By Wesley Arning
Senior at Virginia Theological Seminary
I was a strange kid. Though I played baseball and took horseback riding lessons just to fulfill my dream of being a cowboy, I also “played” church. When I was young I would wear one of my father’s golf shirts (that went to my ankles) and used one of his ties as a stole. My mother would ring the doorbell as the church bell, and I would process with the kitchen broom high above me as the cross. Strange…I know.
Years later I would tell people the story of playing church, and how that shaped my call to the priesthood. I was able to act out what I saw done on a weekly basis at church. Though I may not have seemed attentive to the service as I sat under the pew eating Cheerios, I was in fact soaking everything in. The colors, the sights, and sounds of worship poured over me, and inspired me to go home and recreate what I had just experienced. The truth is, I fell in love with the worship of God before knowing anything about God. Our liturgy is able to shape and move both young and old alike, even if you are eating Cheerios under the pew.
I was blessed to have grown up in a church that had the desire, and the resources, to invest in their children. I went through the entire Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, and then was involved in youth group through my teenage years. As I went through the program I continued to love the worship of God and grew in my knowledge and love of God. And now here I am getting ever closer to my ordination to the Transitional Diaconate.
Now I’m not saying that the only reason I felt called to become a priest had to do with the programs offered at St. Paul’s in Murfreesboro, but it has made a difference in the lives of many young people who have come through that church. The evidence of that can be shown in their church participation as young adults. Today, a few of us from that group work in churches, while many others are active members of their local church. Because the church invested in us as kids, we have decided to become active members.
This idea of investing in our kids does not always have to be about money. Though having the funding and volunteers to run great children and youth ministries are important, not every church can do that. What a church can do, no matter what size, is create a culture where kids and youth are known and appreciated. Smaller churches actually have an advantage doing this. I loved going to church as a kid, and so did my peers, because people knew me by name and they knew what I loved. I wasn’t Ed and Janet’s son; people knew me and cared for me.
Every congregation can commit to knowing their kids, and to investing time with them if they are unable to invest in a formal program. Know your kids, love your kids, and get them involved. I am here in my last semester of seminary in part because the church said there was a place for me. Even as a teenager I was able to use my gifts to contribute to the life of the church. If we do that, I would venture to say that our kids are more likely to go to church during college and into young adulthood. Creating this kind of culture does not require a line item in the budget, but it does require a big commitment from the parish to know and love their kids.