Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Children's Ministry Value #2: Ministering to the Whole Kid

Shortly after I started in children's ministry 10 years ago, I began a hunt for the "magic bullet". I bought book after book and read reams of articles looking for "the answer" in children's ministry - the method or practice that, if applied with kids, would yield spiritual giants.

But my inquiry kept leading me to a not-simple answer: spiritual health seemed inextricably linked to overall health. People who were emotionally mature and well-adjusted were not necessarily spiritually well, but the opposite was surely true: people who remained emotionally immature had their spiritual growth stunted, too.

That's why value #2 in our children's ministry is Ministering to the whole kid. And it goes on to state, People have physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. We don't isolate the spiritual just because "this is church"...because that's impossible.

People are whole, complex beings. Our various "-alities" bump up against each other: personality, sexuality, emotionality, spirituality, morality, physicality, mentality (intellect). And that complicates the problem of stimulating spiritual growth, doesn't it? I wish it wasn't true. I wish the answer was as simple as, "Do this and you'll get that." But if you're going to tend to one aspect of someone, you're going to have to take into account the others.

  • Any coach knows that getting the most of his players (physicality) includes tending to their minds, not just their bodies. Players can "psych themselves up" or they can "psych themselves out".
  • Adolescents who physically mature earlier tend to face challenges that typically-maturing peers don't. Because they look older, they can prematurely face decisions about sex or morals, which in turn have emotional consequences.
  • Any teacher knows that if a student's physical needs (like hunger or sleep) aren't met, their ability to focus and learn suffers.
For some reason, the church has been slow to accept this. Beware of books laying out prescriptions for turning "children" into "spiritual champions". They start by lumping kids into a monolithic class, rather than regarding kids as individuals, each with a unique interplay of the "-alities" in his or her life. Of course, that's way more complicated and sells fewer books, but it's the reality. When we operate by simplistic stereotypes - boys are emotionless, active kids are "crazy", kids won't read their Bibles unless there's a reward involved - we do kids a great disservice. We get locked into a "All kids are _______________; all kids should be ______________" mode, where we're constantly attacking the symptoms of the problem ("Teach kids the importance of being cheerful and having a good attitude!") instead of getting at the root (maybe Johnny doesn't want to do your word search today because he's preoccupied with his parents' divorce.)

Here's how the various "-alities" might affect a kid spiritually:
  • Personality - this is a broad category, and I'd put things like Learning Style and Spiritual Type and Mind Style and Multiple Intelligences and Love Language and Personality Type here, as well as introversion and extroversion. Think these things will affect the way a kid "is" in a church setting, or their "way of being with God" (which is one particularly intriguing definition I saw for children's spirituality)? You bet they will. Yet when we format church to be like school, guess who "shines" and stands out as "spiritual champions"? You guessed it - the kids whose personalities are suited for classroom environments.
  • Emotionality - Because our emotions affect so deeply our self-perception, it colors our ability to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. In fact, it's probably not overstating it to say that emotional self-regulation is probably the most important factor affecting our ability to sustain interpersonal relationships. And because those relationships - with parents, siblings, friends - are where we experience tangible expressions of love and forgiveness, they become proxies for our relationship with God.
  • Morality - What happened the instant Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? The Bible says their eyes were opened, they saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed. Our knowledge of right and wrong and our choosing what is right affects our conscience, which in turn makes us fear God (if we don't know the God of grace) or become endeared to him (out of appreciation for his forgiveness).
  • Physicality - When we pray, we might stand up, or kneel, or spread out on the floor. Or, walk around. Why? Because our body posture affects our heart attitude. And if we are sick, or tired, or hungry, that will also impact "kids' ways of being with God".
  • Sexuality - The main issue here is the message kids receive as they get older and become more aware of sex and their own sexuality - that is, their capacity as individuals to express themselves sexually. Will your kids get the message that "we don't talk about that" in church? Or that sex is dirty, and that good Christian kids shouldn't even think about such things? I hope not, because sex is a huge issue for a teenager, and they need to know that God intentionally created them with sexuality and that he cares how they deal with that.
  • Mentality - How much does our brain development affect our spirituality? It has some effect, but not in the way most people think. We tend to think correspondence: the smarter (and older) you are, the more spiritually "advanced" you are. Not only does that not seem to line up with what Jesus said, it flies in the face of everyday experience: we've all had those moments where a kid's level of faith tops ours. Instead, what a more developed brain can do is spot and process the nuances of life: things aren't always fair, good guys sometimes finish last, people die. If the mind can reconcile this with what they know of God, a person grows in appreciation and wonder; if it can't, they face disappointment and spiritual drift.
Separating the spiritual from the rest of life is an old trick, and the early church had a word for it: heresy. Even before the first generation of Christians had passed away, the Gnostics were teaching that the physical body didn't really matter; only the spiritual had value. This kind of dualistic thinking has threatened the holistic ministry of the gospel ever since. When we stand in the developing world and preach the gospel of salvation but do nothing to relieve poverty there, we are separating "spiritual life" from "the rest of life" (but hey - at least they'll go to heaven!). That's a grave mistake. It damages the church's witness and also turns away from a fellow human being, who is an image-bearer of God. People have all kinds of needs, not just strictly spiritual ones: we should work to meet those needs.

