harnessing the wild, not taming it

Isn’t it ironic that so many adults spend time lamenting the wildness of children, trying vainly to tame them into docility at the same time they wring their hands at the quiet tameness (at least in terms of church involvement; we won’t get into what happens at home or elsewhere) of their grown-up peers? In the past I have had people lecture me about the need for small children to experience adult church so they can learn to sit quietly as is expected in such a setting.

Oh really? You mean you want me to help perform a surgical character bypass on children, removing from them their playfulness, spontaneity, and child-like wonder? Is that what you mean to say? Because that will be the likely result. Maybe that is one additional reason so many twenty-somethings check out of church as soon as they graduate high school and wander off to college.

Make no mistake, I maintain that there is a place for teaching children boundaries, mutual respect, and a sense of propriety in specific situations. However, it needs to be conveyed in a way that harnesses their energy, rather than killing it. If I am to bring a group of children into adult worship, I want to do it with full permission to unleash their child-like exuberance as a blessing to the Lord and to his people.

Concerning church education, in an adult Bible class, a rabbit trail can be a distraction in many cases. In a children’s class, a skillful teacher can leverage the distraction to maximal learning impact, that is, an effective teachable moment, embedding in the hearts of her students that God is a God of wonder, and is never put off by their curiosity or boundless energy.

The teacher/learner relationship should be that of a seasoned field guide leading young discoverers on new adventures. There will be misteps, to be sure, each a teachable moment. Rather than becoming bound to a pre-written instructional script, the field guide should harness the curriculum as a compass, using Scripture as the foundation toward which the compass continually points to gain its bearings. Kind of like finding due north. And in the process, kind of like regaining the wonder of a child discovering the fullness of God made flesh, Immanuel.

A field guide will harness the energy of the children, engaging them to such a degree that discipline issues become primarily moot. The would-be monsters are simply having too much fun, expending too much energy, and never wanting it to end, to create problems. There are exceptions, of course, and they can be dealt with. But who has time for writing rules on the white board and having kids recite them, when the children are exploding with curiosity to see what new adventure their field guide will lead them on?

Next time you recruit leaders and teachers, seek out adventurers who have a childlike sense of wonder yet who can apply appropriate measures (gently redirect, counsel, separate, seek leadership and/or parental help when necessary) when children test the boundaries. Look for field guides who see the world through the eyes of children and who themselves are willing to put in a little bit of extra work to lend authenticity to each new experience. Love them. Support them. Watch them blossom along with their young charges.

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