Day One at Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity
I am spending the week in DC at a conference titled Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity. My goal is to write at least one blog post a day, and so I am determined to do it. It is mainly as a place for me to wrestle with the thoughts or ideas coming my way, and put them in my own words so they become more than just an interesting point, but something that I am internalizing. However, after the first day, that was really only a half day, I am already overloaded with many different thoughts going in many different directions making it hard to focus on a particular concept or idea that I can expound upon here. As I think about the pathways of my thinking spread, I find myself using the words that have become an integral part of me because of Godly Play, “I wonder.” In an attempt to provide a platform for these snippets of ideas or questions running through my head to become more thoughtful reflections, I will begin with highlighting the topics of my “snippets of ides” and the wondering questions that follow.
Death, despair, and art
On the train ride from Virginia to DC this morning I finished the book The Promise of Despair by Andrew Root, a book that I would like to expound on later. As I finished this book the questions remains where in our churches is there a place to face the monster of death and despair. After I got off train I headed to the American Museum of Portraits and the American Museum of African American Art. I was struck by the realization that art is one place in our culture where it is somewhat socially acceptable to wrestle with the reality of death, and as Lodor calls it “proximate forms of death.” In the museum I saw picture and paintings, along with descriptions from the authors that dealt with identity formation, issues of race, poverty, loneliness, and more. And then I thought about music and how various genres have allowed artists to wrestle with the pains of humanity (thought contemporary Christian music doesn’t necessarily fit into this category). And then I thought about Godly Play or other times in Sunday school when we allow children to use different materials for artistic expression with no parameters. I remembered the many times when boys especially but also girls, end up with pictures that involved blood or fighting or knives, and how many times I have said or heard the words “That is not appropriate for church.” It is important for us to recognize and dialogue about artwork that may portray violence and wrestle with kids about our response to violence as Christians.
I wonder when we brush it off with a simple “you know better” kind of attitude, what is that teaching children about the churches ability to have conversation about issues that go deeper than our simple religious positivity and optimism?
The Sunday School Superstar
Janell Anema spoke about being a Sunday School Superstar and the pervading negative impact the church culture she grew up in has had on her ability to interact with others on a deeper level of faith connection. I resonated with all her sentiments, being a “Sunday School Superstar.” The shelf in my bedroom that was lined with trophies of marble blocks topped with gold plastic statues of girls playing softball and soccer, also held two gold plastic cross trophies I earned from memorizing two to three scripture verses each week, as well as the Apostles and the Nicene creed. I went on all the mission trips in high school, served as a student leader, and was involved as I could be. For me it was after college when all that I grew up learning and studying in the church felt meaningless. I had to begin my journey of breaking down what had been ingrained in me about being a “good Christian” to develop a faith that was about more than optimism, memory, and doing the “right” thing. And yet when I work with the kids, I still find myself going back to that place where I grew up. It flows out of me so easily, and trying to figure out a different way to engage children in their faith development gets muddled with experiences from my past.
I wonder, how do we stop another generation from having to breakdown the church culture they grew up in, when many of us teaching and mentoring them have the “Sunday School Superstar” mentality so ingrained in us?
How We Use the Bible
In one 18 minute presentation the speaker urged people to stay where they are in ministry for many years in order to cultivate a strong faith community. I won’t go into my direct thoughts on his content, but something he did disturbed me. As he was stating his case he obviously felt it necessary to use Biblical examples as arguments. He used Jesus as an example, saying that Jesus went no more than 100 miles outside of his hometown (except for the flight to Egypt). My first thought was…um he was walking those 100 miles, that is a long ways. The part that irked me the most was when he acknowledged that Paul did travel and move around a lot in his ministry, but his statement about that was something to the effect of,” I don’t think that was as important.” Um, really. I feel like we do this so much. Make a decision about something we personally think is important or right and then find a way to use the Biblical text to support our position. I am just as guilty of it, especially when it comes to working with children.
I wonder, how can we present the Bible more as a living narrative than purely a book of answers or moral guidance?
