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Rx for a Toxic Children's Ministry

Rick Chromey

Everybody gets sick at one time or another. A children's ministry is no different. Congregational "disease" and "illness" can infect your ministry to children, but like most sicknesses we don't realize our situation until there are fevers of dissension, sneezes of apathy, or a congestion of boredom. We often see the result of sickness and treat the symptoms while overlooking the germ that caused the illness originally.

Treatment for these bugs isn't an easy solution. Months and years may pass before full health is restored. For many churches and their children's ministries, medication that masks the illness is routinely prescribed. In other words, they live under false pretense and assumption that all is well, because the cough of divisiveness or the migraine of criticism is absent. Unfortunately, silence isn't always an indicator of health. As Paul wrote the Thessalonian church, we had best beware when lulled by "peace and safety" (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

So what are the most dangerous viruses in a church? And what's their impact on children's ministry?

The Performance Virus

This is a treacherous germ in a congregation. Also known as the Martha Complex, this bug can misdirect the purpose of service and create ministries of show (self- adoration) rather than glow (Spirit-adoration). It focuses on performance rather than people. Ultimately, it can cripple a church.

Many children's ministries are easily infected by the Performance Virus when they misunderstand the core reason for a children's ministry is the children. Kids are the reason we exist. Without children, there would be no need for children's ministers or programming. It sounds overly simplistic, but countless churches are diagnosed with the Performance Virus. And its symptoms are quite compelling:

  • In children's church and classrooms, kids sit in chairs as adults read Scripture, lead worship, pass offering plates, and teach.
  • In vacation Bible school, children watch adults "perform" on stage-whether it's worship or prayer, dramas or puppets.
  • Adults display edginess and irritability whenever children "perform" (musicals, Christmas plays) because it's not perfect enough for the leaders.

The Performance Cure

The cure for this condition is found only in adults relaxing their expectations and agendas. These are children, not adults. Children's attention spans equal their age, so don't expect lengthy "sit time." Children won't be perfect in their performance-but they will grow! They hunger to be involved and belong-and will quickly misbehave if they can't do so-so let them perform service rather than staged perfection. In general, recognize and value children's needs, attention spans, and desire to serve and participate.

The Maintenance Virus

Few bugs are harder to detect than this one, because it's rooted in leadership structures and masked by church traditions, limited successes, or overly cautious thinking. This illness happens when a church moves from mission and purpose (vision) to maintenance and perpetuity (stability). Essentially, the innovation and reinvention that moves a congregation forward stalls and even stops.

Consequently, all ministries-including children's ministries-can find themselves hacking and wheezing from budget constraints, staff downsizing, or backward thinking. Initially, these are just hard leadership decisions, but as the virus works its way through the body it paralyzes creativity and enthusiasm. If left alone, a congregation can slip into a self-induced coma, worshiping the past and criticizing anything new.

When a children's ministry falls prey to this thinking, the symptoms are clear:

  • People resist evaluating children's programs and curriculum due to comfort, tradition, and "we've always done it this way" thinking.
  • There's a reluctance to experience, introduce, or welcome new ideas and/or philosophies. Many volunteers quit from frustration when their insights and creativity are dismissed by their leaders.
  • The ministry is characterized by an unhealthy focus on "what we've done" rather than a vision for "where we need to go."
  • Volunteers and staff express "I already know enough" attitudes.

The Maintenance Cure

The Maintenance Virus is easily healed when a leadership inoculates itself against irrelevance through exposure to new paradigms, ideas, and insights. Read a book or get a discounted bulk subscription for all your volunteers to Children's Ministry Magazine (and, as a staff discuss any implications and applications from what you read). Attend conferences and workshops to stretch thinking and supply new ideas. Take a class at a local college or university, with applications in understanding children, teaching, or children's ministry. Invite children's ministry authors or experts to speak to your church and staff. Create a weekly e-newsletter for volunteers with links to articles and Web sites on children's ministry.

The Isolation Virus

Dysfunctional and ill ministries focus on themselves, rather than others. They isolate themselves from their community and even other churches. They aren't open to sharing with or learning from others.

Symptoms of this virus:

  • The ministry displays an inability or unwillingness to share physical resources-curriculum, facilities, technology-with other congregations and organizations.
  • There's an obvious absence of reaching out to the local community.
  • Not much energy is spent on attracting fringe community children or creating programs for families.

The Isolation Cure

The Isolation Virus is cured only through a continual reminder of core Christian values to serve, salve, and save those outside the walls of our church family-whether they're Christians or not. How does a church do that? Open your facilities to your community. Use church property and adult volunteers to sponsor community soccer and baseball. Share expendable resources, such as annual vacation Bible school themed curricula, with other churches. Initiate programming to reach the underprivileged and unchurched children in your area. Host children's ministry leadership training for other churches. Essentially give yourself-and your church-away. Blessing and healing come in service and sacrifice.

