Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What's Your Bible Story?

What's your Bible story?

What's the story of your relationship to the Bible? How did you progress from being an outsider, familiar with only scattered bits and pieces, to a reader, to a person whose life has been shaped by its contents - if that was the path? Or maybe you're a skeptic. And if so, there's a story behind that as well.

Everyone has a Bible story that's evolved with them and that shapes how they view God.

The written word isn't the only way we relate to God (after all, the earliest Christians didn't have a New Testament, and Christian believers for centuries were mostly illiterate), but it's a super important way. In the Bible classes that I teach, I like to ask, "What is the Bible, and what is the Bible for?" People's answers usually reflect the depth of their Bible experience. When we're not very familiar with the Bible, our understandings of its purpose and how it "works" in us are pretty limited.

About 10 years ago, a guy named A.J. Jacobs spent an entire year trying to follow every command that's in the Bible. Part of his purpose was to mock people who say they believe the Bible, by pointing out the difficulty (if not impossibility) of keeping every biblical command. But the whole experiment reflects a shallow understanding of the Bible (and one that you are free not to buy into), as "God's rule book" and nothing more.

My Bible story really took off once I got into college, because it was the first time I'd really read it in a concentrated way. How could this be? I grew up going to church. Lots of church. Yet except for some brief periods (Bible camps), I was never encouraged or challenged to read it in order to believe it.

John the apostle tells us that he recorded the events in his gospel (and not every event) so that readers would believe "that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." I think that captures the purpose of Bible reading pretty well. We read so that we might believe. We don't read to win Bible trivia contests, even though that seems to be the focus of so many Bible reading plans and schemes and curricula that's out there.

Now think about your own kid's Bible story. Do they approach it already believing, or wanting to believe, or for some other reason? And how do we build and support good habits of Bible reading? Here are some ideas:

1. Remember that the Bible is a book. Ok - duh. But here's what I mean by that. Just because Christians believe the Bible was inspired by God and has the weight (authority) of God behind its words, it is still a book. It expresses ideas through words, sentences, and paragraphs. As such, its words are not magical incantations that are somehow freed from the normal rules of human communication, to be plucked out of the air (and out of context) and willy-nilly applied in service of the heat of a given moment. The Bible's message was delivered in particular times at particular places to particular audiences. And it wasn't written to us; but it has a message for us.

Some people do believe the Bible is magical, that every utterance stands on par with all of the others, and that learning the history and situation behind each book and passage is a waste of time. I cannot support that view. In that case, there is no control: the Bible can mean whatever I argue it to mean. And the more fanciful the interpretation, the better, because people will nod their heads and say, "Wow - I would have never seen that in that passage!"

2. Becoming a better reader in general will help you become a better Bible reader. Since all of the rules of written communication still apply, it follows that the better your kids are at reading in general, the better they will be at apprehending the message of the Bible. And by reading I don't just mean decoding words. I took Greek in seminary. I can pronounce all of the words in a Greek New Testament. This does not mean I can accurately tell you what a passage written in Greek is saying. Why? Because I'm not that good at it! To get there, I'd need to expand my Greek vocabulary and practice, practice, practice to increase my reading fluency. Even then, without some knowledge of the background of a passage (Who wrote it? When? Where? To whom? Why?) my "reading" would be limited to translating words, phrases, and ideas into English (which is what an English Bible does).

So expose your kids to all kinds of literature and encourage them to be readers. What if they don't like reading? Some kids don't. But it's unlikely they'll become devoted Bible readers who understand and believe its message unless they spend time reading it. And that's unlikely if they don't like reading in general.

3. Choose Bibles and Bible products that kids like. This one's a no-brainer. When people ask me, "What's the best Bible for my child?" my answer is always the same: Whichever one they'll read. Don't sweat that it isn't your favored translation. If you want kids to spend time with it, they have to like it. That means cover appeal, illustrations, sidebars, maps, charts - whatever it takes to make a Bible "cool" to them, that's the one you need to get them.

4. Do some intense study & learn the story. At some point in everyone's Bible-reading career, it pays to invest the time to develop mastery of what you're actually studying. Otherwise you hit a wall. The Bible contains a lot of "stuff", but you can't begin to piece it together. This is where our series of classes called "What's The Story?" and "What's This Book?" come in. Once your kid hits 4th grade, they are old enough for these classes. Class 1, "What's The Story?" takes on the big, overarching story of the Bible, while Class 2, "What's This Book?" examines how the Bible tells that story and how we can read it and make sense of it. Since 2010, I would estimate that more than 200 kids have gone through this class, and the class is designed for parents to go through it together with their kids. My hope is that every kid takes this class before leaving 6th grade. The next round begins January 18.

For 3rd graders, we are trying something new in 2017. "Meet Your Bible" is an entry-level overview of how the Bible works, which will be offered on Sunday afternoon, January 22. We are limiting this first go around to 25 kids and parents, with free lunch included. Sign up here - a limited amount of childcare is also available for younger or older siblings, if you need that.

