By the time I was confirmed in the Methodist Church, I knew a lot of Bible. And because the pastor who led our confirmation classes was a history buff, a good deal of church history, too. I enjoyed Sunday school and confirmation classes; our church had a solid program that taught us a lot. Conscious of our Wesleyan heritage, our congregation also sang the hymns robustly. Our pastor made us sing, ‘bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more!’ over and over until he was sufficiently inspired.
When it came my turn to teach Sunday school, I was aghast at how little our youth knew of either the Bible or the history of the church. I put that down to the pressure they were under to pad their résumés with sports in order to appeal to prestigious colleges—that, and the fact that whatever cultural support my generation had for religious education is virtually gone now. I also learned that the kids had a disaffinity for hymn-singing ranging from bored indifference to outright hostility, which I put down to too many hifalutin choral evensongs and not enough raise-the-roof hymn-sings.
But one thing my kids’ generation has that mine had far less of is opportunities for service. Our parish youth group was part of a rota of teams that staffed a clothing bank for the disadvantaged on Saturday mornings. They were quite faithful about this; my younger daughter brought along a school friend on a few occasions. My elder daughter has taken shifts in a food program in a blighted area near her college. It’s not a program that keeps its staff behind sanitized kitchen buffet lines. Instead, staff are tasked with checking the bathrooms before closing up, because they have found people dead of overdoses in them in the morning more than once. But my daughter appreciates the opportunity to step outside her comfort zone. My family’s experience is far from unique; it seems today’s young people would rather spend their vanishing free time on service projects living out the gospel rather than learning about Jesus’ lessons inside a formation classroom. Though I wonder if those same young people would articulate their volunteering in such a way.
By now, you’re probably asking what all this has to do with Saint Andrew the Apostle whom we celebrate today. Well, the Gospel of John depicts Peter’s brother on three occasions bringing people to Jesus:
- When some seekers described as ‘Greeks’ (which may have meant either Gentiles or Greek-speaking Jews) express a wish to speak with Jesus, they approach Philip, who in turn tells Andrew. In John 12:20-22, we’re told the two of them together bring them to Jesus. It is likely the Grecophones approached Philip and Andrew because they both had Greek names.
- When Jesus asked if anyone had any food, it was Andrew who said, ‘Here is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish,’ from which meager offering Jesus fed the five thousand. (John 6:8f)
- According to John 1:35-42, Andrew is one of the first two disciples to follow Jesus. Andrew then sought out his brother Simon and brought him to follow Jesus as well.
So what would Andrew do today to bring people—especially young people—to Jesus? What if regular volunteering in church-based programs were administered like internships, school Capstone projects, or Scout projects? Not only would this make it easier to tip the church/sports scales toward the Church when family decisions about extra-curricular activities were being made, it would communicate to all that service to ‘the least of these’ has the same weight, significance, and gravitas any other worthy activity.
I’m also pleased to report anecdotally that church-based service initiatives can instill in our children the very curiosity about God that we strive—in vain, it often seems—to cultivate in them. Both my children are now taking religious studies courses at their respective colleges.