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Handle With Care?

Larry Shallenberger

Bubble -wrap -kidsA recent eye-opening experience led me to a surprising, shocking conclusion: Most of us, when it comes right down to it, really aren't comfortable having children follow Jesus.

Hold on; let me explain.

Last spring as I was preparing to present a workshop at the Conspire Conference, I reviewed the book unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Their research revealed that Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) are less likely to return to church after starting families because they perceive churches as promoting bigotry. Young parents are actually keeping their children away from church to protect them from becoming intolerant people!

After presenting that information at the workshop, I attempted to lead a brainstorming session about what a new children's ministry curriculum might look like: one that teaches children to hold true to scriptural standards while loving and welcoming people who don't think or believe as they do.

I wasn't prepared for the vocal reaction I received from some workshop attendees. Several children's ministers questioned whether it was a good idea to encourage elementary-age children to befriend kids who behave badly or are of different faiths. They raised the possibility that we're risking the good character and growing faith of Christian children by exposing them to unchurched kids. One children's pastor even asked if we could teach children to love their classmates without befriending them (in a word, the answer is no).

We never did outline what a new curriculum would look like. Instead, we debated whether Jesus ever intended children to participate in his Great Commission.

I'm not telling this story to have the last word in that debate. I'm merely sharing the moment when I realized that many children's ministries have subtly adopted agendas that are different from God's. If we're truly working to raise a new generation of Christ-followers, then our instructional aim must be teaching children to be in a relationship with Jesus that overflows with love toward others, not to merely be religious.

Here are three specific ways we "inoculate" kids against the Great Commission.

Problem #1:

We "Incentivize" Inviting

Many churches use a token economy to encourage children to bring people to church. Children receive rewards or chances to win a large prize each time they bring along friends. In the short term, this seems like an effective strategy: Kids will invite unchurched friends more often, attendance numbers will grow, you'll win favor in the eyes of your senior pastor, and so on.

But these programs actually diminish children's interest in evangelism. They aren't learning to love their neighbors or to view them as being important to God. Instead, children's eyes are on the bicycle they could win if they bring enough friends to the evangelistic rally. Plus, they get the message that sharing faith is painful or unnatural. If it were easy, the children's pastor wouldn't be bribing me with a bike, kids reason.

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