A New Package or a New Message
I asked a fellow conference attendee what drew her to this conference. She gave me a bit of her background in the church and said, “We (as in the big church) have the right message, we just need a new way to package it.” I think that may be part of the problem. We think we have the right message, but we just have to make it more appealing to get people to buy into in. However, our “message” is covered in an individualistic, consumer driven society. When Brian McLaren shows us statistics about how many youth and young adults are leaving the church, I don’t think his point is that we need to make it more attractive. That is when we fall into the trap of making the message fit with what the culture is attracted to, so the message can get muddled in our attempt to entertain and keep people happy. The transforming power of our God is attractive enough. Instead of looking at how we can repackage our message, maybe we need to look at why the message we are indoctrinating into our children and youth and adults isn’t transforming them enough, allowing many to walk away with from the church with ease maybe to return when they have kids or during holidays, and others to walk away never looking back.
I wonder, when our conversations continually focus on the surface level of attractive packages, will we
Those are just a few of my thoughts from the day….now time to get some sleep.
Somewhere along the way the church decided that it is more important for children to be put into a Sunday school class to listen to lectures about what they should believe instead of participating in the central activity of the larger community of faith, the worship service. Now it is hard to find a church that does not separate children from the worshipping community by placing them in age appropriate classes to “learn” about faith or practice worship. We have essentially decided that children don’t know enough, can’t sit quietly long enough, or do not have enough practice to be a part of corporate worship. Or we use the excuse that children will get more out of or have more fun in an age specific program filled with games, video clips, crafts, lectures, and discussion with children of similar age.
The first problem with that is a narrow view of what the corporate worship experience should be, one that is not child friendly at all. And I ask myself really…what would God think about children joyfully dancing to songs in the isles, cuddling with their parents, laughing, smiling, fidgeting, turning to the person behind them and making a silly face, drawing a picture, eating some cheerios. In my mind, I see God smiling at those things.
Then I get back to the idea that children don’t know enough or need a special “children’s church” so they can practice worshipping God. I contend that by pulling children out of the corporate worship service and placing them in “kid friendly” programs, the messages we are sending them about worship are much more powerful than the learning objectives that the teachers are trying to reach.
In his book Will our Children Have Faith?, John H. Westerhoff III writes about the “hidden curriculum” (Westerhoff III, pp. 16-17). Much of how we learn and develop is shaped by what we experience in relationship with others. So what is the hidden curriculum guides the development of children in churches when they are not a part of the regular worship service? There are two dangerous messages encapsulated in this “hidden curriculum.”
You are not old enough to worship God. You need to know more, grow more, practice more in order to be a valuable participant in the corporate worship service. Each church has a different threshold for when a person is “ready.” It might be when you have gone through the special Bible and theology classes that allowed you to be confirmed. Or it might be when you reach eighteen and we have done all we can do to teach you, now you are on your own. Some churches decide that there can be special services throughout the year, where children are allowed to participate, but those need to planned and prepare to make those meet the needs of these participants that are not able to handle a typical service.
Worshipping God is no fun! You won’t like it at all. We have something much better for you. There will be games, crafts, singing, getting to know friends, silly skits, powerful lessons, time to talk about your prayer requests, and adults who care about you. You won’t find that in the regular worship service, so we offer this program that is better for you. Then when you hit the end of our programming…maybe it’s in 7th grade, maybe it is when you graduate high school, you will have to give up all those fun things you did, and suffer through the adult worship service.
This is when I look at the church and shake my head! What are we doing? What do Jesus’ words about “welcoming the children” mean to us? When will we realize that Jesus welcomed the children because they had something to offer, something that was different from what the adults had to offer?
When we separate children from the central activity of the faith community, when we decide they need to learn more, or decide that the most important thing about worship is meeting the needs of adults, rather than worshipping God as a community, we suffer. We suffer by not enjoying the richness that children have to offer the congregation. We suffer by having a few “trained” (or not so trained) teachers who invest in the children, instead of an entire community of adults who are invested. We suffer by a narrow view of what worship looks like. We suffer by presenting a “hidden curriculum” to children that is often more powerful than the “purchased curriculum” and presents a lesson that hinders our potential to have a powerful intergenerational community that walks together in our faith…and a community that I belive God wants us to experience.
