Like a wise parent.

As I walk through different details of the Big God Story, I can’t help but see how God works and relates to us as a wise and loving parent would his/her children. He meets humanity where we are and slowly draws us out of our childishness towards maturity.

I’ve been dabbling a little bit recently in ancient near eastern cultural studies, and something that stood out to me was the almost universal belief in a pantheon of gods. They all had an understanding that there are multiple gods that deserved our worship. Of course, as twenty-first-century Christians, we know that there is no such pantheon and that there is only one God. But in the first through tenth centuries BC, monotheism was not an accepted belief.

Imagine if God had revealed himself to Abram and flat out told him that all the other gods he had been worshiping weren’t simply false gods, but were actually non-existent. That wouldn’t have made any sense to him! He—and the culture he lived in—would not have been ready to hear that message.

Numerous passages throughout the Old Testament refer to God as being “above all gods.” (See Exodus 15:11, 18:10-11; Deuteronomy 10:17; Joshua 22:21-24; 1 Chronicles 16:24-26; 2 Chronicles 2:3-5; Psalm 95:2-3, 96:3-5, 97:7-9, 135:5-6, 136:2; Daniel 2:47, 11:36.) These passages seem to imply that there are, in fact, other gods that our God is Lord over. From our perspective, that’s not true, but through the eyes of the ancient Israelites, this makes perfect sense.

It’s perfectly understandable if this sounds odd to you, but it makes sense given what we know about God, especially God as personified by Jesus. God encultured himself in order to meet people where they were. That’s the very definition of incarnation!

Think about it this way. Let’s say that your four-year-old comes to you in the middle of the night, scared that the bogeyman is going to jump out of her closet and get her. You could respond by telling her that there is no bogeyman, but when she goes back to her room she’s still frightened by the possibility that there’s a bogeyman in her closet.

But what if you responded by telling her that God is bigger than the bogeyman (and now we all have a VeggieTales song stuck in our heads), and that he loves her and won’t let the bogeyman get her while she’s sleeping? Somehow that’s more comforting to a child. You’ve met her where she is, even though you know that there is no bogeyman.

Could that be how God works with us? Could it possibly be that he, over the course of his story, meets us where we are, not so that we can remain in ignorance or immaturity, but so that he can gently move us toward greater maturity, knowledge, and love for him and those around us?

Isn’t that what a wise parent does? Wouldn’t a wise parent come alongside his/her child, communicate with the child in a way he/she can comprehend, all with the desire to see this child grow?

I think that’s who our God is: a wise and loving Parent who desires to see his children grow, realizing this vision by coming alongside us, communicating with us in ways we can understand, meeting us where we are. . . all to build this relationship he has with us.

Happy (Belated) Birthday, John!

I realize this post has little to do with children’s ministry, but I wanted to take a moment to commemorate the birthday of one of my favorite pastors/theologians: John Wesley.

To start off, for those of you who don’t know me or who haven’t read my other blog, Restored to Grace, you might not know that I’m a bit of a theology and church history geek. I decided today to bring a little bit of that over here to KidMin Journal.

On to John Wesley.

Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, and died on March 2, 1791, in London. Wesley, an Anglican cleric, was instrumental in starting the Methodist movement. (The other two men who helped start the movement were John’s brother, Charles, and a fellow Anglican preacher, George Whitefield.)

Methodism, while often viewed as a denomination (thanks to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church along with the World Methodist Council in North Carolina), is more precisely a set of practices that run through various denominations. The marks of Methodism are myriad, but often Methodists are known for systematically drawing people to Jesus through social service and interaction; care for the poor and marginalized; and the establishment of hospitals, universities, soup kitchens, and orphanages.

Wesley began Methodism as a network of discipleship groups, which he called “societies,” designed to spiritually develop small groups of men. As these societies grew in number, the rift between Wesley and the Anglican church grew, and several denominations were born as a result (direct and indirect) of the split.

Wesley was an outspoken advocate of Arminian theology. His adherence to the belief system invited criticism and controversy, even from some of his closest Methodist friends (George Whitefield being the most noteworthy among them). One of the reasons Wesley felt that Arminianism was vitally important to his ministry was that his ministry was predicated on the notion that God is Love, by his very definition. In his commentary on 1 John 4:7-8, Wesley wrote the following:

God is love – This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.

Wesley found it impossible to believe that God could be considered loving and still willfully damn some sinners to eternal destruction. In fact, in a booklet he wrote called “Predestination Calmly Considered,” Wesley wrote,

So ill do election and reprobation agree with the truth and sincerity of God! But do they not agree least of all with the scriptural account of his love and goodness? that attribute which God peculiarly claims, wherein he glories above all the rest. It is not written, “God is justice,” or “God is truth:” (Although he is just and true in all his ways:) But it is written, “God is love,” love in the abstract, without bounds; and “there is no end of his goodness.” His love extends even to those who neither love nor fear him. He is good, even to the evil and the unthankful; yea, without any exception or limitation, to all the children of men. For “the Lord is loving” (or good) “to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.”

