That’s Edutainment!

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How is entertainment in education shaping children’s
ministry? Experts and children’s ministers weigh in.

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“Edutainment” — new word, old concept. Jesus used it to
communicate truth. Today we define it as “learning through a medium
that both entertains and educates,” and we associate it with Sesame
Street, Disney, and Nickelodeon.

Children’s ministers use edutainment without giving it a second
thought. Consider the last time you used props to illustrate a
Bible story. Or the last time you did an action rhyme with
preschoolers. Or the entire program you built around a puppet set
and live actors. Edutainment in one form or another is used
everywhere and to varying degrees of success — and excess.

Today more than ever, churches recognize the need to capture and
keep kids’ interest and imagination. Recent research conducted by
Group Publishing, Inc. and The Greystone Group shows that the
single most important criteria churches look at when selecting
Sunday school curriculum is that it actively involves children in
learning. This same study found that the most important attribute
of children’s church curriculum is that it’s fun and engaging for
children.

Still, there’s a great deal of controversy and ire that’s
stirred when there’s a hint of too much entertainment in the halls
of children’s ministry. So we decided to dig a little deeper and
find out what children’s ministers and experts nationwide have to
say about the benefits, cautions, and future of edutainment.

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Edutainment’s Benefits

The risk of not entertaining at all is severe. “If we don’t
engage kids, they not only will not listen, they will not hear,”
says Tim Miller, children’s pastor in Hamburg, New York. The best
way to get children’s attention is to make listening enjoyable for
them.

Jesus’ Example — Edutainment is a vital education tool — and
its origins go way back. If you want to get really technical, even
Jesus used edutainment. Remember, he presented lessons in ways that
captivated his listeners. He drew a line in the sand to illustrate
a point. He beefed up his lessons by telling stories so his
listeners could understand. He changed water to wine; he even
walked on water.

“Go back far enough in time and the line between [entertainment
and education] would have been hard to draw. The best storytellers
had something they wanted to communicate to listeners. They used
stories — or entertainment — to offer moral lessons,” says Henry
Jenkins, director of MIT Comparative Media Studies and co-director
of The Education Arcade, a consortium designed to help
consumers identify quality edutainment products. “Take, for
example, Jesus’ parables. He translated spiritual truths into
simple stories which captured the imagination and remained in the
memory of his listeners. They drew lessons from those stories that
they carried back with them into the rest of their lives.”

Compelling Environment — When Loveland, Colorado, children’s
pastor Jack Dodge decided to renovate his children’s worship room
to make it a kid-friendly environment, he got a word of advice from
his head pastor at Resurrection Fellowship: “If you’re going to do
it, do it right!”

So Dodge and his team plunked down $160,000 to transform the
room into “Rezcue Island” — a multisensory environment complete
with a climbing wall, waterfall, game room, and
Robinson-Crusoe-style center stage. The kids love it, and Dodge
reports a 35 percent attendance increase since the room was
renovated. Call it “extreme edutainment.”

Dodge points to increased volunteer interest, new membership,
kids bringing more friends, and a more positive view of the
children’s ministry overall as evidence that the investment was
worth it.

“The kids are more attentive to the message than they were
before the room renovation,” says Dodge. “Not only are they paying
more attention, but they’re excited about learning more. When kids
invite others to their place of worship, I believe that is the
beginning step for that young person in their lifelong journey of
sharing Jesus within their spheres of influence.”

Relevance — According to MIT’s Jenkins, kids are finding more
complex information outside the classroom today than inside it. And
they’re checking out. “They’re finding more complexity outside the
classroom than inside it. They’re finding their minds challenged
and imaginations tapped more fully by popular culture,” says
Jenkins.

The church has to do something to change that and engage
children.

“The focus is not on entertaining, but on engaging so that
biblical truth can be transferred in a relevant manner. The
presentation is vital,” says Dale Hudson, children’s pastor in Las
Vegas, Nevada. “We’re not entertaining to make a dollar, sell a
product, or raise money for a good cause. We’re ‘entertaining’ for
the purpose of communicating life-changing truth.”

