Four boys were sitting around a bench at the local mall after school today. They weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary—just hanging out and passing time. I suspect they were actually giving each other some sense of meaning. They all looked about the same.
For some reason they reminded me of my six months on an Israeli kibbutz many years ago. The kibbutz was a socialized farm run by about 130 members who, with their children and 20 or so volunteers like myself, made up a community of about 250. I was there to learn modern Hebrew in an Ulpan language program. As volunteers we also worked for room and board.
That’s just context for my reflection at the mall. I’m guessing the boys there were about 14 or 15 years old and they reminded me very loosely of the 10-15 teenage boys on the Kibbutz Dovrat where I studied.
It was a contrast rather than a positive comparison. The Israeli boys would never have been sitting around, styling, and hanging out. They were farm kids. They had cows, chickens, and tractors to deal with: real chores. And they were good at what they did. They belonged.
The kibbutz kids wouldn’t have been any smarter, stronger, or better bred than the cluster I noticed today. But they did show off two qualities I don’t often see these days. They viewed themselves as active contributors to their communities and not as children who, for now, could be sightseers. And they were able, confident, and unselfconscious.
Here’s a snapshot from my Dovrat days. The Israeli Army was still at war at the time and reservists were on active duty, including a number of men from our kibbutz. So we were short-handed. One morning I was assigned to a new job—to work in the fields during a crop dusting visit by a hired airplane. Needless to say I didn’t have a clue about what I was expected to do.
A 16-year-old Israeli boy joined our small cluster of men who were waiting to be briefed. As the sole Israeli in our group I asked him if he knew who would be sent to lead us.
“I’m in charge,” he answered with a comfortable nonchalance.
As soon as the last volunteer showed up he did, indeed, take charge. Without any fuss he explained to each of us where to go, what to do, and how it needed to be done. Simple, sound, and direct. He knew the program because he had done it before. And he was very comfortable in making decisions because it was already a lifestyle.
What struck me at the time—as supported by other exposures—was that farm kids worldwide tend to share the benefit of competence. They have a range of skills built by watching, listening, and doing. Their adults set them up for success. A parental goal is to hand off real responsibilities as soon as the children are ready to handle them—and maybe a bit sooner.
I also knew that a remarkable number of officers in the very effective Israeli army were from kibbutz farms. It was a fertile training ground for early entry into successful adulthood.
By now you may be wondering, why this comparison of farming and non-farming children when this site usually features spiritual topics?
One point I won’t suggest is that the kibbutz youth were morally superior to the mall youth. They might be more mature and ready to handle adult roles, certainly, but that’s not a measure of morality or spirituality. Spirituality and maturity aren’t one and the same even if we might mistake one for the other.
The common ground for all of us is that we grow up in a given social fabric. The varied threads of daily experience eventually become a tapestry of personhood. And some settings are more effective than others in producing maturity.
But if we want our youth to be truly spiritual they need to have the Spirit.
The Spirit of Christ is critical to real maturity because he alone has the design of Ephesians 2:10 in mind—the “good works” we were made for. And he begins to form us from the inside-out once we meet Christ.
Competency, on the other hand, is a process of outside-in formation. Non-Christian Israeli farmers, in our example, might be great at producing strong adults but that doesn’t make them guides for spiritual formation. That depends on the Spirit alone. So, too, we can have mature members of the Christian community who endorse Christ but don’t actually have a new birth.
Let’s return to thinking about young people. What does it look like when we add the sort of training farm youth get to experience to a born-again spirituality?
Maybe another David, a shepherd boy after God’s own heart? A young man who had confidence in God and only then in himself? And who had an unselfconscious devotion to others because of his love for God?
Let’s not mistake competence and confidence for spirituality. Nor social formation that imitates Christians for the spiritual formation that only Christ can produce by giving his Spirit. Instead let’s support the personal growth of children who do meet Jesus and see what God has in mind for them.
The two—Spiritual new birth and growth into meaningful roles of church life—are always meant to go together.