On Nap Nazis

Okay, this is just an escalating pet peeve of mine, so you may want to just skip this rant.

I realize that not everyone counts the cost of what it means to be a part of a church plant. There are sacrifices that one has to make. Not all the “programs” will be set. Heck, there might not be any programs to speak of. For a while, that was the number one complaint we had when we got started: we didn’t have any programs for the kids.

Yes, I get it. You believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.

I believe we’ve raised children to the level of idols. The children end up ruling the household because they are apparently fragile and in need of constant shielding (protection is one thing, encasing them in a plastic bubble is quite another). Yet more and more parents become slaves to the routine and schedule of their kids.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m like the Ayn Rand of parenting: I believe in the selfish parent. My kids have to adjust to my schedule. Until they start paying bills, they jump to my tune, not vice versa.

Then there’s the church culture many of us grew up in. The one with programs for kids starting when they can sit up and are taught to “pat the Bible” as their nursery theological training (because, well, as you know, the Bible is the fourth person of the Godhead and we should be worshiping it, not allowing it to point us to God). We need to just admit that most of our concern for programs for our kids boil down to 1) we abdicate our role as the spiritual teachers in our children’s life and want someone else to do it and 2) we want free babysitting for a couple hours (and, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the idea of dropping off my kids at a church nursery so that I can go home to cry out “oh God, oh God” in an entirely different context).

Oh, and don’t get me started on being slaves to a nap schedule. I get that we’re a consumer culture, and we want church to serve us like Burger King: I’ll have a whopper of spirituality done my way! So we choose the services we attend in order to coincide with our precious, precious baby’s nap schedule. I appreciate the need for constancy in a schedule, but one day a week breaking your routine won’t kill anyone. Just admit that we’re ultimately still slaves to our own convenience and that it’s about you and your comfort. Again, I’m the Ayn Rand, I can appreciate that.

In short, if you want to talk to me about creating a rhythm to your life, I’m all good with that. And I’m all good with basing your routine around your Sunday morning or the convenience of your life. Just realize that you are modeling the importance of the gathering. Balance that out with the realization that it’s only one hour out of week when you worry about the programs you are subjecting your kids to. That isn’t going to be the bulk of what forms them. If I want my kids to be compassionate, I have to model compassion and be compassionate 6 days and 23 hours a week rather than stick them in a class for 1 hour a week and hoping for the best as they pat the Bible.

Of course, I can only rant like this as long as our church stays at Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m. If we had to move to a Sunday night service, we’d have to leave early because our kids have to go to bed at 7:30 pm or they are monsters the next day.

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Kids Art Theology

There are a couple of things my friends have learned about me. One, I tend to pick up stuff that I run across (I don’t care that you might have thrown it away) and two, I’m a bit of a packrat. So I hoard and keep stuff (but stop short of uttering things like “my precious”).

Our children’s ministry kids have been focused on art as a part of creative space summer as well as during the main gathering of the Dwelling Place. I have been fascinated with some of the things they have latched onto during a service.
The Sunday after our Easter/Resurrection Sunday service, I had the kids sit out to see what they took from the service. There were a lot of pictures of Christ on a cross. My son, Reese, had a full crucifixion scene, complete with a weeping Mary and laughing “bad guys”.
And Maggie, daughter of one of our elders, had quite the ornamental cross.
“This is why we make crosses: because he died on a cross” (though I was mildly disconcerted by Emmy, my niece’s, inclusion of savior nipples)

And then she followed it with a picture of Mary (I found it interesting that so many of the kids gravitated to the Mary portion of the Resurrection story). “Jesus got reserected means to me that he went to heaven but is still with us”
During Mo*Con, Alethea Kontis got into the act.
Last Sunday, Maggie came up with quite the profound bit of theology: This is the world in God’s hand. And her hand holds His.

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I’m Sending Emerging Kids to Hell

Don’t ask me how I ended up helping with the kids ministry at our church.

Our overall philosophy was that we wanted everyone as much a part of our main gathering as possible, figuring that we all learn from each other, grandparents, parents, and kids. Practically speaking, we ended up having a nursery but that left us with the question “what do we do with our 6 – 12 year olds?”

A guy who was visiting one of our elder meetings talked about a kids class where the kids essentially taught themselves. They speak each other’s language, pay attention more, and even handle keeping order in the class. They lead the songs, lead the prayer, prepare lessons, and prepare activities to flesh out the lesson.

Now, bright though our children may be, I don’t think they’ll be setting the stories they are learning within the context of the greater story of the Bible or tying everything back to Christ and kingdom work/living. So adults would be needed to help facilitate the discussions. Plus, I know our kids and left to their own devices, this would quickly turn into “Lord of the Flies … In Jesus’ Name” (replete with images of a lone adult tied up in a corner while the kids plotted).

