Taking Steps to Be With Kids (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by John Alan Turner and Reggie Joiner
May – August, 2004

The 70s and 80s were interesting times to grow up in churches in the United States. Full-time paid youth ministers became more common, and children’s church let kids experience a style of worship that made sense for them—even if we did have to suffer through 10,000 puppet versions of the Good Samaritan. Some of us can actually remember flannel boards and “sword drills,” but for the most part we were the first generation to benefit from a more intentional approach to relevant children’s programming.

Recently, however, emergent church culture has exposed a fatal flaw in our segmented spiritual upbringing. We missed out on real community—particularly intergenerational community. We were trained by our culture (even our church culture) to think mono-generationally. Everything was so age-appropriate that we never had to learn how to do some simple, basic things like sit still, pay attention or put up with something we didn’t particularly care for, for the sake of someone else. These are big things to miss.

One of the prices we have had to pay for our segregation was a resulting disconnection. Our system produced groups of people—young and old—who can’t understand each other at all, let alone connect spiritually. We’ve reaped a harvest of confusion, even division, in many of our churches. And it’s left a trail of discouraged people—young and old—who don’t know where they belong or what they hold in common.

Dr. Holly Allen has invested in research that may change the future of the church. The best question she asks is this one: “If children really do benefit from age-appropriate worship, what is the problem [with separating them and creating something just for them]?” Obviously, there are several problems in continuing to do this.

For one thing, we’ll raise more self-centered worshipers who believe that if the song service wasn’t to their liking, the gathering was a waste of time. For another thing, we’ll continue to miss the importance of considering the needs, likes and desires of others.

There is no doubt she is overwhelmingly right. There is obviously tremendous benefit to kids participating with their parents in worship. Yet, every Sunday morning, churches around the nation are “singing them out” with one round of Yes, Jesus Loves Me before many important events of worship ever get started. And the market for children’s church curriculum continues to grow.

There is something seriously wrong with the complete segregation of families. But one difference between our view and what Dr. Allen is proposing is that we are questioning the idea that the solution is necessarily to put kids in pews during adult worship services on Sunday morning. So we ask, Why should we expect children to attend our worship? We believe this strategy is backwards. What other adult events do we force kids to attend? We don’t expect an eight year old to play on a men’s softball team, and we usually don’t take our children to the same movies or plays that we would watch. So why do we expect kids to somehow adjust and have a positive experience in an adult worship service? Somewhere after the first ten minutes, won’t they learn to check out? Are we, over time, programming them to think that church is boring?

Some churches work hard trying to effectively incorporate children into their adult worship services. They may have a special mini-sermon for kids in the middle of their adult church. Some churches print a special insert in the Sunday bulletin for kids to read and color during the sermon. There are even children’s ministries that do workshops to teach parents how to get their kids to behave and participate in adult worship service.

But think about what the Apostle Paul wrote: “[N]ow we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).

A First Step
Let’s ask some questions. Why not create something special just for children and go worship with them? Jesus didn’t say anywhere, “Unless you become like an adult….” But he did say, “Unless you [adults] become like children….” Maybe “adult” worship could use a good dose of childlikeness.

We don’t think it should be up to the child to make an adjustment to fit into our adult world. It should be the parent who makes the adjustment to understand and live in a kid’s world. What if moms and dads attended a worship experience that focused on their family and targeted issues that specifically related to their children and home, exposing kids and parents to ideas and truths that can apply as a family?

Would a generation of children raised up in an environment where this sort of consideration was modeled every Sunday become more considerate of others themselves? Could this be one large step towards a long-term solution to intergenerational conflict and resolution of worship wars in church?

*****

As Dr. Allen says, children do need a warm, caring, deep sense of belonging, in an environment where they can make sense of their experience of God. But are we offering them warm, caring, concerned interaction if we present them with a form of worship that doesn’t ever relate on their level? Do we love our children more than we love our traditions? Would we be willing to scrap some of them (traditions, not our children) if it would mean more of our children would connect with God in the long-run?

A Second Step
What about wiping the slate clean, starting with a blank slate? Or at least how about shifting our paradigm, the one that says everyone has to apply every discovery to the existing traditional framework of the church. Why does it have to fit somehow with what we presently do? Should we consider the possibility that the information Dr. Allen presents suggests that we should do something entirely different? If we really want to reach the next generation, we have to confront the possibility that we need to change how our generation does church.

Would a generation raised up by a group of people willing to create new things for them feel more cared for? Would they feel more accepted? Would they be more likely to believe in the God who was the first to create something just for us?