In light of this, not only is it wrong to demand that kids leave the non-spiritual aspects of themselves at home (as if they could), but understanding the holistic makeup of a person presents great opportunities. Now, hanging out with a kid playing foosball before a service isn't a way to kill time; it meets a social-emotional need. Singing at the top of our voices and moving our bodies isn't just to rev kids up; it's to engage the physical self in worship. Respecting the fact that kids learn differently means we have to vary our methods; it also means we shouldn't be too quick to claim success just because we hear a kid give a pat answer or we've generated some group expression ("Scream for Jesus!" etc.).

We live whole lives everywhere else we go. When we send a message that church is only about "spiritual" things, we put people - kids included - into an impossible position: Deny those aspects of yourself that don't belong in church...yet be transformed by Jesus. An environment like that is highly artificial. It forces people to act, when we should be inviting people to be real - even if the real reality is really complicated and messy.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Children's Ministry Value #1: God Matters Most

Values dictate what a person will and won't do. Likewise, in ministry, values define the boundaries of the playing field. They point us toward "success", so that if the values are upheld, we know we're on the right track.

In our children's ministry, we have a value that says "God Matters Most". This might seem incredibly obvious, but it's actually quite simple to lose focus - whether you're a children's ministry worker or a parent - and allow children's experiences at church to become about other things.

That's because we're human, and we spend a lot of time thinking about our needs. And yes, God cares about us - but we're not the center of the universe. God is. When we use church to preach other virtues, like being kind or trying hard in school or being a good sport or obeying your parents, but we isolate those things from the context of God and the life of God, we end up with some noble human teachings, with God as an add-on.

And when God becomes an add-on, he becomes optional. Have you heard of Sunday Assembly? Their mission is to help people live healthy, fulfilling lives, to serve others, and to help people connect to one another. In San Diego, members gather once a month for fellowship, songs, and a speaker. Kids go to a separate program to be taught lessons on morals and ethics, like making good choices, having healthy relationships, and valuing education and learning. Parent workshops include how to keep your kid safe from drugs. And they're starting a youth group, with free pizza and lasertag. They've organized service projects at the San Diego Food Bank, and make pastoral care available to people who need help or need someone to officiate at a wedding or a funeral.

In other words, Sunday Assembly has a lot in common with any church - except that it's not a church and professes no belief in any God. Sunday Assembly is distinctly for people who believe in this life and no other life. So despite all this common ground, it is not just another flavor of church. It's not even in the same category.

God matters. He matters in the sense that he preceded all of us and will outlast everyone on earth. As Christians, we believe the Creator enjoys some prerogative over the lives of His created ones. So it's not enough to gather kids and tell them nice stories and teach them good things if it remains all about them, and us, and God is merely alluded to in support of things everyone wants (kindness, sharing, peace).

