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A group of children passively sitting in front of a television in a dark classroom.
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Passive Technology: The Show Must Go Off

Is passive technology the best way to reach children? Probably not. Here’s why the show must go off.


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? Of the three rooms, which 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 childrensministry.com 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.

The Impact of Technology

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 watches 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.

Make Media Interactive

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 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 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.

The Show Presents a Distorted Metaphor for the Church

Marshall McLuhan is most famous for saying that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan believed that the methods used to communicate a message alter that message, often in unintended ways. Case in point: Consider the room setup required for The Show. Children sit in rows pointed at a screen or a stage. They sit passively during the drama or the video presentation and leave at the hour’s end. The unspoken message to kids is that being a part of church is a lot like going to the movies or to a play — you’re there to be entertained by watching a team of people perform for you.

Aside from the biblical warning that “we reap what we sow” — that is, we’re sowing passive observers into the church of tomorrow, this metaphor for understanding church is absent from the Bible. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul used the terms “brother” and “sister” to suggest that being a part of the church was like being part of a family. Paul told believers that they were each a different part of a body, working interdependently for the greater good. The metaphors of family and of a human body are relational and teeming with activity.

Teaching Methods Matter

Our teaching methods matter; we’re giving children a metaphor for understanding what it means to be part of God’s church. Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, asserts that certain technologies hinder incarnational ministry. Hipps writes, “And the reason I believe that is because God became embodied in Jesus. And embodiment means human physical touch; presence. And there are certain technologies that disembody us, such as video.”

Note the “disembodiment” that Hipps observes. We shouldn’t hesitate to use drama or video elements, but we need be aware that too much passive observing changes the gospel message. We aren’t inviting children to a life of observing and critiquing Bible content for its entertainment value. We’re inviting children into a dynamic community that’s charged with acting on and living out faith.

Larry Shallenberger is a pastor of children and student ministries in Erie, PA. Larry is the author of Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today (Victor Books).

Don’t Toss That Curriculum!

Have you purchased a curriculum that’s overly dependent on passive learning techniques? Before you toss those DVDs or scripts, check out these helpful tips for fixing your curriculum.

  • Become a master of the remote. Pick and choose the best segments from the DVD or script and only show those pieces. Better yet, recruit a volunteer to cue the DVD to the next segment while you teach.
  • Keep good resource books handy. If you’re ditching 15 minutes of passive presentation from your curriculum, then you’re going to need to replace it with a hands-on learning experience. Keep your favorite encyclopedias of teaching ideas handy so you can supercharge your lesson with active learning.
  • Craft good questions. You can improve the effectiveness of a video clip or drama presentation with thought-provoking discussion questions. For each video segment you use (no more than two five-minute segments) write three to five questions that help children discover and comprehend the big idea in the Bible lesson.
  • Add interactive elements to the drama. Are you performing a drama about Joshua and the walls of Jericho? Enlist your classroom to be Joshua’s army and march around appliance box walls. Bring your children into the action in unforgettable ways.

How to Shop for an Effective Media-Rich Curriculum

Keep this checklist handy if you’re shopping for a DVD curriculum.

  • Brevity: Video segments should be no longer than four to six minutes.
  • Customization: Check the DVD’s title menu. Avoid DVDs that advance from one segment to the next without interruption. Instead, choose a curriculum that allows you to pick and choose segments.
  • Relationship: Look for small-group segments. Do kids get to interact with each other? Are the debriefing questions well written (open-ended versus yes and no answers)?
  • Variety: What other teaching methods does the curriculum use? Look for games, Bible exploration, worship, and other active-learning opportunities. Avoid curriculum that majors in videos and drama but doesn’t deliver equally excellent hands-on experiences that engage all of kids’ senses and their minds.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out all these great ideas.


2 thoughts on “Passive Technology: The Show Must Go Off

  1. Avatar

    Good article- I’m curious of the date it was written. Couldn’t find that anywhere…

    • Avatar
      Group Publishing

      Hi Darcy! We were unable to find the original publication date. But, we do know this article is from our archives, written in the past several years.

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Passive Technology: The Show Must Go Off

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