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 way of the Cross

The Cross of Jesus Christ demands my life. All that I am, all that I say, all that I do. By yielding to the Cross, taking up my own to follow Jesus, I lay aside all that hinders. This is no small matter. It can not be done in my own strength. My flesh desires that which is contrary to God’s purposes. My heart is deceitful when left to its own devices. But I have been crucified with Christ, so that it is no longer I who sets the agenda, but God. In Christ, there is a poverty of willfullness, and a wealth of obedience. In Christ, there is joy which is inexpressible. In Christ, there is hope, not despair. Sin is exposed through confession and repentance, liberating us into irrepressible victory for God’s glory.

As I look ahead into the years to come, the future is opaque. I have no idea what will happen. I only know that I feel called to the margins, to the forgotten, to the hopeless. I have no need of titles, recognition, or accolades. In the margins, those things mean nothing.  Young people at risk of gang recruitment care little about them. Nor do young children and parents whose first language and culture are vastly different than my own. They care far more about me being real, being present, and being accessible as an ambassador for Christ.

It is the way of a missional life. It is the way of the Cross. It is the way of the Lord Jesus whom I will follow all the days of my life.

Spirituality of Children’s Ministers

Spiritual vitality is important for every follower of Jesus Christ. Those of us who have trusted him for our salvation desire to be close to God. We recognize that this closeness can only occur on account of Jesus, for it is through him that we have access to his Father because he conquered sin and death. We acknowledge this. But do we consistently live it out? Specifically, do those of us who lead children’s ministries live it out?

So much is demanded of us as children’s ministry leaders. This is true for part-time volunteer leaders like me. But I am sure it is an equally potent reality for full-time people. For example, we must be emotionally savvy people managers who can masterfully recruit and retain volunteers to minister alongside us. We are required to gain a level of expertise in educational ministry, including teaching-learning praxis, classroom dynamics, curriculum, and planning year-round learning strategies. And that is just the start. We cannot forget pastoral care, crisis management, security issues, creative environments, collegial relationships with peer staff ministers, relationships with parents, strategic leadership concerning every facet of the ministry in timely cooperation with the overall church strategy, child development, special needs, marketing issues, outreach and mission, new family ministry expectations, and the list simply will not stop going on…

Is it any wonder that people burn out at an alarming rate? Continue reading

stuff I’m thinking about children’s ministry

  • Expectations are changing, becoming more demanding with less tolerance for a lack of excellence, effort, and relevance. This is true in churches of any size, and is proven in part by an exodus of younger generations from the church traditions of their parents into other traditions, often large regional churches with multiple offerings.
  • As a corollary, expectations often conflict with each other, depending on whose expectations are being considered.
  • As a further corollary, one set of parents may expect one thing, others something else which is contradictory; senior leadership, still another thing; children yet another. We end up managing the expectations of others, sometimes burying our own dreams in the process.
  • One hopes that we will successfully graft theological acumen and faithfulness to Scripture into our skill development, and that it translates into maturing disciples.
  • Sometimes we have to introduce concepts which are not popular, nor perceived as relevant. Yet, they are prophetic in the sense that God is intervening to speak into the lives of people. Prophets, or people whom God gives a challenging message, are seldom welcome voices. Testing the winds of public opinion through focus groups will not serve us well in cases like this. Being obedient to God, and gracious in our message delivery in the context of a consistent godly life will help.
  • Sometimes life hurts. And there is no one who really understands. Except, God of course. Good thing we can talk to him.
  • It helps to have close friends outside of the church we serve. We can say the stuff we need to say without worrying about misunderstandings.
  • An increasing amount of us recognize the need to equip parents, and we feel overwhelmed by the added expectations, and the added resistance from some folks to our efforts.
  • Some of us have enough gray hair to know that it takes a long time to overcome a lifetime of reliance on the church to train up children in the faith. It may take years, even a generation, even a new generation of emerging churches to build a true partnering ethic into the ethos of the local church. Yet, I pray it happens more quickly for the sake of our current generation.
  • I don’t have to be as cool, as talented, as witty, funny, smart, wise, or tech-savvy as my ministry peers. I can be me, comfortable in my own skin, and unapologetic about the unique set of experiences, life-long learning, education, skills, personality and interests that comprise my background. Even if some of that background has absolutely no direct bearing on children’s ministry. Imagine that. I can have a life outside my professional ministry duties. And I can apply my diverse background to my professional role, even if I don’t consider myself a professional, since I am “just a volunteer, and all.”
  • It really annoys me when people say, “I am JUST a volunteer.” Never forget, Jesus was also a volunteer. In obedience to his Father’s will, he willingly laid down his life for us for our benefit.
  • I am allowed to have friends within the local church. Yes, it’s true. It really is.
  • Someday we will talk about powerpoint like we talk about flannelgraph. Indeed, that day is close at hand.
  • We will always have smaller churches, but an increasing percentage of them will be younger, as older congregations continue to close their doors at alarming rates, or merge with other smaller churches, or agree to be annexed into larger congregations, and the like.
  • Some large churches are finding themselves closing sections of their buildings to reduce costs and adjust to people leaving. This is creating a soul-searching, a breaking of old mentalities and comfort zones.
  • Our branding efforts need to be based on substantive content of our faith so that our obedience does not remain cosmetic, but translates into disciple-making service to Jesus Christ, even independent of church-sponsored initiatives.

