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.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Should your kids take communion?

Something new starts next weekend. We are setting up a station for families to take communion together on the same weekend communion is offered in adult church. We did this because we realized that unless kids were going to "Big Church", they were never taking communion.

Should they?

The short answer to that is yes, every Christian should take communion. As Protestants, we believe it is one of two ordinances Jesus left to us, the other being baptism. And there is ample evidence that the earliest Christians took his command seriously, that receiving "the Lord's supper" was a regular part of their worship life.

Does that include kids? It should. If we believe kids are capable of making the decision to follow Christ, and to signify that decision through baptism, why would we bar them from taking communion?

Likewise, the same things that would bar or disqualify someone from baptism would be the same reasons for them not to take communion - but age isn't necessarily one of those:
  • Not a believing Christian
  • Not able to comprehend what the act means or symbolizes
  • Doing it under compulsion and not freely choosing it
You may have grown up in a more ritualistic church, where communion was a more central activity in the worship service, and that background might cause you to have strong feelings - one way or the other - about kids receiving communion.
  • On the one hand, communion for you may have been just "what you did" without really understanding why, and you don't want it to become an empty, legalistic gesture
  • Or, your church may have taught communion as a means of grace, and you want your child to clearly understand that grace comes through faith, not the performance of a ritual (read further for more on that)
  • Or, maybe communion (and first communion instruction) was a big deal in your church, and you want your kid to have the same thing.
So, kids should take communion with you as long as the following are true:

  1. They understand that communion (like baptism) is something we do to remember. It doesn't produce anything in and of itself.
  2. What we remember with communion is Jesus' last supper with his disciples, where he told them to remember him whenever they ate the meal of bread and wine. The bread represents Jesus' body, broken (killed) for us. The wine (we use grape juice) represents Jesus' blood, which was shed for the forgiveness of sins.
  3. Communion is something Christians celebrate together, to remind ourselves that what unifies us is Christ and his sacrifice. (Taking communion doesn't make us "more holy" or "more spiritual". It's a "we" thing, not a "me" thing.)
  4. Communion isn't driven by feelings. We might "feel" closer to God because of the act of taking communion, and of meditating on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice. But we don't necessarily "feel" anything, and just because you don't "feel" something doesn't make it less significant.
  5. On the other hand, communion should never be done "just because it's what Christians do." Ritual for ritual's sake, without understanding, is never good.
If your child considers themselves a Christian and part of the body of Christ, there is no reason why they shouldn't receive communion. I wouldn't worry too much that they don't "fully" understand it, because who among us exhaustively understands and appreciates the cross? Instead, make it your goal that as your kids grow up, they'll understand the importance of the cross more and more. Regularly taking communion and being invited to reflect on its meaning is a great way to make that happen.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mission: Possible! Becoming a mission-minded family

How do you raise kids who care about the world and want to make a difference? Whose Christianity isn't just words, but deeds? Taking them overseas on a mission trip is a powerful way to show them the real world...but it isn't the only way.

I'm a big fan of families taking mission trips. We've had several families from this church do that, and some of their stories are being compiled for a booklet that will be available starting next week called, "Mission: Possible!" These are encouraging, "can-do" stories of families who took kids - in some cases, young kids - out of the country on mission trips

In addition, this year's International Missions Fair event on Friday night (November 6) is once again designed for the whole family, with breakout sessions for adults & kids, and childcare for very young kids. Things get rolling with dinner at 6:00. (Reserve childcare for under 5 years old here.)

One of the breakout sessions is called "Embracing Adventure: Growing Missional Kids". It'll be a panel of some parents who've taken their kids out of the country, explaining what they did, how they did it, and how it impacted their family.

BUT...what if going overseas just isn't in the cards right now? As much as I want kids to taste foreign missions, I don't want our church or any church to communicate the message that only overseas service "counts". Of course, we want kids and families to be "thinking missions" anywhere they go.

But too often, that message - "shine your light" - gets flattened to just "be nice". And that's a shame, because "be good" and "be nice" isn't the gospel. They're part of the fruit of the gospel, but to equate Christian missions work with Random Act of Kindness Day or a character education rally really undermines the gospel's power.

The gospel's power is supernatural - it is not from ourselves, or willpower, or a determination to do better. The gospel's power is what enables us to give and behave sacrificially.

In what settings? At home, with our families? For sure! With co-workers or schoolmates? Yes! But also, among strangers - as a way of affirming that no one is a stranger, that we are all connected by virtue of having been made in the image of God.