Younger than 3rd grade, I am a fan of Bible storybooks. It has been said that before 3rd grade, kids are learning to read, and after that, kids read to learn. So I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that their reading skills are developing and realistic about how much we expect younger kids to encounter God through formal Bible study.  In fact, even people who want kids to "learn a lot of scripture" through memorization seem to concede this point, that kids won't understand the words they're reading and saying until they're older. I think kids below 8 should encounter God mainly through ritual and wonder, through song, in prayer, and by entering the Bible narrative through hearing and play. Formal study of the scriptures will come. But if we overwhelm them with too many words that are big and confusing, then that's the groundwork we're laying: the Bible is full of words that are big and confusing.

Remember that God gave us the Bible as a revelation of himself. But it wasn't the only means he used. Even illiterate people and those in cultures steeped in oral tradition do encounter God to this day. So we need to be patient with kids who are poor readers or who are just beginning to read, and not look down on them as "Christians in the making", because the point of the Bible isn't the Bible; it's God. Every kid's "Bible story" will be shaped in time. We can't force it, but we can do some things - like encouraging good reading, exposing them to good Bible products, and holding classes and seminars - that give them a leg up on the journey of discovering God through the word.

Friday, December 2, 2016

As if you needed one more thing to do this time of year...

Well, it's BacktoSchoolHalloweenThanksgivingandsuddenlyit'sChristmas season. Every year. Without fail. Are you feeling it?

So it is with some trepidation that I offer this appeal: Don't miss Advent.

Advent, the church season which looks forward to Christmas, has fallen out of favor. It sounds stodgy, too churchy. And besides, if we celebrate four weeks of Advent, who has time for Christmas (which is the real fun anyhow)?

But the rhythm of Advent slows us down. It keeps Christmas from being a blur. Whether you observe Advent in a traditional way - with a wreath and five candles, representing the prophecies about Jesus, Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, and the baby Jesus - or in some other way that draws kids into the Christmas story and allows them to imagine it, experience it, play with it, and wonder about it, Advent is such a valuable tool for inviting kids into the world and language of faith.

Otherwise what happens is that we immerse ourselves in a crush of now-largely secularized traditions, while the Christmas story waits for us on December 25 - by which time, kids are so drunk with excitement about presents and school breaks, the actual Christmas story can become a coda ("...Aaaand then Jesus was born").

Sybil McBeth, who developed the "Praying in Color" concept, also wrote a handy book called The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist. Click the link to the preview page, which itself has six ideas to use on Christmas Day alone. All of Sybil's ideas are practical and inexpensive.

Here's the real beauty of Advent: it addresses the idea of waiting, which every kid is accustomed to. Kids living in an adult-run world have to wait all the time, for birthdays and holidays and grown-ups and for their turn, and it's hard to wait. So you begin at the optimal point for learning, which is relating to the personal situation of the learner. (Educational psychologists would call this the "anticipatory set".) Ask your kids, "What are some things you've had to wait for? Why is it hard to wait? What can we do to make waiting easier?"

But be sure, also, that you make the link between our waiting and the Israelites'. Advent is a looking forward to Christmas, just as the people of God (Israel) looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Who was the Messiah? Why were they desperate for him? How did his coming amaze them/shock them? Why did most of them miss it? Jesus' life, and his rejection by most who encountered him, doesn't make sense except against this backdrop.

That's a valuable life lesson for kids (which is not to imply that Jesus' birth and life were just pretexts to teach us character lessons about handling whatever it is we wait for), that in waiting, we can become impatient, or refuse to wait, or despair. Or, we can relate to the Israelites and remember that in their darkest moment, God has already come through. Therefore, their waiting is our waiting. As Christians, we don't wait for God to do something "new" or "better" or "different" at Christmas. He's already done the biggest thing. And it made everything all right.

Young kids are probably too young to play the "What if Jesus had never been born" thought experiment, but older kids can probably entertain it. Would the world still be hopeful? And are they still hopeful now that Jesus will keep his promise to return to the world he loves? Advent immerses us in this kind of "what if?" and "what now?" thinking. Soak it up, and revel with your kids in the joy of waiting for something whose delivery is already assured.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Meanwhile, Just Ten Miles Away

A member at our church, who teaches in Vista, came to us with an idea. Although to call it an "idea" makes it seem like something optional. Instead, this idea was based on a need - a need that can't be easily ignored.

The issue, this teacher shared with me, is that many kids at her school have been coming to school in the same clothes day after day, or in clothes that don't fit, or that don't work for play. She wondered if we might do a clothing drive to help out.

This school - where 95% of the kids come from families whose incomes are so low, the kids qualify for free or reduced hot lunch - is just ten miles away. Proximity should not be what makes one need more important than another, but in this case, the fact that this is happening nearly in our backyards makes this, I think, especially compelling.

We're not naming the specific elementary school because of the risk of stigmatizing them. But I realize by not naming it, we run the risk of painting all of Vista Public Schools with a broad brush. Let me assure you that is not our intention. I, in fact, live in Vista - and I like it. The fact that this need exists is not reflective of any inherent "less than" in Vista, or the quality of its schools, or the people who live there.