The Property Virus

Few viruses are more obvious or more rampant in a congregation than this one. Nearly every church has been, is, or will be infected. This virus is most evident whenever something new is built, bought, or brought.

The symptoms of this virus:

  • Just check out the signs on the walls to identify the presence of this insidious virus: "No food or drink in this room." "This room is in memory of Deacon John Smith." "No tape on the floors." These signs signal deeper allegiance to a building-or even the dead-than to people.
  • The unseen signs are more dangerous and unhealthy and communicated not by paper, but rather by philosophy and practice: "No children (or messes) in this area." "Adults only." "No play allowed."

Instead of guarding the health of the body of Christ, churches often guard the building. We create monuments, memorials, and mausoleums where messy hands, beliefs, and behavior are forbidden. Ultimately, our facilities become millstones rather than milestones.

The Property Cure

Healthy churches understand that buildings deteriorate and are divinely loaned. Carpets soil. Walls get marked. Stuff occasionally breaks. Whether by intention or accident, all church property eventually fails. Does that mean anything goes? No. By all means, encourage children to respect church property. Does that mean a dilapidated and dirty facility is preferred? No. An occasional paint job and property replacement is necessary. But "body life" is messy and things happen. A carpet can be replaced, but a human soul can't. Children will learn quickly whether they're more important than your building. Finally, a well-worn, but nicely kept building sends a hidden message to visitors: This is a safe place for messy lives.

The Numbers Virus

This is a common children's ministry contamination. In a megachurch world, many smaller churches and children's ministries are paralyzed and even handicapped by this germ. This infection runs throughout a church's leadership and manufactures migraines because of the pressure to produce a crowd. And some children's pastors get fired as a result.

Symptoms of this virus:

  • Children's ministers ask one another, with a glint in their eye, "What's your average attendance?"
  • Perhaps this virus affects the larger body of Christ more than each congregation. After all, larger congregations and children's ministries often receive special attention. Who writes the books? leads seminars? receives invitations? gets national notice?

The Numbers Cure

Focus on what matters to God. Sick churches count people; healthy churches make people count.

A healthy children's ministry will have numerical growth, but not all growth occurs in our time frame or is visible to eyes focused on physical matters. It may take years to resurrect a sick and dying children's ministry. Many months may pass before seeds of success sprout. Some smaller churches and their children's ministries, because they're planted in a pot and not a forest, may only grow so large. Consequently, a healthy perspective displays patience, forgiveness, and hope. Ministry is about nurture, not numbers.

Does that mean an abandonment of record-keeping or even excitement when growth happens? No. But when numbers are all you play and push, whether it's a crowd or a crew, you've got the bug.

The Vanity Virus

Pride comes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). And when vanity robs vision, the entire congregation suffers. Sick churches exalt themselves and take pride in image-building, while healthy churches focus on kingdom issues and improvement. There's a fine line between ministry and marketing. Even Jesus faced this devilish temptation (Matthew 4:8-9).

Symptoms of this virus:

  • Children's ministries infected by Vanity Viruses enjoy the energy and attention they draw to themselves.
  • Sometimes individual volunteers catch this virus, resulting in Messiah Complexes and resistance to accountability.

Success creates a false illusion that "we're it." It's a dangerous and lethal assumption-usually unrecognized or regarded by the infected.

The Vanity Cure

The danger of the Vanity Virus is that its genesis is usually innocent and motivated at first by divine call. But left unchecked, the virus silently infects and sickens. Vision for ministry becomes a vanity for marketing-either of self or congregation. Sometimes the church (often using children as the bait) becomes a sales pitch or ad campaign to look good in the community or denomination.

Inoculation against this virus is heavy doses of humility and recognition of divine blessing. It's not about you, but about God. This isn't our children's ministry, but his children's ministry. We're a team. Consequently, accountability is also important and lone rangers need not apply. This may be the most difficult illness to prevent and overcome, especially in a world that glorifies success and encourages adoration.

•••

If you sense your children's ministry or church is a little sick, take heart. Every church, just like every human body, carries countless viruses and germs. These diseases and dysfunctions may cause minor interruptions or long-term health disability, depending on their nature and your immune system.

The secret is awareness, followed by proper prevention. It's daily washing your children and ministry in prayer. Or taking vitamins (reading a ministry book, attending a workshop) to stay empowered and innovative. It's proper nourishment in the Word and building your ministry on Scriptural principles, not human design alone. It's going for regular checkups through visits to other ministries.

The bottom line is we're part of a bigger body-whose health is in the hands of the Great Physician who cares and heals his own. cm

Rick Chromey, D. Min., is a contributing author to Children's Ministry in the 21st Century (Group). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally published in September-October, 2004 in Children's Ministry Magazine.

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