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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith of a Child, a book review

Perspectives on Children's Spiritual Formation
Greg Carlson, Tim Ellis, Trisha Graves, Scottie May (Contributors)
Michael J. Anthony (Editor)

Review by Amy M. Edwards (2007)

Recently I sat listening to Larry Fowler, author of Rock-Solid Kids (2004), present a workshop on the subject of the Gospel. As a staff member of AWANA International, teaching the Gospel to children is Dr. Fowler’s life focus. His workshop covered key portions of his book and discussed the importance of remaining true to the Gospel, namely, that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). If this seems to be an obvious exhortation for an audience of children’s ministry workers, think again. While it would be rare to find an evangelical advocate leaving out the Gospel when ministering to children, it turns out that there are widely varying views among evangelicals of what ministry to children should be.

In his workshop Dr. Fowler ominously mentioned a children’s ministry movement that believes that children need not a conversion experience but need only to allow the bit of God within them to be nurtured to its fullness. Attributing the movement to a Wheaton College (Illinois) professor, I was curious. Looking into it, I discovered that this movement might be described more charitably, but that evangelical children’s ministry is in the throes of change.

Traditionally the responsibility of a congregation’s wives and mothers (although Scripture places the responsibility with the father in Ephesians 6:4), children’s ministry has matured to the point that it has become the subject of academic study, research, and publications. The mega-church has accelerated this process by requiring full-time staff to manage the burgeoning size of their children’s programs. Biola University professor Michael Anthony attempts to help us sort out the different views of children’s spirituality that direct the different methods of “doing” children’s ministry, all within the circle of evangelicalism. In his book Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation (2006) he invited the contribution of representatives of four views: Scottie May writes about the “Contemplative-Reflective Model,” Gregory C. Carlson and John K. Crupper present the “Instructional-Analytic Model,” Trisha Graves brings us the “Pragmatic-Participatory Model,” and Tim Ellis, Bill Baumgart, and Greg Carper (the KIDMO team) explain the “Media-Driven Active-Engagement Model.” Mr. Anthony himself contributes an introduction that aims to tell us how views of children’s spirituality have changed over the course of history, giving us a context in which to place the four views that follow. (It is telling that the major publishing houses of children’s Sunday School materials are not represented. It seems that Scripture Press, Group, Standard, Cook, Lifeway, and others are suffering the unkindest cut of all as they are irrelevant to the discussion.)

Dr. Scottie May, a professor of Christian Formation at Wheaton College, describes a model of ministry influenced by high-church tradition and Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education. Dr. Carlson and Dr. Crupper, both of AWANA International, come closest to the traditional evangelical methods long in use in America’s Sunday Schools, although they more specifically discuss AWANA clubs, which are a mid-week meeting for children. Ms. Graves serves as a children’s pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, California. Her model of ministry is increasingly recognizable to American evangelicals; it is the model of the mega-church children’s ministry (consider Willow Creek’s Promiseland materials). Finally, there is KIDMO. Calling the KIDMO method the Media-Driven Active-Engagement Model dignifies a method that seems to say, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” More on that later.

Dr. May’s Contemplative-Reflective method finds its philosophical foundation in the work of Maria Montessori. Calvin famously said, “All truth is from God,” allowing that any truth discovered by non-believers is still Truth. But Maria Montessori’s conclusions about children make assumptions about their nature that seem to contradict what the Bible tells us about mankind, namely that we are all sinners in need of redemption. Dr. May’s method seems to assume that children need mostly for adults to get out of their way and given the proper setting they will naturally turn their focus to God and instinctively know to pray, worship, and follow Jesus.

The idea that a proper environment nurtures an inborn spirituality in children is what Dr. Fowler must find so suspicious. I think the spirituality that Dr. May sees in children might be more familiarly described as a God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart, but Dr. May’s confidence in the child’s ability to be their own teacher and her fear of telling the child what the “story” means in case of interfering with the Holy Spirit raise my suspicions. Of the four views, Dr. May’s best understands that it is the Holy Spirit which draws a child into belief and yet her confidence in this leads her to de-emphasize instruction. I would argue that children need concrete instruction in truth to be able to respond to it.

