Staying the Course

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Maps matter. A bad map can ruin a vacation or make you late for
a business meeting. Maps set priorities — they influence how you
view your world. Church futurist Leonard Sweet says, “Every map is
a political statement. A map is a cultural construct, a model of
what a generation ‘sees.’ Maps are never neutral.”

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That’s why, in the sixth century B.C., a Greek named Anaximander
put the Aegean Sea at the center of the world when he drafted the
first map of the known world. Well, in his day the Aegean Sea was
the center of commerce, so how could it not be at the center of the
world? Maps can also dictate our fears, real or imagined.
Cartographers used to draw dragons on map edges to warn about the
unknown.

You have your own map for where you want to go in your
children’s ministry. Before you travel any further, it’s time to
make sure your map is accurate — that it’s really taking you in
the right direction. Maybe it’s an old map and no longer reflects
the routes you need to travel. Or maybe it has fearsome detours
scribbled on it, designed to get you off track. Check your ministry
against this list to see if you’re driven by the detours of your
map.

Detour #1: “The sky is falling.”

The church is following this detour so often you’d think we were
lobbying to include it in our creeds. It goes something like this:
“Our culture is falling apart. This is the worst time in history to
reach children for Christ. For example, just look at [insert
favorite boogie man here].”

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Sure, our culture is a difficult place for children to develop a
moral and spiritual compass. But in a broader sense, the sky is
falling, and it always has been. The book of Revelation tells us
that history will crash-land at some point, and things are likely
to get worse before they get better. But “the sky is falling”
detour preaches an untruth — that this generation is so fallen
that your children’s ministry can’t make a difference.

At my church not long ago, the sky was falling on Susie’s 9
year-old life. Family pressures and the early onset of puberty
created an emotional and hormonal tsunami that threatened to
capsize her. Her mother admitted her to a hospital’s mental health
unit after Susie talked about suicide at school. Our children’s
ministry responded. Volunteers visited her in the hospital and
provided the family with support. After her discharge, Susie was
quickly reintegrated in our Kid Theater so she could find a healthy
sense of achievement and belonging. During this life-and-death
phase, our children’s ministry made all the difference in Susie’s
life.

The truth is, the Bible is filled with accounts of troubled
generations that seemed almost impossible to reach for God. Imagine
what it would’ve been like to minister to children during the
Exodus, the Exile, or during the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s
walls.

Like the two faithful spies who were determined to occupy the
Promised Land, we can scoff at the cultural giants that are
attempting to scare us away. Instead, let’s cling to the truth of
Ephesians 3:20, 21: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more
than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work
within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Detour #2: “Children are the church of
tomorrow.”

This detour is a cartographic catastrophe. True, the millennial
generation will eventually mature into adulthood and lead our
churches. But this detour makes us blind to the reality that God
has no intention of waiting until a person’s life is a third over
before he recruits that person into his great mission.

The “church of tomorrow” detour promotes the wrong goals. When a
ministry buys into this detour, it’ll spend its resources filling
children’s minds with Bible knowledge and keeping them out of
trouble until the special day arrives when they’re old enough to
command God’s attention.

We need to create opportunities for children to P.L.A.Y. They
need to Pray, Live out their faith in service, experience
Christianity as an Adventure, and learn to Yearn for the Word of
God — NOW!

Set a new course for your children’s ministry by teaching about
the Bible’s under-aged heroes — Miriam, Rhoda, David, Namaan’s
servant girl, and the poor boy who shared his lunch with the 5,000.
Next, create programs that give kids training and opportunities to
“love God with all of their hearts, minds, and strength.” Get them
involved in service projects that teach them to love their
neighbors as themselves.

At our church, Jan Thompson provides the fourth- and
fifth-graders in her midweek club regular service opportunities.
Her “Beach Combers Club” makes regular visits to a nearby
retirement home, makes care packages for the city mission, and
disinfects toys in the nursery.

Detour #3: “It was good enough for me.”

Maybe you’ve heard a seasoned Sunday school teacher balk at
active learning ideas by saying: “Why do we need all these new
teaching techniques? When I was growing up, we sat still and we
learned. If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for these
kids.”

Well-meaning teachers fondly remember growing up in traditional
Sunday schools decades ago. Four words sum up this detour: “The map
never changes.” But the map has changed — dramatically. The
teaching techniques of the ’50s and ’60s represented the best
science and educational practices of the time — namely
behaviorism. Those teaching techniques were effective in preparing
students to meet the demands of a hierarchical society. However,
the map changed.