This need exists because some of the children at that school are in fact homeless. Others live in families who share homes with relatives. A great many just have parents who, despite working, don't earn enough to keep up in this expensive North Coastal region.

So the need exists. As winter settles in, some kids need jackets. Many can use new shoes. All of them simply need more - more shirts, pants, shorts. Siblings in middle school and preschool also need these things. So we'll be collecting kids' clothing of all sizes. Please no adult clothes, and - this hopefully goes without saying - please launder items before donating.

Some of the clothes collected will be donated; the rest will be sold at token prices, with funds benefiting the school's PTA, which will then turn around and pour those resources back into the school.

Please donate. But more than that, use this opportunity to teach your kids about generosity, and that we don't just give out of some abstract motivation to "do good". We give to meet real needs - sometimes far away, but sometimes just ten miles up the road.

Watch Mark's interview with Rebecca Tartre below:


Thursday, November 17, 2016

The best Bibles for kids, brought straight to you

It happens every time I go to a bookstore. I get lost.

Not physically lost, but lost in the pages. I jump from one intriguing cover to another. I read whole chapters. I lose track of time. And yes, I've been known to spend a little more than I intended when I walked in.

When I'm in a Christian book store, something different happens. I find myself stumbling upon title after title that I wish the families at my church could see.

At the same time as the number of Christian bookstores has gone down, the amount of quality products out there for kids and preteens is way up. Kid-friendly Bibles, Bible storybooks, and devotionals abound. The Action Bible has been a phenomenon for 5+ years, and now there are others that have a similar style that are capturing kids' attention, not the least of which (you knew this would happen) is the Minecrafter's Bible(!).

So, because most families don't have the time to put their kids in the car and search out the nearest Christian bookstore, we're going to bring these books to you: a book fair, at our church, on the first weekend in December. We are making close to 20 titles available to you and selling them at cost. Our children's ministry makes nothing on this, and we don't want to. We just really want your kids to get their hands on the fun products that are available right now.

Let me be clear: I think having Bibles and Bible storybooks in your home is essential to kids' spiritual growth. I know some people worry that cartoonish illustrations might send the message that the Bible's characters were fictional, while others insist that storybooks compromise the Bible's integrity and authority because they aren't delivering "the real" words of God (which are in Greek and Hebrew, by the way...). But these concerns are easily enough dealt with, when we explain to kids that, "No one knows exactly what Jesus looked like, or his disciples, or any of the people in the Bible - but here's what one author imagined they might have been like..."

And with that, we launch kids down a road of wonder and adventure. Anyone who suggests that adult Christians should not use their minds is not a friend of spiritual growth in adults; likewise, anyone who suggests that children need to put their imaginations on hold when encountering the Bible is not a friend of spiritual growth in children.

The sale is one weekend only, and whatever we don't sell goes back to the supplier. I hope you'll come out and browse the tables on December 3-4, and consider including a new Bible under the tree this Christmas.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Value of a Long-Term Perspective (Value #8)

I have a few photographs from my earliest days in ministry. I wish there were more. In one of the photos, someone is wearing a sheet like a cape...they have food on their face (or maybe it's marker, or makeup?)...a few other kids are up on the platform looking on and laughing. I can't identify most of the kids, and I can't remember why they were up there. It looks like they were having fun.

That's the thing about snapshots: they capture a moment, and nothing more. Go back and look at all of the family pictures you've posted over the last year. (Seriously - see you in 30 minutes!) Now if I were to ask you to tell me about those photos, you probably could. But how much of your explanation would be about that moment, and how much would be you telling the story of that moment ("We were at my best friend's birthday party, and all the kids were swimming, and they had delicious street tacos; we were running a little late that day because my three-year-old had a meltdown on the way out the door...")?

Now check out photos from five years ago. Telling that story is a little tougher, isn't it? And ten years ago? Uhhhh...

But that's the value of photos: they trigger memories, and the stories of those memories unlock the past. Few of us need to look at photos just to remember what we - or others - used to look like. We look at old family photos because they lead us to remember other things: "Whoa - bad hair day!" "There's Grandma in the background - hard at work in the kitchen, as always." "That was the best road trip we ever took!"

Photos do these things, or they don't...and those, you don't keep. My grandmother died four years ago. My aunt is in the process of sorting and distributing old photographs. But what do you do with the faces no one recognizes? They lose their power and, sadly, their value.

Photos can also sometimes lie. Or they can cause us to remember things that didn't actually happen. Maybe you came from a family where everyone smiled nicely for photographs, but outside the frame, you weren't a happy family at all. Sometimes we even use photographs to deceive ourselves, that memories are happier than the events actually were.

I think that in children's ministry, we are addicted to snapshots. We engineer things to create moments that make kids happy, parents happy, the church happy - but it's not a reflection of reality. And I think that addiction sometimes keeps us from applying the sustained, focused effort that's really needed to actually accomplish good.