Sadly, if you look at a lot of Sunday school curriculum, you'll see lessons that I call "Jesus-optional": you could remove all references to God or Jesus and substitute other illustrations and the point would remain the same - AND you'd have a lesson that would be entirely unobjectionable to a parent who was Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon - or Sunday Assembly.

That's a problem. In Galatians 2:21, Paul says, "I do not set aside the grace of God, because if righteousness could come to a person by their observance of the law, Christ died for nothing!" Well, Christ did not die for nothing, he died for you! And he calls you out of your own life, with its narrow and provincial concerns, into His life, which is an adventure.

Again I say: when God becomes incidental to the point of a teaching, we're peddling something other than Christianity. That's why the full value for our children's ministry reads like this: God Matters Most. Only God saves, and only God transforms. Kids must know God’s love for them and respond to it before they will submit to him.

Knowing God and accepting his offer of relationship precedes obedience. And submission precedes transformation.

But we're impatient! We want all the good fruit, now! So we dangerously short-cut the process, picking and choosing whatever Bible story or verse might "work" to make kids "good". But are kids really loving God? Are they knowing him? Are they encountering him, personally? Is their sense of wonder engaged, to the point that they begin to grasp that God is an inexhaustible being, endlessly fascinating and eternally satisfying?

I've heard the argument that young children can't grasp all of this. People trying to impress me will cite Piaget and tell me that "concrete thinkers" can only handle "do this" and "don't do that". My one-word response is: baloney. Kids, even young kids, can absolutely have spiritual relationships with God, communicate with him, wonder about him, trust him - and they do.

Leading kids to know God and be in awe of Him is a tall order. It's not easy. But we'll never get there if we don't aim high. Teaching kids to resist peer pressure and work hard in school and be nice to their siblings and be honest (and, and, and...) are things we all want. But God matters most. And if God, in fact, matters then teaching Him as anything less than the main thing is a crime. He's not only the basis of community and loving others and forgiveness and serving one another, He's intrinsic to those things.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Disciple-learning isn't just any old learning

I had the privilege to speak in "Big Church" last weekend on discipleship. "Disciple" and "discipline" are related words, both stemming from "learning". In a Christian sense, discipleship is a type of learning that helps us both remain in Christ and keep growing.

And the principles of discipleship apply equally to adults and kids.

Do you believe that?

I'm afraid a lot of people don't. I'm afraid a lot of people are convinced that kids are somehow capable of less than the life-changing, robust learning that is the stuff of discipleship. And that view causes us to view them as only "eventual Christians" and to give them on a type of instruction that fills their heads but does not feed their souls.

That's a shame. And it accounts for the kids who are raised in church and grow up knowing all the "right" answers, who end up far away from church once they're older. Which is a majority of those who come through our churches.

Let me say that again: a majority - an overwhelming majority of kids who are raised in church - some surveys say 70%, others say 80% or as high as 90% - spend their young adult years away from the church. We've long comforted ourselves with the knowledge that "once they have kids, they'll come back", but the demographic reality of later marriage and elective singleness or childlessness makes that less of a certainty.

What's going on? Somehow, we are failing to capture kids' hearts, which is a critical component of developing disciples. When Jesus said, "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations," he didn't say just teach. He could have, but the word he used that we translate as "make disciples" carries the sense of "teach them in such a way that they are changed into something else."

There is a magic moment that every teacher knows, when a student goes from just being a pupil, to being a learner - a self-motivated, devoted student of the subject at hand. Not every kid who receives art instruction is changed into a artist. Not every kid who sit under a music teacher becomes a musician. Not every history student becomes a historian. But when they do, the teacher has done more than just taught - they've changed a life.

That's disciple learning. And it's tied up in relationship. It doesn't usually happen without the influence of a teacher. It can happen that a kid falls in love with history from a book, and they find themselves changed into historians. But more often, there is that special teacher whom they admire and emulate. It is their pattern of speaking, of thinking, of reacting, of handling challenges - of simply living that becomes the living, breathing, teaching example.