*****

Dr. Allen says it is important for children to observe their parents at church. We agree. But do we want to model a spiritual life for our kids that’s all about, or even primarily about Sundays? We think the spiritual life has far more to do with the other six days of the week. What about what children observe at home, at the store or (gasp) sitting in the car in traffic? We would rather parents not demonstrate a faith at church if they are not going to at home, because that suggests that their faith is reserved for “church” and is not real for every day. Children are incredibly sensitive to inconsistency. We must be careful they don’t make a judgment about the validity of Christianity because they never see it as something that impacts the decisions that are made throughout the week.

A Third Step
What about thinking in terms of a seven-day-a-week faith? What if we put something in the hands of parents to help them connect Sundays to Mondays and Tuesdays, etc.? Why not seek ways to allow families an opportunity to talk during the week about what they’ve learned together on Sunday? Is what we believe important enough that we’re willing to think in terms of weeks instead of Sundays?

What would a generation raised up in a seven-day-a-week faith tradition look like? Is it possible that something so simple could actually bring families back together in really meaningful ways?

*****

We need to honestly re-evaluate and determine what’s working and what’s not. We need to take into account what Prest and Dr. Allen and others are saying. But are we going to re-evaluate in the context of an old and possibly outdated model? Or could we create something entirely new? What’s going to happen if we take these new ideas we have and try to shoe-horn them into our existing (and already burdensome) schedule?

A Fourth Step
Pruning? Are we willing to cut some other things in order to make this work? Or are we going to try to pour new wine into old wineskins? Perhaps this is too much to even consider, but what if we were willing to re-think the way we do church in general? Are we curious enough to even ask?

What could the next generation look like? What do we want them to look like? What if we started with the end in mind?

*****

We tried to do just that—to start with the end in mind.

In 1996, we were faced with a situation not much different from what many churches face. Our families with young children needed a consistent place to take their kids on Sunday mornings, but space was an issue. We could have borrowed temporary facilities and created separate classes for adults and children; but we felt like we were being led, through our circumstances, to re-think what we had always done. We knew we wanted to bring families back together, we just didn’t know how.

A number of children’s ministers suggested that such a program would have too wide of an age span to be really effective. Then our family went to see “Lion King,” and we were reminded that Disney reaches millions by designing programs that connect with all ages. A summer later, we began.

We scrapped our traditional notions of Church and Sunday school and sought to plan for something that would keep families together and allow parents to take more responsibility for the spiritual lives of their children. We designed a family-centered, kid-focused, value-driven environment where parents can have a shared experience with their kids every Sunday morning—and we called it KidStuf. It’s a 45-minute program that uses music, drama and storytelling to teach kids about a Christlike virtue. We prepared class and small-group curriculum that supports what we do in KidStuf so that kids are hearing the same thing with their families, with their peers and from their teachers. (Doesn’t every parent want the spiritual values they’re teaching their children to be reinforced by other adults and peers?) And we created the FamilyTimes Virtue Pack, a resource that provides tools and multi-media materials to help parents connect with their kids at morning time, meal time, drive time and bed time (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have a solution that’s working for us and between 60,000 and 100,000 children on any given Sunday at churches of all denominations in churches all over the world. We’ve taken a step to bring kids and parents together in a strategically designed faith environment that shows kids how important we think their relationship with God is. We hope that our kids feel like they belong in church and to God. We hope that our parents feel empowered to connect with their kids spiritually, even beyond the walls and time constraints of a Sunday morning environment. We hope that the step we’ve taken will pave the way for generational reconciliation and healing. We hope God will be pleased as we try to put new wine into New Wineskins. And we hope the next generation will follow in our footsteps and take it again one step further. Who knows where those steps may lead?

Find out more at KidStuf.com, 252Basics.com or FamilyWise.org. Turner and Joiner also help direct GrowUp Conferences (growuponline.com). They invite you to “Sundays at Northpoint,” where you may enter some of their environments, tour their facilities and get to know some of the people involved.New Wineskins

Reggie Joiner is the Executive Director of Family Ministry at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and founder of KidStuf, an intergenerational environment where families learn Christlike virtues in innovative ways. Reggie and his wife, Debbie, live in Cumming, Georgia and have four children: Reggie Paul, Hannah, Sarah, and Rebekah.

John Alan Turner lives in Norcross, Georgia, with his wife, Jill, and their three daughters Anabel, Eliza and Amelia. John teaches, writes and works with several ministries including Reflections Ministries and 252Basics – a company that provides relevant, family-oriented curriculum to more than 600 churches and Christian schools. He is co-author of the upcoming book How Now Shall We Live as Parents? email John Alan Turner.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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