More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too…but that’s another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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