Hanging with the “different”

by Kristin on June 17, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by tdunnusa

My daughter and stepdaughter recently returned from a week in the Bible Belt with their youth group. And they weren’t just hanging out in the Bible Belt, doing their own Northern, liberal thing. They were at a certain large youth convention organized by the Southern Baptist church.

It’s a funny thing—to be honest, I’m not really sure how our church started taking the youth group to these youth conventions, but nine or 12 years ago they started going and have gone every three years since (rotating with two other summer trips—a week of camping in Michigan and a week at Heifer International’s ranch in Arkansas). They keep going because the kids really enjoy it—especially the high-energy, big rock concert-style worship sessions that take place daily.

Making sense of differences

As a parent sending my daughter for the first time, I was a bit apprehensive. At 13, is she ready to be exposed to that level of black-and-white theology and teaching? Will she be confused as she tries to make sense of it all, merging what she understands and believes with what our church teaches in Sunday school and youth group, AND with what they’re teaching in Bible studies at the convention?

I was able to let go of my fears, mostly because I knew the adults going with our group were sensitive, ready and smart—they’ve had seminary training, and plenty of discussions with people who see the Bible and its teachings differently from them. They aren’t afraid of different opinions, and don’t feel threatened by them. They ask good questions, and let the kids wrestle with things on their own rather than providing quick, definite “answers.”

The value of being exposed to differences

But as I worked through reassuring myself, I eventually landed in a completely different place: I went from being cynical about the experience our kids were having, to feeling like it’s the best sort of experience youth could have.

Being exposed to difference is so important. And it’s most effective when it involves real people spending time together, getting to know one another, singing and swimming, celebrating what they share in common and examining—without fear—how they’re different. It happens well, I think, when a kid is able to say “Hey, that doesn’t sound like what I believe or what my parents believe,” and a smart adult is able to say “You’re right. So what do you think about that?”

Because you know what? There are all kinds of different Christians in the world. The sooner our kids can grasp that, and sort through it, and not tie God to any particular, narrow viewpoint, the more their personal relationship with God can grow. Maybe all the grownups, of every persuasion, need to spend a week at a convention with a few hundred people who are not like us, too.

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  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    This is so great. I think it’s healthy to expose kids to what is “different” and encourage discussion, but I’ve wrestled with what to or not to let my kids be exposed to.

    It’s based on age, family values, faith, gender, etc. I struggle with recovering from experiences my kids have that I think are out of my control and happen too soon.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I love that your daughters are getting the chance to experience new people and new points of view, even at a young age. I actually think it’s good to have those sorts of experiences when we’re younger. As adults, we can sometimes be too close-minded because we feel set in our ways or set with our beliefs. I think kids have a greater capacity to accept people as they are, differences and all.

    My parents had a similar approach with my siblings and me and we grew up learning and experiencing all kinds of different ways of living. It taught us that the world is much larger than our tiny part of it and that there isn’t necessarily one single “right” way to live. I definitely think those lessons served me well later on in life, especially when I went off to college and met people who had much narrower worldviews. I think your girls will be really glad they had this opportunity one day (if they’re not already).

  • http://greenergrassmedia.com/blog Paul Merrill

    Really really like this one, Kristen.

  • http://www.lifewellblended.wordpress.com Diana

    I like this post too. My church is considered very liberal and we offer teachings about “talking across the divide.” I first introduced my step-daughter to this church when she was 8 years old. She was baptized and being raised Roman Catholic, but when she was with her dad and I we would often take her to church with us. She really resisted participating but as she matured, she would participate more and more, and began questioning differences in the religions. I am grateful that her mom encouraged her questions, and was surpised when she chose to be confirmed in our church last year. I feel like exposing her to the different way of worship, and encouraging her questions and discerning heart, led her to some authentic answers for herself and her faith.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    At the End of Days we may just end up discovering that everything is a big kid’s camp, and God has all kinds of children. That would be just like God, I think.

  • Sarah

    I just worry that even within the liberal/moderate Christian vs. Southern Baptist Christian paradigm (or Catholic, Lutheran, Episcolpalian, what-have-you), there is or can be an insularity about ownership of God itself – that since we all may converse and disagree and agree about how to worship God, and believe in Jesus’s teachings, Christians are still excluding or devaluing the beliefs of others – here I am talking about *real* difference, like Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, even atheists…

    By placing the “different” label on other Christians, what does that make or children believe about folks who look, sound, pray, believe (or not believe) in even more differing – yet just as valid – systems?

  • Kirstin

    And so what did your girls report about the experience? Did they generally take away the enriched awareness of other kinds of Christians that you’d hoped they’d find? Were there things they reported that made you suppress a judgmental “hmph!”?

