What exactly is there to teach a child (or a teenager, for that matter)? In what ways is it beneficial for a child to sit down and learn about the Holy Trinity or Christ’s two natures? Is that where we should start? Are dogmas the central focus?
To me, church school is an interesting, but completely alien concept. The idea that I may go to church for anything else except worship feels strange. The notion that I can be taught about worship – by any other means except worship itself – is also strange. I instinctively dislike the thought that someone would try to ‘school’ me about God.
As a monastic, I haven’t had the experience of raising my own children. But I was a child once, and my memories of those years are all built around emotions, not knowledge: I remember playing, I remember my best friends, I remember some of the naughty jokes we played on the old people (that is, anyone over 20). I also remember nice old ladies (and their pockets filled with sweets) and grumpy old men (who always had some seriously boring advice to share). I remember colours, singing, the smell of incense. The only services I remember are the commemorations of the departed (because we always got a lot of koliva and candy) and singing Christmas carols (for the same reason: candy, candy, candy).
As a teenager, things changed. The nice old ladies and the grumpy old men became my enemies – it wasn’t their fault, but hormones do strange things to people. The only thought I had concerning church was: never again. It was boring, attended by old people (this time, anyone over 30) and completely irrelevant to my own life. The worst thing would have been having to confess or attend some sort of church school. I tried once to confess as a teenager and I couldn’t deal with it; it felt as an intrusion, almost like an abuse. I also refused to study religion in school – we had to choose between religion and applied science. I preferred to dissect frogs and look at their insides. THAT was cool.
I do have some good church memories from that time, though. I remember visiting an asylum for old people. I remember an old lady (really old, in her 90s), who used to be a French teacher in her youth. She asked me if I spoke any French. We then spoke for a few minutes and she was crying all the time. We talked about the weather and my age and things like that, and she silently cried through the whole conversation. I remember realising for the first time that the world is filled with suffering and that I can actually do something to take some of that suffering away.
That was the first time I felt a real connection between me and Christ. When I went back to church, the Cross suddenly had a different look. Out of everything in the church, that Christ on the Cross seemed to be looking straight at me and calling me; we had a secret, I had been revealed something – this time, it was about me. It was relevant; and personal.
Perhaps it may help to look at these things from the child’s perspective. When they are young, make sure they create beautiful memories in church. Build a small playground for them, be nice to them – help them feel loved. If you help them associate Love and Christ, Love and Church, you’ve introduced them to the deepest theology. As they grow older and become teenagers, get them involved in the real things: visits to orphanages, asylums, hospitals, prisons etc. Make their time count.
All they need to know about dogmas and doctrine they’ll get from attending the services, from the random things they pick up from sermons, from the bits and pieces of an accidental discussion. Build Christian values in them, not Christian knowledge. Work with their hearts, rather than their minds, because the theology of the heart cannot be erased. If you teach them love and compassion, you’ve taught them enough. If you help them love God and the world around them, you’ve introduced them into a living experience of Christ’s commandments. Rather than knowing what His commandments are, your children will be living them. Trust Christ to do the rest.