those young Friends who want to to join the meeting in worship instead of attending First Day School. Share the conventions that we use as guides for behavior in meeting for worship.
    2. Business. Explain your meeting’s committee structure (and at some point, regional and yearly meeting structure) and invite committee members to talk about what they do. Explore what the youth’s own business might be. For instance, look at your First Day School room and see what improvements you might make and discuss how you might bring ideas to the property committee. Talk about their ambitions for life as adults and discuss clearness committees. Explain the conventions that guide our practice of meeting for business with a concern for the life of the meeting. Explain what clerks do. Watch for business agenda items that might interest the youth and bring them in for at least that segment of the meeting. Explain both the faith and the practice of what Friends have traditionally called “gospel order”—in this case, how concerns start with an individual, go to the meeting, then to the quarterly meeting, then to the yearly meeting. Always be thinking of how the discussion and the openings in First Day School might come before the meeting as a whole for attention as business.
    3. Ministry. Talk about what “Spirit-led” means. Talk about leadings and especially, the leading to speak in meeting for worship. Bring in Friends who are pursuing leadings to talk about what it’s like. Explore how the youth might feel led in various ways already and help them understand these promptings in the context of our faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Explain why we don’t have a separated ministry and what “releasing into ministry” means, referring to those Friends who serve as pastors and any Friend who receives support from their meeting that allows them to follow their leading. Talk about discernment, clearness committees for discernment, and the other ways we support people with leadings and ministries—minutes of travel and service, endorsement of these minutes, committees for care, support, and oversight. . . .
    4. Pastoral care. Talk about how the members of the meeting try to take care of each other. Though this seems like an extremely delicate matter, seek ways to encourage them to consider coming to the meeting with their own concerns, as long as you are confident that the meeting could respond effectively; some meetings aren’t so good at this. Talk about the life of the community and the meaning of fellowship.
    5. Witness. Emphasize that the heart of the witness life for Friends is being led inwardly by the Light in how we walk through the world. Explore their own impulses to make the world better in their own terms. Present the traditional “testimonies”, not as outward rules for living, but as things Friends have been led by the Spirit to do through history, both inwardly and collectively, so consistently that we now have settled principles that we call testimonies. Tell stories about the origins of our traditional testimonies. For God’s sake, don’t limit their understanding of the testimonies to SPICES. I wouldn’t even bring SPICES up.

This approach involves a lot of talking. In my experience, many Friends think young Friends would rather be doing something than talking. That’s true for some kids, for sure, and especially for younger ones. But in my experience as a First Day School teacher, many kids are ready to do something pretty substantive when they reach middle school, at least.

My confirmation classes as a Lutheran youth began in the summer before (or after—I don’t quite remember) seventh grade. And those classes were purely didactic indoctrination. I loved it. Some of my fellow students didn’t. And to be honest, I was shooting spitballs the next year myself. But I know from personal experience that religious discussion can be very engaging by at least the age of 12 or 13.

The point is that the program should always be looking for opportunities to explore Quakerism at the youths’ own level and to explore the young people’s own emerging spirituality.


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