“Can anyone tell me why we celebrate Easter?” the teacher asked. A seven-year-old girl answered in her best ”Here’s a wild guess” tone–”Because Jesus kissed the Easter bunny?” The teacher was my daughter. Working hard to keep a straight face (and to keep from embarassing the child), she told the girl to be sure she came back the next Sunday (Easter) to learn much more. Karin says this girl [whom we'll call Janet] attends irregularly, mostly because of her not-very-stable home life.
We laughed about this incident when Karin retold it that night. But underlying the laughter was a sadness. Janet’s confusion isn’t an isolated example. Janet represents countless children who don’t know the basics of the Christian story. They live in a confusing conglomeration of cultural myths (Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, The Grinch,etc.) and elements of traditional religous stories. Their young minds may well hear both cultural myths and traditional faith stories as equally “mythical”. The confusion is heightened when the faith stories are “out of context”, i.e., when they’re not rooted in a family’s consistent faithful lifestyle.
The confusion isn’t only in young minds. My wife went to the store to get some Easter cards–a big-box retailer, not a “Christian” store. “It’s really hard to find Easter cards about Easter ,” she proclaimed upon her return. Her diligent search for bunny-free, egg-free cards that celebrated the Christian holiday in Christian terms had yielded minimal results. Her experience reinforces the uncomfortable truth. Organized religion is increasingly marginalized in our society. We no longer see throngs of traditional Ozzie-and-Harriet families spending every Sunday morning at their neighborhood church. Too many churches have hidden their heads in the sand in recent decades while two and now three generations have grown up with no significant Christian memory. They don’t speak our language–and for the most part, we don’t speak theirs.
But Janets (and Jameses) keep showing up every Sunday morning. Somebody in their life thinks they should be there. God keeps giving us new chances with these children (and the adults in their lives). Our wise/foolish God trusts us and our “perfectly imperfect” faith communities to be the source through which they experience Limitless Unconditional Love. Here are some things we can do to be ready for Janet and James next Sunday:
1) LET’S GET OUR STORY STRAIGHT. Let’s learn our story well enough to be able to tell it to one another–and to a stranger. Let’s be sure our leaders, teachers, and families (in all their diverse forms) know the basic stories of our faith and why those stories matter.
2) LET’S LOVINGLY HELP JANET LEARN THE STORY. ”Be sure to come back next week” was a good start. Janet doesn’t always have control over that. Inexpensive children’s books that tell the Christmas and Easter stories are readily available. Keep some on hand to send home. A teacher might give it to whoever picks up Janet with a brief explanation–”Janet was curious about this. We covered as much as we had time for. Perhaps you could help her at home.” Or a teacher might ask the whole class to work together to tell the story.
3) KEEP WORKING ON OUR WELCOME. Many newcomers are remarkably uncomfortable about their first visit to a church. Little things we take for granted can turn them off. Special care and attention can ”seal the deal” and touch them deeply because they aren’t treated that well anywhere else in their lives.
4) DARE TO MAKE THE CHANGES NECESSARY TO MAKE ROOM FOR JANET, JAMES, AND THEIR FAMILIES. Most folks in nearly every church I know say they want to reach Janet, James, and their families. But when ” crunch time” comes and we face the reality of adjusting programming, Sunday schedule, worship styles, and $pending, tremendous resistance arises. I’ve seen it happen too many times in too many places. Janet and James are important–but not important enough to disrupt my comfort zone in my church.
Whose church?? Maybe that’s the problem. When we really get that part of the story straight, all the other pieces will begin to fall into place. Janet, James, and their families will be more welcome than they ever dared to hope. All of us will be amazed by the depth and power of the God whose love we know in Jesus–who never kissed any bunnies as far as I know, but loves them just the same as he loves every one of God’s creatures–including you, me, and Janet.