Rx for a Toxic Children’s Ministry

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Everybody gets sick at one time or another. A children’s
ministry is no different. Congregational “disease” and “illness”
can infect your ministry to children, but like most sicknesses we
don’t realize our situation until there are fevers of dissension,
sneezes of apathy, or a congestion of boredom. We often see the
result of sickness and treat the symptoms while overlooking the
germ that caused the illness originally.

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Treatment for these bugs isn’t an easy solution. Months and
years may pass before full health is restored. For many churches
and their children’s ministries, medication that masks the illness
is routinely prescribed. In other words, they live under false
pretense and assumption that all is well, because the cough of
divisiveness or the migraine of criticism is absent. Unfortunately,
silence isn’t always an indicator of health. As Paul wrote the
Thessalonian church, we had best beware when lulled by “peace and
safety” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

So what are the most dangerous viruses in a church? And what’s
their impact on children’s ministry?

The Performance Virus

This is a treacherous germ in a congregation. Also known as the
Martha Complex, this bug can misdirect the purpose of service and
create ministries of show (self- adoration) rather than glow
(Spirit-adoration). It focuses on performance rather than people.
Ultimately, it can cripple a church.

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Many children’s ministries are easily infected by the
Performance Virus when they misunderstand the core reason for a
children’s ministry is the children. Kids are the reason we exist.
Without children, there would be no need for children’s ministers
or programming. It sounds overly simplistic, but countless churches
are diagnosed with the Performance Virus. And its symptoms are
quite compelling:

  • In children’s church and classrooms, kids sit in chairs as
    adults read Scripture, lead worship, pass offering plates, and
    teach.
  • In vacation Bible school, children watch adults “perform” on
    stage-whether it’s worship or prayer, dramas or puppets.
  • Adults display edginess and irritability whenever children
    “perform” (musicals, Christmas plays) because it’s not perfect
    enough for the leaders.

The Performance Cure

The cure for this condition is found only in adults relaxing
their expectations and agendas. These are children, not adults.
Children’s attention spans equal their age, so don’t expect lengthy
“sit time.” Children won’t be perfect in their performance-but they
will grow! They hunger to be involved and belong-and will quickly
misbehave if they can’t do so-so let them perform service rather
than staged perfection. In general, recognize and value children’s
needs, attention spans, and desire to serve and participate.

The Maintenance Virus

Few bugs are harder to detect than this one, because it’s rooted
in leadership structures and masked by church traditions, limited
successes, or overly cautious thinking. This illness happens when a
church moves from mission and purpose (vision) to maintenance and
perpetuity (stability). Essentially, the innovation and reinvention
that moves a congregation forward stalls and even stops.

Consequently, all ministries-including children’s ministries-can
find themselves hacking and wheezing from budget constraints, staff
downsizing, or backward thinking. Initially, these are just hard
leadership decisions, but as the virus works its way through the
body it paralyzes creativity and enthusiasm. If left alone, a
congregation can slip into a self-induced coma, worshiping the past
and criticizing anything new.

When a children’s ministry falls prey to this thinking, the
symptoms are clear:

  • People resist evaluating children’s programs and curriculum due
    to comfort, tradition, and “we’ve always done it this way”
    thinking.
  • There’s a reluctance to experience, introduce, or welcome new
    ideas and/or philosophies. Many volunteers quit from frustration
    when their insights and creativity are dismissed by their
    leaders.
  • The ministry is characterized by an unhealthy focus on “what
    we’ve done” rather than a vision for “where we need to go.”
  • Volunteers and staff express “I already know enough”
    attitudes.

The Maintenance Cure

The Maintenance Virus is easily healed when a leadership
inoculates itself against irrelevance through exposure to new
paradigms, ideas, and insights. Read a book or get a discounted
bulk subscription for all your volunteers to Children’s Ministry
Magazine (and, as a staff discuss any implications and applications
from what you read). Attend conferences and workshops to stretch
thinking and supply new ideas. Take a class at a local college or
university, with applications in understanding children, teaching,
or children’s ministry. Invite children’s ministry authors or
experts to speak to your church and staff. Create a weekly
e-newsletter for volunteers with links to articles and Web sites on
children’s ministry.

The Isolation Virus

Dysfunctional and ill ministries focus on themselves, rather
than others. They isolate themselves from their community and even
other churches. They aren’t open to sharing with or learning from
others.

Symptoms of this virus:

  • The ministry displays an inability or unwillingness to share
    physical resources-curriculum, facilities, technology-with other
    congregations and organizations.
  • There’s an obvious absence of reaching out to the local
    community.
  • Not much energy is spent on attracting fringe community
    children or creating programs for families.

The Isolation Cure

The Isolation Virus is cured only through a continual reminder
of core Christian values to serve, salve, and save those outside
the walls of our church family-whether they’re Christians or not.
How does a church do that? Open your facilities to your community.
Use church property and adult volunteers to sponsor community
soccer and baseball. Share expendable resources, such as annual
vacation Bible school themed curricula, with other churches.
Initiate programming to reach the underprivileged and unchurched
children in your area. Host children’s ministry leadership training
for other churches. Essentially give yourself-and your church-away.
Blessing and healing come in service and sacrifice.