That's why parents and the way home environments operate matter so much, because like it or not, if a parent self-identifies as a Christian, kids will learn powerfully from their examples. I do not, however, subscribe to any side in the "Whose responsibility is it - church or parents?" debate that has cropped up in the last ten years. On the one hand, no church leader or program can hope to have the influence that a parent has by virtue of the sheer amount of time they spend with their kid. On the other hand, some parents won't or don't want to oversee the discipleship of their kids, and churches have the size and resources to create worship and learning environments that you can't in your own home. It's everyone's job to disciple kids, and we should welcome that influence from wherever it originates.

The message is archived here; scroll to the 10:45 am service for September 13.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

As We Suffered in the Heat...

Tough week this week, huh? What with the heat sending us scrambling for the library or movie theater or other air conditioned-enterprises because home relaxation was impossible and sleep uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, here's what you weren't doing. You weren't slogging across Hungary, trying to evade a razor-wire boundary with Serbia, in the rain, pushing your child onto a train. You weren't coming to grips with the fact that the new refugee camp you live in might become your permanent home, and that you might never go back to life as it was.

A news report I saw this week showed what a lot of refugees who had set out from Turkey were doing the moment they reached the Greek island of Lesbos: they were pulling out their cell phones, texting friends and relatives back where they came from, that they were safe.

Texting relatives? The imagery seems a little bit out of place. Aren't refugees poor, and desperate, and homeless? Aren't they dirty, and sick, and hungry? They are all of those things, at times, but the reality is more complex. The images of them pulling out smart phones jarred me, because it underscored for me something that's been hard to get my mind around: they're not that different from me and you.

That's one piece of a larger mosaic of disbelief in my mind that's been forming. Since I heard about the beheading of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, I was at the same time drawn to the story, and distanced from it. Again and again, as I have plodded through first-world daily concerns, I have struggled to reconcile the fact that we and they live in the same world. The brutality reported seems almost medieval. But it's not. It's today. Young girls being raped as prizes of conquest. Teenage boys and men being marched off and systematically executed. Christians being compelled to renounce their faith as they stare down the barrel of a rifle.

And now...In other news, Apple debuted the iPhone 6s today.

How is this happening, all in the same world? How is it REALLY happening? For some reason, Afghanistan seemed a world away. Iraq and Syria did, too - until recent images of refugees fleeing border police and storming trains in Europe caught my attention, suggesting as they do that this is coming closer and closer to our doorstep (and shame on me that it took this long ).

Is this "count your blessings" blog post? Maybe. But it's more. It's a call for us to consider that this isn't happening over there...but in our world, today. That thought blows my mind. If we wait to care until the "problem" hits our own shores and truly inconveniences us, we won't be objective about it. I won't be.

In light of the fact that these are fellow human beings, made in the image of God, what does God expect of me? I honestly don't know. But I do know this: deliberate ignorance isn't an option. I know that in the last 4 years, while I have gotten married, finished seminary, and taken on a new role at my church, Syria and the region around it has been descending into hell. And I know that Jesus entered humanity and suffered with them, as surely as he suffered with us.

Pray for the children. It may sound trite, but war is hugely disrupting to a nation. Think of all the social institutions you rely on now, when your kids are young, that help outfit them for the future: schools, clinics, parks, rec programs, churches. Now imagine them closing for four years. What would you do? How easily could you arrange alternatives, especially if at the same time you were displaced from your home, having to find work, shelter, and daily food?

Remember the desperate situation of people during Hurricane Katrina? Remember what they were called? That's right - refugees. And some lost their homes, but rebuilt. Even after 10 years, things are not "normal" in New Orleans.

And that was water. Syria is war. There is ongoing destruction and displacement. Once it ends, it will take years to resume "normal".