Children's researcher Rebecca Nye challenges us to look at the depictions of children we see in church, and ask what messages they convey about kids and their spiritual value and potential. In some older churches, it's possible the only depictions of children are in stained glass, and it's the Christ child! In more contemporary churches, we may see pictures of kids playing, laughing, and generally secure and well-off. What does that communicate about the needs of kids, or the purpose of our work with them?

To be more specific, if I "just want kids to be happy" (a common refrain these days), then I'll be satisfied when I succeed in putting a smile on some kid's face. If a kid really is hurting, but they have their happy face on, I'm not even going to think to ask what I ought to ask to get to the heart of their well-being. In neither case have I done spiritual good.

That's because spiritual well-being is a product of the work of God, and that work is ongoing. I can't tell you in an instant - a snapshot - the state of a kid's spiritual life. No one marker will give me that. Unlike a letter grade, which can tell me "how they did" on their math quiz, or a blood test, which can be used to diagnose diseases, or an eye exam, which tells us the strength of lenses they need, spiritual well-being is not instantly measured.

We know this from our own spiritual lives. Temptation isn't overcome in an instant. Instead, we grow to love the good, and gradually, what used to tempt us becomes unappealing. Suffering doesn't end suddenly, because someone makes us laugh or quotes us a Bible verse or two. In time, we heal, until we emerge from our dark night stronger and better. Joy isn't a fleeting emotion, like glee or happiness, but a state of mind deliberately cultivated, a determination to find contentment even in adverse circumstances. A giving heart doesn't appear out of the blue. It matures as we practice the discipline of self-denial and exercise the faith that God will meet all of our needs. And so on.

Growth. Emergence. Cultivation. Maturity. These are all agricultural metaphors, and agriculture takes time. Farmers check their crops from time to time. But not every day, and certainly not every hour. They plant, they fertilize, and they irrigate - and then they wait, trusting the process of nature. And as much as I believe kids can be Christians in the here and now, that we are not training them as "junior Christians" who will eventually have the real thing, I also believe there's an important place in children's ministry for waiting, for being patient with the process. Otherwise we might short-circuit growth, or call something growth that isn't really growth.

This is hard in a culture that demands immediate feedback. In some ways, becoming farmers (or at least planting vegetable gardens) would do us all some good! We have to resist the urge to take a moment - a snapshot - and extrapolate too much from that. Every moment is a piece of a larger process.

We all value when kids come out of a program and can tell us "what they learned". But that's reciting, and reciting is a fairly surface-level thinking process. Instead, what about asking your child, "What's the most important thing you've learned about God in this last month?" or "How do you think God is changing you?" or "What do you think God thinks about (insert current event here - it can be light, like the Super Bowl, or heavier, like the Syrian refugee crisis)", and then re-asking that same question six months later? Another useful tactic is to ask, apart from the context of any particular Bible story or lesson, "What's God like?" or "What is God doing right now?" Questions like these help extract God from the bounds of church and bring him into everyday life. They force kids to integrate the "bits" they've picked up about him into a whole. This is shaping kids' theology, which is something that's happening invisibly anyhow: why not bring it into the open where you can have some influence over it?

Consider, too, that kids whose language skills aren't great will struggle to put into words "what they've learned"...but that doesn't mean they haven't learned anything. They, as well as internal processors, need some time. It could be days or weeks before "the point" hits them. We stunt that growth process when we demand immediate answers, or settle for pat answers that don't reflect real thought or understanding.

Here are some more thoughts to help us take a healthy long-term perspective:
  • God wants your kid to grow, even more than you do. Before your child was born, God had "numbered their days" (Psalm 139:16), he has counted the hairs on their head (Matthew 10:30), he wants them to be saved and to know the truth about him (1 Timothy 2:4), and he never gives us (Psalm 121:4).
  • The Holy Spirit is more powerful than you are. It's more powerful than I am. There is no educational system or method in existence that is more effective in transforming kids than the living power and presence of God. In fact, while education can produce a lot of things, its product is not the same as life transformation at the hand of God. Anything else is not a close substitute; it is no substitute at all. (See 1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
  • Jesus desired that kids (even kids!) would come to him. When Jesus rebuked the disciples for sending children away because surely busy Jesus had bigger concerns, I don't believe he was just using kids as an object lesson to teach us about the importance of humbling ourselves. I think he really meant, "the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." He didn't say, "Later", or prescribe some separate program for them. So why would we think that the work of ministering to children involves any more or any less than bringing kids into Jesus' presence today?
  • It's not fair to judge us by a moment - and thank God for that! Do you think Peter was grateful that Jesus didn't choose the moment of his denial by which to judge him for all time? Instead, he restored him (that story is in John 21) and gave him great responsibility over his followers after his resurrection. Even then, Peter erred by imposing Judaism on new Gentile converts, until Paul set him straight (Galatians 2:11-14). Peter was in process of growth. God was patient with him. We must be patient with each other.
  • The fruit of the Spirit is fruit of the Spirit. I'm so tired of Bible lessons for kids that present this concept lightly, like some boilerplate character education lesson: Be joyful! Be kind! Be patient! Practice self-control! Yeah, yeah, yeah! As if teaching kids to fall in love with good behavior is basically equal to the work of God in their life. This cheapens the gift of transformation. Because if you read about the fruit of the Spirit in its context (Galatians 5:16-26), you'll see that the command is not to bear fruit at all. The command is to "walk by the Spirit" (NIV & ESV) - "Live your life as your spiritual nature directs you" is how the God's Word translation puts it, and the NLT translates it "Let the Holy Spirit guide your lives". Christians are Spirit-people! And we are in no place to demand that certain efforts yield certain fruit, nor to take the credit for it. Our backyard has two fruit trees: one lemon, one lime. We didn't plant them, and they take very little watering. How crazy would it be for us to get all worked up or anxious about the timing or amount of citrus the tree puts out? We're grateful for what it gives, and we'll troubleshoot if there's a problem (bugs, disease), but the process is really out of our hands.
  • God does the work. Paul includes this encouragement in his letter to the Philippians: "My dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." At first it sounds like a warning: be afraid...be very afraid...your salvation is at stake! Or it seems like a command to strive: It's up to you...if you want it badly enough, go for it! But that's not it at all. It really is an encouragement. The "fear and trembling" part is the attitude we should hold as we observe the work God is doing! As I write this, I am watching two guys install tile backsplash in our kitchen. I am in awe of the process - they're doing something I can't do (not well, anyhow) - and I'll be in awe of the result. We should have the same posture towards God, because he works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. He doesn't construct interstate highways, or bridges, or dams. He doesn't primarily change the world by altering weather patterns or suspending the laws of nature. He works in you! And in kids. And in everyone who comes to him. But the work belongs to God. As such, so does the timing.

