On the surface, hide and seek seems like a pretty uncomplicated game. You can play with as few as two people. Somebody hides. After a pre-designated amount of hiding time, somebody seeks. In many variations, there’s an opportunity for a found person to hightail it for home base if they can get there without being tagged. Simple.
So how, in such a simple game, can a youth end up trapped and forgotten on a ledge outside of third story window?
Winning or Losing?
The complexities of hide and seek usually emerge in the cognitive abilities of the players. The person hiding is trying to outwit a very specific seeker. If the seeker is five years old, you don’t have to be nearly as clever with your hiding place as you would if they were even just a little older. The challenge for the hider is to attempt to outwit the seeker’s sense of probability. When my son was five, finding me anywhere other than my chair in the living room or my seat in the kitchen presented a real challenge to him. His understanding of the probability of my location was fairly narrow then. Now that he’s eleven, it would be nearly impossible for me to successfully hide for long within the walls of the house.
Our kid on the third story ledge, however, had successfully outstripped the mental resources of his seekers. So successfully, in fact, that he ended up spending a few hours on the ledge with his head trapped—attempting reentry—in a stuck window sash. It was early in a camp setting where the kids didn’t really know each other, so at the end of the game no one realized he was missing. They vacated the dorm for the afternoon’s activities, unknowingly leaving him to quake 20 feet above the ground until a building staffer heard him weeping.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that the conflict isn’t really between all of science and all understanding of God. It generally comes down to a tussle between Scripture and anywhere science appears to conflict with that, especially if it has to do with our humanity, mortality, and eternity.
Here’s the easy math on how he… won, we’ll say: he was in a place no one conceived he could be. The building was a dorm, and the seekers (also youth) were occupied searching a series of identical rooms. Possible locations in their minds would include under a bed, in a closet, behind a door, or perched on a toilet. The outside of the building wouldn’t even have registered on a mental map of possibilities for a middle school kid. His brilliance was his downfall.
The youth on my hall at camp that year were dealing with limitations imposed by their own learning process. Not a bad thing—that’s just how we learn. Gradually: fundamentals at first, more developed concepts later.
Youth ministry, on the surface, also seems like a pretty uncomplicated game. You can play with as few as two people. There’s a mystery, and we all seek it together. So why do many of the players often seem confused or even disinterested? Perhaps we’re not allowing them to seek using the means they use for discovery in the rest of their lives.
The difficulty the church encounters trying to convey the abstract concepts of faith to children is that there very nearly aren’t any basics. Faith begins and ends in mystery. It would be simpler if we’d just sit down with church kids when they’re five and say, “We’re pretty sure God is love; we’re trying to figure out the rest. Crazy, huh?” But we don’t. Or can’t. So the church moves on, offering deeply difficult texts as fun stories for children and handing out other impossibly complex theological concepts with the goldfish crackers. Later, as their mental capabilities begin to catch up, they begin asking legitimate questions—difficult questions, even for the adults leading them. Which should be an exciting time in their spiritual development. So why isn’t it?
Using Science to Seek
For the past year and a half, I’ve been working as part of the team for a Templeton grant-funded project called Science for Youth Ministry. The primary push of our work is to help foster the conversation between science and youth ministry—a conversation that often stalemates in local churches. I’ve been fascinated to observe how permeated our culture has become in struggling with the relationship between science and faith. PhDs can argue about it at length, with terrific footnotes. Christian bloggers with popularity as their primary source of credibility can weigh in. Probably more than one high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting has probably bogged down discussing it. And youth leaders find themselves in the familiar awkwardness of helping one age group process a subject through the filter of another age group’s opinions.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that the conflict isn’t really between all of science and all understanding of God. It generally comes down to a tussle between Scripture and anywhere science appears to conflict with that, especially if it has to do with our humanity, mortality, and eternity. Oh: and whether Adam was a real dude.
My fear, however, is that if we don’t find ways to involve science in youth ministry, we won’t have anybody bothering to ask us questions at all. The wrestling of science is the point, in a sense, and that translates to theology as well.