Edutainment’s Cautions

Whether it’s videos, dramas, stories, illustrated books,
enhanced children’s environments, or simple finger plays,
edutainment qualifies as just about any teaching medium we use in
ministry. But it’s that tricky gray area where edutainment crosses
the border between enrichment and pure entertainment that people
get antsy. How much slime is too much? When do wild games make us
cross over the line? Are costumed characters okay? People aren’t
sure what’s too much and are tempted to throw it all out the
window. Edutainment in Christian education finds itself in a
precarious position here.

Edutainment is far from infallible. It can turn bad when it
becomes the end rather than the means, and unfortunately many
people have a hard time determining the difference. Keep these
things in mind to maintain balance.

Disney We’re Not — “Here’s the truth: The
average church can’t compete with Disney or Pixar when it comes to
entertainment,” says children’s minister and Group Publishing
editor Mikal Keefer. “But Disney and Pixar can’t compete with us on
providing caring adults to know, love, and nurture each child who
comes through the door. Let’s focus on our strengths — and that
means delivering person-to-person ministry that’s warm, engaging,
and life-changing.”

Deeper Investments — Many children’s ministers
feel that edutainment is all glam and no glory — that is, a lot of
glitz and no glory to God. They worry — and with good reason —
that edutainment sets an unmaintainable precedent for entertainment
with no real content.

“I totally agree with the statement: ‘It’s a sin to bore kids
with the Bible,’ ” says Danielle Bell, a children’s minister from
Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I think the line is crossed [between
enrichment and pure entertainment] when we feel like we have to add
to it to make it more exciting. When we stray from the truth of the
Word and add entertainment just for entertainment’s sake, we border
on shallow investments instead of teaching for eternity.”

Genuine Growth — “For me the bottom line is,
what is the motivation behind the entertainment, and what is it
kids will take away from the edutainment experience?” says
Indianapolis children’s minister Rhonda Haslett. “Has this
entertainment become the message or has it enhanced the
message?”

“It’s important for kids to have fun at church,” says author and
KidzAtHeart co-founder Gordon West. “But confusing entertainment
with education is a mistake. When the ‘fun’ promotes relationships,
it’s a positive element. But if we only entertain kids, we have no
idea what message they are receiving (if any) and no lasting
relationships are being built. Are we trying to help kids grow, or
are we trying to put on the best show in town? Sometimes the
difference is subtle and known only to the leaders.”

Realistic Expectations — “Do we dedicate a
chunk of our budget to paying big-buck entertainers to come in and
wow our kids? No — and as a volunteer in the children’s ministry,
I’m glad that’s the policy,” says Keefer. “If it takes a Power Team
or a traveling band to get kids to our church, that’s what it’s
going to take to keep them. I’m grateful my children’s pastor
doesn’t set me up to fail by having kids assume that’s the level of
programming they’ll get each week and then having me show up.”

Edutainment’s Future

So what does the future of edutainment in children’s ministry
look like? It’s a mixed picture, but one in which we’re charged
with the job of engaging children with life-altering truths. The
future of children’s Christian education techniques may parallel
the evolution of secular education simply because of the complex
and challenging world children live in outside the classroom. As
educators, we have to ask ourselves: What do kids experience in
their everyday lives? How can we incorporate the complexities of
their outside learning into what we’re teaching in the church?

“We’ve gone through a period when the benefits of new media were
exaggerated to the point of absurdity,” observes MIT’s Jenkins.
“It’s been followed by a period when their harms have been
sensationalized to the point of hysteria. Now, we need to take a
deep breath and work through together how new media can best be
used to enhance learning.”

Now that’s a better approach than letting the curtain go down on
the fun!

When Edutainment Goes Over the Edge

Signs to watch for if you’re concerned your program is more
“glam” than “glory”:

  • You’re retelling a great biblical account complete with a full
    choir, stage makeup, and lofting angels, but…What were we talking
    about?
  • You count the “commercial success” of a program as a big
    indicator of how powerful your message was.
  • You reschedule your children’s church because the A/V is
    malfunctioning.
  • All the kids can talk about is your Sunday school class. When
    you listen a little closer, you realize they’re actually talking
    about the yummy chocolate sprinkle doughnuts you used in the lesson
    — and they got the point all wrong.
  • You find yourself “dumbing down” the message to accommodate the
    method you’re using to teach it.
  • You dream of winning an Oscar instead of a “Well done, good and
    faithful servant.”

Jennifer Hooks is the managing editor for Children’s
Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers,
addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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