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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Avant Garde Children's Ministry

A regular listener of childrensministrytalk.com, I threw out a question to the guys there a few weeks back. Here in Twin Falls, we'd been rethinking our Sunday School program at church, wondering whether it's still an effective model at our church, but also at all churches. The guys at CM Talk threw out some great thoughts to get my wheels turning. Among other things, they confirmed my suspicion that children's leaders are rethinking a lot of things right now. Leaders are dreaming about new ways to offer a compelling message, or perhaps a compelling invitation. They're trying to make sense of our current cultural landscape, which itself is changing compared to 30 or 40 years ago, which is when (if you've been following my History of CM thread) Kids Church started.

I have a quote on the wall of my office that tends to stop me in my tracks, "A question that sometimes drives me hazy; am I or the others crazy?" by Albert Einstein. As someone who likes to think he's pushing for a new approach to CM, I often ask this myself, though many days I admittedly go home thinking, "Yeah, it's probably -I-!"

But this week offered me some hope from a strange place, a place that I'm sure did not intend to offer it on these terms! It came from a new friend named Brent Jensen, who leads the music department at our local college in Twin Falls. (Side note: if you ever want your soul to melt, listen to Brent play a saxophone solo). I caught one of his lectures on "Free Jazz":

I love his thought at around 3:30. He makes a comparison between most popular music and avant garde jazz, avant garde simply meaning "experimental" or "unorthodox". Popular music, he says, is made with the consumer in mind. There's an end product. Great efforts are put into crafting songs that people will purchase or listen to. Avant garde tends to question all this and says, "Why? Why are these the boundaries, and why aren't these other things the boundaries instead?" Brent's great summary paraphrased says that popular music is about the product, where avant garde music is about the process.

I might add that when avant garde surfaces in any trade, craft, or movement, a fairly standard pattern has happened throughout history. In our case, say that musicians produce music that does, indeed, question the traditional approaches. This usually launches a discussion or argument, though sometimes niche, between other people and artists about the benefits and drawbacks of the old and new approaches, which is often what such "avant garde" artists hoped would happen in the first place. For example, I still remember teachers in college who were adamant that jazz died in 1959 with the rise of Ornette Coleman (avant garde) and others. So you can see that there's lively discussion to be had!

This is exactly what I see happening in children's ministry. Even just today I had a pleasant exchange with a volunteer in another state who is rethinking some children's stuff at his place of worship. "How can we better connect kids with Jesus?" seems to be one of many questions at hand, all over the country. Even a Google search reveals books, blogs, and speeches passionately appealing one approach, and abandoning another.

This is all kind of tricky for a person to get their head around, since it's abstract. I don't know exactly what the conversation is about, but traditional approaches to children's ministry seem to be in question at a lot of places. (Cue Pete Townshend, "Call out the instigators, because there's something in the air.") Can't tell you how many churches have abandoned traditional Sunday School in favor of something else... kids church, "small groups", even some churches who say families should all just sit together during church, and "children's ministry" should be all about empowering parents. At our church, the conversation is about an educational model vs. a conversational model in children's ministry. What a fun time to be alive! Is the world moving to a period of avant garde children's ministry? What dreams do you have about children's ministry, or otherwise, that may just be seedlings at the moment?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are Introverts Good Leaders?

A bit addicted lately to sites like academicearth.org, I ran across an interview by Harvard Business School that got me thinking.
I wonder what you think of this interview! One thing that stood out was Gino's argument that it's best for introverts to lead authentically and adapt a little, not the other way around. Gino also suggested that being extroverted is generally seen as more of an asset in leadership than being introverted, implying that introverts may feel pressure to become an extrovert... "Don't do this!" she says (paraphrasing). Lead authentically, and adapt a little.

Another article in Forbes suggests a key strength of introverted leaders is the ability to think first and talk later. An introvert by nature, I'll be the first to say that my worst conversations and exchanges are the ones where I do just the opposite! Sometimes I'll speak hastily, eager to come across as an upbeat person and get my point across. A go-getter. You know, an extrovert!

It's refreshing to remember that us introverts can bring a unique set of strengths to the table, while having freedom to adapt when advantageous or necessary. Here's to all the introverted leaders out there!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Would You Kill One to Save Five?

Annie and I have been watching a lecture series called "Justice" by Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard, which is totally free. Turns out some 15,000 students have gone through it, and we join the chorus of praise for it; it's wonderful. He bypasses all the usual introductions and begins his first lecture, "The Moral Side of Murder", with, "This is a course about justice, and we begin with a story." The story:

You're the driver of a 60mph trolley car, hurdling without brakes down the track. 5 workers are further down the track, and assume that you know for sure that they will die if you hit them. A ray of hope: a sidetrack! On the sidetrack, there stands a single worker. So you could kill the one, and spare the five. What's the right thing to do? What do you do?

Sandel takes a poll and creates a fantastic classroom dialogue - impressive, considering the class size fills a small stadium! His speaking style is warm and engaging, yet challenging and thoughtful. He has a way of facilitating conversation that reflects people's thoughts without judging them. In this way he welcomes diverse opinions in the same room - not always an easy thing to do when discussing topics like justice and ethics.