This sounded so good in theory.

Still wanting to keep them in the service as much as possible, we stay in for the music and prayer, but when He Who Would Be Head Pastor begins speaking, we go back to our room. The first day’s class was made up of my two boys, my sister’s two kids, and one of our elders two kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have made the observation that I have license to beat two-thirds of the class. When it came to opening us in prayer, I turned to my eldest son, my name sake, jewel of my crown who comes back with “I don’t know how to pray. You never taught me.”

So after a rocky start (come to find out that some of our kids have some real control issues), we’ve been falling into a nice rhythm, to the point where my kids drag me out of bed to get to church on Sunday mornings. I’ve always wanted the kind of kids ministry where kids can ask any questions they wanted and the teachers would serious wrestle with their questions. So here’s the question of the day for my theologically minded friends (because no one warned me that our kids were so bright):

We’ve spent the last month or so going over the story of the Ten Commandments (we’ve spent three weeks on what “honor your father and mother” means). Anyway, the following discussion breaks out:

Emmi: Well, our baby sister died last year and she’s in heaven. When you’re a kid, God doesn’t hold you responsible for not knowing and obeying the Ten Commandments.

Me: You’re not seriously bringing up the age of accountability issue, right? How old are you?

Ian: Wait a second. If we’re not accountable until we’ve been taught the Ten Commandments and you’ve just taught us the Ten Commandments, if I die today, I could go to hell?

Me: This is your take home lesson? How old are you?

Maggie: I’m telling my mom you just taught us into hell.

Luckily, I have a co-conspirator in this (the elder/mother of the other two kids). I most certainly almost made He Who Would Be Head Pastor pull his sermon over to come back and talk to the kids. How would you answer this question?

(I actually did come up with something, after I let the kids wrestle with answering the question themselves–“That’s a good question. We’re going to go over it some more next week. Try not to die before then.”–then being frightened at how smart they are. We discussed how best to live rather than living to stay out of hell. Each week is a reminder that we start asking very real and very important questions early on and that it’s good to have folks who not only listen and take you seriously, but wrestle with the questions alongside you. I STILL need that.)

There’s probably a book idea in here somewhere.

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Passing the Baton

My sons will probably be Colts fans. They will be raised Colts fans, probably a good chunk of it being to please me and spend time with me. We’ll cheer together and mourn their losses together. However, one day, they will have to figure out whether or not they like the Colts for themselves or even like football, period.

Or, my children will be sci-fi geeks. We watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Farscape together. They are taught from an early age that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the best of the Star Trek franchises. In a few years they will be going to the sci-fi tent revivals known as conventions.

One of the hardest things for parents to do is train their children how to critically think, to think for yourselves. Without the “indoctrination” or what amounts to spiritual coercion. To allow them to think through their faith, their beliefs, and keep stretching themselves – in other words, to allow them to keep asking questions.

It’s the parents’ job to pass on family, cultural, and even spiritual values. To instill our values through our actions rather than our words, even though we ought to be explaining our values to them. Passing on the faith, raising kids with faith, is a tricky proposition. Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. Our spiritual journey is not about brainwashing our children or otherwise make them go to church in order to ensure their spiritual growth. My experience is more to the contrary: few things turn folks off of church and religion like forcing them to do it. Thus explaining the college/on their own backlash against church and religion we so often see.

Ours is a household of faith and our children will be “raised as Christians”. We, as parents, believe, we pray, we share our faith and our traditions. At our parents’ dedication, where we affirm in front of our church community our intentions on how we plan on raising our children, this was said:

By dedicating Reese/Malcolm, we are publicly affirming our desire as parents to submit (our son) to God’s protection and guidance. We are saying that we want God’s perfect will to be established in the raising of (our son). As parents, we are an instrument that God has chosen to be His tool to express to God and the congregation that our desire is to raise (our son) as God would desire. All we possess belongs to the Lord, this includes our children.

Also we received a baton symbolizing our faith that contains a letter, from our respective pastors at the time, which talked about our faith. On their 18th birthdays, they get to open the batons. Whether or not they have made our faith their own by then, who knows, that is up to them. I can only do what I know I am responsible for. Our children are going to grow to be who they are; we’re not in charge of what they’re going to be like. We create the ethos, the values, and the support structure for our children, guiding them while at the same time discovering them.

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Friday Night Date Place – No Kids?

Last week’s Friday Night Date Place on meeting the kids got me thinking about the reverse scenario. The situation I’m talking about is the single person who finds themselves creeping up in age and the prospect of finding a partner and having a child of their own seems to be fading with each successive birthday. They hear their friends, hear the words of their families, and hear the (however unintended) message of the church and come to the conclusion that they are not fulfilled unless they are married with children. What have we been telling these folks and what should we be telling them?