Here, then, is my hope: that every family who calls our church their home will discover something they're passionate about, and invest themselves in that work together.

It might be related to homelessness, or healthcare, or companionship for elderly people who are lonely. Did you know that the city of San Diego has about 9,000 homeless people who sleep on the streets and in the parks every night?!? Or that there are families here in Carlsbad who can't afford Christmas? Or children in the foster care system who need safe homes?

Not every cause is a fit for every family. So how do you begin? You sample different things. As you do it, you watch your kids and listen to them. What's captured their heart?

We have started putting a display out on the plaza between services on weekends. It's a big potato chip rack, with a bunch of postcards hanging from the clips, all filled with ways that families can serve together. We want you to check it out, but more than that, we want your stories! Once you've found where you and your kids enjoy serving, we're asking you to e-mail us your story at so we can share it with everyone else.

Maybe someday, it'll be you and your kids trekking overseas. International mission trips are hugely impactful. But don't feel guilty if you can't, and don't think of local service as any less valuable or "real" than overseas missions. Remember that before international travel became possible (the last 50 or so years), almost nobody was serving overseas. Only people who gave their lives to full-time missions service did that. For the vast majority of the church's existence, all missions were local. Christians in the Roman Empire started hospitals and charities because the need was there, right among them. When we serve locally, we carry on that legacy.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Kids Need Mentors at Church (Value #4)

How great would it be for your son or daughter to be greeted at church every week by someone who knew them by name, cared for them, and was committed to helping them grow? If you answered, "pretty great," go to the head of the class. You understand Children's Ministry Value #4: Older Christians investing in younger ones.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the difference between head-learning and disciple-learning. Disciple-learning changes us, and is tied up in relationship, as the student emulates the teacher. We've long known that the relationship dynamic between teacher and student affects how learning happens. You don't remember every "bit" of information you were ever taught, but you do remember how that teacher made you feel.

Here's the truth - when one person is teaching another, pure knowledge transfer almost never exists. You have an attitude toward the content that's largely influenced by your attitude towards that teacher. Even when we get information from a book, there's still an author, and how you "absorb" that information depends on the style of the writing: is it clear? Is it moving? Is it boring? Can you detect the writer's passion? Or does it make you want to run away?

What does this mean for ministry with kids? It means that the character of the people we choose as leaders matters, not only because we want them to be good influences, but because how they are with kids affects learning. We need a broader understanding of "teaching". It's not just the process of telling. It's modeling, it's prayerfully shepherding, and it's and even listening. So anyone can be a teacher, and everyone is a teacher - whether they stand in the role we typically reserve for "the teacher" or not.

I wince when I hear people speak of children's ministry as "just childcare" for that very reason. Caring for kids is an awesome opportunity, and it needs to be approached actively, not passively. Same goes for when kids are "just playing". Nothing "just" about it! When a child freely plays, they give you a window into who they are. They're communicating, "Here's how to reach me!" And the mentor is the one who answers that call.

Mentoring in a church context isn't a program (although it can be). Instead, what it means is that every child who calls this church their home is known and has an older Christian in their life in addition to their parents who is looking out for them. That's why we're always on the lookout for people who will own that responsibility. It's teaching - but it's so much more. In mentoring others, we are emptying ourselves and offering who we are to them. It sounds cliche, but this is "being like Jesus" - not that we can execute a 3-point sermon in front of people, but that we can humble ourselves and join them on the journey.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Why Kids Need Friends at Church (Value #3)

There are a lot of reasons why the church experience for kids can't - and shouldn't - mimic exactly what adults are doing in "Big Church". And it relates to things kids need.
  • Kids need to move their bodies. So we sing songs with hand motions, and sometimes play games, and don't make them sit still for long periods of time. Adults are better at sitting in one place (but don't let that lead you to the conclusion that "kids just need to learn more discipline"; movement is essential to overall child development). (Although hand motions in adult church would be worth seeing.)
  • Kids need to eat more often. Their stomachs are smaller, and their metabolism is higher. So we feed them a snack midway through the morning, while adults are able to wait until their next meal.
  • Kids need help with a vocabulary they don't yet have. So we have to simplify concepts and explain adult-sized words. It doesn't always work to "just read the Bible" to them.
  • And, kids need relationships with other kids at church. Why? A few reasons:
Security: For one, kids generally move into (sometimes out of) a stage where they are insecure. Who am I? Who loves me? Who likes me? Where do I fit in among this group? Do I fit in anywhere? It's a graet relief for kids to be able to answer themselves with yes - I have friends here - I fit in - I'm ok. Not every kid struggles with this. Some are supremely confident, no matter the environment. But one of the things driving that confidence is that they make friends easily and can get along. So whether you're dealing with the insecure, shy kid or the outgoing, world-is-my-oyster kid, they both thrive on the security that comes from having friends.

