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Suffer the little children: Guarding Children and Young People against Spiritual Abuse

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Posted 30 Jul 2019

Robin Barfield continues our series of posts on the subject of spiritual abuse by considering some of the particular dangers and temptations in ministry with children and young people.

Children and young people are the most likely to be spiritually abused, since spiritual abuse is most likely to occur in a relationship between a significantly more powerful individual (most likely an adult) and a less powerful individual (often a child or young person). The only successfully prosecuted criminal case of spiritual abuse in the UK so far was between a vicar and a teenage boy.  This means that those of us with responsibility for the care of children and young people in our churches have to be particularly vigilant.

We need to understand the ways in which children and young people are particularly vulnerable and then think carefully about how we guard against spiritual abuse occurring.

Children are Theologically Vulnerable

Children are full of questions and naturally curious about everything, including Christian things. Adults are seen as people who know more, who can answer their questions and who are, therefore, in a position of power and influence over the children they are in proximity to. Generally speaking, that is all children an adult is in proximity to. I minister in a primarily working class context, and I realise that in these circumstances, and others, it does not always feel as though all adults have this type of power over a child, but they do.

A child will listen to whatever you tell them about Jesus. If you say Jesus was half man, half goat a good number of younger children will nod and accept that without question. An adult would not. This makes children theologically vulnerable to whatever you want to tell them to believe, do, say or think. Evangelicals are therefore particularly open to this kind of spiritual abuse because we love the truth and we love people hearing the truth of the gospel. We are truth people. We recognise that the gospel cannot just be invented on the whim of the human heart but is revealed to us often in ways that rebuke and correct our own thinking and feeling.

I remember a mum coming to me one Sunday morning in a very excited state. She was very keen to tell me that her three-year-old had ‘prayed the prayer’ that morning. Being polite and not wanting to burst her bubble, I smiled and nodded encouragingly. But inside I was thinking, ‘She’s 3. How did she know that she needed to pray that and what words to pray?’ Of course, the answer was that Mum had told her to do it. This was not a child expressing their delight in Jesus but wanting to please the spiritually-pushy Mum who was, understandably, desperate for the salvation of her child.

A similar symptom of the child’s theological vulnerability is to tell you the answer that you want to hear.  Most of us know the Sunday School joke about the squirrel , but it betrays an approach which many of our church ministries are stuck in where we look for children to give us the correct answer more than anything. Instead we need to begin to ask better and more open questions that enable children to go beyond the right answer and reflect on how they might personally interact with the truth of the gospel.

We are also susceptible as a constituency because we generally believe in discipline and holiness of living. We enjoy the thought that children in our group behave well and might come in and sit nicely ready to listen to the homily we have prepared without interruption or distraction.

There have been some helpful resources written recently which encourage us to take our focus from outward behaviour and onto heart response.  This is good for we often make the mistake of wanting children to behave rightly, never mind their heart motive, as this is a far easier thing to achieve. But this is not gospel ministry. It seems to me that in recent media cases of spiritual abuse the desire of the abuser has been to control right behaviour, rather than to encourage the spiritually healthy heart which results in gospel behaviour.

Young People are Existentially Vulnerable
The situation with adolescents can be quite different. Often teenagers think that they know more than you (certainly as a parent!) A teenager is trying to make sense of the world around them which has grown increasingly large and complex. This is a time of seeking to synthesise their beliefs with other ideas and worldviews that they are coming into contact with. Therefore, this time of adolescence is marked by doubting and questioning, rather than curiosity and naivety.

The danger comes when the youth group, for example, is not a place where those doubts and questions can be expressed. Often the parent or the youth worker will see a previously keen Christian child push back against what they have learnt. The adult may feel threatened by that and may respond by shutting down the conversation rather than allowing an open and honest discussion. Linked to this can be a desire to control the behaviour of the apparently wayward teen, with the argument that it’s for their good.

This doesn’t mean we should be light on the truth or lack conviction in our ministry with young people. But we must help those young people to wrestle with and seek to understand the truth of the gospel for themselves. A significant period of wrestling with the faith as a teenager has been shown to aid that faith sticking with them in the long run. Teenagers who merely assume the faith and do not go through a period of doubting are more likely to fall away in their early twenties.

