By Shannon Vowell –
Jesus is crazy about kids.
He talks the talk: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
Jesus walks the walk, too – resuscitating the dead daughters and sons of bereft parents (see Mark 5:21-43, Luke 7:11-17), pushing his disciples to see past the anti-child prejudices of their day, and demonstrating physical affection for little ones, time and time again.
Jesus’s high esteem for his personal pleasure in children motivated his most famous statement on the topic (a statement made, not coincidentally, when children were interrupting Jesus’s teaching of the adults): “But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’” (Mark 9:37).
Based on the consistent gospel witness, being confident that Jesus is crazy about kids is a no-brainer.
If the next expression of Wesleyan Christianity is to accurately reflect Jesus’s character and priorities, we better make sure that we are crazy about kids, too – in the same way that Jesus is crazy: lavish with our love, clear in our teaching, and compassionate in our care.
That’s a tall order in 2021 – and clearly a counter-cultural calling, as well. The global Covid-19 pandemic put on stark display the troubled nature of American public schools, revealing the extent to which teaching children in this country has been superseded by other agendas. Educational disparities between economic classes are increasing. The social fabric of communities, so long woven into relationships forged in local schools, is fraying. The damage of divisiveness has been writ large in headlines but lived large in families. And that’s just in the U.S.A. – the Global Methodist Church (in formation) will need a vision for educating children in the faith that is appropriately global.
Acknowledging our starting point. Too often in recent years, as the UM Church has declined, children’s education and programming in our churches has been driven by desperation: How to attract young families? How to retain young families? How to compete with other churches who have glitzier programs and bigger budgets in the attraction/retention marketplace?
In our fog of desperation, we too often mistook entertainment-value for evangelism, and mirrored the culture around us. We pushed the “fun” aspect of time in church for children, and all but gave up on catechesis.
We unwittingly communicated to our congregations that Christian formation was an afterthought, an optional extra – that our real goal was the energetic amusement of their children. We communicated: “We are here to offer you a great option in the cafeteria of choices! Please choose us – we are just as fun as anything else you could do!”
In doing so, we set ourselves up for failure on several levels. First, casting church as a place for “fun activities” makes church one of many legitimate contenders for a family’s leisure time. “Shall we go bowling? Watch a game? Or go to church – I think there’s a bounce house this weekend?”
Second, by devaluing church to the level of entertainment, we cemented the place of club sports as “more important” than church. How to effectively argue that Johnny should be at his Confirmation Retreat instead of his baseball tournament, when the latter has been so much more consistent in messaging purpose and accountability?
And third, by making children’s programs self-contained entertainment operations – as opposed to integrating with adult education and teaching discipleship as family agenda – we have failed to engage parents in their irreplaceably vital role as disciple-makers in the home.
Kids aren’t stupid. They got the message, and became adept at holding us accountable to our own marketing schema: “It’s your job to make me want to be here. You need me more than I need you, and we both know it.”
Parents aren’t stupid, either. Since the church jumped onto the carousel of consumer choice, parents brought the same evaluative criteria to bear at church as they do everywhere else. “Am I getting my money’s worth?” and “Is my child having a good time?” replaced the far more relevant questions of “Is my child learning about God?” and “Am I participating in the process of discipling my child?”
Ultimately, what we’ve been doing for the last several decades in Methodist children’s programming qualifies as the ultimate bait and switch. We have marketed entertainment when what we are hoping to offer is relationship; we have emphasized fun when our Lord promises us joy – as the fruit of hard choices (choosing the narrow road, taking up our cross daily, dying to ourselves, etc.). No wonder United Methodism has failed its children on an EPIC scale!
How can the Global Methodist Church do better? We must move beyond talking the talk of kid-crazy Jesus love to walking the walk as Jesus did. To do so, we will need a clear purpose, a plan, and a proven pedagogy – all bathed in Holy Spirit power and undergirded with humble prayer. Further, we must prioritize the work as the urgent, central mission it is.
Why? Because the GMC’s approach to Christian education and attitude toward its youngest disciples is literally a matter of life and death for a new denomination – as we have seen, so clearly, in the old one.
Clarity of Purpose: Making Disciples. As the GMC launches, let’s first resolve to set aside the distracted, time-wasting futility of marketing church as an entertainment venue for our children. Instead, let’s articulate a clear purpose, and then evaluate ALL programming based on fulfilling that purpose. Something like this: “Christian education exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
I’m not in any way advocating an anti-fun agenda, I’m simply pointing out that the fun should be a consequence of a successful mission, not the mission itself.
