Inside Looking Out

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Discover the four surprising
cultural trends impacting your ministry.

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Tucked deep inside 1 Chronicles is the account of Issachar leaders
who observed cultural upheaval in Israel. They saw the incumbent
King Saul and his banished field general, David. The men of
Issachar realized that the times required them to side with one
leader or the other-they chose wisely and sided with God’s
anointed. There’s a brief phrase praising them: “From the tribe of
Issachar…these men understood the signs of the times and knew the
best course for Israel to take” (1 Chronicles 12:32). The rest, as they say, is
history.

Children’s ministry leaders need the same skill today as did the
chiefs of Issachar — to accurately read culture and then develop a
strategy for action. As a profession, we’ve done an excellent job
of monitoring trends within church culture. We identify
trendsetting churches, and we note their strategies and benchmarks.
We apply what works best for our ministries. Likewise, children’s
ministers must become students of our surrounding culture. Culture
shapes our priorities and perceptions of reality on a subconscious
level. Studying culture can keep us from being changed by culture
in unbiblical ways.

Studying culture isn’t only necessary for our ministries’
survival; it’s an exercise in love. When I married my wife, I
quickly realized that loving her also meant I’d have to learn her
family’s culture. Exhibit A: The kitchen. I’m the primary cook.
Early in our marriage I discovered that our differing family
cultures created a problem. My mental image of spaghetti sauce
involved hand-diced tomatoes simmering in freshly cut spices for
hours. Amy envisioned machine-puréed, jarred, processed sauce.
Imagine my surprise when Amy tasted my homemade sauce and asked if
I could make it “more like Ragú.” Eventually love (and
practicality) overcame indignation, and I now buy jarred sauce. In
the same way, children’s ministers study surrounding culture to
discover what unchurched people value — and so that our efforts to
reach them actually feel the way they’re meant to feel — like an
act of love.

Here are four cultural trends from outside the church that every
children’s minister needs to be able to discern, learn from, and
respond to. YOUNG PARENTS may view Christianity as the
disease and not the cure.

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September 11 is a powerful cultural marker. The
terrorist attacks on American soil not only mark the end of the
Millennial generation (born roughly between 1980-2001), but they
marked the beginning of open distrust of any type of
religious fundamentalism. Christian thinker and maverick Spencer
Burke notes in his book A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity
(Jossey-Bass) that to the common observer our conflict in the
Middle East is a “clash of monotheisms.” The conclusion is that
some brands of faith, including Christianity, are inherently
dangerous. Consider the rise of “new atheism” and the spate of
books recently on Amazon.com’s best-seller list, such as God Is
Not Great, The God Delusion,
and The End of Faith.
It’s hard to imagine that Phil Pullman’s openly anti-Catholic
novels would’ve been adapted to the big screen as The Golden
Compass
prior to September 11.

Recently researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons commissioned a
survey of people outside the church between the ages of 16 and 29
and published their work in their book unChristian (Baker
Books). The duo discovered that the majority of these “outsiders”
possessed a negative opinion of Christianity that fell into six
broad categories: Christians are hypocritical, too focused on
getting converts, antihomosexual, too intellectually and socially
sheltered, too political, and too judgmental.

These perceptions must be taken seriously, whether we consider
them fairly earned or not. Why? Consider the age group surveyed.
These are the people who are marrying and having children. Past
church-growth wisdom was that a teenager would graduate high school
and temporarily abandon faith during his or her college years.
Somewhere in his mid-20s, he’d settle down, marry, have children,
and realize he needed the church to give his children moral and
spiritual bearings. That was then. Now the bad news is that today’s
parents are less likely to value the church as a trusted partner.
Churches are seen as hives of fundamentalism and bigotry — places
not to take your children.

This is a troubling cultural trend. Still, hand-wringing isn’t
much of a faith-filled response. Kinnaman and Lyons point out that
a large percentage of these outsiders are individuals who
“dechurched” themselves –  who left church — lending
credibility to the accuracy of their criticisms. The savvy
children’s minister will learn from the statistics and criticisms
and make adjustments to curriculum and programming that reflect a
more Christlike Christianity. Here are suggestions to build a
children’s ministry that lovingly defies negative perceptions of
our faith.

• Educate your families and volunteers. Teach a
series on Jesus’ ability to befriend and love people of varied
moral conditions. Model not judging others while not compromising
your own convictions.

• Mainstream Christian heroes. Celebrate noted
heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu,
whose Christian faith compelled them to champion the cause of the
oppressed.

• Serve without prejudice. Provide regular
service opportunities with Christian and secular nonprofits to help
your children become experientially engaged in Jesus’ compassion
for the poor.

As you intentionally and consistently take these steps, you’ll not
only train your children how to be Christ-followers, you’ll also
cause parents to do a double take and reconsider the value of
church for their children.

     

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