How is entertainment in education shaping children’s ministry? Experts and children’s ministers weigh in on Edutainment.
“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 a 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.
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.
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. Jesus 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.