This zany team of children's ministers is cruising a
hilarious river of life with children in Palm Desert,
It's 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and about 150 first- through
fourth-graders at Southwest Community Church in Palm Desert,
California, are laughing at children's pastor Brent Phillips. Brent
and Donny Abbott have assumed the personas of Hans and Franz, two
fictional characters from the Saturday Night Live show who boast of
being the strongest men on earth. Wearing sweatshirts stuffed with
butcher paper, Brent and Donny strut around, flexing and comparing
"Hans, your muscles are so tiny," Brent says to Donny with a thick
"What are you talking about?" replies Donny in an even thicker
accent, flexing his muscles. "My muscles are huge!"
Hans and Franz, two of an assortment of characters regularly
played by Brent and Donny at Southwest's weekly children's church
services, are part of an effort to make church fun and
entertaining. Southwest has two children's services on Saturday
evening and two on Sunday morning for first- through
fourth-graders. The services are anything but boring.
"It's not really like church," says 11-year-old Steven Preston.
"It's like party time. They [Brent and staff] do cool songs and
A recent Sunday morning service featured games, skits, highenergy
music, practical jokes, and plenty of lighthearted banter between
Brent and worship leader Kurt Johnson.
"Boys and girls, I think it's time now for...games," Brent
"No, it's not game time yet," says Kurt. "We have two more minutes
After the final song, Brent brings out a miniature 2-inch cake to
celebrate the anniversary of Kurt's marriage to his wife,
"Now, Mr. J.," Brent says as he cuts and hands Kurt a piece of
cake. "I don't want you to get any of this cake on your wife's
But, of course, Kurt ignores Brent and rubs frosting on his wife's
nose. When Linda doesn't retaliate, Brent wipes frosting on Kurt's
"Without the fun, the kids are going to care less about what's
taught," says Brent, children's pastor at Southwest for nine years.
"If church is boring, they won't get anything out of it."
The son of a telephone company executive, Brent was raised in a
conservatively religious family. He says his church's "very
traditional" Sunday school didn't leave much of an impression on
him, but that's not why he's chosen a nontraditional approach to
"My degree is in Bible from the Master's College (a Christian
College in Santa Clarita, California), and most of the things I do
are nontraditional because I haven't been trained as a children's
pastor," says Brent. "I just do what I think will work with
But while he believes church should be fun for young kids, Brent's
philosophy is not fun-at-all-costs. To determine who gets to
participate in games, Brent asks questions about the key points of
last week's lesson. Hands shoot into the air. Brent's questions
usually relate to key characteristics of Christians in the Bible,
not just factoids.
In the spirit of fun, Brent sets aside one part of weekend
services for friendly competitions between the boys and girls. On a
recent Sunday, six children tossed a water balloon back and forth
as Kurt and keyboardist Joy Paswaters played fast, upbeat music.
When the music stopped, the boy or girl with the balloon picked a
person over whose head Brent would pop the balloon.
Funny video clips of interviews with adult volunteers at their
workplace is another regular part of the weekend services at
Southwest. And Brent has even made the offering time fun by making
it a friendly competition between boys and girls. As Kurt plays
upbeat music, the boys and girls run onstage and place quarters
into two metal buckets. The buckets hang by chains at the ends of
the horizontal part of a 4-foot wooden cross. As the buckets are
filled, the arms of the cross go up and down like a balance.
The children who attend Southwest say their favorite part of the
services is the characters played by Brent, Kurt, and other adult
volunteers. Besides Hans and Franz, there's the Bible Expert Man
who wears a cap and gown and helps Brent communicate the main ideas
of his lessons. The girls like Jim the Jogger, who wears a T-shirt
that says "Kiss me, I'm cool" and repeats the phrase "I'm Jim the
Jogger and I'm the coolest jogger in the desert."
"Jim the Jogger is a very egotistical character whose life
revolves around me, me, me," Brent says. "We try to teach kids that
their world shouldn't center only around themselves. It needs to
center around other people."
Other characters such as Fearful Freddy, clad in a black trench
coat and hat, express common problems that children face at school
or home. For an Easter service, Donny interviewed a staff member
who dressed as a guard at Jesus' cross.
The number of first- through fourth-graders who attend Southwest
has increased from 40 to 600 in the nine years he's been the
children's pastor. That's good proof that his nontraditional
approach to church is successful.
Parents of children at Southwest say their children love Brent's
fun-centered approach to church. "My kids look forward to coming to
church every week," says Raul Santos of his sons, Eric, 10, and
Ryan, 7. "Around Thursday, they begin talking about what's going to
happen at church."
Adult volunteers also enjoy Brent's different approach to
children's ministry. "I have as much fun as the kids do," says
volunteer Rick Willinsky, who was laughing harder than most of the
kids during a recent service.
Brent, Kurt, and Donny plan to take their ministry to unchurched
children in the desert communities in the fall. The trio is
decorating a van that'll travel along the highway and stop each
week at the same places and times.
"It'll be like Sunday school from a truck," Kurt says. "We want to
create a church for kids who don't have a church and reach out to
our kids' friends in a form that's not too churchy."
"Ten years from now, I think my kids won't remember all the
lessons or songs," Brent says. "But I hope they'll remember there
were people at Southwest who loved them, that God loves them, and
that being a Christian can be fun."
Scot Butwell is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.