I know some people have looked at what's unfolding in Europe, shrugged and said, "Well, they chose to leave." I can accept that adults might choose where to live, but under no amount of tortured logic can children be held responsible. They are truly innocents, and their innocence is being stolen from them. They will never get those childhoods back.

I need to reckon with the fact that all of this is unfolding on the other side of a world I inhabit. Join me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sports are Faster than Life

Guest Post by Wendy Hinman

Sports are faster than life. A three-month season is an epic journey of victories and losses, and ultimate growth. Through practice and play there are more teaching opportunities per minute in a sporting arena than nearly any other venue. . . . if framed properly.
--Christopher M. Schrader, PhD
Beyond A Whistle And A Prayer

The Cooper twins always struck out. They batted 8th and 9th in the order, and here it was the Carlsbad Youth Baseball World Series with two on and two out in the bottom of the 9th and the Cooper twins were up. Josh, the coach’s son, was on third and Jordan, a speedster, was on first.

If the first Cooper impossibly got a hit, the other would surely strike out. First pitch: he swings at a pitch in the dirt. Josh couldn’t take it. Miraculously the next pitch was a ball. On the next wind-up Josh takes off for home while his dad—coaching at third—just about has apoplexy that his son is stealing without getting a signal. Jordan sees what Josh is doing and takes off for second. The catcher is rattled and bobbles the ball. Josh slides safe and the catcher overthrows to third while Jordan rounds the base in full sprint. The stands erupt as defeated fans could feel the rising victory.

When the brick dust settles Josh is beaming, Jordan is dancing and the Cooper twins are just incredibly relieved. On the ride to the end-of-season party Josh’s dad doesn’t know whether to admonish his son for not obeying the signal or praise him for thinking so fast. The Coopers' mom doesn’t know whether to talk about unexpected help or just be quiet.

We sense these opportunities intuitively as parents when our child starts playing organized soccer or makes the surf team. We just don’t always know how to harness the teachable moments coming at us. They all seem to mean something, but it’s hard to process before the next pitch.

Not only do we jump and exult when our child makes an interception or groan when they don’t make that save, we do it collectively with other parents in the stands. We share sunscreen, umbrellas, and carpools together right alongside laughter and tears. We connect deeply and then drive home with exuberant or anguished kids.

If we take the time to hit the slow-mo button on one season of sport we can use these opportunities to intentionally disciple our children or reach out to our bleacher neighbors. But we do have to stop, think and pray before we can turn from being focused on ourselves, our child—who we can often look at as a mere extension of ourselves—and our team.

It is a Biblical principle that the natural comes first and then the spiritual. If we don’t purposely have a strategy we can harm our children more than help. And worse, we can be that angry parent in the bleachers. The natural anger, ego and envy in us will come out. With awareness and strategy, however, we can demonstrate and inculcate the spiritual fruit of peace, kindness and self-control.

On Friday night, September 11,  from 6:30-8:30pm in the Family Center, the Sports Ministry of NCCC will bring parents together to stop, think, and strategize how to disciple our children in a season of sport and how to be the light of Christ in the bleachers. Sports is faster than life.

Sign up for this free event at

Saturday, August 29, 2015

This Summer Blog Series, in a Nutshell

This summer's blog posts were focused on how to have spiritual conversations with your kids. In case you missed an installment, here's the Cliff's Notes version.

Talking about God with kids isn't easy. But this seems to be a way not to embark on that conversation: by asking "What did you learn today?" Yet despite the fruitlessness of this approach, it's a go-to conversation starter - one that falls on its face nearly every time. So in the spirit of changing the conversation, these thoughts:

1. We need a better conversation starter. We need this not only because asking "What did you learn today?" usually leads nowhere, but because it prompts a certain type of conversation that's more like quizzing and less like dialogue.

2. Not only is it a shame that we fail to engage kids in spiritual conversations when we lead with "What did you learn today?", it turns out that talking about belief is essential to building faith. When kids have to put their beliefs into words, it crystallizes their thoughts and experiences into one body of belief that makes sense. But because it's difficult and because kids are unpracticed at it, that's all the more reason to avoid a confrontational question like "What did you learn today?" in favor of gentler approaches that open kids up to share about their personal impressions, not just give us "right answers".

