On Wednesday morning, I talked to three classes of grade 7 and 8 students in an inner city school about Christianity. This was part of a course on World Religions. It was challenging. Bringing something to a group of people who don't necessarily want to accept what you are offering always is.
In the first class of the day, distraction was my main opponent. The kids were sleepy, perhaps hungry, and more interested in untied shoelaces, bruises, and verbally sparring with each other. At one point, the teacher had to tell a group of noisy older students playing right outside our window to move somewhere else. I kept my presentation pretty basic and we managed to make it through all the points. I hope that a few of them actually stuck.
In the second class, the kids were older and much more able to focus on the topic at hand, but it soon became apparent that a few students were not only disinterested in what I was saying - they had disdain for it. A handful of girls with an attitude particular to 13 year-olds who think they know it all, opted out of participating in a brief exercise in reading the Bible. When I asked them a question, they replied, "I don't know, I wasn't listening." After I had finished and we had a five minute break, one girl wrote "God does not exist" on the blackboard right next to my notes. Oh well. On the positive side of things, there were quite a few in the class who were interested and attentive, but perhaps hesitant to engage. It find it sad that a vocal and opinionated minority often overshadows a group's willingness to participate in open dialogue.
The third class was a pleasure. Though many different thoughts and views were represented in the group, everyone was willing to listen, to learn, to participate, to offer their thoughts, and to ask relevant questions. In fact, I had to stop taking questions because we were running out of time. Some of them came up to me and chatted afterwards, telling me small details about their life. It was a great way to finish off the morning.
Here is a glimpse into what I presented:
I started each session by walking among the students and asking each of them to tell me their name and one interesting thing about themselves. In turn, I told them a few things about myself. Then I asked, "Does this make us friends?" Some said yes, some said no. I asked if they trusted me enough to lend me $20. A big resounding NO! Knowing a few facts about someone does not make a relationship.
I went on to tell them that at its core, Christianity is about relationship. It is not primarily a belief system, a set of rules, a meeting to go to, or a tradition that one follows. Christians are people who follow Jesus Christ. Church is a group of people who belong to God. The Bible is filled with stories of how God relates to people. It all hinges on relationship. I acknowledged that reading the Bible can be challenging because it was written thousands of years ago, it was written in a different culture, it was written in a different language, and the subject matter, God, is hard to put into words. One thing that is helpful when reading the Bible is to always ask the question: "What does this tell me about God?" We did an exercise where I read a short story from the Bible and I asked them what it said about God. A few students caught on very quickly, while others struggled just to grasp the concept of God. Totally understandable. I have been reading the Bible for many years and still struggle to understand what it is saying to me many times. That's part of the reason that it never gets boring! It is the ultimate mystery book!
I ended the session by handing each student a heart-shaped sticky note and asking them to write down what they thought was the most important aspect in a relationship or a friendship. I collected all of these in a book and took them home to read. The results were quite surprising. The number one answer was trust. The second was honesty. Loving, caring, loyalty, and faithfulness were mentioned frequently as well. These kids know what a good relationship is. They really do. Though a lot of them might not be familiar with God, are perhaps confused by all the different religions, or suppose that there is no God, I believe that they recognise someone they can trust. As a few of them wrote on their notes, it has to be someone who won't shit them (interesting vocabulary for Grade 8's, I thought).
I can't make anyone want to have a relationship with God. I can't even force them to listen to anything I have to say or respect my beliefs and opinions. But if they know what a real friend looks like, I believe they have the ability to recognise God when they encounter him. And that's actually a pretty good position for any of us to be in.
Let me continue to offer friendship to others, even if I know that not everyone will respond positively. Let me be trustworthy, honest, and caring, even if others are not. This is what God does.
This is a picture of one of the many translations of the Bible that I own.