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The Show Must Go Off

Larry Shallenberger

Imagine children's ministry as a children's museum. Step into its hallways to see the three most prevalent programming models that exist today.

"In this room, boys and girls, is the most amazing show you'll ever see! Jesus walks on water and we got it on video! Take a seat. Watch and see!

"And, in this room, a water-walking expert explains how Jesus was able to walk on water. Take a seat and listen!

"And in this room, you yourself, boys and girls, will step into the boat that carried Jesus out onto the water. Jesus beckons you to take a step toward him -- on the water. Will you follow him? Step up to discover the answer."

Which room would you want to be in? Which room would kids most want to be in? Which room would capture their attention? And most importantly, which room would change their lives?

So many in children's ministry today aren't sure which room to step into. A few churches tout that " 'The Show' must go on." It's all about excellent showmanship, they say. They choose the first room.

Others choose the second room for varied reasons. It's what the curriculum they've chosen dictates or they just don't know a better way, perhaps.

And we at Children's Ministry Magazine choose the third room. So, although we risk offending many, we think it's worth challenging those who believe The Show must go on. Our opinion is quite the opposite. So we asked Larry Shallenberger, a forward-thinking children's pastor, to tackle The Show -- the exclusive use of lengthy, staged live-actor dramas or video performances as passive instruction. Read his observations.

The Show Is Not Educationally Sound

Recently, a research team led by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, evaluated the popular Baby Einstein videos. They discovered that the 8- to 16-month-old children who regularly viewed the educational videos had poorer vocabularies than babies who learned primarily by having parents read and interact with their infants.

The results of this study are surprising until one remembers the results of a different study, this one by the University of Indiana, which revealed that learners only retain 20 percent of the information they hear and see. Parents who read and talk with their infants effectively build their children's vocabulary more efficiently than any video curriculum. This is because the human brain retains information best in the context of relationships.

So dramas, shows, or video presentations -- no matter how well produced -- are among the most ineffective educational methods available...if they aren't coupled with more effective learning methods such as learning games and discussion questions. Visual performance elements, then, need to be evaluated by their ability to inspire children to engage in more effective learning techniques. Consider skeptically extended dramas and 20- to 30-minute video segments that make kids passive observers rather than active participants.

Marshall McLuhan, a prominent social scientist and a Christian, believed that all technology was an extension of some part of the body. For example, he taught that the car was an extension of the foot. However, McLuhan also taught that with every "extension" there was an "amputation." Email and instant-messaging extend my ability to correspond quickly but amputate my penmanship. A TV screen or a stage extends the eyes and the ears but amputates the hands, feet, and mouth. But learners retain 40 percent of what they discuss, 80 percent of what they do, and 90 percent of what they teach others. Those amputated hands, feet, and mouths are needed for increased learning retention. So before you stage The Show, ask yourself, Will this serve as a launch-pad for an unforgettable learning segment that involves kids in more than passive viewing, or as a guillotine that severs learners from understanding Bible truths?

The Show Is a Passive Medium

Advocates for The Show point to a 2005 Kaiser Institute Study which informs us that the average child between ages 8 and 18 is exposed to 59.5 hours of media each week. Those numbers demand a children's minister's attention. First, there's the matter of having to compete with this media for our children's attention. Second, this glut of media changes the wiring of our children's brains.

In his book, Carpe Mañana, futurist Leonard Sweet comments on the theory of brain elasticity, saying that the brain's "development is dependent upon all sorts of cultural factors, including technology, language, customs, and music."

Sweet asserts that children's minds develop differently today than they did 50 years ago -- as they now cut their teeth on television, computers, and the Internet, their brains develop to the specifications required by those technologies. So it's incumbent on children's ministries to embrace media and visually oriented techniques to reach today's child.

But it's a mistake to assume that this data mandates the exclusive use of The Show. An article by Laura Holson in The New York Times, "Is Th-Th-That All, Folks?" noted that box office receipts for children's movies were down in the summer of 2006. While passive-learning media is lagging, interactive media outlets are booming.

Generation Media prefers interactive learning over passive learning. This summer, Mattel claimed to have 3 million users signed up for its months-old Beta release of online community, where girls interact by playing video games, designing fashion, and chatting. Club Penguin, an online community of 12 million children and 700,000 paid subscribers, grew to the point where Disney purchased the Web site for a staggering $350 million and offered to double that offering if the Web site meets its 2009 growth goals.

A shift has occurred: Children no longer wish to passively watch media, they want to interact with the technology as they interact with other children. Children want high tech and high touch; that is, they want media, but they also crave relationships and interaction.

Considering a move to using the model of The Show? Make sure that the video and drama segments don't overpower the entire curriculum. And make sure the curriculum writers have spent as much time designing the interactive segments of the curriculum as they have the visual presentations.

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