What happens when we focus more on
character than on relationship with Jesus?
What's the goal of your children's ministry? Is it for Johnny to be
"good"? Or is it for Johnny to know God? Are the two goals mutually
To find out, we asked kids in ministries around the country what it
takes to get to heaven. Their answers may shock you.
•to be good
•to be nice
•to study hard
•to accept Jesus as my Savior
What would the kids in your ministry say? Would you be satisfied
with their answers? Could their answers be a result of the growing
emphasis on "character education" as opposed to "knowing
The Surging Focus on Character
Character education is largely an educational term that's
used daily in public schools. But it's also something that appears
in various forms in children's ministry. A brief review of
available Christian resources-whether new VBS releases, special
events programming, or curriculum-reveals a fairly constant
offering of tools that boost kids' moral character and build
In recent years, churches have increasingly emphasized their focus
on character-building as a way to hook parents and kids outside the
church-and it's proven effective. What parent doesn't want his or
her child to learn to be a better person?
But is it possible to place too much emphasis on building positive
character traits when our goal is really to help kids know God?
This is a burning question children's ministers, curriculum
writers, and experts grapple with. So Children's Ministry Magazine
took these questions to some of the leading thinkers in children's
ministry, Christian education, and child development. What we found
is surprising-and may change how you view your ministry.
Defining Character in Children's Ministry
Public schools and private and government organizations have
embraced the term character education. Most of these organizations
define character education as a specific curriculum or
program that's focused on developing positive, ethical, moral
traits in young people. Recent years have seen a major resurgence
in such programs, a trend most experts say is in response to the
perceived decay of society's moral fabric. And these programs have
been widely successful. The Character Education Partnership (CEP)
reports multiple statistics evidencing the benefits of character
education in public schools. CEP states that schools with such
programs see "improved academic achievement, behavior, school
culture, peer interaction, and parental involvement."
In Christian education and children's ministry, we think of
character education in terms of building positive character traits
and virtues prescribed in the Bible. Christian educators often
refer to this as "life application"-applying the Bible to real
In the secular world, there's general support for character
education. In the Christian education realm, however, there are
many opinions on whether focusing on character education is a good
Some experts assert that character education puts the focus on the
wrong thing. If the focus is on "my behavior" then the focus is on
"me" rather than on God, they reason.
"Many of the character ed programs really teach, What's in it for
me? Who's the one caught being good? Who's the one who's done the
most generous thing?" says Barbara Coloroso, bestselling author of
Kids Are Worth It! and Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make
"A big danger in focusing exclusively on character is that it
removes God from the equation," says Jody Brolsma, senior VBS
editor for Group. "If I can check off a list of things I'm supposed
to do-be kind, love my enemies, tithe-why do I need a friendship
with God? There's also the danger of instilling a sense of
legalism: I need to be thankful, helpful, respectful in order to
earn God's love."
Growing in character and knowing God aren't necessarily exclusive,
asserts Reggie Joiner, founder of the ReThink Group and creator of
"You become a Christian and develop character through having a
relationship with Christ," Joiner says. "It is always confusing to
me when anyone in the church tries to separate the issue of faith
in God and character. They are intricately connected. Loving God
and loving others go together. [They are] the first and second
commandment. When the Spirit of God is in control of your life, the
result is 'love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness,
faith, meekness, self-control.' "
Too Much Emphasis on Character?
Many experts argue that there are significant perils of allowing
character education to become the focus of your ministry. Here's
what they say.
• Human efforts toward moral "perfection" will always
fail. "The danger with excluding God from the conversation
about character is that the pursuit of character becomes a human
effort, and, as such, is doomed to fail," says Phil Vischer,
creator of the VeggieTales empire and bestselling author of Me,
Myself, and Bob. "Some kids will get further than others due
to their inherent wiring...the problem with character education
apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is that it's a recipe
for failure. When we point to moral perfection, we're pointing to
Jesus. Character education can nudge us in that direction, but only
the Holy Spirit can provide the power to make real life
Therefore it's imperative as children's ministers that we help
children understand that Christian character growth isn't just
character education-it's the direct result of the Holy Spirit's
work in them.
• Kids will stray from a set of rules about moral
behavior. While kids naturally rebel against rules from an
impersonal God, they're less inclined to rebel against a strong
personal relationship with God.
"Part of growing up is separating and challenging the rules and
teachings of adults, even in loving family relationships and
healthy churches," says Sue Kahawaii, children's executive pastor
and creator of Champion Kidz curriculum. "A child who is governed
by his or her love for God and personal relationship with him is
less likely to stray from that relationship, thus living out and
modeling good behavior and character as a result."
• We place the emphasis on ourselves. "Long-term, a child
may feel that he or she needs to meet certain criteria in order to
follow Jesus," says Brolsma. "The focus is on, 'Christians do these
things' rather than 'because I love Jesus, I want to please him and
act this way.' We can cultivate a very narrow view of what it means
to follow Jesus."
Joiner agrees. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a situation where I
believe there was too much emphasis on character," he says.
