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Staying the Course

Larry Shallenberger

Maps matter. A bad map can ruin a vacation or make you late for a business meeting. Maps set priorities -- they influence how you view your world. Church futurist Leonard Sweet says, "Every map is a political statement. A map is a cultural construct, a model of what a generation 'sees.' Maps are never neutral."

That's why, in the sixth century B.C., a Greek named Anaximander put the Aegean Sea at the center of the world when he drafted the first map of the known world. Well, in his day the Aegean Sea was the center of commerce, so how could it not be at the center of the world? Maps can also dictate our fears, real or imagined. Cartographers used to draw dragons on map edges to warn about the unknown.

You have your own map for where you want to go in your children's ministry. Before you travel any further, it's time to make sure your map is accurate -- that it's really taking you in the right direction. Maybe it's an old map and no longer reflects the routes you need to travel. Or maybe it has fearsome detours scribbled on it, designed to get you off track. Check your ministry against this list to see if you're driven by the detours of your map.

Detour #1: "The sky is falling."

The church is following this detour so often you'd think we were lobbying to include it in our creeds. It goes something like this: "Our culture is falling apart. This is the worst time in history to reach children for Christ. For example, just look at [insert favorite boogie man here]."

Sure, our culture is a difficult place for children to develop a moral and spiritual compass. But in a broader sense, the sky is falling, and it always has been. The book of Revelation tells us that history will crash-land at some point, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. But "the sky is falling" detour preaches an untruth -- that this generation is so fallen that your children's ministry can't make a difference.

At my church not long ago, the sky was falling on Susie's 9 year-old life. Family pressures and the early onset of puberty created an emotional and hormonal tsunami that threatened to capsize her. Her mother admitted her to a hospital's mental health unit after Susie talked about suicide at school. Our children's ministry responded. Volunteers visited her in the hospital and provided the family with support. After her discharge, Susie was quickly reintegrated in our Kid Theater so she could find a healthy sense of achievement and belonging. During this life-and-death phase, our children's ministry made all the difference in Susie's life.

The truth is, the Bible is filled with accounts of troubled generations that seemed almost impossible to reach for God. Imagine what it would've been like to minister to children during the Exodus, the Exile, or during the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls.

Like the two faithful spies who were determined to occupy the Promised Land, we can scoff at the cultural giants that are attempting to scare us away. Instead, let's cling to the truth of Ephesians 3:20, 21: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."

Detour #2: "Children are the church of tomorrow."

This detour is a cartographic catastrophe. True, the millennial generation will eventually mature into adulthood and lead our churches. But this detour makes us blind to the reality that God has no intention of waiting until a person's life is a third over before he recruits that person into his great mission.

The "church of tomorrow" detour promotes the wrong goals. When a ministry buys into this detour, it'll spend its resources filling children's minds with Bible knowledge and keeping them out of trouble until the special day arrives when they're old enough to command God's attention.

We need to create opportunities for children to P.L.A.Y. They need to Pray, Live out their faith in service, experience Christianity as an Adventure, and learn to Yearn for the Word of God -- NOW!

Set a new course for your children's ministry by teaching about the Bible's under-aged heroes -- Miriam, Rhoda, David, Namaan's servant girl, and the poor boy who shared his lunch with the 5,000. Next, create programs that give kids training and opportunities to "love God with all of their hearts, minds, and strength." Get them involved in service projects that teach them to love their neighbors as themselves.

At our church, Jan Thompson provides the fourth- and fifth-graders in her midweek club regular service opportunities. Her "Beach Combers Club" makes regular visits to a nearby retirement home, makes care packages for the city mission, and disinfects toys in the nursery.

Detour #3: "It was good enough for me."

Maybe you've heard a seasoned Sunday school teacher balk at active learning ideas by saying: "Why do we need all these new teaching techniques? When I was growing up, we sat still and we learned. If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for these kids."

