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
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.barbiegirls.com
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
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.