"However, I've been in situations where there was too much emphasis
on standards or performance...In those systems, people develop a
false sense of spirituality that breeds legalism, judgmentalism,
arrogance, criticism, isolation, and the kind of self-deception
that infected the Pharisees. The irony is that many of those
characteristics are just the opposite of the virtues that result
when we're controlled by God's Spirit."
• We interrupt the natural development of Christlike
character. "Character education, without a biblically
formed love for the Creator of those character values, stays in the
head and never has the opportunity to reach the heart," says Mike
Johnson, director of children's ministries at Fellowship Church and
creator of Elevate! curriculum. "If our priority is developing a
relationship with Jesus through biblical training, our kids will
naturally develop a desire to learn about the character God wants
them to have."
Arguments for Character Education
Experts, backed by research, assert that there are positive aspects
to character education. Here are their basic arguments.
• Character education develops what God has already placed in
us. "Theologically, I'd argue that good character can show
up in someone who doesn't know God or doesn't believe the Bible,
since everyone is created in God's image" says Joiner. "People
still have the ability to love and care for others...That's why I
actually think it's a good strategy to look for creative ways to
appeal to the part of God's image that exists in all of us. When we
help kids develop character, we're actually cooperating with the
work that God is up to in all of us."
• Character education helps transform kids' behavior.
There is clear evidence that intentionally developing character in
kids yields positive results in school and social settings. Schools
with these programs report better academic performance, attitudes,
and overall behaviors from kids. They also report less violence and
more parent participation. Add faith to the mix, and the results
are even better: A 2002 study by the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill, shows that as "religious" kids progress through school
and enter 12th grade, they're less likely to skip school, be
suspended or expelled, smoke, get drunk, use drugs, or participate
in crimes. They're more likely to volunteer and participate in
sports and student government. These results are attributed largely
to the moral standards of their religion.
• A character education focus can be leveraged to help kids
discover God. "The issue of character can be an easy
doorway to get the attention of families who are outside the
church," says Joiner. "It can provide a common starting place
that's relevant to every life and every religion. All parents,
Christian and non-Christian, want their children to grow up kind
and loving and responsible and compassionate and giving and...We've
seen it proven over and over that these concepts can be leveraged
to encourage Christians to cooperate with what God desires to do in
their lives. It's also a very creative way to challenge a
non-Christian to consider the possibility of discovering the
Creator who made him or her in his image."
Those who've dedicated their lives to creating meaningful,
life-changing materials for and about children say the issue of
infusing their materials with character education is a fine line
they've had to walk carefully.
"When I sat down to write a VeggieTales story to teach forgiveness,
it was important to me that I wasn't just saying, 'We should
forgive others because it improves society,' " says Vischer. "The
message of that story was, 'We should forgive others because God is
always ready to forgive us.' All commendable human attributes are a
reflection of God and can most readily be achieved not when our
focus is on the attribute, but on the source of the
For years, Group Publishing's curriculum writers stressed life
application in every lesson. Recent changes, though, to Group's VBS
have placed the emphasis back on the importance of a relationship
with and reliance on Jesus, as in "Jesus gives us the power to..."
And that's an important improvement. The life application or life
change is still there. The focus is simply refined.
"This emphasis gave us the opportunity to explore ways to live out
Christian character," says Brolsma, "while acknowledging that we
can't do it without Christ. Our goal was to help kids discover
their need for Christ and his power in their everyday
"God isn't only interested in how people act," adds a team of
children's curriculum editors from Standard Publishing, "but also
in how we respond to him and his plan of salvation for our lives.
Too strong a focus on character can overemphasize 'being good' and
leave out the best thing about following Jesus-his gift of grace.
No matter what kids are like, God wants them, chooses them, and
uses them-just the way they are."
Knowing God and growing in character as a natural outflow of that
relationship seems to be the best-and most biblical-approach.
"In 2 Peter, the Apostle Peter explains how God has given us the
power to live a godly life," Joiner explains. "This passage
obviously draws a line of
distinction between trying to be good and learning how to let
Christ live through us. It says that we should 'participate in the
divine nature' of Christ. God wants us to be on his team, to
participate with him in order to show the world his character and
glory by the way we live."
Striking a Delicate Balance
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of character education,
it's important to continually assess where your ministry's actual
focus is and what kids are walking away with. All our experts agree
that ministry to children can't be a grocery list of virtues to
check off; it has to begin-and end-with the power of God.
"I don't think it's wrong to focus on character building with
kids," says Kahawaii. "However, I think that we have a far greater
influence in the long term when we help kids find a lifelong
relationship with God."
"Biblically sound teaching is wonderful when the focus is on the
character of God first," concludes Vischer. "Our own morality is a
response to what we see first in God. Take God out of the picture,
and we might as well be teaching [a hopeless] system of
For expert insights on evaluating curriculum, go to www.childrensministry.com/character
Jennifer Hooks is the managing editor of Children's Ministry
What's Your Take? Voice your opinion in our poll at www.childrensministry.com.