Adolescents are still working out what deep friendship really means. This can be a bewildering time of hurt and broken friendships, lost loves and fear of shame and failure. While this gives youth leaders opportunities to demonstrate good non-familial friendships, it also gives opportunity for abusive, controlling and manipulative behaviour.

I remember as a young adult I was on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour by an older man in a church. Whilst I would not term this experience as spiritual abuse, it certainly had aspects of it and was disorientating and difficult. I was being given convincing and spiritual reasons to do things that I was not entirely comfortable with. It can be very difficult for a young person to say ‘no’ to an adult. There is a good chance you are not aware of it happening and perhaps not aware that it is close to abuse, but if a young person is doing things because they do not want to say ‘no’ to you then this can easily tip over into spiritual abuse.

How do We Guard Against the Spiritual Abuse of Children and Young People?
Be aware of the power dynamic that is present
There is a power dynamic that is present in all work with children and young people. We must recognise that. Once we have recognised it then it is easier to take steps to make it less of an issue. It may be giving a young person a choice to opt out, to walk away, to rebel. It may mean being gentler and giving a number of options rather than a simple yes or no question.

How do we reduce this power dynamic?
There are some techniques which have been suggested: one particular method, which emphasises the agency of the child, suggests sitting in a circle rather than a top down teaching structure. This can be helpful as it gives every member an equal place in the discussion. However, it would be wrong to say that it removes any power imbalance.

Having an environment where any question can be asked, and which values the input of the children and young people themselves is another way. If the children and young people just listen to the charismatic speaker and then walk out the room without saying anything, they are not engaging with the gospel themselves. But inviting questions and disagreement can be a really healthy way of removing yourself from the ‘priesthood’ of being the only one who can answer their questions. Being willing to say, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘What do you think?’ has the same effect

Accountability and the power dynamic.
This is the agreement to be honest with another person about certain sins that are being battled in the Christian life. One of the issues I faced in the situation I mentioned above was that I felt accountability was being forced on me to a level I was not comfortable with. Accountability should only be practised where there is a balance of power, and therefore it is not appropriate in a youth leader/young person situation. If a young person feels able to be honest with you about their struggles, for example with pornography, it may be appropriate to share in a very general way a similar struggle you have had, but always be aware that doing so could make the young person feel uncomfortable. Similarly, when such admissions are made, permission to share these confidentially with another trusted adult should be sought, perhaps the parents or another leader.

Adhere to good safeguarding practice
In the cases that have made the news recently, one of the things that they all have in common is that they break current safeguarding guidelines. If another adult is present, then this limits the possibility of spiritual abuse happening. If our ministry to children and young people is done in open, accessible places with the right safeguarding principles established and adhered to, then our churches are much more likely to be safe places where spiritual abuse does not happen.

Intense one-on-one time whether in person or on social media is not acceptable for a leader with spiritual responsibility. Creating a culture of dependence, by an intense relationship makes spiritual abuse more possible. This is often done with good intentions and it does not become obvious until further down the line that dependent relationships have been formed, but it could become very damaging. Setting boundaries, with gentleness and respect, and sharing ministry responsibilities with others is beneficial to all.

None of this is to say that parents and leaders cannot have authority. It is right for a parent to tell a child that they are coming with them to church even if the child is unwilling. Exercising appropriate authority over a child or young person is loving service, which is entirely different from coercive and manipulative control.

But spiritual abuse amongst children and young people will masquerade as having their best interests at heart. And yet, because it is not gospel care for their hearts, it is thoroughly destructive. Being aware of the potential dangers and knowing what spiritual abuse can look like is a great first step in being alert to it occurring. Having the correct safeguarding principles in place and in practice should help to protect the church and ourselves against this happening. Having an open context of questioning for young people, their parents and others in the church will make it harder to abuse to grow and fester in the dark.

This post is part of a series examining and reflecting on spiritual abuse in the Bible and in our contemporary church context.
1. Spiritual abuse
2. God’s judgment on spiritual abuse
3. What is spiritual abuse?
4. Guarding against spiritual abuse
5. Spiritual abuse of children and young people

Robin Barfield is Associate Minister for Children & Families at Christ Church, Wharton

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