And that is just a taste of the stuff I’m thinking about children’s ministry, what with me being “just a volunteer” and all. *wink* :)

Children’s Pastors: What Traits Influence Your Ministry?

Sage and Trendwatcher. Manager and Entreprenuer. Leader and Shepherd. All of these traits have value in ministry. To be sure, there are others I could list, but  the length of this post will already test the patience of my readers. What has God called you to be at this point in your life?

The sage is a person of wisdom earned from study and life experience. Usually the sage is in his or her senior years, although being retirement age does not automatically qualify a person for wisdom any more than being college age makes a young person relevant to his peers. We need sages. We ignore their input into our lives at our own peril. They have a sense of history lived. It is not merely theoretical for them. They have seen things. They have experienced a part of God’s redemptive story in the community. They make wonderful mentors to developing generations of young people.

The trendwatcher is that person who is acutely attuned to new ways of doing things, whether in music or media, communications or entertainment, to name a few. Most of these folks do not create trends, but they observe, adapt and deploy variations of someone else’s creation. A select few, rare indeed, actually design innovative content and methods which gain grassroots appeal and later mainstream acceptance. They are the trendsetters upon whom the trendwatchers focus their attention. Both would be wise to nurture connection to godly sages, just as those same sages value the creativity which God imparts to these young and not-so-young innovators.

The manager has gotten a bad rap in recent years, compared unfavorably to leaders or entreprenuers. This is unfortunate. Without skilled, stable and faithful managers to provide consistency and maturity to our endeavors, chaos would ensue. I call for a truce between the skillsets. Authentic leaders do not have a need to put down their managerial counterparts. They lift them up and encourage them. They recognize their contributions and refrain from harboring unrealistic expectations. Much of the recruiting problems in churches would be resolved if leaders would learn how to treat those who provide high level management with more respect and consideration.

Entreprenuers and leaders often are lumped into the same mold. They can go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily. It seems to me that entreprenuers tend to be designer personality types. Leaders can be that, but also are builders. Managers tend to be maintainers. Design in an organization has a limited time frame, unless of course you are constantly redesigning, in which case it will be the Extreme Organizational Makeover that never quite bore fruit from its design labors. Entreprenuers like to tread new territory, create new endeavors, discover new revenue streams to support their primary passions. Leaders like to cast vision for grand ideas and mobilize large groups of people toward that end, fulfilling therefore, not only the grand vision, but also the dreams of those who participate in the process and its success. Managers love to come alongside leaders and entreprenuers to take care of the many details necessary to fulfill the grand dream. They have caught the vision and want to be part of something larger than themselves, and are willing to labor in relative obscurity to make it happen, within reason.

Shepherds, on the other hand, do not quite fit into any of these molds. Yet that is what God called his overseers to be and do as they minister to the fledgling flocks of congregations scattering the Greco-Roman landscape, from Greece to Israel to Alexandria. Shepherds. Un-21st century. So irrelevant. So relevant. So agrarian. So human. And so apt. Although our methods have changed in multiple respects, we recognize the principle that human nature, at its core, is consistently the same. We are made in God’s image, and we marred that image through sin. Yet God provided a way of redemption through Jesus Christ, whereby our nature may be made righteous again because of his righteousness. Our role as shepherds of people is to guide them as lovingly, protectively, gently and firmly as real shepherds into a life of fruitful faith in Christ Jesus. Call it leading. Call it managing. You can even call it being a trendwatching entreprenuer with postmodern sensitivity. I don’t care.

Package it however you want within the appropriate rubric of biblical fidelity and missional attention to cultural relevance. But between you, me and the one or two other folks who will read this post, what the people really need is a shepherd who will lay his or her life down for them so that they might know Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Is that enough of a risk for you?

Relevant Children’s Ministry

Over the past several years I have heard and read much about relevant ministry, both in terms of the entire church and children’s ministry. Missiologists such as Guder and Bosch, to name a couple of seminal thinkers, have introduced missiological ways of thinking into the philosophical framework of contemporary church practitioners. To be missional, the thinking therefore goes, is to be relevant. Innovative practitioners in children’s ministry (many of whom will never write a book or article, or be featured prominently in yearly conferences) have rightly borrowed missional thinking and the need for relevance in developing more effective ways to reach the culture. But, what is relevance? I fear our definition may be at risk of becoming too narrow. Let me explain what I mean.