In his sermon entitled “Free Grace,” Wesley calls the doctrine of predestination as Calvin saw it “a doctrine full of blasphemy.” He goes on to say that it also “represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust.”

While this controversy was certainly heated, his friendship with Whitefield continued to grow strong, despite their vehement disagreements.

Wesley’s contributions to Arminian theology were so vast that many have begun to refer to Arminian theology as “Wesleyanism,” though I’m fairly confident Wesley wouldn’t be totally comfortable with that.

While I wouldn’t consider myself Wesleyan (nor would any official Wesleyans), I follow a strictly Arminian belief system, and I’m incredibly grateful for Wesley’s contributions to the Church. From hospitals to orphanages, universities to churches, Methodist societies, church small groups, and even the new missional movement, we all have somehow been influenced by the work and ministry of John Wesley.

Ice Hockey in 1922

How’s your team’s health?

I love sports.

I know, this comes as no surprise to those of you who know me. I was always coordinated enough to just squeak by as an athlete in high school and college, but at college I didn’t possess the physical self-discipline necessary to continue playing. So I started coaching instead.

Everything from ice hockey to baseball to soccer and, for the biggest chunk of my life, basketball (though after all those years of playing and coaching basketball without truly loving basketball, I’d be okay without any further involvement in the sport). I’ve always had a love for “the game”—whichever game it might be at the moment.

(It’s a wonder I was able to balance all of that with the heavy music involvement I had growing up and still keep my grades from slipping too far. Ah, the miracles that high schoolers and college students can perform.)

I suppose this post is a bit obligatory given the fact that we’re in middle of the biggest team sporting event in the world, but it’s on my mind, so I thought I’d analogize today.

One thing that nearly every sport has in common is the idea of a team. You hear about it all the time if you follow sports at all. Team health and cohesiveness is vital to organizational success. And if one member of the team is unhealthy, the strength of the whole team is at risk. Let’s look at Team USA as an example. While the team came out victorious against Ghana, one player, Jozy Altidore left with an injury. And now the questions are coming out. Can Team USA still succeed? Are the chances compromised because of this injury?

Or let’s take an example with some results. In 2011-2012, the New Jersey Devils were a force to be reckoned with, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, but ultimately losing to the up-and-coming Los Angeles Kings in six games. One of the keys to their success that year was Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils struggled the following year, likely due to the lockout-shortened season, but the organization made some moves to continue to build around their star player. But in a surprising turn of events, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL, leaving the Devils with a team designed to fit with his style of play. In the 2013-2014 season, the Devils missed the Playoffs, finishing with a paltry 35-29-18 record and a total of 88 points; they needed 95 to make it to the Playoffs.

So where am I going with this?

Think about your own teams. If you lead a ministry team (likely children’s ministry since you’re reading this blog, but this analogy can apply to just about any team), consider your team’s health. Consider how valuable each member of your team is. What happens when one team member is missing? What happens when one team member isn’t doing what’s expected of them? (If you follow hockey, here’s an example of that: what could the Montréal Canadiens have accomplished this year if Thomas Vanek had put forth the effort that he’s capable of?)

Do you have a team member who needs some time to heal? In hockey and baseball, as in most sports, when a player is placed on the Disabled List, another player is called up from the AHL (hockey) or AAA (baseball) to fill his spot.

Is one of your team members in need of a replacement? Does a team member need a little extra care? Or does a team member need a proverbial “kick in the pants”?

Regardless of the kind of care a team member needs, remember that while you take time to care for one team member, you cannot lose sight of the health of your team as a whole.

Do you have a team member who’s difficult for other team members to work with? Maybe she’s gossiping about other team members. Maybe she’s questioning leadership at every turn and with everyone except the leader in question. Maybe she’s harmful for the other team members.

That’s a team member who might need to be released.

Do you have a team member who never shows up on time? Maybe he comes in unprepared, putting the burden of responsibility for the lesson on his teammates. Maybe he arrives late, forcing the team members who are serving before him to stay longer than they’re scheduled to.

That’s a team member who might need to re-read the playbook.

Do you have a team member who’s been serving faithfully for a long time, but is starting to show signs of wear and tear? Maybe she’s been at it too long, and she needs some time off. Maybe she has some personal issues she’s dealing with and needs someone to talk to.

That’s a team member who might need some time on the bench with you.

Remember, you’re the leader of a ministry team, and it’s your job to equip them to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12-13). So do what you can to equip, develop, and care for them well.

Quote

All about Jesus. . .

