Some of you, my seven readers, know that I enjoy youth ministry. I enjoy spending time with young people, in particular middle school and high school students, and especially in the context of exploring faith.
So it was with great anticipation and pleasure that I took a few middle school students from the congregation I serve to join a few hundred others at a youth gathering. There's much about this event that I could write about, but my favorite part of this youth gathering every year is “Stump the Pastor”.
What happens is that the young people participate in different one-hour workshops. One of the workshops they can choose from is led by a pastor, and is simply a forum at which the young people can ask the pastor questions.
I don't know how other pastors run the workshop when they're in charge, but here's what I do: I tell the students that they're welcome to ask any question they have … about anything. And so that they feel free to actually ask anything, I use pens and paper to make the process anonymous.
If you've spent a little time with middle schoolers, you'll expect that I'd get questions such as, “What is my name?” (answer: my name is Matthew), and “How do you write 8 in binary?” (answer: 1000). These questions are fun, and when I take them as seriously as I take any theological or scriptural question, the kids seem to understand that I'm taking them seriously as people and not trying to shove 'church answers' down their throats.
Now, if you've spent more than a little time with middle schoolers, you'll also recognize that they have some questions more serious than “Do you like Tim Tebow or Payton Manning better?” (answer: I haven't met either of those guys, so I can't say).
You know those existential questions that most of us wrestle with in the company of our friends late at night when we're in high school or (especially) college? Well, middle school students wrestle with the same questions, even though they might not have the language to articulate the questions well. And this is the part of the workshop that's the most rewarding – taking what's written seriously enough to ask, and then address, the question that sometimes isn't very well written.
Who wrote the bible? Are gay people accepted and loved by God? Does my friend who goes to a Presbyterian church believe the same thing I do? what about my Catholic friend? Mormon? Jewish? Does God love the Muslims? Is it ok to kill someone if it's self-defense, or if they're threatening your family?
At the end of the day, middle schoolers (and this is news to no one) seem to be primarily concerned with figuring out where they belong in the world. And at the end of the hour, my hope and prayer has always been that they've found a place like that at least for a little while. I hope they recognize that no matter how they grow and change, and no matter how much their faith changes and grows (or even shrinks), that they can find a place to belong in the Body of Christ.
Of course that's probably my hope and prayer for everyone, whether they're middle schoolers or not.