A long-term perspective is a healthy perspective because it reflects the truth that when it comes to the Spirit, we don't create anything. Over-control of the process confuses roles. It makes us think we're the Creator, and God is the valet. God, I think, would beg to differ.

In the Old Testament, when Job questioned God's treatment of him, and God's silence to Job's pleas, and reasoned that he must be undergoing punishment for only-God-knows-why, God responded with a torrent of questions: Job, were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth? Can you control the weather? Do you comprehend the vastness of outer space? Did you establish the seasons and rhythms of the animal kingdom? Did you, Job? Hello? And Job is left sputtering. His only response is the only response: "I know that you can do everything and that your plans are unstoppable...I have stated things I didn't understand, things too mysterious for me to know...I take back what I said...I am sorry."

So - relax. God's got this. Do the right thing - put your kid in his presence again and again - and trust that God, who is God, will honor his promise. Then watch him do his work, tremble, and smile.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Freedom to Make Choices (Value #7)

There are two ways to do religion. One is by demanding obedience: just do as I say. The other is to cultivate a relationship, which entails give and take, mistakes, and even the freedom to leave - but also opens the door to experiencing great joy.

Now, which version do you want to cultivate in your kids?

I think this is a crucial question, and also a scary one. Does your kid want to meet Jesus, to spend time with him, and to become like him? Or is their experience of him, like so many other things in kid-life, the experience of having to be with him?

The Worst Advice I Ever Gave
When I was a high school teacher, I had a student who wouldn't do homework. So we scheduled a parent conference. In the conference, the boy sat sullen as his dad pleaded with him to get his grade up and finish high school. Then I chimed in with what I thought was brilliant insight: There are all kinds of things in life we don't want to do, I told him, but we just do them because we have to.

My message could not have been more clear: yeah, history is boring and irrelevant, but he should work hard at it anyhow - just because, Needless to say, this failed to turn around his motivation! He had already made up his mind that history was boring, and except for WWII, which interested him, his grade remained in the cellar the whole year.

We often speak of education in this way, that it's something we do in spite of ourselves: Yeah, it's boring, but you just have to gut it out. Whether or not you believe that's true when it comes to multiplication tables or lists of spelling words or dates of Civil War battles isn't really the point. The point is, can we afford to have kids believe that "gutting it out" is what they ought to do when it comes to God?

If it's not free, it's not faith
We can't force kids to love God, or even be interested in him. Kids don't have to. Unlike so many other choices in their lives that are made and managed for them, this one is uniquely theirs. Once we come to grips with that, it changes what we must do. Rather than compel, we invite. Compliance isn't the end goal; affirmative response is.

And what happens when you grant kids freedom? It's messy. Sometimes they make choices we don't like. Sometimes they do it wrong. Sometimes their expressions of faith aren't as pure or precise as we would like. Sometimes they rebel or refuse.

Come to think of it - it's exactly what God experiences with us. In his love for us, he grants us great freedom, and sometimes - often - we make wrong choices. We say the wrong things. We don't honor God. What is God up to in doing this?

The easy thing would be for God, being God, to say, "OK now, people of the world, here's what I want each of you to say and to do. And I want you to obey with smiles on your faces and to never stop saying how much you love me." And of course, God does command obedience. In Deuteronomy 11:1 for instance he says, "Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always." But the obedience he commands is a piece of the covenant, and a covenant is a shared commitment between us and God, that presumes a relationship because God loves us and we love God!