“We need to make Him central, the focus of all we do. We need to resist getting distracted by doing things about Him and instead create an environment where children encounter Him. How do we create an environment for kids to hear God’s voice and just be with Him? What might possibly happen in our midst when we commit ourselves to that?”
~ Dr. Michelle Anthony

Image

HomeFront Parenting Resource Center

While I was in Costa Mesa for The Gathering, I saw this awesome parenting resource center at ROCKHARBOR.
IMG_20140605_121518

So I decided to grab that idea and use it here at Emergence. 🙂
IMG_20140603_135256

If you run a children’s or family ministry, do you have a parenting resource center or something similar? If so, what do you include in it? I’d love to hear or even see what some of you do at your churches!

Should we be doing VBS?

vbs_icon-1This year at Emergence we’re using LifeWay’s Agency D3. Our team really enjoyed the format, and the emphasis on missions—both local and global—was a big draw for us.

Here’s my question though. Do you think we should be doing a VBS?

Here are my thoughts on why we shouldn’t:

  • VBS is meaningless to the unchurched, especially in an area like ours where the church-related culture has all but disintegrated. There’s no context for it, and it’s not as useful an outreach tool as it once was.
  • In a church culture that values missional thought highly, an event that is foundationally attractional seems a bit anachronistic.
  • The language is dated.

Here’s why I think we should continue doing VBS:

  • It provides something for kids to do during the summer.
  • The kids who are active in our children’s ministry have the opportunity to invite their non-churchgoing friends to an event where they can gain exposure to the gospel.
  • It can provide an attendance boost in the summer when many families are away.

Should VBS remain a part of church culture? Does it need a facelift? An identity change? Should it be scrapped altogether?

The catalyst for me entering the ministry was the time I spent serving at a day camp on Long Island that had evolved into a full-fledged camp from a simple VBS. Perhaps that’s one alternative. It worked really well in that community because that area had a ton of families who loved the whole day-camp thing. There were multiple day camps in that town, and the one I served at was the only Christ-centered day camp in the area.

Camp Rock

The church I used to work for hosts something called “Camp Rock,” which is a music-and-media-driven day camp where kids can learn how to play instruments, run AV equipment, and put on a whole concert, all while learning about Jesus.

What do you guys think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear your ideas!

Curriculum thoughts, pt. 6 — Beyond curriculum.

Children’s ministry isn’t easy. If you serve in children’s ministry in any capacity, you already know this. And it can often be lonely. If you go to any church, the people that are often least acknowledged are those serving in children’s ministry.

I hope you don’t read this as a cry for attention. I’m simply stating a fact. In fact, I truly think children’s ministry is better off without too much acknowledgment. We have too much to do, and recognition may turn into distractions for us.

But that’s why we need community and support (arguably) more so than any other aspect of the church. That’s why I believe (and participate) in local, regional, and national family ministry leadership networks (my friend Trevor wrote a great piece on why networking is important for family ministry leaders that you can read here).

It’s also why I encourage the people who serve on our Emergence Kids teams to invite their friends to serve alongside them. This is something we shouldn’t be doing alone. We need each other.

Tru Logo_Tag BlkI don’t know what brought you to this blog post. Maybe you’re looking for a new curriculum. If so, here’s my recommendation: give Tru an honest try.

(Disclaimer: David C. Cook is not paying me in any way to endorse Tru. These are nothing more than the thoughts of a “satisfied customer.”)

TruCommunity

In case I haven’t beaten this drum enough times in this piece, we need community. God designed us for it, and the more we serve him, the more we’re going to need each other. That’s why TruCommunities exist. They serve to equip leaders who are in children’s and family ministry with the tools, relationships, and inspiration they need to do their jobs well.

I got my first taste of a TruCommunity in November when I attended a Family Ministry Conversation hosted by David C. Cook. The experience helped to validate my belief that ministry is best done in community.

Networking isn’t easy, but it’s worth it, and one of the beauties of Tru is that it provides the opportunity to network with other churches that are also a part of Tru. That alone is worth the price of admission. And even if your ministry isn’t a part of Tru, you can still participate in a TruCommunity.

HomeFront

I always struggled to find a robust parent partnership foundation in children’s ministry curricula, and that’s partially because it’s not easy to do. Honestly, engaging parents is up to you—the ministry leader—and no matter how stellar or poor the parent portion of a given curriculum is, your willingness to work in this area is the primary determining factor that can influence your success in this area.

That said, having a great foundation to build upon never hurt anyone. HomeFront is just that—a great foundation. You’ll have to do the work to get parents to buy in. But if you do, I can assure you that parents will be glad you did.

HFSPR_LogoHomeFront is a monthly digital magazine (with a print version coming soon) that provides parents with devotion ideas, conversation starters, crafts, activities, games, and even recipes to help foster environments of spiritual formation at home. I’m not even a parent yet, but I was floored by what’s in this magazine and how simple it can be to create these types of environments at home.