Westerhoff III, John H. (1976). Will our Children Have Faith?. New York: The Seabury Press.
Two weeks ago, the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector was the topic of our Sunday school lesson. I wanted to do a children’s
sermon that somewhat tied to that story and the sermon topic of change. I am ashamed to say that when I am at a loss, I look to the internet for children sermon ideas. I got an idea from http://www.sundaychildrensfocus.com/ that seemed intriguing and I thought it could either be disastrous or very memorable. I decided to try it. It involved bringing a really old brown banana and asking the kids if they would eat it. Then painting the banana yellow, and asking if they would eat it then. It is all a lesson in how we often change on the outside, but Jesus wants us, with his help, to change on the inside.
It turned out the be memorable, well at least for the adults. I heard many stories about how that illustration impacted or touched them in some way.
Churches are often like a painted banana when it comes to children’s ministry. We recognize that we aren’t doing the greatest job, and there is a need for change. However, the change we bring is typically just painting over the stuff that makes it bad from the core. We make it look better and more enticing, but in the end we still have what we started with, a rotten banana. It is a lot easier to paint over something that we have done for so long, instead of going through the challenging work of making it better on the inside. But for our children, isn’t it worth it?
In typical Boerger fashion we had a few ideas of what to do with my dad for Father’s Day but when my brother, sister and dad arrived at my house around 2:30 yesterday, we still hadn’t made a decision. It would be easier if our dad made the decision for us, but we all knew what he would say when asked what he wanted to spend the day doing. In his customary nostalgic way his answer is always “As long as my three kids are with me, I am happy.” We often laugh and roll our eyes at our dad’s melancholy statements about how wonderful we are, but deep down those words are powerful statements.
When I think about my relationship with my dad, those nostalgic statements of adoration and love have been a blessing and given me a place of belonging. I never doubted my fathers love for me. Not only did he always tell me how much I meant to him, but he was present. One of the greatest gifts dads can give their children, is presence, and my dad was great at that. After a long day of work, I never doubted his desire to spend time with me. I have so many great memories with him. They include nights rocking out to Neil Young, late evenings finishing creative school projects, long games of pepper (playing catch as fast as you can), hour-long conversations analyzing the latest high school softball game, games of HORSE at the basketball hoop, and hurrying out to ice skate on the frozen lakes when it got cold enough.
It was never hard enough for me to understand a father’s love, because I experienced it in both words and actions. Understanding God in terms of a loving father was always easy for me. I have encountered many people who did not experience that same sense of love from their father. While we all have the ability to be resilient despite our upbringing, scars can run deep and impact us more than we know. I continue to thank God that I grew up in a home where I belonged, was loved, and always knew that love from both my parents! I hope that Ryan and I can provide that to our children one day, and that I can help encourage and support other parents in providing that for their children.
We ended up going bowling, eating a delicious dinner out, and finishing off the night with some root beer floats and great conversation!
I struggle each week when I am scheduled to do the children’s sermon. While I enjoy doing them, I am constantly questioning what they are for and am cautious about the real purpose behind each message. For some kids, the idea of sitting up front on the stage can be exciting, for others it can be terrifying. It can easily turn into a “show” for the adults in the congregation to see all the cute kids coming up front. Often times they are used as subtle messages to the adults disguised as a messages especially for the children.
My ultimate goal is to make it a time where kids know they have a place in the worshipping body, and that they are loved and cared for in that place. I also want them to hear the language of the faith and keep their focus on God in our place of worship.
This week I strayed from my goal, and turned the message into a subtle message for the adults. Our Senior Pastor is retiring at the end of the month and I wanted to send him off with a gift from the children. There were several children who participated in the gift by writing advice for him for his retirement or reflecting on something he taught them about God, coupled with a picture. They were all compiled to make a book.