    I think it’s really cool that your congregation does this. Sarah raises a good point above, but in my experience people often find it easier to tolerate religious beliefs that are entirely different from their own than those that differ in a few particulars.

  • http://sortacrunchy.typepad.com Megan at SortaCrunchy

    As an SBCer in the Bible Belt, you have me all curious about the details of this!

    I worry about these things, too – about how my children will respond when they inevitably bump up against beliefs different from the ones they are taught at home. Interestingly, they are more likely to bump up against these differences right in our home church than they are at a far away youth camp. It’s complicated, and I’m sure it’s going to get very interesting as they get older.

    But I have found to be SO true what you have shared here – that when that which is different from us is expressed in a real live flesh-and-blood person who laughs and cries and listens and talks … it’s so much easier to understand than when it’s presented as this demonized straw man of opposition.

    I think it’s fantastic that the youth group is being allowed to experience difference in an environment like this. You’ve given me hope and encouragement for the road ahead for our family!

  • http://frizzytalksinhersleep.blogspot.com Roxanne

    Yes.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ThatGuyKC, I hear you. As parents, we *should* want to control these experiences and exposures, but we also have to accept that we can’t always have that control, and sometimes it might even turn out better when we don’t (or at least when we decide it’s OK to let go a bit and ride with it–see what happens). I am gradually learning this, not by choice necessarily, but I’m learning, nonetheless. :)

    Meredith, what you said about being more open as kids is really true, I think. Kids are naturally more adaptable and open to new things than we often give them credit for. When we over-protect them, even if it’s something as simple as assuming they won’t like a certain food so we don’t serve it to them, we’re often doing them a disservice.

    Paul, thanks! I was wondering, as I wrote it, if it would have a broad sense of connection with lots of people or if it was just one of those odd situations I tend to find myself in . :)

    Diana, I really like the idea of “talking across the divide.” At my church we talk about “bridging the many chasms that exist in our world,” between different people, between us and God, etc. I also like what you said about your stepdaughter and her journey toward “authentic answers.” it doesn’t happen overnight, but that kind of faith tends to be more deeply rooted in the end.

    Ray, I think you’re absolutely right, and I think I need to remind myself of that “big kids’ camp” image every day.

    Sarah, you bring up a very real issue in our country and world. So much of one’s perspective depends on where he/she grows up and is exposed to. For instance, my kids have grown up with a Mosque in the neighborhood that has done some joint youth group service projects with our church. Our family also has close Jewish friends who invite us to Seder every year. Maybe what’s important is that we see what exposure our kids are missing in their life, and find ways to broaden their world. In the case of my kids, understanding differences between Christians is much more of a leap than understanding and respecting other religions.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Gosh, this is a tough one for me. And then Ray had to go and leave that comment!

    I’ve struggled with a lot of this because I come from a conservative background where there wasn’t a whole lot of tolerance for diversity or difference of opinion, but on the other hand, the people were generally good, kind people when you got to know them. I really applaud your approach and the trust you have in the adults to process things with the kids. I suppose if I was in your shoes I’d feel great about my kids having a chance to interact with kids from another perspective, but I’d be a little more suspicious of what the adults at the convention would teach. I’m glad there will be leaders there to help everyone process that!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kirstin, it was definitely a good experience, from their perspective, mostly because I think they were given the opportunity (thanks to our leaders) to separate their personal beliefs and connection to God from broader theologies and corporate beliefs. That’s an important step in faith development, I think—taking a step away from “what I’m supposed to think/believe/feel” toward “what I do think/believe/feel.”

    Megan, I’m so glad you’re weighing in! I often wonder how “off” my stereotypes are of certain denominations—it’s great to hear from someone who’s on the “inside.” :) I love how you put this: “…when that which is different from us is expressed in a real live flesh-and-blood person who laughs and cries and listens and talks … it’s so much easier to understand than when it’s presented as this demonized straw man of opposition.” It sounds like your kids have lots of flesh-and-blood opportunities to build relationships, have conversations and grow.

    Roxanne, :)

    ed, I imagine that your situation—the faith position you settle with being significantly different from the one you were raised with—is a really challenging one, for a whole different set of reasons. I suspect the key, for adults and kids alike, is being able to write and/or talk about it, because it would be too easy to keep the wondering, worry, guilt and confusion inside.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I was exposed to much of this black-and-white theology growing up. I knew tons of kids who went to the local Southern Baptist church, and when I left for college I had respect for them and their religion. (Which has sadly faded a bit over time). You’re girls seem super-smart, so I imagine they’ll be able to nurture their beliefs without forfeiting who they are.