Which brings us to the Instructional-Analytic Model. It is mildly surprising that Dr. Anthony invited AWANA representatives to write this model, given that AWANA is designed to be a supplemental outreach program in the church rather than a primary Sunday School program. On the other hand, AWANA may be one of the only groups left that is able to articulate and defend a model that emphasizes old-fashioned concepts of teaching and imparting a Biblical education to children in church. (Aren’t evangelicals doing all they can to wash their hands of school on Sunday?) Of course, the Instructional-Analytic Model doesn’t instruct for its own sake. A method steeped in Scripture, this view believes that children come to belief after gaining an understanding of the Gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:2-3 along with foundational truths of God’s Word. Dr. Carlson and Dr. Crupper believe that God reveals Himself to us through creation and through the Bible, so the best way to introduce God to children is to teach them the Bible. It is hard to argue with that and in fact no one appears to. Instead, in response, Dr. May worries about a fact-based instruction that fails to change the hearts of children and finds AWANA’s emphasis one-sided and imbalanced.

This brings to mind that none of these views are formed in a vacuum. In many ways, Dr. Carlson and Dr. Crupper feel compelled to emphasize teaching Scripture because they worry that popular new methods are neglecting this. If the Contemplative-Reflective Model emphasizes the environment and the Instructional-Analytic Model emphasizes the content, then Ms. Graves’ Pragmatic-Participatory Model emphasizes the delivery system.

The Pragmatic-Participatory Model is concerned that the important message of the Gospel must be delivered to children in a realistic way. In this view, children’s ministry must consider the nitty-gritty realities of the American church. It is difficult to recruit children’s workers; it is difficult to retain the interest of children; and it is difficult to accommodate all learning styles. An effective model, then, must address these difficulties. Ms. Graves clearly feels that the mega-church methods of Willow Creek’s Promiseland and others have found the solution in programming (not instruction) that uses drama, music, energetic worship, and games. This model uses volunteers in a specialized way, parading worship leaders, Bible “communicators,” and small group leaders across the stage, if you will, in contrast to the traditional Sunday School teacher who leads all aspects of a smaller class. Ms. Graves seeks to be faithful to the Gospel (it should be presented three times annually), expects children to experience a conversion experience, and cares deeply about bringing God’s Word to children who have never heard it before, all in a fun, exciting package.

What do we make of this? Ms. Graves’ view is now the primary view of the seeker-friendly mega-church and most other churches patterning themselves after such churches are turning to this model, with varying success. Dr. May’s concept of spiritual formation bristles at Ms. Graves “baptistic theology” and she rightly is uncomfortable with a topic-driven curriculum that fails to give a sense of the overall redemptive message of the Bible. With Bible passages chosen to support an identified principle (rather than identifying principles taught by a passage) the risk is that kids don’t understand the whole Bible. However, the AWANA folks see the Pragmatic-Participatory view as an ally in the battle to protect the primacy of the Gospel and mostly affirm the view.

My own sense is that churches are flocking to this model and method mostly because it is the newest thing to reach “today’s kid.” Buzzwords abound in describing today’s media-savvy, cynical, multi-tasking, post-modern, relativist child and evangelicals are paralyzed with angst over how to reach today’s child with the Gospel. In this, Scottie May does well to remind us that we don’t reach today’s child, the Holy Spirit does. I can’t help but think of Solomon wisely observing that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Evangelicals worry about making the Bible relevant to the new generation, but I’m not convinced this was our assignment in the first place. Must we bear the burden of making the Gospel relevant?

Absolutely, according to the folks behind KIDMO. Their Media-Driven Active-Engagement Model rests on two main principles: ministry is culturally conditioned and God reveals Himself in multimedia. It is hard to take KIDMO seriously when they themselves do not seem to take God’s word seriously, although they claim to be “faithful to the Word of God in reaching kids with the gospel.”

KIDMO, for the uninitiated, is a DVD curriculum for children’s ministry that is meant to provide the primary elements of a church’s children’s program. Johnny Rogers, the KIDMO founder who comes to us from Orbit Church (and before that, famously, Saddleback), appears on screen and in the best Blue’s Clues fashion converses with the children who, in theory, are actively engaged with what he is saying. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; I witnessed KIDMO when it was used briefly at a Wichita church and saw just the opposite. Children sat like zombies on benches while the screen flashed in front of them. (The church has since discontinued KIDMO.) The episode I saw presented the Good Samaritan parable, but adapted the story in such a way as to use fruit for people and to eliminate entirely any reference to a Levite, Priest, or Samaritan. (This is apparently completely irrelevant to today’s child!)

