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For the sake of the children

4.3. 2017 Posted By: Jessica Schrock Ringenberg 1,521 read
“We were born for this!”

In the height of an emotionally powerful song, in the midst of a worship service, the worship leader with his deep caramel-smooth voice declared, with arms in the air, “We were born for this!” I had heard him say this before, but in this particular moment it caught my attention and I haven’t forgotten it since.

At this moment, I was in high school. It was some point in the 1990’s when my faith was really becoming my own. I remember understanding what he meant: we are meant to worship God. I remember being taught that we ultimately are called to surround the throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy…”

But I also remember thinking, “This can’t be it.”

But I kept hearing these instructions again, in different times and in different places, often in the midst of the emotional space of singing. “We are made to worship God.” And this was worship, this singing and praise.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to sing. Contemporary songs or hymns: I love it. Throw in some well-read Scripture and a good sermon: I love it, I’m there. Add a special well-written drama that makes a purpose-filled point and now you’re really speaking my language!

But the moment you tell me, “This is it! All we were born to do,”  I know with every fiber of my being that that just can’t be right.

But that is what “worship” has become for generations. This is precisely what we think when we go to church (because few stay for Sunday school). Church is a place we go to so that we can sing, hear Scripture and listen to sermons. But what if I can sing, hear Scripture and listen to even better sermons at home? Is it still church? Is that still what we are born to do?

I know that isn’t the intention of many passionate worship leaders or pastors to imply that worship is limited to a certain way of doing things but this meaning can often be inferred.  

So if this isn’t it, what does it mean to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength?

HEAR, O ISRAEL (and you Mennonites too)!

This has really hit home for me as a pastor of a rather traditional and staid church with three small rambunctious children. Rather than forcing my children to behave with a heavy hand up front, we sit in the back.

During special services (like those during Holy Week), they are often the only children there. My guess is that this is because the majority of parents aren’t quite sure how to keep their kids engaged during the high and holy services and so they choose not to come rather than dealing with kids cracking loud jokes when Pastor Jessica (a.k.a. mom) blows the shofar to call the solemn assembly together during Ash Wednesday service (“Sounds like mom just farted!” Yeah, that was my kid.). 

We as a church are wondering how to keep our young families and children engaged. But I have a surprise for you: louder, sexier, more entertaining worship services aren’t keeping the young families in church either, because if singing and listening is all that is asked of us, it is easier to do that at home in our pajamas (one less place to go).

Ohio Conference leaders just returned from a weekend of missional training with Alan and Debra Hirsch. It was a powerful weekend and many great ideas were gathered. Ohio Conference was pushed to the limits of our imaginations as we dreamed about how to “be the church” wherever we are and how we look for the image of God, even in the people who may not behave or believe like we do. How do we allow people to belong, trusting that the Holy Spirit will form them as they witness our Christ-likeness?

In the midst of these discussions, an inevitable question followed: “What about the influences [of these people] on our children?”

For generations now, our children have been our mission field. We have done everything in our power to keep them from outside influences, bad behavior and the wrong people and now we are expected to bring all of those things into the church?

But let me tell you, protecting the children from “being contaminated” has not been working. Alan Hirsch shared that 72 percent of American Christian young people lose their faith in their first year of college. These were our “protected children.” The last I heard only 13 percent of Millennials (my generation) go to church. “What about our children?” has been the heart and soul of the Christian mission for decades and where has it gotten us?

A year ago last December, on a freezing cold night, our family happened upon a woman walking in the middle of nowhere with a light jacket. I had just spouted off to my husband about the church’s aversion to risk and how it is killing us and here was this woman.

We stopped. She was heading to Edon (way far away), but she was clearly lost. She smelled of all manner of things we wouldn’t want to subject our children to, and her teeth were rotten (presumably “meth mouth”). We took her home. My husband made her dinner while our little children played around her feet and I googled where she was going (30 plus miles away).

Our children had a lot of questions. We told them that Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and if everyone shares a little, nobody goes without. They kept playing.

The following July we were at the swimming pool during a break and we brought out our snacks. A little boy gathered around our towel and said he had nothing to eat, so we shared our food. But when we brought out the Gatorade he said, “Oh, you have Gatorade?!” And I said, “I’m sorry buddy. We only have two.”

Without missing a beat, my six-year-old daughter said, “Here, you take this one. Sam and I can share.” Sam cheerily agreed, not giving her suggestion a second thought. And my children taught me something. They have been listening. They are watching.

The biblical concept of worship is that when we order our lives around God and not just a Sunday morning service. We order our time, our money, our souls, minds, strength around God, which in turn gives us no excuse not to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. 

Surprisingly enough, that taps into an entire stream of human nature that comes so naturally to us. There is nothing you learn faster as a parent than your children’s desire to take risks. 

Mom, this is dangerous, you’re going to be scared,” said my two-year-old as he stood on the windowsill waiting for me to come see him jump onto the couch.

We humans are born risk-takers, rule-breakers, and troublemakers, but the church has found a way to sift all of those types of behaviors out of our collective body so that we can sit still, be quiet and sing our songs in peace!

But if church and worship are what you do on Sunday morning in a building and not a lived way of being outside of that building, then there are plenty of people who know, “This can’t be right.” And so they don’t go.

Yesterday morning in my office, my five-year-old brought me my 1886 copy of the Martyr’s Mirror and asked why I have such a broken up book. I explained to him that it tells stories of people who were faithful to Jesus even if it meant they could be killed. I told him that following Jesus is dangerous and you only do it if you are willing to be risky.

Moments later I learned that Michael J. (“MJ”) Sharp’s body had been found in the Congo.

I only met MJ once when he came to our church to talk about his work with Conscientious Objectors in Germany. But the story everyone tells of him is that he was a risk-taker, troublemaker and rule-breaker, molded in the way of Jesus. Always looking for the next adventure with a purpose.

My heart breaks for the Sharp family, but I can only imagine how MJ’s faith had been formed, having an Anabaptist history professor, John Sharp, as a father. I imagine the stories he was told and the alternative narrative that caught his imagination and drove him to be faithful even if it could mean death.

In an effort to protect the children, the contemporary church has produced a really weak story for  generations of young people who want their lives to mean something big. It is a story that pales in comparison to the life or death stories on television. Young people want to take risks. They want to cause trouble. They want to break the rules.

And we have failed to teach them how to make all of those things true worship centered on the love of God: adventure with a purpose. Perhaps we were born for this?

Jessica Schrock Ringenberg is pastor at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio. 

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