New Testament commands to obey express this more fully:

  • "If you love me, keep my commands" (Jesus, John 14:15)
  • "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching" (Jesus, John 14:23)
  • "You are my friends if you do what I command" (Jesus, John 15:14)
  • "And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands" (2 John 1:6)

When a Christian obeys, it's a willing response to God's love. God's love is what sent Jesus to the cross. Not my obedience. Not your spotless behavior record. Only God's love, which leaves us free - free from sin, and free to love him back - or not. Biblical obedience is a choice.

Room for Grace and Growth
And it would be easy for us, being us, to script out exactly how we want kids to say and think and act and feel, because these marks of behavior give at least the appearance that kids are being Christianized. But then we remember that kids don't have to, and it makes us vulnerable, because the opposite of being controlling and prescriptive is to allow freedom and, well, freedom is messy.

But that's just the thing. In the mess, kids can experience grace. In the mess, we can teach kids by example that God's love for them - just like our love for them - isn't conditioned on perfect performance. In the mess, we give kids the freedom to be themselves.

Last year, in a Creation lesson with a group of kindergarteners and first graders, we talked about how God created all of nature from nothing. A troubled look came across one boy's face, and he raised his hand and asked, "Does that mean God created earthquakes?" Contrast that with a story my friend tells about being a child and reflecting on a mural of Noah's flood that was painted in his church's children's ministry space. "Brother Al," he asked, "when all the water went away, weren't there a bunch of dead bodies everywhere?" My friend's innocent and thoughtful question was answered this way: "We don't need to ask questions like that."

I want to do ministry in a place where kids feel free to ask if God created earthquakes. But to do that, they have to feel free. Not constrained. Not like they're expected to play a role.

The Biggest Decision
The final reason it's so important to allow kids freedom when it comes to religion is a matter of training. Every Christian parent hopes their kid will make the big Decision - to entrust their life to Christ. But how can we expect kids to make a decision of that magnitude if they're completely inexperienced at making decisions when it comes to the rest of their lives?

Whenever possible, we should give kids the freedom to make decisions. We should not do things for kids that they can do for themselves. It will take longer and they will sometimes get it wrong; but so what? Let your kids make bad decisions when the outcome doesn't matter much, because it will prepare them to make the kinds of decisions that matter a lot.

A 15-year-old boy once spoke wise words when he said, "I think of it this way - it's like becoming a Christian is one decision for Jesus; but living as a Christian is a million decisions for Jesus." Not only are we training kids to make a life-impacting decision to entrust their lives to Christ, we should also be equipping them for those million, daily decisions to for Jesus. That kind of responsibility doesn't spring from following orders. It grows out of habits of heart and mind and the will to follow Jesus.

No, we can't force kids to follow him. We can, but the result isn't Christianity. It's some robotic servitude that the Bible knows nothing of. Instead, let's teach kids how to handle freedom, by loosening the reins and granting them some freedom. It's the same thing that God grants to us, and it's his way of training.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Curiosity and Questions are a Good Thing! (Value #6)

I once worked at a church where a staff member expressed regret that she had let one of the kids help with tech, "because now, he's asking all these questions." This is a common mindset, that if kids have questions it either means the teacher wasn't clear or the students hadn't been paying attention.

But there's another way to think about questions: they're not a problem, but an open window.

When kids get curious about something, it doesn't mean we've failed. It means they're encountering something in a new way, and they suspect it's fascinating, or personally meaningful, or that there's more to it than they realized before.

Curiosity is related to wonder, and wonder is a key part of our spiritual consciousness. If we can't conceive of something bigger than ourselves, our faith will be pretty lifeless. We could know all the right answers, but our belief would lack fascination. God becomes pedestrian. A miracle worker, yes, but still ordinary.

So when kids begin asking questions, especially about God, that's a good thing! We often try to teach God exhaustively. The thinking goes that if we've taught something well enough, kids won't have any questions. And by extension, if kids aren't asking questions, it's a sign that we must have taught really well. But there are lots of reasons kids might be silent. They could be bored. They could be lost. They could be asleep. They could just be enduring it, because they know no adult can talk forever and they just want it to be over.

Instead, we should aim to teach just enough to whet kids' appetites, to get their minds going, to get them to begin asking questions. Kids have lots of questions about God - if we give them the chance to ask. And their questions create pathways to new understandings. But the worst thing we can do - beyond assuming that they're naturally un-curious - is to over-teach to the point where kids are so exhausted hearing us that they can't wait to think about other things. That instinct is understandable - we really, really want kids to get it. But you can push too far, where they just want you to stop talking, and then you've crushed that curious impulse that fuels spiritual growth. I've long believed that the chief weakness in published children's curriculum is that it's answering questions kids aren't asking! Not only that, but the answers they provide are so simplistic that they leave kids with the impression that Christianity isn't much worth thinking about.

A great resource is 801 Questions Kids Ask About God: With Answers from the Bible, not only because it answers some of their tougher questions, but because it reminds us that kids have questions - lots of them! - and that these questions matter and deserve to be addressed.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Come and See for Yourself!

