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.