3. When kids are asked what happened in church or what they learned, "I don't know" can mean many things. It can mean there truly was nothing presented (unlikely). "I don't know" or "Nothing" can mean, "I'm not sure" or (more likely) "I'm still thinking about it". It might just mean, "Ask me at a different time." Or it can mean there were no ideas jarring enough to cause disruption in their understanding of the world (the technical term is "cognitive dissonance").

4. Kids have thoughts about God that happen at random times and in random places. A better approach to engaging them is to start with what's already happening in their minds, rather than assuming the only spiritual thoughts they think are the ones we give them.

5. Kids' minds don't encounter the world primarily through words, but through experiences. So putting them on the spot isn't necessarily going to be the best way to open them up spiritually. What's more likely is that "teachable moments" will occur in the course of everyday life. This doesn't mean we abandon church-based approaches for kids, but that we think more widely about their lives and their worlds. God could be encountering them in a thousand places besides church. Why not start by asking your child where and when they feel closest to God, and go from there?

6. Kids' misunderstandings of biblical messages are occasionally hilarious, but they also illustrate an important truth: we cannot take for granted that kids will grasp spiritual truth merely through the words we use.

7. The Bible's message has a unity that should be respected when we teach from it. It's wrong, as children's curriculums so often do, to cherry-pick passages that support our own behavioral or moral agendas, call it "biblical teaching", and teach those without regard to the Bible's overall message.

8. While Bible stories generally are about one thing, and do have a meaning, the "main idea" extracted will vary from person to person. We should respect that. Just as bodies use nutrition differently, God knows what we all need, and so we shouldn't despair that kids don't come away with one main point that is the same for everyone who heard the story.

9. Developmental theories were never meant to be superimposed on spiritual ability or potential. They are not statements about what kids can't do; thus, it's wrong to conclude that children can't "own" their faith. What's different about them is their ability to express the faith they have in words. But we should not mistake that for spiritual immaturity.

10. Asking kids questions is a tricky proposition, because there's a power imbalance between adults and children that inhibits them sharing honestly. It is our job to diminish that barrier.

11. "Tell me..." is a great question starter. It begs for a narrative response. And it implies that we want them to answer openly and honestly.

To see the full series of posts, visit

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Inside Out: The movie for kids...that every adult needs to see

Animation studios figured out a long time ago that in order to make a hit, their movies needed to be equally entertaining to parents and children alike. Above and beyond the bright colors, slapstick comedy, and silly catchphrases, there needs to be a serious storyline that packs an emotional punch, with some clever one-liners thrown in for good measure.

In the case of the new movie Inside Out, it’s possible that Disney-Pixar tipped the balance too far. I honestly don’t know if this will be another Toy Story that kids ask to see again and again. In fact, parts felt more like a college psychology course than an animated kids’ film. But it does what few animated films can claim to do: it really makes kids think, and on that score, it earns an "A". With a plot that manages to break the mold of “believe in yourself” storylines, Inside Out tells a compelling tale that reflects life’s real complexity.

Riley is the movie’s 11-year-old protagonist, whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Despite a store of mostly joyful “core memories” from her childhood, her world – inner as well as outer – is turned upside down by the change. The film illustrates how that inner struggle to make life make sense again actually looks like.

No film I’ve ever seen has ever accomplished this. There have been plenty of films about preteens challenged to adapt to life changes, but they can only show us what everyone else sees – outward expressions of emotion. And perhaps they give us ringside seats for some intimate conversations in which the child experiences a breakthrough, often with the help of a Mike Brady-like parental figure whose sound bite wisdom saves the day.