The Property Virus

Few viruses are more obvious or more rampant in a congregation
than this one. Nearly every church has been, is, or will be
infected. This virus is most evident whenever something new is
built, bought, or brought.

The symptoms of this virus:

  • Just check out the signs on the walls to identify the presence
    of this insidious virus: “No food or drink in this room.” “This
    room is in memory of Deacon John Smith.” “No tape on the floors.”
    These signs signal deeper allegiance to a building-or even the
    dead-than to people.
  • The unseen signs are more dangerous and unhealthy and
    communicated not by paper, but rather by philosophy and practice:
    “No children (or messes) in this area.” “Adults only.” “No play
    allowed.”

Instead of guarding the health of the body of Christ, churches
often guard the building. We create monuments, memorials, and
mausoleums where messy hands, beliefs, and behavior are forbidden.
Ultimately, our facilities become millstones rather than
milestones.

The Property Cure

Healthy churches understand that buildings deteriorate and are
divinely loaned. Carpets soil. Walls get marked. Stuff occasionally
breaks. Whether by intention or accident, all church property
eventually fails. Does that mean anything goes? No. By all means,
encourage children to respect church property. Does that mean a
dilapidated and dirty facility is preferred? No. An occasional
paint job and property replacement is necessary. But “body life” is
messy and things happen. A carpet can be replaced, but a human soul
can’t. Children will learn quickly whether they’re more important
than your building. Finally, a well-worn, but nicely kept building
sends a hidden message to visitors: This is a safe place for messy
lives.

The Numbers Virus

This is a common children’s ministry contamination. In a
megachurch world, many smaller churches and children’s ministries
are paralyzed and even handicapped by this germ. This infection
runs throughout a church’s leadership and manufactures migraines
because of the pressure to produce a crowd. And some children’s
pastors get fired as a result.

Symptoms of this virus:

  • Children’s ministers ask one another, with a glint in their
    eye, “What’s your average attendance?”
  • Perhaps this virus affects the larger body of Christ more than
    each congregation. After all, larger congregations and children’s
    ministries often receive special attention. Who writes the books?
    leads seminars? receives invitations? gets national notice?

The Numbers Cure

Focus on what matters to God. Sick churches count people;
healthy churches make people count.

A healthy children’s ministry will have numerical growth, but
not all growth occurs in our time frame or is visible to eyes
focused on physical matters. It may take years to resurrect a sick
and dying children’s ministry. Many months may pass before seeds of
success sprout. Some smaller churches and their children’s
ministries, because they’re planted in a pot and not a forest, may
only grow so large. Consequently, a healthy perspective displays
patience, forgiveness, and hope. Ministry is about nurture, not
numbers.

Does that mean an abandonment of record-keeping or even
excitement when growth happens? No. But when numbers are all you
play and push, whether it’s a crowd or a crew, you’ve got the
bug.

The Vanity Virus

Pride comes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). And when vanity robs
vision, the entire congregation suffers. Sick churches exalt
themselves and take pride in image-building, while healthy churches
focus on kingdom issues and improvement. There’s a fine line
between ministry and marketing. Even Jesus faced this devilish
temptation (Matthew 4:8-9).

Symptoms of this virus:

  • Children’s ministries infected by Vanity Viruses enjoy the
    energy and attention they draw to themselves.
  • Sometimes individual volunteers catch this virus, resulting in
    Messiah Complexes and resistance to accountability.

Success creates a false illusion that “we’re it.” It’s a
dangerous and lethal assumption-usually unrecognized or regarded by
the infected.

The Vanity Cure

The danger of the Vanity Virus is that its genesis is usually
innocent and motivated at first by divine call. But left unchecked,
the virus silently infects and sickens. Vision for ministry becomes
a vanity for marketing-either of self or congregation. Sometimes
the church (often using children as the bait) becomes a sales pitch
or ad campaign to look good in the community or denomination.

Inoculation against this virus is heavy doses of humility and
recognition of divine blessing. It’s not about you, but about God.
This isn’t our children’s ministry, but his children’s ministry.
We’re a team. Consequently, accountability is also important and
lone rangers need not apply. This may be the most difficult illness
to prevent and overcome, especially in a world that glorifies
success and encourages adoration.

•••

If you sense your children’s ministry or church is a little
sick, take heart. Every church, just like every human body, carries
countless viruses and germs. These diseases and dysfunctions may
cause minor interruptions or long-term health disability, depending
on their nature and your immune system.

The secret is awareness, followed by proper prevention. It’s
daily washing your children and ministry in prayer. Or taking
vitamins (reading a ministry book, attending a workshop) to stay
empowered and innovative. It’s proper nourishment in the Word and
building your ministry on Scriptural principles, not human design
alone. It’s going for regular checkups through visits to other
ministries.

The bottom line is we’re part of a bigger body-whose health is
in the hands of the Great Physician who cares and heals his own.
cm

Rick Chromey, D. Min., is a contributing author to
Children’s Ministry in the 21st Century (Group). Please keep in
mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to
change. Originally published in September-October, 2004 in
Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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