There are several reasons why most folks are single:
1. Choice – some folks choose to be single.
2. Time of life – there are times when folks are more focused on getting through school, climbing in their careers, or are simply pursuing other interests such that it is not the right time to “settle down.”
3. Socially inept/clueless – I’m not going to lie, some folks haven’t quite figured out how to make connections with others (though, frankly, some of those people still end up married, they’ve just found someone to put up with them)
4. Just hasn’t happened. Try as hard and desire it as much as they want, marriage, much less kids, simply hasn’t happened for them.

Now, is the right message we are to be sending them that they have somehow fallen out of God’s will by remaining single?

There are two mindsets at work here: 1) we act like marriage is a trade up when it’s a trade over, a lateral move of equal value; and 2) we, as a church, have placed family on an altar as if sustaining the family is the be all of Christian living. All of this means we will have to examine what it means to be fully human.

We’re called to join in God’s mission, whether doing it on our own (as singles) or as a team (if married). I know, no one buys the whole “Jesus and Paul were single” argument (though, Paul might have been married at one point). Focus on the Family of God needs to be lived out more deeply instead of worshiping the idea of family. (If I was the cynical type, I’d note that the emphasis on families might have something to do with the fact that families, giving units, are where the money is.)

So we as a culture have set marriage and kids as the be all of existence, setting folks up to believe that it’s our destiny as humans. Somehow you’re not fulfilling your role as human being if you’re not reaching those goals (it doesn’t matter how much you would like it to happen, but it hasn’t ). You know what? Some folks may need to be reminded to cling to their faith that God loves them and is for them (God’s will is not out of whack. If all you do is work and go home, God isn’t going to materialize a partner for you. Your choices and decisions matter, so be for Him in all that you do, after that, it’s on you).

I’m not going to lie, I like seeing myself in my children. Now that I have them, they are my primary ministry. I still have responsibilities to do kingdom work and if I’m being honest with myself, marriage and kids pulls me from that. Time is one of the trade-offs when I went from being single to being married. We need to cling to the true purpose and mission of life: to be fully human is to be fully loving and be in community. When Romans 14-15 talks about living out the Christian life, it’s not about making babies. The bigger point is that we’re co-creators with Him, joined in a mission or reconciliation. We’re all called to be fully human, but that’s an edict that isn’t solely fulfilled by being married and having kids. For many, there is an emptiness and longing for something that hasn’t happened. We don’t know how to speak to that void (and most times, we’d be better off not saying anything). We do them a great disservice by treating (and telling) them as if they are less than human otherwise.

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Thinking Through Children’s Ministry

I love it when my oldest son, all of four, sits with me during the “worship portion” of our church service. He doesn’t sit through it very well. He’ll color. He’ll wander off to stare out the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I’m with them through the day, and we’re all about short attention span theater. But you know what? He makes my worship. We’ll chat about what’s going on. I’ll color (even when he’s not with us, I write during church. I find that I pay attention better when I do). I’ll go with him to the window and we’ll talk about the beauty of God’s creation. My wife is not as fond of us disrupting everyone while we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m of two minds on this issue: I love the chaos of (the idea of) kids being in the gathering with us, but I also love the peace of kids being off in their own area so that I can learn in peace. This was my mindset as we wrestled with an article written by a friend who describes himself as an amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic. His article summarized a book by Ivy Beckwith called Postmodern Children’s Ministry.

This is one of the most important discussions that any new church can have. It’s important that the whole community is on the same page in order to make any fundamental paradigm shift work. You see, most of us grew up in the crafts, snacks, and games model of children’s ministry and while we were entertained, we didn’t find it terribly impactful. The question has to begin with what the purpose of children’s ministry is supposed to be.

* If our purpose is to provide glorified “babysitting” for children while the adults do the “real” work of worship, then we will simply seek to keep the children occupied, whatever it takes.
* If our purpose is to entertain children because we assume that they are unable to grasp or appreciate transcendent spiritual realities, then we will seek to incorporate the snazziest programs possible in order to ensure the kids have fun.
* If our purpose is to use children’s ministry as a marketing tool for prospective parents, then our focus will be on creating the most attractive program.
* However, if our purpose is the spiritual formation of children, then we will proceed in a completely different direction. The significant question will not be, “Do we have the best program?” or “Is our program fun and exciting?” but “What does it mean for a community of faith to take seriously its responsibility to spiritually nurture its children and families?”

It takes a village to raise a child. There is wisdom in this African proverb, wisdom that shouldn’t be rejected just because Hillary Clinton once co-opted it. People are in our kids lives. As parents, ours is the dominant voice, but rarely is it the sole voice. The reason that we gather together as a church is to engage in spiritual formation, in order to be a blessing to the world. If we believe that this is something best done in the context of community, then this should apply to our children also. There needs to be a different mentality, one that begins from the nursery on up.

