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.

the benefits of free play at church

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

There are seasons during the year in children’s ministry where I encourage the children to enjoy a certain amount of free play. It might seem to be such a waste. Free play? At church? What about teaching them the Bible? What about teaching them to pray, worship and serve? Where does the gospel fit in? Free play? Harumph. If this is your initial reaction, let me invite you to hold on a moment and consider my point-of-view.

Free play can provide important benefits and create unique opportunities if it is done within intentionally limited parameters. It allows children to develop relationships with each other and with adult leaders using their most fluent language, play. The younger the child is, or the more reticent, the more profoundly this dynamic can play itself out. Yet we adults tend to like to talk, or to solicit verbal responses from the children, forgetting how intimidating it can be for them. And when we aren’t talking, we may be trying to get them to read or write. There is nothing wrong with any of that to a certain degree, but a neglect of the varied ways people learn can have troubling consequences for those who are not primarily verbal/linguistic learners.  Continue reading

Bible story telling technique

I created a new (to me, maybe not to others) Bible story telling technique this morning for my older kids, grades two through six. I have two general types of kids. Those who are generally self-motivated to listen and participate and those who are not. The latter often frustrate the former. So, today I tried something different for me. Here is what I did.

  1. I asked each child to remove their right shoe and place it in a pile in the middle of the floor.
  2. I broke the kids into two teams and asked them to sit single file in a row on their bottoms with their feet sticking out and facing the other team, with the pile of shoes separating the two teams. 
  3. I asked each team to create a name for itself. One team chose the name “bombers” and the other team chose the name “Aces.” (Made me wonder if they have been watching WWII movies lately….)
  4. I gave each child a number. I had fifteen kids this morning, so I asked my teen helper to be on one of the teams. Each team had eight members, so the participants were numbered one through eight on both teams.
  5. Today’s Bible passage was Luke 2:41-51, the account of twelve year-old Jesus and his family journeying to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover celebration. As I read the account I worked into the story each of the numerals one through eight. When the children assigned to specific numerals heard them, they were to search for their right shoe in the pile, put it on, and be sure it was tied or zipped up before the opponent. The winner of each number scored a point for his/her team.
  6. Because I played it up a bit and the kids were having so much fun, I had them do the same with their left shoes after completing the first round with their right shoes.
  7. It worked out that the story completed at the end of the second round.

Here is what I am learning from this experience.

  • Necessity truly causes us to invent knew ways of doing things. In this case, I desired to capture and keep the kids’ interest and do so in a way that teaches Biblical narrative and truth.
  • Many of my tried and true Bible story teaching methods are great, but my older experienced kids know them, and my new neighbor kids aren’t always motivated to learn Scripture and how to live for God on their own initiative. So, I have to discover what motivates them.
  • Integrating fun, active games as the delivery system for biblical narrative and truth seems an effective way of reeling diverse children into the message of the day without sounding preachy, or using methods which seem to them to be boring or too childish.
  • Because the children were motivated to win the bragging rights for scoring the most points, they policed each other and helped each other listen to the content of the message. The point here is to learn what motivates them and use that constructively to guide them in the right direction.

What do you think? Have you ever tried something like this?

Bonus suggestion

After the story, we took a brief break and then returned with Bibles in hand. I had them open their Bibles to the passage I cited above. I drew a hangman apparatus (dreadful, I know, but the kids understand the game and realize that is all it is, a word game), and then the lines representing spaces for the first word below. As we played the game, I told them the word (or later phrases) were directly from the passage we just studied. I allowed them to look in their Bibles to try to determine which word I had chosen. Once again, they were motivated to win, so they diligently did their work in the Bible.

Giving Responsibility to Children in Kids Church

Recently I took a calculated risk during Kids Church. I ceded some element of control of a puppet show to four children. I asked them to do an improvisational puppet show. I explained to them that they were to provide the words for the puppets and the motions and make it up on the spot. Their eyes got wide. I don’t think they were sure they could pull it off at first. I gave them a simple scenario. Each of their puppets was to share one thing it planned to do this summer, plus one specific way in which it intended to serve God. I let them practice for several minutes before I brought in the other children, and then it was show time. And what a show it was. I stood next to the stage just in case they needed some prompting or assistance, but my precautions became moot in short order. They thrived.

They came up with a choreographed skit which looked and felt better than any previous puppet show we have attempted. They had fun, the audience thought it was hilarious, and they all got the point. Summer can be fun, especially when we choose to serve God.

Why not provide these kinds of opportunities for children who desperately want to try their hand at performance in a way that honors the Lord?  I put my trust in them, and they showed they were up to the responsibility.

Fishers of Men

Jesus said, “Come with me. I will make you fishers of men.” After a puppet show put on by four students in PowerClub Kids, I asked all of the children last night, “What does ‘I will make you fishers of men’ mean?” One child said, “It means he wanted to take them fishing.” Several others nodded yes. Another child said, “It means he wanted them to fish for men.”

“Okay, but what does it mean to fish for men?” I replied. They thought. And they thought. “It’s kinda like fishing for fish!” a boy chimed in.

“You mean they got out their nets, and they threw them into the Sea of Galilee, and instead of hauling in fish, they brought in people?”

Giggling and smiles and heads shaking no.

A seven year-old girl smiled widely and raised her hand.

“Yes?”

“It means that God wants us to help people know him, and to teach them how to help others know him, too.”

The class held its breath, waiting for some sign of my response. I looked into her beautiful eyes. And I smiled. I thanked her for her response. I marvelled at her attentiveness which helped her to understand the big idea of the story.

But I was most touched that this was her first time ever in church. Imagine that. She is living the lesson she helped me to teach.

The Difference Between Choices and Mistakes

If I pick up a rock and then accidently drop it dangerously close to a friend’s foot, that is a mistake. If I pick up a rock and throw it at my friend’s foot, that is a choice, albeit a very bad choice.

Moral of this post? Don’t call choices mistakes. We will all be better off remembering the difference, and we will also be better able to teach our children right from wrong.

music to my ears

The other day I tagged several friends for a note I posted on facebook. The note requested that they relate memories from the past which we shared together. Several of my friends were once in my children’s ministry years ago. As they began to post their responses, I quickly noted a theme. Most of them identified specific songs we had all sung during their time in the children’s ministry. Although a few were simply silly, most have lyrics glorifying the Lord. This was music to my ears. Although they likely cannot recall much of what I spoke during class time. They do remember what they experienced, both musically and in terms of hands-on learning experiences. I look forward to continued reports of how these and many other children were impacted for Jesus Christ through shared experiences during their most impressionable years.