Here’s the cool thing. Both TruCommunity and HomeFront are available to you as a ministry leader completely free of charge. That’s right, the folks at Tru believe in the power of networking and the importance of faith being fostered at home that they want to invite you to experience these two facets of their ministry without ever having to pay them a cent.

Oh yeah, there’s a curriculum.

I have to admit, when I first looked at Tru over two years ago I was somewhat narrow-minded about formatting a LG-SG children’s service. In my mind, all the “magic” of discipleship happened in the SG environment, and LG was simply a way to get the story across. That led to my confusion regarding the activities to which I referred in my first review of Tru.

Here’s the thing with Tru. Flexibility is key. You have to understand that when you adopt a curriculum, one of two things will likely happen. Either you’ll tailor the curriculum to fit your needs/culture/vision, or you’ll tailor your environments to fit the curriculum. The first scenario is more likely, but if your children’s ministry follows the LG-SG service format, there’s no reason you shouldn’t ask the question: what if we tweaked our service culture a bit to execute this curriculum?

Tru will force you to ask that question, and if you weigh the costs and discover that it’s not worth it to make changes to your service, you’ll find that Tru becomes a lot more difficult to execute. Not that it can’t be done. I visited a church a few months ago that was using Tru, but they were tweaking the curriculum quite a bit in order to fit it to their culture. It works, but it requires a lot more effort.

From here on out, I’m going to categorize this review so that it’s easier for you to wrap your mind around where I’m going. Also, I want to provide you with some simple ways to determine if Tru is right for your ministry.

Scope & Sequence

Tru is a chronological curriculum that teaches the Bible as one cohesive narrative rather than broken up into separate, distinct stories. You’ll often hear language like, “In this part of the ‘Big God Story’ we’re going to discover. . .” as opposed to, “In our story today. . .” A subtle change, but one that I think is really important as we share with children the idea that God is the Author of the story who has written himself into it.

Thematically, what Tru emphasizes are ten environments of spiritual formation. I won’t go into them all here; instead, you can click this link to read an overview of the environments.

Tru goes through the Bible (from Genesis to Revelation) in one year, but it has a three-year sequence that highlights different narrative threads each year. Over the course of the three years, children will discover multiple characteristics of God and how he has interacted with his people from the beginning of the story till today. Children will also discover their part in “The Big God Story” as they learn about their identity and how to live in response to what God has done and is doing in their lives.

Unlike The Gospel Project, the different age levels don’t follow an identical scope and sequence. Rather, it’s the environments that run concurrently so that parents can run that thread at home (for example, the preschoolers might be learning about Deborah one week while the elementary kids are learning about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but both age groups are in the environment of “Storytelling”).

Age Appropriateness

In my earlier review of Tru I took off points in this area. I admit that my assessment was based almost entirely on a sample lesson that was an overview lesson of the entire “Big God Story” from Genesis to Revelation. Tough to do in one lesson. I still wonder if there’s a better way to do it, and while I struggle with it a bit, it only occurs once over the course of the entire time that you use the curriculum (or twice, if you’re like us, and you roll out the curriculum first at one campus then at another).

Tru actually won me over after I received access to a “live preview” (as opposed to the samples you might download from their sales website). The live preview gave me the opportunity to see current lessons; like the Orange curricula, Tru is constantly updating and revising itself to improve, so being able to see it in its most updated format was extremely helpful in assessing the curriculum’s age-appropriateness.

Tru targets its audiences really well. It provides an excellent structure while allowing the leaders plenty of creative space to execute the lessons. The preschool lessons (TruWonder) are presented in a playhouse-show format with weekly pieces that are there regularly to offer consistency for kids. And unlike The Gospel Project for Preschool, TruWonder provides easily retainable memory verses so that it’s not a stretch for children to learn them. For sake of comparison, this month’s “Remember Verse” for preschool is:

“Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story.”
Psalm 107:2a

In The Gospel Project, this month’s preschool Key Passage is:

Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

To me, the way a curriculum approaches Scripture memorization says a lot about how the age-appropriateness of the curriculum. Does the curriculum provide bite-sized Scripture passages for even the oldest children in its age range? Then the curriculum is setting the bar too low (for our church perhaps, but other churches might value the ease of use). Are the Scripture verses the curriculum uses too complex, as seen in the example from The Gospel Project? Then the curriculum is likely targeting too high. Finding that balance is difficult, but Tru does a decent job of doing so.

My word count in this post has hit a ridiculous number, so I’ll come back to my thoughts on Tru in a little while. Stay tuned though because if you’re a children’s ministry practitioner, I have a potential giveaway for you! (No promises, though)