Thursday, September 29, 2016

On Reformation-Era Ministry with Youth


For my master's thesis, I've been reading on families and the spiritual formation of youth in the Reformation era. The main question I'm asking in my research revolves around the historical theology and significance of children and youth ministry. What are our historical roots? What can we learn from those who came before us? What have been historical practices within the church regarding the spiritual formation of youth? In particular, how did the theological views of Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists inform practices regarding spiritual formation, such as catechisms, confirmation, and baptism? There is a lack of critical and scholarly engagement with the historical origins of ministry with children and adolescents, particularly any theological studies devoted to teenagers prior to the 20th century.

In my research so far, I've noted that the churches struggled with waning faith as young people approached adulthood. From Gerald Strauss' book Luther's House of Learning
"This slackening of religious commitment was a common phenomenon. The question for reformers was not only: How well is instruction given in youth? But also, does it last throughout life? The evidence on this point was discouraging." 
While children were inclined to take up the faith of their family, faith began to lapse with the approach of adulthood. This was a common enough occurrence for pastors and church leaders to write treatises about how to keep this from happening, offering plenty of tools and advice for parents and pastors to keep young people engaged with their faith. New books and manuals were being printed in order to keep the youth and young adults from abandoning their Protestant faith.

Sound familiar?

The Reformers also emphasized the family context as primary for children's spiritual formation. Yet they found that families rarely lived up to this ideal, leading to the plethora of catechisms and religious education programs that emerged during the era in order to equip the parents to take up their vocation as the "bishops" of their family. Pastors expected the parents--especially the fathers--to ask their children about the sermons, to teach them to memorize Bible verses, and to lead a sort of family devotion at dinnertime.

Other children and youth ministry issues they were facing in Reformation-era Europe:
  • The onset of puberty between ages 11-14 led to issues with sexual promiscuity, while average marriage ages were in the early 20s for women and mid 20s for men. In the sixteenth century, people were getting married later and later.
  • Youth were often bored with church services and sermons, and religious education had to use creative tactics to keep children engaged, such as stage plays (skits),  stories, comedies, rhymes, case studies ("example stories"), and other forms. One pedagogue put it this way: "By means of these entertainments we may win them over to the lessons we want to teach them."
  • Parents were inclined not to be aloof or uncaring towards their children (as is sometimes assumed of the era) but to be overindulgent, spoiling their children through coddling them.
  • The ultimate goal for many churches and families was good behavior in children and youth--sexual purity, avoiding drunkenness, obedient to authorities, church attendance, and doing one's duty for society.
So, does any of this sound familiar? After 500 years of the Protestant church, we are still addressing the same issues in youth ministry in very similar ways. Of course, there certainly were differences. Yet I'm finding more similarity than disparity in my research thus far. Perhaps there's something we can learn from our ministry ancestors. As I continue in my research, I'll post more updates. For now, which of these findings surprises you or resonates with you?

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