Humanity is mimetic, which is a fancy way of saying that God has wired us to learn by imitation far more than by any other method, whether explanation or training or emotional stimulation.
Or coloring book page or Veggie Tales video.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by the report from the Barna Research Group on who teens turn to as role models. The upshot of that study:
Even while limiting the answers to non-parents, family members still comes out on top. The most commonly mentioned role model is a relative—37% of teens named a relation other than their parent as the person they admire most. This is typically a grandparent, but also includes sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles. After “family,” teens mention teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%), and pastors or other religious leaders they know personally (6%).
Animated talking vegetables and Bible superhero action figures failed to make the cut.
But equally important to who youth regard as role models is why. The Barna study provides the answer: character in proximity. No shocker here: We become like who we’re around.
That being the case, why do we pull children out of “big church” and put them in “children’s church” where they are robbed of the ability to imitate us? Is it any wonder that kids drop out of church with clockwork regularity when they hit college age, since they’ve had no experience imitating adult Christians?
But how would children know how to follow our example if they never see it?
I know, I know: left in the “main sanctuary,” kids swing from the ceiling fans during sermons and make lots of unsolemn noises during prayer time. So we pull them out of the main sanctuary and plop them down in a kiddie sanctuary and give them kiddie versions of sermons, songs, Scriptures, and offering times. Goal: that the kiddie versions would train them for the real thing.
Reality: the kiddie versions teach them that sermons, songs, Scriptures, and offering times are for kiddies.
So endure the pain, the swinging from the ceiling fans, the unsolemn noises. They watch more than you think they do, you know.
When I lead the Korean .W congregation by videoconference, I don’t speak Korean, so while they pray I’m free to occasionally crack one eyelid open and survey the situation. Without fail, I see the children watch an adult pray—for just a moment, and then they go back to coloring or swinging from the chandelier or smashing a sibling’s face into the ground.
Point is, you have to be willing to endure the awkwardness in order to let the kid get close enough to you for long enough to observe you and imitate you.
Gerald Schlabach, author of Unlearning Protestantism, a brilliant book on how to be Protestant in all of the right ways and none of the wrong ones (after all, knowing what to protest and what not to is half the battle), notes that we moderns “have ever fewer resources for forming lives of Christian discipleship or communities of Christian witness.” That’s especially true of our children. All of the Veggie Tales videos and Bible superhero action figures in the Sunday School room can’t take the place of what you learn by watching your parents worship–and by joining in, no matter how clumsily or sporadically.
Habits require training, as one internalizes moral motor skills that one can only clumsily imitate at first, based on the example of others. If those habits are to be good rather than bad, however, practitioners must apprentice with those more advanced in the craft–in this case, the craftlike practice of Christian discipleship.
Imitation, not age-appropriate curriculum design, is the key method the Scripture commends for making disciples. And it’s the key method for how kids—and all human beings–learn. We’re mimetic. Kids stop going to church when they become adults because they never saw how adults act as Christians.
So leave your kids in the room when you’re doing lay church. Have them learn the same songs and stories you learn at the same time, in the same way. As they get older, practice reciting the Bible stories you’re learning in front of them, with them holding the Bible and correcting you when you mess up.
But rather than write more, let me just invite you to listen to the audio below. It’s one of the Korean dads in our .W/Korea congregation being imitated by his three and five year old (ostensibly non-English speaking) sons in their family worship time as they both learn the song assigned for the week in .W church.