I wanted the congregation to see what the kids wrote and the kids to be present when the Pastor received the gift. So I had slides of various submissions up on the screen to share with the congregation some advice the children gave. I wrestled with which ones to show. I wanted the congregation to see the heart and the humor in the book, but I didn’t want it to become a spectacle where kids were being laughed at, which so often happens. Though the laughing from the congregation generally comes from an overwhelming joy at seeing the children, and their innocent responses, when you are a child up on the stage, it can cause embarrassment and take away from my ultimate goal “allowing children to know they have a place.”
There was one in particular submission that I loved. The advice was “You should stay the night in the zoo.” I wanted people to hear that because of the imagination that comes from that sentence, but I didn’t want it to be a point of laughter and embarrassment. So I added to my children’s sermon a message to the adults about wisdom from children.
We often think of wisdom coming from older, wiser people, but our congregations could really benefit from listening to the wisdom of children more. I ultimately share dthe advice about staying in the zoo, because though that might not qualify as “wisdom” in many of our books, I think there is a lot of wisdom in the silly advice from kids. The wisdom is to dream big, use our imaginations, and not take life so seriously.
Recently I came to the realization that much of what I believe about children in the church is shaped by the way my parents raised me. We weren’t an overly religious family. We went through stints of trying family devotions or praying before meals. We went to church most Sundays, my mom taught Sunday school, and they chaperoned youth group events. It was more about the way we experienced life in our family. As a child, I always felt valued. I had a voice.
One particular memory that exemplifies this happened when I was probably in 5th or 6th grade. You know how parents will often make comments about needing a break from their kids. They say it somewhat jokingly, generally with other parents, who understand their need for a break, despite their deep love for your children. Well, one particular time when my parents were with friends, they were all making those little jokes about wanting a break from their kids. I was really hurt, enough to keep me awake that night stewing over it. So I wrote my parents a letter about how I felt and stuck it on their pillows before leaving for school the next morning. When I came home my mother sat me down to talk about it. She apologized and explained how sorry she was that I felt that way from hearing those comments. She said they wouldn’t do it again and I never heard her say anything like that in front of me again.
Not only did I feel heard and cared for, I learned an important lesson from my mom. Parents will not always be perfect, but one of the greatest things they can do for their children is modeling how to act when you make a mistake.
Some of my favorite childhood memories were activities we did with my mom. She was a stay at home mom for much of my life, and we were always busy. I thought in honor of my mother this mother’s day, I would pass on some of my favorites.
English Muffin Pizzas
I love english muffin pizzas for lunch. It is a great cooking project that kids of all ages can do.
- Cut an english muffin in half.
- Spread sauce on both halves.
- Add your favorite pizza toppings (make it more fun by making faces or designs with the toppings).
- Top with cheese.
- Bake it in the oven until the cheese melts.
This is a classic and was always my favorite! Mixing corn starch and water to create a fascinating goo that hardens when you squeeze it, and turns to liquid in your hands. We always loved it! We also made playdough often, and when it became popular we started making homemade gak.
Paper Mache Piñatas
I don’t think we ever bought a piñata for our birthday parties, but we often made our own.
- Blow up and large balloon.
- Make a paste from flour and water.
- Rip up strips of news paper.
- Dip the newspaper into the paste and stick the pieces of newspaper onto the ballon until it is covered with at least two layers.
- Let it dry overnight.
- When it is dry you can paint it.
- Cut open the top and fill it with candy or other goodies. Tape the bottom back on.
- Tie a strong string to the opening knot.
- Now it is ready to hit it with a bat. These piñatas may not be as sturdy as store bought ones. Make it harder for the kids by moving the piñata while they are swinging at it.
Always a favorite of mine, and I do it often with kids in Sunday school classes because it is an easy quick recipe and delicious.
- 1 tbsp yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/3 cup flour
- 1 beaten egg
- course salt
- Dissolve yeast with warm water.
- Add the honey, salt and flour to the yeast and water mix.
