Before I went to seminary, I worked as a regular volunteer in children’s ministry. My church at the time was small, so I taught Sunday school lessons to a “one-room schoolhouse” of tiny primaries and spunky middle-schoolers. After completing my program in theological studies, however, I avoided kids and preferred to teach adults. I wanted to give my time and service to those who could “best” understand the Scriptures, and children’s ministry didn’t seem like the place.
For women like me, teaching the Bible to children sometimes seems like the unrewarding babysitting corner of church life—a place to engage youngsters with stories, crafts, and treats while the adults tend to more important spiritual matters. Beyond a clean background check and a willing spirit, volunteering in youth work doesn’t seem to require much, and women who feel tied to this area (and little else) may wonder if their spiritual gifts are being fully used.
Case in point: During a recent #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear Twitter conversation, many stressed their concerns over the treatment of women in Christian circles. Among the tweets were stories of restrictive gender roles—women confined to traditionally nurturing positions regardless of their gifts and abilities. “You speak five languages and have a doctoral degree? Children’s ministry is your calling!” wrote one woman in sarcasm.
The tweet’s implicit critique is absolutely right: Educated/gifted women are not strictly called to children’s ministry. In both egalitarian and complementarian settings—but particularly in the latter—we do well to seek and affirm women’s voices in vast areas of church life. However, because we often think in binary terms, our desire to encourage women’s influence beyond children’s, youth, and women’s ministries can potentially lead women (and men) to inadvertently demean caretaking roles in the church. In other words, the fact that women should never be held to just children’s ministry shouldn’t lead us to belittle the importance of the work, disparage the women who joyously serve there, or minimize our own commitment to youth discipleship.
Having now repented of my “youth and children’s ministry aversion,” I have taught youngsters for three years and can say with confidence that children’s ministry is a big job for gifted teachers. Although we have always needed strong discipleship for each new generation, the ongoing spiritual decline of American adolescents makes it an even more pressing priority for our churches.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece by Clare Ansberry titled “The Teenage Spiritual Crisis,” which reported a shift in the spiritual lives of American teens and adolescents. According to the report, many millennials are disengaging from the spiritual communities of their childhoods, and while the vast majority of American adolescents express some belief in God, those views tend to grow cold in emerging adulthood.