According to Eric Jensen, author of Brain Based Learning, a new
science of learning emerged in the ’80s and ’90s that took into
account advances in several different fields of study. Instead of
viewing the brain as an orderly computer, researchers began to see
the brain as a jungle of chemicals, electrical impulses, emotions,
physics, genes, and pharmacology. Educational theory is now more
interested in learning how the brain works “in the wild.”
Motivating the learner with a carrot and a stick is not enough
anymore.

According to Leonard Sweet, the brain’s “development is
dependent upon all sorts of cultural factors, including technology,
language, customs, music, etc.” Sweet asserts that the minds of
today’s children develop differently today than they did 50 years
ago — as they cut their teeth on TV, PCs, and the Internet, their
brains develop to the specifications required by those
technologies.

And that’s changing the map. Keeping up on cutting-edge
educational practices isn’t ” ‘dumbing’ down the gospel.” The issue
is whether we care enough to use current maps to find the best
paths to kids’ souls. Remember the parable of the wineskins. The
mysteries of the gospel are like new wine that never ages. A
culture can act as a wineskin to hold these mysteries for a time.
However, the wineskin eventually cracks from age. The unchanging
gospel must be poured into the container of the emerging
culture.

Detour #4: “The church is responsible
for children’s spiritual development.”

Setting sail with this detour on your map is a recipe for taking
on water fast. When your ministry assumes parents’ responsibility
for their children’s faith development, the weight is too heavy for
your vessel to carry. You can’t afford to bring this baggage on
board.

Many parents in our children’s ministries are just coming back
to church themselves and don’t have a solid understanding of their
God-given role in raising kids. These parents drop off their
children at church the same way they drop them off at soccer
practice or at the dentist’s office. They assume their job is to
play taxi and get their children to and from their specialists on
time.

But Deuteronomy 6:6-8 clearly designates parents as the primary
teachers and modelers of vibrant faith. A landmark study by
researchers at Search Institute confirms that parents have the most
influence in determining whether children who grow up in church
settings will continue worshiping when they’re adults. Mothers
exercise their greatest influence when they engage their children
in faith conversations when they’re between the ages of five and
12. And fathers have their greatest influence when they engage in
faith conversations with their 12- through 15-year-olds.

Instead of loading your hull with extra cargo, view your
children’s ministry as a large supply ship that travels with
families as they make their spiritual journeys. Your job is to
resource these smaller vessels with ongoing training,
encouragement, and protection.

At our church, we provide regular fun events for the entire
family, periodic training on ways to have family devotions, and
annual “helps” on how families can interact with our curriculum at
home. l l l Now that you’ve straightened out your map, you’re ready
for an adventure on the high seas of ministry. An accurate map
won’t guarantee everything will be smooth sailing, but you can have
the assurance that you’re headed in the right direction. cm

Landmarks For Your Ministry

Now that you’ve removed the detours from your maps, here are
unchanging landmarks you can use to plot your children’s ministry
course.

  • Move mountains. Don’t be surprised if your
    prayerful plan runs right into a mountain of challenge. This
    doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off base. The mountain may not have
    been there when you started your journey. Remember, Jesus said with
    faith you can move mountains. Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard said
    that sometimes God calls us to place the mountain on our shoulders
    and move it ourselves.
  • Have a woman at every port. Just make sure
    it’s the same woman — the Bride of Christ. Take port calls often.
    You’re on the journey of a lifetime. You need to be firmly
    connected with your church. You need worship, teaching, and
    accountability from outside your ministry department.
  • Be a magi. The wise men set their course from
    the Far East by fixing their eyes on the Christ Star. In his
    seminal book, Aqua Church, Leonard Sweet challenges us to use Jesus
    Christ as our North Star.
  • Eat your veggies. When Magellan
    circumnavigated the globe, the majority of his crew didn’t survive
    the journey. The killer wasn’t a storm or marauding pirates, but a
    lack of vitamin C. Poor nutrition made the crew susceptible to
    scurvy. If you want to go the distance, you need to have a regular
    diet of prayer and time in the Word.

Larry Shallenberger is a children’s minister in Erie,
Pennsylvania. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses,
and prices are subject to change.

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