I began serving in my church’s children’s ministry when I was 16. I was a 2nd grade girls small group leader, as well as a Large Group teacher. My first lesson I ever taught was about patience, and I ate an orange without peeling it as an example of how impatience can spoil something good. I remember the orange. What I don’t remember is what I said about God or the Bible that day.
And neither do any of the kids who were there.
What they remembered as they left was that being patient was good and being impatient was bad. They remembered the ‘application’ of the lesson.
Over the past couple decades in children’s ministry, the value of being Application Oriented has been paramount. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, Application Oriented children’s curriculum aims to teach kids what is in the Bible and, specifically, how to apply it to their lives. It teaches kids the truths or principles of Scripture and spells out how to live out the principles in the rest of the their week.
I have to acknowledge what is good within this framework: 1. Application Oriented acknowledges that kids are whole people who can make choices and follow God in their real, everyday lives. It expects that kids can participate in their faith where ever they are. 2. Application Oriented understands that although kids are capable of engaging with God and the Bible, because of their development, kids need some guidance and coaching about how that works. For instance, younger kids think in the concrete; abstract thinking isn’t strong until adolescence. Telling kids how they can apply the Bible is a way to help meet kids where they are at.
But these two values can be upheld in a children’s ministry and curriculum without being connected to a single, uniform prescribed application. And that is what children’s ministry needs– to honor the child’s agency & self-efficacy and to enter the world & developmental process of a child. But the era of application oriented needs to end, and here’s why:
Obedience to Christ flows from knowing, loving and trusting Christ. And what we know of Christ is that his love is unconditional, his grace is powerful, his work is for good, for hope, for healing.
But at our church, our kids don’t really know that. They know they should be honest, be kind, not cheat, not use bad words. They know obedience-like behaviors. But they wonder if God will love them less if they don’t do those things. For as much as they know about God, they don’t really know God.
The accidental outcome of this curriculum model has been moralism: God wants you to be good, lets look at people in the Bible to learn how to be good, and let’s tell you how to apply the Bible so you can be more good and less bad this week.
Application Oriented children’s curriculum teaches kids that what is important is how they behave.
Before coming to Willow, I re-wrote a purchased curriculum from a publishing house for my church. Its model was to hold up one trait–honesty, kindness, perseverance, patience–and tell Bible stories about people who exemplified that trait. And I could have plugged in past presidents or fictitious fables and gotten the same outcome.
The point of children’s ministry is not to create good kids. The point is to introduce children to God. And the point of Scripture is not to create good people. It is to introduce us to Christ so the Spirit can form us to be more like him.
What we are called to do is introduce kids to the God who sought us out when we were not good, the God who redeems what is not good in us, who loves us no more for being good and no less for being bad. We are called, not to spell out a list of behaviors, but to point to a real, loving, and gracious God.