- Knead the dough. Roll it out and fold it in the shape a letter (or anything else you want).
- Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with course salt.
- Bake for 10 minutes on greased pan at 425 degrees.
I got to spend Easter morning with a group of delightful preschool and kindergartners. They were all full of energy and excited to be there. When they entered the classroom they got to watch a puppet show about an adorable beaver, Mr. Brown. After that I sat down with the kids to talk about Easter Sunday. When I asked them what makes Easter so special. I was surprised at all the words I heard “Easter bunny”, “egg hunts”, “candy”, even “presents”!
After some prompting from me, one girl told me that we are celebrating that “Jesus died on the cross and rose again.” I don’t know why I was so surprised. Maybe it is because I spend two years working with preschoolers in a public school, so we couldn’t talk about anything Easter related. But it got me thinking and wondering when we are competing with Easter bunnies and candy, how can children get the greater message of what Easter is about?
Well, my solution this Easter was not the best one. I tried explaining what is so great about Easter and comparing it to the story we just heard from Mr. Brown. It was way too confusing for preschoolers….even older kids! Though I don’t think it was a complete failure, in that part of passing on the faith is sharing the story and passing on the language of faith, even when the concept may be too hard for a young child to understand.
I am not one to advocate for no Easter bunnies and no Santa Clause, though I might choose to do that when I have my own children, but I don’t think it is necessary. When it comes to the Christmas story children can easily and readily articulate the story of Jesus’ birth. But that is something they understand, they have all celebrated a birthday, heard a story of their own birth, watched as their mother grew with a baby inside her, and heard a baby cry. However, the Easter story is quite different. Raising from death is not something that we experience or have seen, let alone can really understand.
That said, how to we pass on the story of Easter? Maybe make it more about Jesus’ act of victory and love, than about the story. Think about what traditions or rituals you can add in your home, along with the Easter eggs and bunnies, to get kids just excited about Jesus.
-Get a butterfly garden every year and start in on Easter.
-Make heart shaped pancakes. Why are they heart shaped? “Because Jesus love us!”
– Make an Easter scene like a nativity scene, except with a tomb, a rock to roll over the front of it and a figure of Jesus. On Good Friday you can put it up with Jesus in the tomb. On Easter Sunday hide Jesus somewhere around the house. Have the kids roll the rock away to find Jesus isn’t there. Then everyone can go on a hunt to find where Jesus is in the house.
I wanted to start a blog for a long time. When I finally found the time to get onto wordpress and sort through all the information on how to start a blog, it took me several months to get it up and running. It was for one reason…I needed a name. My husband laughed at me and told me just to keep going, but I just couldn’t without finding the right name that represented what I wanted the blog to be about.
Finally, I decided on “Come Paidia”. Paidia is the greek word meaning “little children” used by Jesus in verses like Matthew 18:5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” As a Director of Children’s Ministry this verse is constantly in the back of my mind. In fact sometimes I can’t stop thinking about those words and questioning if the church today is really living up to this challenge from Jesus.
Anyone who has recently attended a conference for children’s ministry or Christian education may argue that children in the church are being recognized more than ever. There is everything you could think of out there. Curricula containing eye-catching videos, musicians, entertainers, music dvds, electronic check-ins, companies that transform your classroom into sets, props, books for parents, and more. In the process of choosing a curriculum for our Vacation Bible School, I spent hours searching through the many choices, imagining children walking into the church and entering everything from a jungle filled with pandas, to New York City, to the streets of Jerusalem. Everything is about child-friendly, eye-catching, entertaining fun to capture kids hearts for Jesus.
However, I often wonder if all of these great programs, curricula and ideas are really “welcoming the little children” in the way Jesus meant. I can’t help but believe there is something we are missing. There is something in the way Jesus interacted with children that makes me believe that if Jesus were here today He would challenge our current trends in children’s ministry. As I continue to read, study, and discuss this topic I will unpack my discoveries on how Jesus might be challenging us to question how we welcome the paidia.