Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Children's Studies

Here in North America summer is in its last throes before the inevitable slide into autumn. The nights are beginning to cool and the days are filled with hurried activity as parents and children begin to preparing for the return to school. Parks, campgrounds, pools, and other summer-focused businesses are preparing for the slow wind-down through the fall and into the winter. Tourist destinations are trying to eek out the last busy weeks by offering various deals and incentives but alas, Labor Day is upon us.

Churches also tend to have a certain cycle about them that roughly correspond with the school year and the summer vacation season. By and large the Vacation Bible School programs have all come to an end, the children have graduated to the next level of Sunday school classes, and fall/winter programs of all sorts are starting up. As I thought about all this activity I began reflecting upon children’s ministry in general.

The form of children’s ministries varies quite a bit based upon the resources of the particular congregation and the priority of children’s programs within those ministries. In some churches the children sit in relatively sparse classrooms not much different than their parents or grandparents did while in others the children’s areas are more like mini theme parks where the children can be stimulated with activities of all sorts. As one pastor told me “we not only want our children to learn, we want it to be fun. We want them to be looking forward to Sunday all week long. If they have a choice between going to church and going to Chuck E Cheese, we want them to choose church.”

While the outward form of these ministries varies considerably they are not that much different with regard to their overall approach. Most children’s ministries are designed to balance bible teaching and worship with various forms of fun and entertainment. There may be a different balance struck between how much is bible and how much is entertainment and there may be substantially different amounts of investment made in the rooms and resources available but the goal remains fundamentally the same. Teach kids important lessons and let them have fun.

The choices regarding how to balance these goals and what kind of investments to make in order to support them are very important and should be carefully considered by both ministry leaders and parents. My focus, however, is on the teaching elements in those ministries. There are a number of different teaching approaches that are often blended together in any children’s program. Some of these things such as singing songs, playing games, and doing crafts overlap between conveying lessons and having fun. There are other aspects, however, that are more obviously focused on the transfer of knowledge and information. There are two in particular that seem to be prominent.

The first is scripture memorization. This is one of the most basic and most important techniques for teaching children in church. Some churches spend a lot of time on it even encouraging the kids to learn the names and order of the bible books etc. and others tend to use this approach only during special teaching sessions such as a VBS week but virtually all churches do it. We are encouraged in many places in the bible to store up His word in our hearts, to know it, and meditate upon it and memorizing what He has said is an important beginning step in that process.

Another common aspect of children’s teaching is the use of bible stories. The stories of bible characters such as Moses, Jonah, Abraham, and Jesus are so compelling that they hold the interest of children and are easily remembered. The stories are often followed by a question and answer period that allows the teachers to give examples of how principals found in the stories can be applied in the life of the children.

These approaches, combined with the Christian focused crafts, games, snacks, and singing often seem to be rather effective in the lives of the children. They know the stories, seem to have a good understanding of the ethical principals of the faith and they can often melt their parent’s hearts by reciting the Ten Commandments from memory.

Why then do so many young people have such distorted views of the faith and truth in general by the time they finish college? It is quite fashionable within Christian circles to blame atheistic professors and the anti-Christian agendas of the universities and colleges for this problem but I think that is a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely an anti-Christian bias in many institutions of (so called) higher learning. I have degrees from secular universities and I have experienced firsthand the venom of hostile professors as well as students. Secularism, however, doesn’t seem to be the only problem because the statistics aren’t much better for those who attend “Christian” universities. Of course, there is the problem of liberal and secular infiltration into evangelical schools as well but why would these professors be so successful in undermining the faith of their students? The fact is that we want to blame others for these trends because the alternative makes us uncomfortable. If the problem isn’t out there somewhere then it must be, at least in part, something we are doing.

As a culture we often do not teach our children to think and in particular we don’t teach them to think critically about what they believe and why. Many of our children enter college with rather disconnected and poorly thought out theological positions. They can repeat what they were taught but they often have never had to process any challenges to it. It is true that the pressures of the university and the working world are formidable but they are nothing compared to the pressures of the coliseum, the flame, and the sword which other young Christians gladly faced long ago because they understood what they were dying for.

Much of what we consider “traditional” in Christian children’s education is actually not that old. The Sunday school model, which in one form or another still dominates most of our churches, was not developed until the mid 1700’s. In fact, until the 1800’s the Sunday Schools were primarily operated separately from churches and were focused primarily on increasing literacy and general educational among the poor. In the early 1800’s Sunday schools began to be associated more closely with churches and began to be used specifically as doctrinal and evangelical outreaches. Under the influence of D.L. Moody this model expanded rapidly and today it is difficult to imagine an evangelical church without a Sunday school program.

From what I have gathered from my reading through the years the primary training mechanism of the historical church for children was the use of catechisms. Doctrinal points were organized into a series of questions and answers that the children were expected to memorize. Catechisms along with the memorization of scripture and creeds such as The Apostles Creed were the foundation of a Christian education for both children and new converts. The power of this type of approach is that the catechisms and creeds are systematic expressions of the faith. They entail a particular worldview rather than an individual relational emphasis. These kinds of questions and answers, if understood properly, are much more effective in organizing the various truths of Christian faith in such a way as to defend against the inroads of competing worldviews. They are an effective antidote to the disconnected a la carte Christianity that many people today have.