As I’m writing this, I’m a little bleary-eyed from a very late night of watching the weather on television. A series of tornado-laden storms came through and, having experienced a tornado firsthand 5 years ago, I remained vigilant while my family slept. At 2 a.m. I stood in front of my TV with a motorcycle helmet in hand, watching a hook signature develop in a storm a mile from our house. Wind shear exceeded 81 mph headed for over 100 mph. As the Vipir Tornado Index doubled from 2.3 to 4.9 and the hook twitched toward my home, I stepped toward the opening between living room and those I loved, poised to turn and yell for my family to get up and join me (and the rest of my helmets) in our closet.
But then the storm shifted; suddenly we were safe. Paul Barys, our local NBC weather forecaster, had been on point all night. He’d called instructions to people in the newsroom for hours, apologizing for drinking water on air, even summoning other weather department people from around Chattanooga to join him at the station mid-broadcast. He really had done an incredible job of watching multiple storms and giving to-the-minute warnings to all of the communities in harm’s way.
I awoke this morning after a couple of hours of sleep with this thought: I’m not a meteorologist, but (mostly thanks to Paul Barys) I understood what was happening in the sky last night. What if the church decided it had a beef with that particular science? How would we address that at church?
Weather as God’s Judgment
If it sounds silly to suggest it, consider how involved God appears to be in the weather in Scripture: the sun stands still on command, or it doesn’t rain for a long time to make a point—or it rains a lot to make a different point.
We’re not too terribly removed from that kind of thinking. There’s a TV evangelist who routinely blames horrific and catastrophic weather events on God’s judgment. At a more significant level, we have a president-elect who says climate change is a hoax instigated by China. A former Alaskan governor even claims to have witnessed first-hand God’s intervention on his behalf in our recent election. By that math, two plus two equals God doesn’t believe in climate change for a tremendous number of people in the United States. What does the message of youth ministry become in the face of that kind of thinking?
The truth is, without change, it might not matter for long. We can worry at no end about how to answer questions about science in youth ministry. Nearly everything else in culture is teaching youth to ask better questions, which is a primary engagement of science. My fear, however, is that if we don’t find ways to involve science in youth ministry, we won’t have anybody bothering to ask us questions at all. The wrestling of science is the point, in a sense, and that translates to theology as well.
But if we’re really chasing mystery, containment isn’t a real option. Denying questions or speculation just doesn’t work.
Youth know when we put up barriers—we do it all the time. Go back to hide and seek for a moment. One of the functional elements of hide and seek in most church buildings is the setting of hard boundaries. “No hiding in the choir room; we haven’t finished paying the choir back for the robes we ruined at the last lock-in. Stay out of the balcony, don’t touch anything on the pulpit, and do not turn on the organ. And please stay inside. Jim, are you listening? Let’s try not to involve the police this time.”
The reason for the rules isn’t because there aren’t any good hiding places in the choir room, balcony, or outside. It’s about containment. But if we’re really chasing mystery, containment isn’t a real option. Denying questions or speculation just doesn’t work. Imagine yourself as an adult leader on the third floor of that dormitory from my childhood. There’s this one kid with unruly hair that didn’t even go in two rooms trying to find people. He mostly stood in the hallway, apart from a trip to the bathroom. Just when everyone else has finished the bustle of tag-you’re-it and arguing who was safe and who was out, he points out that Jamie is missing. A flurry of didn’t-find-him ensues. The kid with unruly hair squints his eyes, staring off in the distance.
“Could he be outside?”
If we’ll entertain the question, we might even bring someone back in from time to time.
Kevin Alton is a youth ministry veteran and a writer, author, and speaker on all things spiritual and age-level Christian ministry. He’s the co-creator of the Wesleyan lectionary curriculum website Youthworker Circuit and serves as content curator for the Science for Youth Ministry grant. Kevin lives with his wife and two boys in the Georgia woods just outside of Chattanooga, TN. You can connect with him on most social media as @thekevinalton.