I can’t believe what a joy it was to spend last week with the folks at Hawaiian Islands Ministries conference. I can’t believe what a joy it was to sleep in a hotel, eat meals, exercise ALL ALONE. Praise hands emoji.
If you are visiting the blog because you were at one of my breakouts, welcome! I talked to a few of you and promised to put the content from our time here for your reference, so here you go!
If you were not in Hawaii last week (bummer) but have an interest in children and the way the church can serve kids well, read on.
MINISTRY TO CHILDREN IN A CHANGING CULTURE
Take a minute to think back to your own childhood…
- What music did you listen to and on what device?
- What’d you watch on TV? And did you have to find the showtimes in the paper or TV Guide? Did you have a remote?
- What’d you do for fun in your free time?
- What was church like, if you attended?
That the world is changing is obvious. Our kids are experiencing realities far different than we did at their age. As we try to be good students of culture a few things stand out:
Kids today are Digital Natives:
Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place…Today’s students—K through college—represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology…Our students are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.
-Dr. Bruce D. Perry, Baylor College of Medicine
The relational fabric of U.S. culture is thinner:
Half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Of these, close to half will also see a breakup of a parent’s second marriage.
-Furstenberg, Peterson, Nord, and Zill, “Life Course”
This dynamic moves beyond the nuclear family as well and includes the degree to which we have social lives, neighborhood connections, and adults support. The Search Institute, for example, found that in the U.S. about 33% of families have the asset of “Neighborhood Cohesion” meaning neighbors look out for each other, and just 22% have the asset of relationships with others, such as teachers, coaches and community members. (More on Family Assets here.)
Kids are busier and more pressured:
Overscheduling our children is not only a widespread phenomenon, it’s how we parent today. Parents feel remiss that they’re not being good parents if their kids aren’t in all kinds of activities. Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know 6th graders who are already working on their resume’s so they’ll have an edge when they apply to college.
-Alvin Rosenfeld, m.D. The Over-Scheduled Child
41% of kids feel stressed all of the time or most of the time, because they have too much to do.
78% wish they had more free time.
– Health America Poll of 882 children, 2006
These dynamics are the new normal, and they are not like the world was when I was a kid. Given that, how does a church respond? Here is one key marker:
Exchanging “Application Oriented” for “God Centered”:
The dominant understanding for the past 10-20 years is that children’s ministry served kids best by being Application Oriented. The thinking was that kids can indeed live out their faith in their every day lives (true) and that, being concrete and developing people, they would need help from adults to know how to do that (also true). The model then, was to teach kids a Bible story, and then tell them how to live it out in the week ahead.
- Noah obeyed God. Where can you obey God this week?
- Joshua and Caleb were courageous. Where can you be courageous this week?
- Peter trusted Jesus to walk on water. When he lost trust, he sunk. Where can you trust Jesus more this week?
This is oversimplified, of course, but the essential idea remains. On the whole, we told kids exactly what to do to live out their faith.
This model made sense for the time. Most kids at church came frequently. Most of their families were churched. The family had a faith framework established and application could live within the framework.
This model also had an unintended negative outcome: it taught kids moralism, not biblical faith. It primarily taught kids to be good. It taught them that obedience, courage and trust were very important. But we could have taught those same virtues with the stories of past U.S. Presidents, or fables. We didn’t need the unique story of faith, and it created kids who did not know the unique story of our faith.
And of course, the heart of our faith is that God’s goodness permeates this world, that God’s grace covers our guilt, that Jesus is bigger than any mistake. When a person, child or adult, knows that, they overflow with gratitude.
Gratitude is where change happens. An act of courage or obedience–whatever ‘application’ of my faith–comes when I know God, know God’s story, and feel grateful for it.
Here’s where we’re making a shift. We’ve dropped application oriented. We no longer tell kids how to act based on the story they heard. There’s no prescription for how to be after Sunday is over. We are done telling busy, pressured kids that they have to do one more thing. Instead, we are driving towards something we are calling God-centered.
God-centered kid’s lessons tell kids the Bible story and help them see who God is and how God acts in the story. It highlights the character of God revealed in Scripture and invites kids to respond to God personally. That response might be about obedience, but it might also be about asking questions or searching for more information.
Here’s how this might feel:
- Noah was asked by God to build an ark and wait for a flood. That flood did indeed come and God kept Noah safe. God is trustworthy.
- Joshua and Caleb saw the wonderful land, but also the huge giants. But they knew something important: God is with us.
- Jesus invited Peter to walk on water with him. When Peter sunk and cried out, the Bible says Jesus helped immediately. Jesus is our help.
Again, this is oversimplified. But you feel the difference? One tells a kid to be more, the other tells a kid God is more.
If you minister to kids, consider: are you asking them to obey a God they do not know yet? Are you asking them to behave instead of inviting them to believe in a real, living God? The story of Scripture is that God behaves in reliable ways because that is who God is. When a child meets that God in scripture, they can know that God will be for them now who God was for his people then. That’s the foundation we want to give them as they grow up, begin to own their faith, and yes, start to live it out.
I’ll wrap up here for length and continue soon. Feel free to ask questions or respond in the comments.