I confess at least half of the reason I enjoy going to the movie theaters is that delicious buttery movie theater popcorn. I’m well aware many other popcorn lovers buy movie tickets largely to indulge their cravings, however despite the droves of popcorn fans I’ve never heard of a film production company that advertises for people to come see their movie so they can have their fill of popcorn. Focusing on the delicious popcorn rather than the appeal of the film in question would be pretty absurd. I could just as easily enjoy my popcorn watching the animated movie rather than the thriller. To get even me to spend my money on seeing a film, the production company needs instead to show me why their movie is important and what’s different about it than everything else. A production company that made this absurd popcorn trailer would be blatantly putting the cart before the horse, placing a very good side benefit of going to a movie before the real appeal to go see their movie. I fear in ministry to children, churches fall into this very dangerous error every Sunday and even worse, I think some children’s programs are driving on the wrong track to begin with.
Fun games, cute activities, creative crafts, and tasty snacks are all wonderful things in children and youth ministry but they can be our tools to wreak spiritual havoc if they become our primary focus or draw. Similarly, teaching moral direction and self-esteem to children in our churches is commendable but only when we have brought children to bask in God’s glory and see the wonder of the cross first and foremost. No, our draw, our clear emphasis ought to be what is of first importance. It is unfortunate that my previous sentence need be clarified in our current culture of children’s ministry, but the most important thing we must teach our children and well anyone in the church is the Gospel message. This sounds so obvious and many might feel I’m responding to a non-existent problem. But think; how many children’s curriculums relegate any clear articulation of Christ’s death and resurrection to the special Easter lesson? How many VBSs have special designated Gospel days while the other four either tell moral lessons or boost children’s self-esteem?
The honest reality is most church children’s workers and parents don’t see the problem and probably wouldn’t even notice if the Gospel day was replaced with something else cute found on Pinterest or if the annual mention of the cross in a children’s church curriculum was skipped over because all of the children were out of town. Sadly, this is the least of our problems with what is taught to children. On the rare occasion that Jesus is mentioned as anything more than a moral teacher, children’s programs fail to show children why they need salvation in the first place. When most lessons given to the children in our church neither acknowledge man’s depravity nor show our little one’s how even we fall so far short of God’s glory why are we surprised when their “decisions for Jesus” are nothing more than tacking on Jesus to their moralistic theology? Worse than the miserable teaching most churches pass on to our most vulnerable is the absence of significant outrage from maturing Christians who should know better. I’m confident if the content of the majority of church children’s programs were preached as a sermon congregants would rightly cry heresy. Why is the reaction so different when we teach our children error or just fail to show how all of scripture points us to Jesus? I conclude it’s because we have as they say put the emPHASis on the wrong sylAbble.
What is more likely to create a reaction in children’s ministry are the elements that should exist solely to reinforce the learning process. Crafts, fun songs, and silly games are often excellent tools to drive home the point of our lessons and they can even help us point to Jesus. These elements should help children remember the lesson not supersede the importance of it. This being said, I think too often these reinforcement tools have been treated as an end unto themselves. We have stopped asking if the activity helps children learn about our great God and started asking if the activities are the most fun or the cutest possible options. Too many children’s ministry volunteers are far quicker to judge a Sunday School lesson or a VBS by the quality of its activities rather than the quality of its Biblical teaching. This problem is not isolated to those who serve in children’s ministry but is likewise seen when a parent is quicker to ask their children if they had fun than what they learned about God. Some of the most popular crafts about passages like Jesus feeding the 5,000 directly contradict the point of the passage and end up focusing children’s attention away from the Savior, but of course they are cute. The idolatry of entertainment we broadcast to children and youth will not surprisingly lead our children to become creative and fun loving adults that find themselves basically decent and the church irrelevant.
When most churches are dedicated to provide the most entertaining and relevant time to children no matter the spiritual cost and when it seems most Sunday School prep occurs while on Pinterest one might ask if there is any hope for our children’s ministries. Indeed there is and it can be found in the pages of Jack Klumperhower’s Show them Jesus, in the gathering of Gospel centered children’s workers at Children Desiring God in Indianapolis, and most of all at the dining table of the family gathered together for family worship. We can put the horse before the carts in our churches, but we must do so by showing a greater commitment to what our children are taught than how they are taught. We will see real change when the theological discerning retired woman who has a few things to learn about relating to children is more important for our children’s ministries than the young man who has all the funnest ideas but can’t accurately teach the Word. We will see real change when parents study the Word with their children in their living rooms each night even when children find it a bit boring. Real change can and will come when we return to the rich theological foundations of children’s ministry that we saw in our churches hundreds of years ago.