In movies like that – and in life – the best thing we can do is play amateur psychologist, judging what body language and facial expression and tears mean. The inner processes that produce the outward behaviors are hidden to us. Inside Out jumps back and forth between the world of the characters and the emotional “head quarters” of their brains. Only animation could accomplish this. You get to see the fast-paced interplay between Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear, all vying to impose their filter of reality on the situation at hand, and hard-wire that understanding into a memory.

How accurate is all of this? I confess that this is the film’s main difficulty: how to communicate a technical subject in sufficient detail (it is brain science, after all) without becoming boring or preachy or making your own head hurt.  But this isn’t just a 90-minute Schoolhouse Rock primer on your emotions; there’s a real story here, too, about growing up and family communication and accepting things you can’t control. And we, the audience, are the real winners, because over and above the lessons learned by the characters, we know infinitely more, because we know the characters “from the inside-out”.

So you get to benefit from all that Riley’s parents don’t see. In the end –


though they are all feeling regret about their move, they do not “make it all better” by going back to Minnesota. Riley misses her friends in the movie, and at movie’s end, she’s still missing them. The furniture still hasn’t come. Dad is still working long hours trying to get his new company off the ground. We have no assurance that things will be roses going forward. But we do know this:

Riley grows. Through her sadness, she eventually experiences Joy. (And kudos to the producers for not calling that emotion “Happiness”). Riley becomes more fully alive. As sad as it is to see a happy little girl go through that, is there any truer way to tell the story?

To me, that’s the takeaway from this film: when joy manifests itself (kids are smiling, happy, playing contentedly), it doesn’t mean that sadness, fear, disgust, and anger are absent, or don’t have the potential to step on stage. And those not-joy emotions aren’t “bad” or even inappropriate. They are human.

Sometimes we oversimplify emotions by just telling people to “put on a happy face”. Or we think if we’re healthy, we won’t ever get angry. To be sure, anger is upsetting, and often a sign that something needs to be changed, but upset is a part of life. When we impose this on kids, either because we want them not to pout, or not to fight with one another, or not to complain or cry, we are pressing them into a mold that isn’t real. In fact, in Inside Out, we find that Sadness is necessary for Riley to experience Joy.

Our world worships happiness, so much so that when someone isn’t happy, it’s naturally assumed that they should take the quickest possible route back to happiness. But is that really what we want to teach our kids – make yourself happy, no matter the price? Think about where that could drive kids. The happiness rat race is no place to live. Either you’re constantly anxious that you don’t have happiness, or you’re constantly anxious that you’ll lose what you have.

Much better to help kids live to be who they are – which is a fully-orbed human who experiences the full range of emotions. Inside Out contains the powerful message that we are each more than meets the eye, and that even the “bad” emotions are not abnormal or something to be suppressed or wished away. It’s a much more realistic picture of life as a journey of growth, rather than the endless pursuit of thrill.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Can Good Kids Believe the Gospel?

Throughout the spring, I've been looking at the question, "What is the gospel?" It is not a you-can-do-it pep talk or the power of positive thinking. It's not character education, and it's not behavioral engineering. Instead, the gospel is a statement about spiritual realities: God is reconciling the whole world to himself through the forgiveness of sins, which was accomplished by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

All of that requires belief: belief in spiritual things, like God and heaven and sin, but also the belief that appropriates God's saving power. As I noted in the first post of this series, the gospel is really quite "un-believeable". Which led me, as I prepared to teach Kindergarteners the story of Adam and Eve and the snake this weekend, to wonder whether it's something Good Kids can even believe?

To believe John 3:16 - that God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life - is to believe not just something about God - that he is "mighty to save" - but about myself - that I actually need saving and that I cannot do this myself.

It's one thing to believe that God can save people - people who are bad, like Paul who killed Christians. It's another to believe he must save them...or they won't be saved. "God turned the life of that convicted criminal around" is something we can all celebrate. But "God turned me around" requires humility. I am admitting that I didn't have it all together and was receiving something I wasn't worthy of.

