There’s no children’s minister out there who intentionally attempts to evoke shame in kids. But when our words or communication are misguided or careless, shame is often the result. And sadly, many kids who experience something like this — especially when it’s a repeated or typical experience — walk away from faith because they want no part of a belief system that makes them feel so bad.
It was just one of those Sunday mornings where what happened in “big church” seemed to shed light on something that had happened in the children’s ministry earlier. The pastor said that so many adults deal with shame in their relationship with God and it takes years to peel back those layers to help them see God as the gracious, loving God that he is. “What causes this?” he wondered. And in my heart, I knew. At least, I knew where part of the shame comes from. Sadly, well-meaning folks in children’s ministry say things that negatively shape a child’s view of God. Shaming statements that are meant to direct kids’ behavior may lay a foundation of shame in the child’s theology that takes years to undo.
A case in point: In our 2-year-olds class that morning, one of the volunteers had said to the children who were fussing over a toy: “Jesus loves it when you share.” The message to these sweet little ones who are learning about Jesus for the first time? Then he must not love it-or me-when I don’t share! If we truly believe that we’re on the front end of developing children’s faith and that the first three years of their lives are the most formative, we must recognize and avoid words that move them away from-rather than toward-our loving God.
Let’s stop shaming kids in the name of Jesus.
Words Leave Their Mark
It’s vitally important for us to examine our language in our ministries. The most harmful thing we can do is use language as a weapon-subtly or blatantly. Language becomes a weapon when we use it to…
Make kids feel unworthy.
“You should know better than to act that way.” “You should think of God first in everything you do.” “You shouldn’t pray with your eyes open.” Translation: You should be doing (insert random faithful activity)-but you’re probably not. Should is an especially shaming term because it means someone is duty-bound to do something, yet he or she is almost certainly failing in that duty out of ignorance or laziness.
Bully or scare kids into a faith commitment.
“What’s wrong with you that you don’t want to follow Jesus?” “This is your opportunity, right here and now, to save your soul.” “How can you turn your back on God?” Translation: You’re horribly offensive to God, you aren’t worthy of his love, and you’ll never have another chance to win his forgiveness.
Manipulate kids into behaviors, attitudes, or actions.
“Jesus loves you when you’re good.” “You make Jesus sad when you act that way.” “God doesn’t like it when you don’t bring an offering.” Translation: God’s love and grace is conditional. Jesus won’t like you when you’re not good or perfect-so you’ll never be good enough.
Elicit negative emotions as a way to verbally overpower kids.
“I don’t know why I bother trying to teach you kids this.” “God loves everyone, even someone like you.” “This is a waste of my time; you’ll never figure it out.” “What’s wrong with you?” Translation: I don’t like you, and I can’t imagine that God likes you either.
Choose Your Words Carefully
When we use language like this, often the damage is irreparable. Shaming language breeds shame and guilt in kids. And kids will check out mentally (and maybe even physically) to defend against feeling this way. They’ll develop unhealthy and distorted views of God and their faith, too. Quite simply, a surefire formula for dismantling faith in kids is to use your words to shame and guilt them into action.
The volunteer who wanted kids to share meant no harm by what she said. Likewise, at some point, all of us are going to have our best intentions go awry. Maybe we don’t understand the age group well enough or we’re not aware of the impact our speech or delivery has on kids. To find yourself in error this way is to find yourself human.
The bright spot we can rely on is that God is here to take every mishap and help us make it into a ministry opportunity. Whether it’s changing a pattern that promotes shame or correcting an isolated incident where you sent the wrong message to kids, you can redirect your communication. There are practical and simple steps you can take to guard against some of the more common mistakes.
Step 1: Use the Filter of Grace
The most important thing you can do to avoid unintentionally shaming kids is to make a habit of infusing your thoughts and language with grace whenever you’re working with kids. The children you teach today will continue to work out their relationship with Jesus throughout their lives. Faith is a journey with lessons and challenges for each stage of life and development. So there’s no better jumping off point for a child’s faith journey than with God’s overall message of love to us. Love cultivates the beginning of a lifelong relationship with God; shame cultivates division from him. God’s love is a solid, biblically-central, and age-appropriate foundation in which kids can root their faith. A focus on grace creates an environment where kids are safe to just be kids. Remember, God’s message for kids-and for each of us-through Jesus isn’t “Shame on you!”-it’s “Let me take this shame from you.”