“The child develops more trust than mistrust when the child has trustworthy, consistent caregivers and lives in a trustworthy, consistent environment… if these things are not present in the infant’s environment, then the ability to have trusting, loving relationships with others can be severely disabled”.

Often the work that happens in the church nursery is seen as little more than baby-sitting. No wonder it’s hard to find committed volunteers! The caregivers in our church nurseries need to know that they are doing much more than helping parents. They need to understand that by loving, holding, feeding, and changing these babies, they are putting bricks in the foundation of trust these children will need in order to know and love God.

Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. We ask kids, kids as young as five years old, to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in terms of their spiritual walk. Decisions which lead to uncertainty if not rejection by their college years. Do some kids understand this, sure; so some grow into their decision, certainly. But I also recognize that I have a three and a four year old, two boys who seek my approval. I can get them to “accept Jesus” and parrot a prayer. They’ll love the attention of everyone celebrating their choice (or want the attention if they see their friend receive it) and their baptism would be a significant event. But if their decision is not their own, then their conviction will turn to doubt or will fade with age.

“I believe the time has come for churches to reconsider the overt evangelizing of children. The approaches typically used have little to no bearing on what’s actually happening in a child’s heart and mind. For the most part these tactics are manipulative, playing on the child’s emotions and desire to be accepted and loved. A faith community should never be involved in manipulating the soul of a child”. Overall, an imbalanced focus on conversion rather than transformation has the capacity to short-circuit the entire process of spiritual formation. Evangelism is not simply about one decision; it is about inheriting and embodying a way of life.

“Family is everything to a child. Family is the first place a child forms and experiences relationships. It is a child’s first experience of community. Family is where a child learns language and motor skills and where she develops her first view and understanding of the world. Family is the first place a child experiences love, intimacy, forgiveness, and physical care. Conversely, family can also be the place where a child experiences her first emotional violence, neglect, indifference, and physical hurt”. For this reason, “family is the most important arena for a child’s spiritual development and soul care” … “Instead of building children’s ministries on more and more programming, the church needs to see families as the axis of their children’s ministries. The first priority of children’s ministry ought to be supporting parents in their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children”

And lastly, children need to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What we are trying to figure out is how to immerse kids in the constant community of the faith, trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the worship, and how to encourage the inter-generational mixing that best informs the truest aspects of community. The discipline of sitting through a meeting is good to learn. The lesson of respecting the people upfront and the people around them and listening is good to learn.

Churches often fail to recognize that “children need to be involved in processes that communicate belonging. An affective relationship with people in the faith community other than their parents and relatives is an important piece of their spiritual nurture. Children must feel they belong in their faith community as much as the a
dults do”

The child sees adults who struggle, who trust God, who make mistakes and are forgiven, who work for mercy and justice, who model kingdom values. This modeling is powerful teaching for children – more powerful for faith development than listening to a hundred Bible stories or watching a month’s worth of VeggieTales videos. Children will remember the people of the faith community and their lives more than any Bible facts they learned at a church program.

This model is especially powerful when it is manifested by someone who actively participates in children’s ministry. “What a shame that the adults in our churches can’t see the importance of connecting with the children in the community! The friendships children form with those who lead them in religious education are among the most influential relationships they will have in the community”

Here’s the thing, everyone sounds like we’re on the same page about trying to let kids be more of a part of the Sunday morning gathering. The fact that we were already on the same page should make me happy, yet I only get suspicious; like maybe we’ve overlooked something. What that means or what it may look like, we aren’t exactly sure. Though this all sounds good in theory, the problem may come in the future. Right now, we’re a few dozen families deep. As new parents with kids and teens join, they may be expecting kids programs. What we’re talking about sounds like a fairly tall order, or at least more work on the part of parents. Breaking up the church into homogenous groups is the easier route. Too often, we don’t want to put in the effort to having our kids learn to participate in worship (that’s why we bring them to Sunday School and what we expect the Sunday School teachers to teach them). We make them sit through six hours or school and programs, but we don’t make the same effort for a 30 to 45 minute sermon. Maybe we don’t value times of worship, but valuing worship won’t happen on its own and needs to be instilled in kids (as well as some adults).

The bottom line is that everyone is involved, everyone participates, even if they don’t understand every element of what is going on. Heck, adults don’t understand every element of what’s going on half the time.

Oddly enough, everyone ignored my ideas on how to calm kids down enough to sit through a gathering by having them engage in serious spiritual formation-cum-Christian pacifier through the sacramental wine: “Alright kids, extra Jesus juice today.”