Instead of “Application”, Respond

I’ve been writing a bit about some of the shifts we’ve made in recent years in our children’s ministry’s curriculum, such as dropping “Application Oriented”.  What we’re doing instead has been so much richer, and I wanted to talk about that today:

Insofar as Christian faith is not an ‘it’ to be lived out, but rather a relationship to be deepened, it follows that we need to give kids handles, opportunities, and time to move into that deeper space.  We sum that up in our ministry with the word ‘Respond.’  The idea is for us to present the content of the Bible to the kids in a way that is creative and fun, and then to provide them with their own sacred space to respond back to God in their own way.

Here are 5 key things that Respond does in our children’s ministry:

  • It lets us reach more kids.  First and foremost, this approach makes us more effective at reaching as many of our kids as possible at the same time.  In a room of 200 4-5th graders, 200 unique stories, 200 different contexts, it is nearly impossible to teach them all to apply something the same way.  But when we say “God is __________”, every kid can engage with that idea and respond back to God somehow.  Every kid has something to say about that truth you presented:  Wow; No way; I don’t think so, But what about?; Maybe I should; Even when?  We reach a wider and more diverse group of kids when we present biblical content well, focusing on who God is, and then invite kids to uniquely respond.
  • It gives kids the chance to use their own words.  If we aren’t careful, we can got out of balance in children’s ministry, where the amount of time spent by adult teachers telling kids about the Bible story and God overshadows the amount of time spent by kids interacting with the story and God.  Respond gives kids a chance to use their own words.  And one child’s response might be to move towards greater obedience to God, but another child might have a question that needs to be asked or a doubt that needs to be named, while another has a praise that needs to be offered.  Each kid gets to say what they need to say in their own words.
  • It offers kids the chance to practice historical spiritual practices.  Often, we create the space for Respond by drawing upon very old practices from the Christian tradition, like the Prayer of Examen, Leccio Divinia, imaginative prayer, or prayer postures.  We keep finding that when we offer these practices to kids (in their language and perhaps with some adaptations for their age) they respond eagerly.
  • It communicates to kids that they have agency in their relationship with Jesus.  Respond is a great way to affirm the truth that kids are whole people who can hear from, talk to, and follow God for themselves. They are agents in their friendship with God.  Sometimes, because we know kids need help to understand the Bible or spiritual practice, we forget it’s still their life to make choices about engaging with God and Scripture.  We know that kids have their own thoughts about God, their own questions about following him, their own needs that God may or may not be meeting in the child’s opinion. Respond is a place for a child to participate fully with God in those things.
  • It is protected space where we take extra care to let the Spirit of God speak to kids. I heard someone remark that children do not have a junior Holy Spirit.  The fullness of God indwells a child who follows Jesus just as fully as it indwells you and me.  And God longs to speak to us; God longs for us to bring our whole lives to him.  Kids can get a church experience that is so packed-to-the-gills loud, crazy, extroverted, creative, cool that they don’t have time to just be with God.  They need both–creativity and handles to help them engage God and his word, and space of their own to just engage.

The rhetoric of “Application Oriented” claims to help kids live out their faith in their everyday lives.  But to me, Respond feels closer to how the Christian life works–we look at the world around us, read Scripture, and then come back to God with the good, bad and ugly.  And it’s in the coming back, over and over, questions, accusations, pleas and adoration that we build our faith in a living God.  So when kids get to Respond, the are living out their faith in their everyday lives.

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