That isn’t to say that this approach doesn’t have its own weaknesses. The catechisms eventually came to be seen as too scholastic and too intellectual.  To many, the process seemed somewhat cold and distant and the argument was often raised that rather than defend denominational orthodoxy (as creeds and catechisms tend to do) children should be taught to engage the scriptures directly. Another criticism was that the church institutions should be geared more toward evangelization of the children rather than doctrinal instruction. A focus on the individual experience of the students in their relationship with Christ was thought to be better than the memorization of theological propositions. We should not minimize the force of these arguments. By the mid 19th century (the time when the approach in Christian education began to change) stories about characters that were theologically well educated but morally delinquent were a popular theme even among secular writers (Hawthorne, Hogg, etc.). It is important that we always recognize that Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing Him.

The other problem is that most of the historical creeds and confessions are rather advanced when compared with the current curriculums in use in modern children’s programs. Many adults today would have trouble answering some of the questions contained in them and yet at the time they were written young children were expected to know and explain the answers. Attention spans and learning styles shift over time and it is doubtful that our current culture would be conducive to that as the primary form of instruction. It certainly wouldn’t match up well with Chuck E Cheese! Of course, it is possible to write new catechisms but if you remove too much of the precision they lose their distinctive value. It seems therefore that a return to the older methods, despite some possible benefits, is probably not practical or desirable.

Simply returning to a catechismal approach would not be an improvement. Other traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have retained a central role for their catechism and yet many Catholics still cannot explain the basic distinctives of their faith. I believe that the more systematic training is appropriate after a child understands and professes faith in Christ. The problem in our modern Sunday school models isn’t the fact that they are evangelistically focused. It is that they too often stop there. There are a few basic things that I think could be done (and are being done in many places) to better prepare our children to face the world when they go out on their own. Let’s begin with the two major teaching components of current programs, namely bible memorization and bible stories.

Scripture memorization is an extremely valuable exercise. Although our primary concern is that the children know what the scriptures mean they cannot do that unless they know what the scriptures say. The thing that we need to be careful of, however, is that the children do not come to see these memorized verses as independent units. The bible doesn’t teach in verses and we need to be cautious that we do not encourage our children to see the word of God as a disconnected series of points rather than as a unified revelation of God. We have a tendency to isolate particular verses rather than thinking of them as functioning in their broader contexts. As the children get older we should combine the memorization of verses with exposure to broader teaching units and themes in scripture. Doing this forces the students to think about the meaning (and non-meaning) of the verse in conjunction with broader theological truths. Obviously this has to be done in an age appropriate way and every student and class will have a different level of ability that the teacher will need to adjust to.

There may be nothing more important than exposing maturing students directly to the biblical text and much of the “meat” of current Sunday school programs consists of bible stories and discussions about them. There are certain concepts that young people are just not ready to handle but quite often we do something that I think is unhelpful when teaching kids bible stories, particularly when using the Old Testament. We often neuter the stories and remove many of the elements that are most important to their purpose and function within the broader context of God’s revelation. The result is that Old Testament stories are often reduced to moral examples that teach an ethical system without the underlying theological foundation. The lessons that children in many Sunday school classes take away from their classes are therefore similar to the kinds of points that were the focus of 19th century liberal sermons. Through these stories the children are taught to be kind, respectful, demonstrating love to one another. It is almost as if we are saying to them “God loves good little boys and girls so listen to your parents and be nice and if you believe in Him and love Him back then nothing bad will happen to you.”

Thankfully, many teachers are more careful when it comes to teaching about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Because of the evangelical focus they tend to be clear about the theological significance of this event and the desired response. Interestingly this is probably the second most theologically complex narrative in the scripture (2nd only to the incarnation) and yet it is boldly taught to the children and they generally understand it. We should be as bold in explaining the other doctrinal elements in scripture. To do so doesn’t require us to venture off into some esoteric scholasticism because the plain teachings are so rich with connections and implications of obvious importance. The Old Testament writings, for example, do not just contain moral examples for us to live by but they are also the building record of God’s promised salvation through the coming messiah and of His holy nature and purposes in redemptive history. The beautiful thing is that the imagery used in those texts provide us with all we need to explain the ideas using concrete rather than abstract language.

There are so many wonderful and gifted people involved in teaching children in the church. We need to thank them and encourage them in this crucial ministry. Pray for them, talk to them, and follow up with your children to discuss their lessons. If we want them to be as effective as possible in their ministry we need to be involved in the process of teaching our children to think. We must encourage our children to learn and encourage their teachers to teach and by God’s grace He will lead them into the truth and protect them from the assaults of the enemy.

1 comment:

  1. M.J Adler said the educational system in the U.S is about 100 years behind. You brought up an interesting point, children need to be taught how to think for themselves. That's the only defense against secular philosophy and liberalism.