At Christmas time, we do all sorts of things we don't do during the rest of the year: we decorate trees, we decorate our houses, we put up lights...and it's all done to get people's attention. The rest of the year, our houses would look ordinary. Without lights, a tree would just be a tree - after a while, you wouldn't even notice it at all.

The night Jesus was born, he was just another baby. There was nothing special about him on the outside. There were probably lots of other babies born that night. So God did some things he wouldn't normally do, to get our attention.

In the sky, he put a new star, shining right over the place where Jesus was born. And he sent a messenger, an angel, who appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus' birth. And then, not one angel, but a host of them, singing praises to God for what he had done. The day you were born, your parents were probably pretty excited: they probably made some phone calls, they probably sent some pictures; but God used angels.

And then, the shepherds said, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

This Christmas, and every Christmas, God invites you to come and see for yourself. And to do what the shepherds did - which is that after they went to Bethlehem and saw the little king in his bed, the most important person who was ever born - they went back and told everyone what they had seen and heard.

That's the most important thing! What a shame if the shepherds had looked at each other and just said, "Whoa - did you see those angels?!? That was so cool! I hope they come again next year!" What a loss if the shepherds had only said, "That song they sang - that was great! I've gotta buy that on iTunes!" but not gone to Bethlehem to see. They would have missed out on the most important thing!

No - at Christmas, God invites you to come and see for yourself. Be attracted by the lights; be enchanted by the decorations; be in love with the music and the food - but don't stop there! All of these things are meant to get our attention. It's God's way of saying, "Something great has happened here! Come and see for yourself!"

Jesus was born, and he lived. What does it mean? And where are you in that story?

Christmas is a yearly invitation, from God to you: Come and see for yourself.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Study shows kids who go to church aren't nicer than kids who don't. Now what?

You may have seen the recent news, reported somewhat gleefully by some news outlets, that religious kids turn out to be more selfish than non-religious ones. Predictably, many Christians lashed back, attacking either the messenger or the methodology.

While I also have some problems with drawing a sweeping conclusion based on this particular study, I actually find this "bad news" quite useful.

The cynical take is that these studies are done by people who don't like religion and who want to believe religion isn't necessary to teach people right from wrong. And to be clear, this study defined “religion” really broadly – lots of Christian and Muslim kids were studied as part of the “religious” group (as if they’re the same thing), yet the reporting focused heavily on the shortcomings of Christianity in teaching morals.

When studies reflect badly on Christianity, we’re quick to smear the messenger. They hate us! They’re liberals! They’re anti-family! But what if the study results had shown something different, that religious kids were generally more moral than those raised without religion? You can be sure churches would herald those results loudly: See? Religion is necessary. Science proves it!

I suggest we take the higher road, and refrain from anxious hand-wringing when the news is bad, or victory laps when the news is good.

First of all, this isn't new news. Studies like this have been done before. In the 1920s and 30s, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May made waves with their research showing that kids who regularly went to Sunday school did no better on questionnaires about honesty than kids who didn't go to church. The results, published under the title Studies in Deceit, were an attempt to reform religious education - not to abolish it. Religious education curriculum had long struggled to find its footing. To some people, there wasn't enough Bible. To others, there wasn't enough relevance. Liturgical churches thought it should follow the church year. The Temperance movement wanted a special focus on the evils of alcohol. The Religious Education Association, of which Hartshorne was a part, had been campaigning for a few decades for a more practical purpose for Sunday school. If that one hour a week wasn't preparing young people to be productive members of society, equipped to tackle the problems of the future, what was it good for?

Members of the REA argued, why quibble over doctrine, when what mattered most was conduct - especially in light of Harthshorne and May's findings?

80 years later, if the latest study is to be believed, not much has changed. Sunday school is still not effective at changing kids' behavior. In fact, the study suggests, religion may actually make kids less generous. So what do we do?

I suggest we concede.

Concede the point, that is. Religious education is not without value. But we have consistently rolled over and let those outside the church tell us what its value is. What's that all about? In this case, the study tested whether being raised with religion makes kids more altruistic and generous. The researchers expected that it ought to, because religious convictions shape our moral behavior. And in doing so, they put religion into a box, a specimen to be studied. (As sociologist Christian Smith of UNC pointed out, you might get a better measure of the truth of that premise if you studied adolescent or adult believers, who are more grounded in their faith convictions, than children.) But just because something contributes to something else doesn't mean its purpose is limited to that. The real purpose may be much broader.

In the case of bringing kids to church, there are lots of reasons to do that, I suppose, but that doesn't mean its overall value can be measured by whatever preconceived expectations someone has.

If someone tells me I'm a terrible dancer or a lousy artist, I don't argue with them. I don't accuse them of trying to smear me. I simply don't worry about it, because I've never held myself out to be those things. As Christians, can we allow that someone who chooses to raise their kids apart from church influence might raise a kind, respectful, successful kid? I think we can.