A few not-so-radical ideas to get us started:
• Reclaim the singular, sacred place of sabbath. A commandment to “honor God” does not have to compete with anything else. Children’s Christian education and programming begins with God-honoring.
• Invite families to grow up in Christ, together. Offer studies with components for parents and children.
• Offer mission projects that connect to these studies. Create opportunities for families to serve as families.
• Foster a church culture that assumes families pray and read scripture, as families, throughout the week. Model this, pastors and leaders. Preach and teach this.
• Keep refocusing and insisting on basic purpose: Christian education exists to form Christians. Period. Anything “extra” needs to contribute to that mission.
• Accept that there will be fewer “activities,” and much more action.
A Plan to Make Disciples. Benjamin Franklin’s famous axiom applies to Christian education as to so much else: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” But what would a sound plan for educating the youngest disciples in a new Methodist denomination look like?
Again, we can use the failures of United Methodism’s Christian education to clarify our options and leverage insights from the debacle of public schools, too. Based on the wealth of information we have at our disposal about what does not work, it’s clear that several key components will need to feature in our planning.
1. We need a catechesis for Confirmation that applies denomination-wide. A GMC set of standards for all confirmands, toward which early years in Sunday school point, could be something as simple as questions and answers based on the Creed and the 10 Commandments. But there must be something concrete, it must contain the substance of the faith, and it must be used by all GMC churches. Why? Because in the absence of specificity, nonsense and pablum (and outright heresy) creep quietly in.
2. We need a set of age-specific goals for Christian formation that applies denomination-wide. If seven-year-olds in Mali are learning the names of the books of the Old Testament and the geography of Ancient Babylon, then seven-year-olds in Milwaukee and Malaysia are, too. This is a both/and goal: both the introduction of denominational goals for each age of child, and a commitment to forming a “common culture” of education across all the diverse regions and cultures of the new denomination. Why? Because in the absence of concrete goals, motivation fizzles. In the absence of across-the-board standards for those goals, a Tower of Babel of too many possibilities foments chaos.
3. We need parent-and-guardian complements to all catechesis, available to all adults denomination-wide. The vision for family-centered disciple-making – with the church as equipping, encouraging partner – must anchor Christian education in the GMC if we are going to be a Scripture-centered people.
4. We need curriculum that is content-rich and unequivocal about truth, curriculum that instructs. Too often, we have shied away from giving children straightforward instruction and erred on the side of therapeutic investigation: “How do you feel about this? What do you think you would have done?” etc. A child-centered lesson plan is very different from a Christ-centered lesson plan – and much less effective. We need excellent curriculum – excellently composed, excellently packaged, in service of excellence – that unabashedly invites the child learner to learn.
A Proven Pedagogy for Training Children. As the GMC builds for the future on classical Wesleyan orthodoxy, it seems appropriate that Christian education within the GMC should be based on the classical trivium by which John Wesley himself was educated. This system of education remains as effective today as several millennia ago, when Plato proposed the trivium in his Republic.
The classical trivium is a chronologically sequenced series of learning types linked to phases of human development. The earliest phase – the “grammar” years – emphasizes song, chanting, and memorization because young children love rhymes, songs, and they have a unique memory capacity. Committing scriptures to memory at an early age sets the stage for a lifetime love affair with God’s Word.
The middle phase – the “logic” years – emphasizes reasoning and logic. Tweens are famously argumentative and beginning to push against authority. This tendency can be leveraged to help build analytical skills and logical thinking (critical for apologetics).
The concluding phase – the “rhetoric” years – builds on the knowledge and skills learned in the preceding phases to help teenagers become effective communicators.
Training up children so that they not only know the truth of the gospel but can also persuasively transmit that truth to others fulfills our commitment to Christ to make disciples, even as it fulfills our commitment to our children to teach them the faith. That qualifies as a win/win proposition with eternal benefits.
Just like Jesus. There are only two episodes from Christ’s childhood extant in scripture: his presentation at the Temple as an infant, and his interaction with Temple elders as a precocious 12-year-old unwittingly left behind in Jerusalem by his parents. The Lord’s childhood as we know it is literally set in the Temple. If Jesus is our template, then we should be envisioning Church as the setting for the childhoods of Jesus-followers.
As we move toward the launch of the Global Methodist Church, I pray that we will envision our future sanctuaries, our gathering areas, and our classrooms – full of kids. And I pray that we will be totally crazy about them. Just like Jesus.
Shannon Vowell writes and teaches about making disciples of Jesus Christ. She blogs at shannonvowell.com.