Can Good Kids believe this? We want kids to grow up Good, and they know it. Being branded "Bad" in elementary school is like the kiss of death. Everyone wants to be a Good Kid - at the very least, it keeps you out of the spotlight or the principal's office or the doghouse. At best, it props up your sense of worth - "You're a Good Boy!" - garners praise - "You were Good in the grocery store." - or brings rewards - "If you're Good, we'll go to the movie."

What does it mean, then, for kids to hear that humans are sinful? Does it even compute? Bonnie Miller McLemore, in her book Let the Children Come, traces the evolution of thought regarding children and their nature and capabilities. She identifies that in contrast to ancient times, when kids were believed to be hopelessly depraved, in modern times we have subscribed to a belief in the perfectibility of children. If we nurture them just right, they'll not only turn out ok, they'll be exemplary. (Think of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all of the children were "above average".) If we believe this about kids, and kids internalize that belief, how relevant is "sin" as a concept? Does it make sense to speak of misconduct or maladjustment as anything more than regrettable errors which could have been avoided?

The very fact of sin, and its strength and ubiquity, makes grace a necessity. It doesn't obligate God to act graciously toward us, but it does mean that if God is going to show us favor, there can't be any other way. None of the contemporary matras of childhood:
  • "You can do it!"
  • "Try again!"
  • "You'll get it!"
  • "Practice makes perfect!"
  • "Deep down inside, if you want it bad enough and believe it, you can achieve it!"
fit the grace equation. So as much as we want kids to grow up Good, to do Good and to be Good, I wonder if those expectations conspire against kids' belief in the gospel of grace?

Or can we somehow separate the attainment of goodness from radical individualism? Of course God wants us to be Good, because he is Good. But it's his Goodness that he wants us to assume. It's a partnership. That's a far cry from a Goodness that's birthed from inside ourselves. Jesus told his disciples, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

Do you believe that? Do you teach it? Do kids believe it? More importantly, can they?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

We Need to Ask a Better Question

[re-posted from]

It's natural that after an hour away from your kid at church, you would ask, "What did you learn about today?" or "What did you do?" And if that question is working for you - drawing a meaningful response from your kid and launching a dialogue on the things of God - by all means, keep asking it.

But if "What did you learn today?" isn't working so well, I have a suggestion:

Stop asking, "What did you learn today?"

Bold, I know.

There's no harm in asking The Question, I suppose, except that it leads to discouragement for parents: Why aren't they getting anything out of this? Are they not listening, or misbehaving in class? What's going on in this program anyhow? Should we look for another church?

And it's not just parents who aren't well served by that question.

I wonder what it does to kids' confidence in their own abilities to articulate ideas and talk about meaningful, personal things like their own spiritual lives when they are repeatedly asked a lead-in question that's difficult to answer?

We already know that the older kids get, the less willing they become to talk about their inner lives and beliefs. That's because they fear being embarrassed or patronized by adults. We all want kids to share with us their thoughts and questions about God, but we're not going to get there unless we ask a better lead-in question.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

God and Camo

“God is like camouflage,” announced my four-year-old nephew to his mom while jumping on the backyard trampoline, “because he’s everywhere, but you can’t see him.”

God is everywhere. But you can’t see him. Kind of like camouflage.

He is four.

Note that his observation didn’t come in response to a grown-up asking, “What did you learn today?” It popped out, totally unsolicited, while he was jumping on the trampoline.

So let’s acknowledge a few things. First, kids have thoughts about God. Deep, meaningful thoughts about him. They probably don’t think about things they can see and touch in the same way as they think about God. The very fact that God is invisible and somewhat mysterious actually makes him a greater object of curiosity.

Second, because God is not an object to be examined, thoughts about him can pop up in the most unlikely places – car rides, the grocery store, the bathroom, on a trampoline. Science museums can cause kids to think about bugs. Aquariums can draw their attention to sea life.  Books contain familiar and favorite stories.

But where do we take kids to think about God? In the coming weeks, we'll explore this question, because it's part of solving a larger mystery, which is how to talk with kids about God. It's not a science, it's an art. But it can be learned.