Typically, relevance is considered from the cultural point-of-view. That is, it is considered in terms of the self-aware perspective of the specific target cultural group. Clear as mud? Let me be even more specific with a precise example. In my ministry setting, my church is targeting a mix of families with a diverse cultural background: Vietnamese; Guatemalen, Mexican, Korean, Russian, Romanian, Anglo-Saxon, African-American, and many others. Most of these families in the apartment complex live below a certain economic standard which qualifies them for Section 8 housing. Over the past several months I have become aware of specific self-reported (by the children and to a lesser extent, the parents) disadvantages and advantages which are a part of their experience. These perspectives reflect what is relevant from their point-of-view. However, they do not entirely reflect what is relevant from God’s point-of-view.

We surely want to understand and become missionally fluent in the cultures to which God has called us. We want to hear their heartbeat, respect their unique cultural identities, and honor them as persons and as cultures. This principle applies also to sub-cultures within our own culture, whether they are generational, or sub-cultures which transcend generations.

It is here that we risk narrowing the definition of relevance. For example, in churches which are self-consciously postmodern (I shy away from the term emergent, because, to my knowledge, not all emergent-type churches have bought into post-modern philosophy), there is a trend to shy away from clear presentations of the gospel that share about the future hope of heaven and the future danger of hell. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on belonging before believing (a valid point of concern from which evangelicals should learn, but one which can cause misunderstanding and also, at its most extreme, espouse salvific  inclusivism).

Thus, for many self-conscious post-modern Christians, relevance is getting to know someone on their terms without an agenda to convert them to Christianity. I am sympathetic to this way of thinking and I think there is value in learning from it. There is only one problem. Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The Fourth Evangelist writes, “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only unique Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So, cultural relevance says, “Be sensitive to the needs of people in the culture who do not want to be blasted by evangelistic efforts which have no interest in them as a person, except as it pertains to making them a convert.” Biblical relevance, in my view, says, “I agree. Be sensitive to the needs of people who don’t want to be hijacked by aggressive evangelistic efforts which have no interest in real people. At the same time, those real people really will go to hell unless they choose to accept God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The cross is relevant, even if it offends people. Cultural relevance demands that we be gracious and loving in developing real relationships with people, rather than simply treating them as notches in our theological score cards. Biblical relevance demands that we be so gracious, so loving, so serving, so giving sacrificially of our lives, that those same people will ask of the hope that is within us. We will have become relevant by becoming real and authentic as persons reflecting the character and life of Jesus.”

In children’s ministry we try to discern what makes children tick and how we might better reach them and their families with the Gospel. We use a lot of different metrics to aid us. We consider age-level insights learned from human development literature, cultural trends as learned from the marketing efforts of manufacturers and retailers, or through qualitative research studies by Gallup, Pew, or Barna. We learn from philosophical trends, the writings of those who deem themselves futurists (I only know of one bona-fide futurist; he is God), and the collective wisdom of fellow practitioners, to name a few. We strive to be relevant so that we can garner their interest and plainly make Christ known in their language.

My recommendation? Let’s not let the need for relevance limit our definition of what the word means. Websters is cited in Dictionary.com as saying relevant is the “relation to the matter at hand.” No human being can possibly know all there is to know about the matter at hand in terms of their own needs, both now and in the future. This is why God sent Jesus. This is why Jesus sends us; sends you. You have something to say to the culture in which God has placed you. They might not want to hear it. Your task is to love them, understand them the best you can, and to communicate in ways that they can clearly understand the undiluted message of the cross. That, in my view, is ministry relevance. It will look different ways for different ministries. But that is its essence. Now, off you go. Feed the sheep God has given into your care, and seek those whom he is calling into his fold.

God is on the Move

God is working in hearts. He is moving among the people. He is making himself known both in large ways and in small. He is especially attentive to the little ones. So, it interests him deeply to hear your prayers for the children. The hard-hearted. The shy. The poor. The abused. The fortunate. The dying. The orphaned. The forgotten. The tears you weep in silence do not escape God’s attention. He cries them with you. As you reflect on a child whose eyes are haunted by war, God breathes through you gentle grace and peace to her heart. The orphan whom you hold dear is held precious by the Lord God. Each and every child is created by God; each and every one you influence is ever on his mind.

God is working in these hearts through you. Your prayers. Your teaching and mentoring. Your patience. Your example. Be not weary in well-doing, for in due season you will reap a harvest (Gal. 6:9). God is on the move. What he has purposed to accomplish, he will do in his good time.