Research actually suggests that media-driven anything results in disengagement. Furthermore, how can any evangelical seriously advocate stripping Bible stories of all historical context in the name of relevancy? Actually, plenty are doing so as KIDMO says that they are adding new churches to their ministry all the time. Johnny Rogers boasts that kids love KIDMO and the implication is that an unpopular kids’ ministry is a failure.

Dr. May responds with dismay. And who can blame her? Certainly KIDMO cares nothing for reverent atmosphere, contemplation or reflection. Even Ms. Graves, who wishes to have a fun children’s ministry, points out the dangers in prioritizing relevancy to the point that the faithful communication of Scripture is sacrificed. Meanwhile, Dr. Carlson and Dr. Crupper, of AWANA, rightly remind us that media is not all that it is cracked up to be.

As children’s ministry workers we must understand the philosophies behind curricula and as parents it is vital that when we entrust our own children to a children’s ministry each weekend we do so with eyes wide open. Michael Anthony has done us all a service by collecting these four views into one volume. I’m disappointed that he did not ask for the input of the authors of Children Desiring God. This excellent curriculum aims to teach the Bible in a God-centered, not man-centered, way. It is my prediction that Children Desiring God will find its own niche in the children’s ministry marketplace, appealing to churches that are not interested in “the latest thing” as much as they are committed to introducing children to GOD whose Son Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith.

***UPDATE 1/11/10: Since this book review I've written a critique of KIDMO in a blog post here. In addition, I've explained more fully why I believe that Children Desiring God is such a great option here.


mar13 said...

Thanks for the review - it was very helpful. With Spiritual Formation is teh rage these days, I began to wonder about how is that supposed to work out at the early ages, and you reviewed the answers.

richard said...

enjoyed the review-my church school is using Kidmo and our attendance is way down. I have some concerns re: content and presentation. Any comments appreciated. thanx

Mrs. Edwards said...

Hi Richard!
I haven't kept up with Kidmo since my research for this review, but I can give more first-hand testimony about Children Desiring God, a ministry and curriculum from Desiring God ministries, which is led by John Piper. I teach the third grade level of this curriculum, which is called "In the Beginning, Jesus." The study takes the kids through OT history, hunting for clues that answer the mystery of Jesus' death. It shows the kids how the promise of Jesus is woven into every Old Testament event. This curriculum is focused on teaching children about GOD and His plan for redemption first and foremost. For more on this, be sure to click on the Children Desiring God link in my blog's right sidebar.

Kidmo, like many popular children's ministry curricula, is focused on teaching principles of moral behavior. Moral behavior is great, but that should be the response to receiving Jesus, not the aim or means to receiving Jesus.

There is a bit of debate (to put it mildly) between some who prefer topic-driven (also called "practical") teaching and those who prefer chronological (or this could be called expository) teaching. There is a place for topical studies (a sermon series on marriage, missions, stewardship, etc.), but I am wary of ministries that are exclusively topic-driven. Let's study the Bible and discover what God wants to teach, not pull a topic and thesis together and then go find Scriptures to fit our thesis. (I've posted on this here:

Unfortunately, many of the typical children's ministry lessons from Kidmo and some of the others, are based on a theme or topic and the Scriptures are obviously chosen after the fact. Sometimes it is painful to see how Scripture is put to use.

I'm not sure these thoughts are any help to you, but I will pray for your situation and that whatever the case, God will use it to bring you closer to Him as you seek His plan for you and your church school.

Em 'n Ems said...

I realize these posts are years old, but this is still a topic that is at the forefront of CM. I'm a children's minister/director and feel sometimes like I'm more of a curriculum guard. Recently I've been trying to dodge the push towards adopting Kidmo at our church because of its apparent success at some other large churches. I simply cannot do it, for the reasons you've stated here and in your more recent blog post dated Jan. 11, 2010.

Thank you so much for taking the time to put your critique out there, I'm only disappointed that I don't here more voices like yours speaking out at conferences and workshops.

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