What’s wrong with character education in children’s ministry? 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 exclusive?
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 God”?
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 virtues.
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 life.
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 thing.
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 It Right.
“A big danger in focusing exclusively on character is that it removes God from the equation,” says Jody Brolsma, senior editor for Group VBS. “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 252Basics curriculum.
“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 change.” 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 attribute.”
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 lives.”
“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 self-perfection.” cm
Expert insights on evaluating curriculum.
Jennifer Hooks is the managing editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.