To stubbornly insist that kids can't be good apart from formal religious training defies what we can observe with our own eyes. And you know who knows that? Your kid. If you raise them to believe that we go to church because it makes us good, and that the purpose of Jesus' coming was so that we'd be nice to each other, you're making a claim that Christ himself didn't make. All that has to happen then is your kids go off to college, meet a kind Buddhist or a moral atheist, and every claim they've heard about the uniqueness of Christianity or the necessity of religion goes out the window.

What if instead of freaking out, we calmly reframed the debate? What if we stood by the contention that religious education has one, ultimate, singular purpose: to nurture a kid's personal relationship with the transcendent God of the universe, who makes a claim on their lives and has revealed himself to them. Not character education or ethics training. Not cultural transmission. What if we clung to this claim not as an easy cop-out, but because we really believed it?

We could then allow that other systems of ethical training might be effective in teaching right from wrong, even producing altruism. But they will all fail at bringing kids to God. That is Christianity's central claim: that a personal relationship with God is possible through Jesus Christ. Not that we can make ourselves good, or train our kids to be good. If we were clearer on that, maybe nonsense studies like the most recent one would never be conducted.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

We Speak Kid Here (Do You Speak Kid?) (Value #5)

Last weekend was our church’s International Missions Fair. Christians have learned a lot about doing missions in the last 200 years, and much of that is how not to do missions. We now know that it’s wrong and counterproductive to go into a foreign culture and demand that they become just like us.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake in ministering to kids.

White missionaries took Africa and Asia by storm and the result was cultural resentment. We wrongly communicated that becoming Christian meant becoming a Westerner (still a prevalent belief across the Arab world). “Heathens” were told they needed to learn English and even dress like Europeans – this was “becoming Christian”.

Of course, looking the part of a Christian and actually being one are two different things. There’s a pretty funny scene in the beginning of the Humphrey Bogart movie The African Queen, showing an exasperated missionary, and Englishman, trying to lead a congregation of native Africans in a hymn sing. They don’t understand the words, it’s not relevant, and they’re prone to – and eager for – distraction. When the service finally ends, they can’t wait to get out of there and back to more interesting things.

I used to play that clip when training new volunteers, and have them look for all of the ways the tent meeting missed the mark. They were easy to see.

Now, here's the kicker: Kids inhabit a different culture, and to reach them, we must act like missionaries.

That's why Children's Ministry Value #5 is: Speaking kid language. Our job is to reach out to kids in relevant and culturally-appropriate ways. Kids need to be allowed to be themselves before we can push them beyond themselves.

Let's break that down:
  • Speaking kid language. This includes verbal speaking, of course, but also non-verbal. Not only do we not use 1990s pop culture references in our teaching illustrations, but we sit on the floor with kids. Not only do we visit with them about their interests and hobbies, we play with them. Instead of praying in flowery language, we try to demonstrate that prayer is just talking to God.
  • Reaching kids in relevant ways. It's not particularly helpful or effective to teach kids using adult-sized metaphors, subjecting them to I-was-down-and-out adult-style testimonies, or by giving a three-point sermon. These communication methods barely work well with adults! Instead, showing kids that God is relevant is a matter of listening to them and walking alongside them as they discover who God is. Being relevant with kids doesn't mean we preach a "me-centered" gospel. That's a real danger. It does mean that we teach that God has a really big story and that they - even they! - have a place in it.
  • Kids need to be allowed to be themselves... This is a big one. Our ministries are not a free-for-all. There are rules, and there are structures. BUT - within those structures, we want kids to be themselves. Why? Because it's important that we understand where they're at. If a kid isn't standing and singing, we're not going to force them to. There's a reason they're opting out - what is it? When I ask a kid a question, I don't want them to give me the "just right" answer. I want them to answer honestly. Last year I was teaching a lesson on Creation to our Kindergarten & 1st graders. After I got to the part where "God saw all that he had made...and he said it was very good," a boy raised his hand and with a concerned look on his face asked, "Does that mean God even created earthquakes?" I love questions like that, and I love when our ministry creates safe spaces where kids feel they can ask them.
  • ...before we can push them beyond themselves. If a kid can't ask "Did God even create earthquakes?" we miss the opportunity to get him to grapple with the magnitude of God, and his infinite wisdom. If a kid never has the opportunity to write, "I'm getting bullied at school" on a prayer wall, he may never think to bring that to God in prayer. If a girl doesn't share with a trusted leader that her parents are getting divorced, we miss the chance to walk alongside her as she wrestles with where God is in all of this. If kids aren't allowed to know about suffering in the world because their Christianity is all about knowing right answers and nothing more (and you MUST watch this hilarious and spot-on video about that very thing), they'll never be troubled by poverty, or injustice, and they'll never be spurred to consider what God might have them do.
All of this points to the need to go beyond "playing church" with kids. The native cultures who received missionaries in the 1800s and 1900s didn't need that, and kids don't need that either. They need people who will take them seriously, spiritually. They need adults who will start by listening to them, before dishing out a bunch of answers to questions kids aren't really asking. Who are they? What is happening in their lives that wasn't happening last week? What do they already know about God? What is their understanding of his plan, and their place in it? Good missionaries start with these questions. We should follow their example.