I think we adults forget how hard it is to be "the new kid" - yes, even in church. Most of us attend adult church with someone else. So from the moment we walk in the door, although we may be surrounded by a sea of strangers, at least we have that one next to us who we can talk to, relate with, and - let's face it - blend in with. When you're solo (as kids are if they don't know anyone), you stick out like a sore thumb - or at least you think you do.

It's where Christianity "happens": Let's face it - relationships are where the rubber meets the road for our Christianity. We can all talk a good game, but life is the real test: how will you act/think/do around other people? Same goes for kids. A bucketfull of "just right answers" isn't worth much if the truths behind those answers aren't lived out.

Just the presence of other people doesn't necessarily put our Christianity to the test. We can all play nice. It's once we call someone "friend" or "brother" or "sister" that we subject our lives to the test: if you or I change (or irritate each other), can we still dance?

Kids need a Crowd: To be sure, we aren't Christians because we hang out with Christians, or because we were born into a Christian family. But who we hang out with influences our identities. So - who is your kid hanging out with? Because they will become like them. I'm not of the camp that advocates strict separatism - that kids should only have Christian friends, and that all other kids are dangerous. But I wonder what kind of magic parents are expecting when their kid has no Christian friends? When all of your kid's friends are indifferent, if not hostile, towards God, what do you think is going to happen to your own kid's attitude toward spiritual things? That they'll stand on the truth, simply because it's the truth? Really?

I once had someone argue to me that youth groups were a bad deal, because her daughter had been negatively influenced by the kids she met there, and it turned her off to the church. Well, churches aren't perfect, and it's unfortunate that happened; but as a parent, making sure my kid was part of a church's youth group would be a gamble I'd be willing to take.

It may seem like I'm only really writing about older kids, and there's some truth to that. While young kids need the security of a pal or two at church, they probably haven't reached the critical juncture where they decide of "Christian" is going to be the identity they wear through adolescence and into adulthood. But be ready, because the onset of that stage comes quickly. When I ran our 4th-6th grade ministry, I would say, "When 4th graders hear about a special event we're running, they ask, What are we going to do there? and if it sounds fun, they'll come. But a 6th grader, on hearing about a special event, asks Who else is going to be there?" No friends = no way!

So let me stop dancing around a hard truth and be blunt: If your son or daughter doesn't have some meaningful peer relationships at church by the time they leave 6th grade, the chance of them hanging around a youth ministry is really, really small.

And in that regard, they're not that different from adults, who also need the security, the testing, and the identity that having like-minded friends provides. The thing is, as adults we get to choose our affiliations freely. Kids come to church because their parents bring them. So while it's great to have kids tell you they "had fun" and give you a few "points" they picked up from the lesson, probe a little deeper and observe what's going on: is your son or daughter building some lasting friendships at church? Believe me, it will pay dividends down the road - more than being Bible Quizbowl Champion.

Here are some pointers on making same-age Christian friendships happen:

1. Be consistent with your family's attendance. The more often kids attend, the more likely they are to get to know the other kids at church. And -

2. Be consistent with the service you attend. We're a large church. If you bounce among three services, and attend three times a month, your kid is only encountering the same group of kids once each month (and that assumes that kid is himself regular and consistent). That's not really enough to form a meaningful friendship with someone.

3. Ask your child, "Of the kids at church, who do you like to play with? Is there anyone you'd want to have come over after church some weekend?"

4. Meet the families of the kids your son or daughter identifies. Here's how. Tell your kid to ask their friend at church to wait until you come for pick up. If the friend's parents come first, train your child to say something like, "Hi, I'm ______________. I'm [so-and-so's] friend. My mom and dad want to meet you." Voila! Two families make a connection.

5. Come to a smaller, weeknight program like The Harbor. You'll meet other parents and your kid will interact in activities with other kids. Simply because of size, The Harbor program allows kids more freedom, and there's more kid-to-kid contact, which is an important ingredient in friend making.

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.