Step 2: Eliminate Negative Messages
“My decision to speak to my own family in a loving and uplifting manner spilled over into the way I talked to children and children’s volunteers in the church,” notes Dick Gruber, co-founder of Children’s Ministries University Online and a seasoned children’s minister. Dick urges people who work with kids to reform their ministry language to create a more positive message. “My entire ministry was transformed by this one conscious decision. Proverbs 16:21 says, ‘The wise are known for their understanding, and pleasant words are persuasive.’ Since those early days, I’ve approached classroom management with verbal kindness and blessing.
Rather than threaten children with punishment, I constantly encourage them with kind words. Leading with love is much more efficient than leading through shame.” It’s true: In all situations, highlighting and praising kids’ good behavior goes much further than calling out unruly behavior (and it goes further still when you tell parents or guardians about their child’s triumph). Through your example of praising the good you see in kids, you’ll effectively transform kids when they see that good behavior and acts of kindness earn positive attention that feels a million times better than negative feedback.
Your words of affirmation and praise become a living example of how God feels about kids-even though you both know they’re still capable of messing up. Let kids know you’re proud of their triumphs, and you give them reason and desire to repeat their actions. “Kids are constantly being told what they’re doing wrong,” adds Dale Hudson, director of children’s ministries at Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach, Florida. “Rather than calling them out, let’s call them up to become all God desires them to be.”
Step 3: Think Before You Communicate
Your choice of words is critical. Whenever you focus on a child or a group of kids-even as an audience-first spend time and thought sculpting what you’ll say, because these experiences are incredibly impactful for kids. So if you’re going to point out how you saw little Abigail help a teacher clean up after class or you’re addressing the large group from stage, put forethought into it. Every interaction you have with kids needs to pass through the filters of value, respect, and love for those children as individuals. Ask yourself the following questions.
- Value: How will I convey the value these children have in God’s eyes and in mine?
- Respect: What words will I use to express respect? What words will I eliminate from my language because they don’t express respect?
- Love: How will I ensure that kids feel my love and God’s love through my communication with them?
Step 4: Let Kids Practice Grace
As you lead by example and infuse your words and interactions with grace, let kids practice grace. This is key to cementing grace into their lives. It’s key to helping them understand that shame and guilt aren’t what faith is about. “We work service projects into our weekly strategy,” says Jonathan Cliff, next generations pastor at Trinity Church in Lubbock, Texas. “Each project brings the kids a need in our local community and gives them the chance to demonstrate to their families what they’ve learned [about grace].”
By providing various avenues for kids to serve each other, families, church, community, and others in the world, you’ll give them opportunities to be successful at loving others just because. When you let kids experience what it means to give grace, they understand better God’s grace for them. They inherently understand that their service isn’t about shaming the people they’re helping; it’s about loving those people to echo God’s love for us.
Step 5: Look Within
The previous steps are all practical ways you can infuse your ministry with a message of grace. But there’s one underlying aspect to conquer to ensure you pour grace into your ministry. You yourself must be immersed in the concept of grace. You can’t model grace to your kids unless you believe it applies to you, too.
Do you believe that even though you probably won’t ever fully understand why, God loves you despite your every flaw? Even though grace is difficult to wrap your human head around, does your heart know and trust its promise? Have you learned to accept God’s grace for your flaws? Are you squirming yet?
The truth is that wrestling to understand and accept grace can feel like trying to sprint in waist-deep water. You know the motions, yet there’s a force that keeps you from running freely. But working to increase your own understanding of grace, you’ll only enrich what you pour into your children’s ministry.
Brennan Manning, a long-time student of grace, says in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” Manning calls God’s grace “scandalous” because it’s so contrary to our understanding-and yet it’s the thing that saves us. Is your deepest belief about yourself that God loves you? That kind of belief takes childlike faith to trust God at his word simply because he said it. It seems kids have something to teach us, too. Allow grace — not shame — to own you, and you won’t be able to stop it from spreading throughout your ministry.