Well-meaning teachers fondly remember growing up in traditional Sunday schools decades ago. Four words sum up this detour: "The map never changes." But the map has changed -- dramatically. The teaching techniques of the '50s and '60s represented the best science and educational practices of the time -- namely behaviorism. Those teaching techniques were effective in preparing students to meet the demands of a hierarchical society. However, the map changed.

According to Eric Jensen, author of Brain Based Learning, a new science of learning emerged in the '80s and '90s that took into account advances in several different fields of study. Instead of viewing the brain as an orderly computer, researchers began to see the brain as a jungle of chemicals, electrical impulses, emotions, physics, genes, and pharmacology. Educational theory is now more interested in learning how the brain works "in the wild." Motivating the learner with a carrot and a stick is not enough anymore.

According to Leonard Sweet, the brain's "development is dependent upon all sorts of cultural factors, including technology, language, customs, music, etc." Sweet asserts that the minds of today's children develop differently today than they did 50 years ago -- as they cut their teeth on TV, PCs, and the Internet, their brains develop to the specifications required by those technologies.

And that's changing the map. Keeping up on cutting-edge educational practices isn't " 'dumbing' down the gospel." The issue is whether we care enough to use current maps to find the best paths to kids' souls. Remember the parable of the wineskins. The mysteries of the gospel are like new wine that never ages. A culture can act as a wineskin to hold these mysteries for a time. However, the wineskin eventually cracks from age. The unchanging gospel must be poured into the container of the emerging culture.

Detour #4: "The church is responsible for children's spiritual development."

Setting sail with this detour on your map is a recipe for taking on water fast. When your ministry assumes parents' responsibility for their children's faith development, the weight is too heavy for your vessel to carry. You can't afford to bring this baggage on board.

Many parents in our children's ministries are just coming back to church themselves and don't have a solid understanding of their God-given role in raising kids. These parents drop off their children at church the same way they drop them off at soccer practice or at the dentist's office. They assume their job is to play taxi and get their children to and from their specialists on time.

But Deuteronomy 6:6-8 clearly designates parents as the primary teachers and modelers of vibrant faith. A landmark study by researchers at Search Institute confirms that parents have the most influence in determining whether children who grow up in church settings will continue worshiping when they're adults. Mothers exercise their greatest influence when they engage their children in faith conversations when they're between the ages of five and 12. And fathers have their greatest influence when they engage in faith conversations with their 12- through 15-year-olds.

Instead of loading your hull with extra cargo, view your children's ministry as a large supply ship that travels with families as they make their spiritual journeys. Your job is to resource these smaller vessels with ongoing training, encouragement, and protection.

At our church, we provide regular fun events for the entire family, periodic training on ways to have family devotions, and annual "helps" on how families can interact with our curriculum at home. l l l Now that you've straightened out your map, you're ready for an adventure on the high seas of ministry. An accurate map won't guarantee everything will be smooth sailing, but you can have the assurance that you're headed in the right direction. cm

Landmarks For Your Ministry

Now that you've removed the detours from your maps, here are unchanging landmarks you can use to plot your children's ministry course.

  • Move mountains. Don't be surprised if your prayerful plan runs right into a mountain of challenge. This doesn't necessarily mean you're off base. The mountain may not have been there when you started your journey. Remember, Jesus said with faith you can move mountains. Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard said that sometimes God calls us to place the mountain on our shoulders and move it ourselves.
  • Have a woman at every port. Just make sure it's the same woman -- the Bride of Christ. Take port calls often. You're on the journey of a lifetime. You need to be firmly connected with your church. You need worship, teaching, and accountability from outside your ministry department.
  • Be a magi. The wise men set their course from the Far East by fixing their eyes on the Christ Star. In his seminal book, Aqua Church, Leonard Sweet challenges us to use Jesus Christ as our North Star.
  • Eat your veggies. When Magellan circumnavigated the globe, the majority of his crew didn't survive the journey. The killer wasn't a storm or marauding pirates, but a lack of vitamin C. Poor nutrition made the crew susceptible to scurvy. If you want to go the distance, you need to have a regular diet of prayer and time in the Word.

Larry Shallenberger is a children's minister in Erie, Pennsylvania. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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