The editor of "Mandate" magazine finds that in these times of change, there are no easy answers when it comes to talking about God with youth.

The cover of Mandate magazine from Winter 2019 shows the faces of two young women, a white woman (right) holds her hands with bright pink nails in front of her mouth; behind her to the left, a woman possibly a person of colour, makes amusing face.
Credit: Mandate magazine / The United Church of Canada

Theological conversations are challenging at any age. When I first tested out the “God” word on my son, then three, he looked at me quizzically. “Who’s God?” he asked me, after hearing me confidently declare God loves him. Knitting his eyebrows together, he thought hard for a moment before inquiring further. “Is daddy God?” Perhaps the feminist in me should have been troubled or annoyed. Instead I was mildly amused. My son is lucky to have an out-of-this-world dad who loves him fiercely, so it makes sense that if God and love go together, his dad figures into the picture too. I’ll set him straight on God and gender one day.

Or will I? These God talks don’t get any easier with the passage of time. Now, two years later, my son is on an urgent quest to spot God at church—in the flesh. As different people pass by us in the pews, he’ll tug at my sleeve. “Is that God?” he’ll ask with almost frantic desperation. Recently my friend Todd stopped to chat after worship. As we talked, my son’s tugs on my sleeve became more persistent. Incredulous as Todd waved good-bye, he whispered to me with wide-eyed wonder, “Is Todd God?” That there was no reason in the rhyme wasn’t easy news for me to break, and when Todd later tried to explain to him that God is in each of us, the poor boy only looked more baffled. Afterward, at home, he looked at me squarely and asked, “Is God dead, mama?” Oh no, I thought, this boy is sounding like a Nietzschean and he’s not yet five—clearly, I’ve got my work cut out for me!

As I say, these talks are hard—and often they only get harder. I’m also the parent of a teenager. When she starts up her line of questioning, I feel myself breaking out into a cold sweat. Recently she revealed that she doesn’t know if she believes anymore. Before I had time to feel sad or dismayed, she asked: “What do we even mean when we say ‘God’?” As she talked more, she said she has no idea what experiences people are naming when they use God language.

I don’t have any easy answers for her. Neither does the United Church. In an era when the church is grappling with these hard questions, we need the voices of youth to be front and centre. And yet youth are disappearing from church pews. There are varied and nuanced reasons for this, many of them thoughtfully explored by Kerrie Perry in her cover feature of the Winter issue of Mandate magazine. But there’s also no doubt that as a church, we need to look inward. We need to ask, with the Very Rev. Jordan Cantwell, “why a whole constituency does not find us interesting.”

Cantwell notes that for many youth, church doesn’t happen on Sunday mornings. It happens in alternative spaces ranging from Rendez-Vous gatherings to coffee houses. These are spaces where it’s safe for young people to ask the questions that sometimes make adults squirm in their seats.

But that, to me, suggests that we also need to create inviting intergenerational worship spaces where youth can ask the big questions. Paraphrasing the Rev. Michael Blair, Executive Minister of the Church in Mission Unit at the General Council Office, Perry writes, “We have to care enough to want them to also feel they have a spiritual home and a faith community that values them and speaks to their experience.”

So how do we do this? I’ll start by saying that as the grownups in the room, whether parents, ministers, or mentors, we need to let the uncomfortable questions surface—without rushing in to offer pat answers. And then I’ll let you dig into the latest issue of Mandate for the wisdom of our writers. There, you’ll also find features by award-winning authors Trisha Elliott and Gary W. Kenny, and a bevy of other good content ranging from workshops to worship material. Here the hard questions are explored—after all, they’re integral to the spiritual growth of us all.

—Julie McGonegal is the editor of Mandate magazine. Visit the Mandate page and subscribe!

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