Study tackles the white image of the Divine
February 5, 2022
Creativity is one of the things I love best about being a children’s minister at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, California. And few are as creative as my colleague, Lori Robinson, associate director of children’s ministry, who says, “The image of God is like a mosaic where each of us has within us a single piece: The more people we get to know, the better we understand the image of God.”
People like Lori inspire me; they remind me of the power our metaphors have to help children grow closer to God. I’m worried, though, that it’s not enough. I’m worried that the church is enabling racism by what our children experience on a Sunday.
In January 2020, Stanford University’s Social Concepts Lab published a study titled “God as a White Man: A Psychological Barrier to Conceptualizing Black People and Women as Leadership Worthy.” The principal researcher, Dr. Steven O. Roberts, describes the study as asking both how people see God and the social consequences of that image. The study concludes: “The extent to which congregations conceptualize God as a white man might predict whom they perceive as worthy (and unworthy) of leadership.” In other words, believing in a white God means you tend to believe that white people are more suitable for positions of power. The majority of the children in the study indicated that they believed God to be white and male.
It’s tempting to say that if we just had better church school attendance and better curriculum, we in children’s ministry could “fix” this problem. This is where I start to worry that the structure of the church is fundamentally at fault. The best written curriculum in the world on the wonder of the “imago Dei” — the image of God — could never overcome the marginalization of children within the American church, because American churches are designed to appeal primarily to the desires, intellectual capacities and tastes of adults.
The problem isn’t formation. It’s ecclesiology. We can’t teach our way out of this. Rather, we are being called to live into a new way of building community and being the church.
Go back to Lori’s metaphor of the mosaic. If each one of us bears within us the image of God, then stepping out of the communities we are comfortable in and getting to know more people gives us a greater and deeper understanding of who God is. It stands to reason then that giving children intentional encounters with a broad range of people would be a solution.
This exposure to a broader range of people goes beyond one-time mission outings. It starts on Sunday morning, where children are typically bifurcated from the rest of the church community. Take worship services, for example. For most churches, worship is the central act of the community. Yet, children are largely absent from worship. Whether they are split off from the beginning or they start in worship before being dismissed, children are told — explicitly and implicitly — that they are not full members of the community.
If your instinctive reaction is to defend the way your church does worship, then I need you to ask yourself: Are children centered in our community? On a typical Sunday, is the sermon intelligible to the average 6-year-old, or are we depending on a coloring sheet to get them through that block of time?
If there’s a chance that we might root out racism at the core of our church, then we have to start by taking kids seriously — as intrinsic to the beloved community — by centering on the presence of children, not just in worship, but in every area of the church, and by exposing them to a fuller range of people: a broader sense of the “imago Dei.”
If the Stanford study reveals anything, it’s this: We children’s ministers can’t fix this by ourselves, not with all the creativity we can muster. But as the body of Christ, together as a community, we have the capacity to work through this particular piece of systemic racism. We can begin by showing our children in worship and beyond that we are each a beautiful piece in the mosaic, each made in the image of God.
Ryan SK Timpte has been involved in children’s ministry for over 20 years, serving for the past 10 as director of children’s ministry at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, California.
Today’s Focus: The image of God in the eyes of children
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Kirstie Johnson, Administrative Assistant, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Melissa Johnson, Mission co-worker serving in Zambia, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Gracious God, we rejoice that you are generous with us. Keep us mindful that you have provided all that we need. Help us to be generous with our loaves that you might show us once more that what we perceive as not enough may be all we need, with 12 baskets of crumbs to spare. Amen.