A few weeks back I had the fun experience of seeing an old friend who was visiting nearby. We met, and he told me about his ongoing graduate studies in law school, specifically for the purpose of forming more clarity in housing market laws. So justice is a big deal for him. I asked him for a quick and dirty definition of justice, and he gave me three that gave me enough pause to stop what I was doing to just sit and think:

1) Justice is self-determination, as in, people get to set their own course in life instead of being in support roles against their will for others who rely on them for their self-determination.

2) Justice is correcting the imbalances that build up over time under unhealthy systems (like slavery).

3) Justice is changing the way society runs so that involuntary support roles are not part of the normal order of things.

Jesus followers have to reckon with justice. Like, it appears in a sweeping, perhaps alarming fashion within some 7 chapters into the Bible (!), where God wipes out all human existence save for one family. The systemic imbalance is overwhelming, we're told, and the future of humans needs correcting. It's begs asking, "What if the flood didn't happen? What if people had been allowed to continue down whatever crooked path they were walking?" We don't really know, but it doesn't look promising. It says Noah was the last person on Earth who was still close to God, and that would the new starting point for all humans going forward. The implications or results of "being far from God" were violence and corruption (6:11-12), so not exactly a happy, healthy place.

All to say, strange as it may seem at first, the flood actually appears to be a second chance for humankind. This justice was actually redemptive! God's correction, in Genesis' P.O.V., is much needed and can be painful. Talk about unsettling! But there's also hope woven throughout even this wide-reaching, painful justice.

Now the really fun part: how do you invite kids into this story, or even more, the idea of justice? Too much unsettling would be hurtful to a child - bypassing hope & innocence and heading straight for skepticism, which probably isn't a great place to camp out for the long-term. On the other hand, children will... WILL... be confronted with these scriptural and spiritual realities at some point. To ignore that truth altogether is to ignore their well-being. What do you do?

Well, I'd love to hear what you would do, or are doing. Here's a few things we're doing at our church:
- Remember the central message of the Bible - redemption through Jesus. Jesus brings hope that can be both felt and seen. Start and end there. The story of Noah starts and end with redemption... there's a reason for it.
- Start simple. As my friend pointed out, there are layers to justice. So ideally I'll "layer" my level of detail over the child's lifetime by introducing what's appropriate at various times. Language is everything here. Take David and Bathsheeba - I'm not going to go into graphic detail about the sex, adultery, and additional lying that took place during preschool years. That wouldn't be healthy. Plus, in my particular position, parents have a better pulse on the individual needs of their children - I see a fairly different batch of kids each week, so I'll leave the level of detail to parents' judgment. I'll keep the story fairly simple and concrete. Then I'll pray for, talk with, and do my best to empower parents to have further conversations with their kids about these things. But in the end, my hope is to point kids towards Jesus. Trust that He'll actually speak to kids, and invite them to hear from him.
- Speak on real terms with lots of examples. I got caught cheating in the second grade by giving answers to a guy who didn't study for an exam on the 13 colonies. I got punished, and it was not a happy day for me! Then I had another opportunity in 8th grade to give answers to a girl next to me on a computer exam. I remembered what happened in 2nd grade, and didn't give her the answers. She wasn't happy about it at first, but I decided not to pay much attention. I made a good grade, and allowed her to receive the consequences of her bad decision, rather than enabling her to avoid it. If you've had any success learning from your experiences, share those!


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Everyday Redemption

Being in my line of work affords the opportunity to hear about more kids movies than there are countable smurfs. And such experience has led me to a particular theory, if you'll run with me. I have a theory that there's an inner monkey banshee, who also happens to be an avid Pixar fan, that lives inside every child - and even just mentioning the name of any such movie in, say, Kids Church for example, wakes the banshee and elicits involuntary vocal spasms unlike anything you've ever heard. Which, let's face it children's leaders, makes for a fantastic tie-in to your talking points for the day.

Why the screams? One reason, perhaps, is there's a basic plot outline that, time after time, grabs the audience. Were it Mad-Libs, it'd go like this:
[Grace/2nd Chance]:__________

Let's plug in the first Cars movie.

Hero: Lightning McQueen
Outer Problem: Gets sidetracked from his big race. Has to repair roads in small town of Radiator Springs. Inner problem: character flaws like arrogance and selfishness.
Justice/Correction: Sentenced by a judge to repair all the roads, and consequentially miss his big race
Grace: McQueen ends up befriending the citizens of Radiator Springs, does good job on the roads (eventually), brings a sense of refreshment and new-ness to the old town. He's allowed, finally, to attend his big race.
*SPOILER ALERT* Redemption: Is transformed in this process, character flaws overcome. Attends the big race, doesn't technically win, but wins the hearts of stadium fans.

Some adults watch these movies and enjoy the occasional current events reference, witty joke, or creative play-on-words. Many other adults despise these sort of Disney-esque movies. The movies are very nicely wrapped, sometimes quite a lot, and that doesn't sit well with many. Yet, we find Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland in the top 10 grossing movies of all time, worldwide. Moving away from Disney but still following the above outline, Pirates of the Carribean, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings are in the top 5. (Actually, the THIRD Lord OTR movie! Like, the one that was really, really long and took an hour to get through the redemptive portion at the end. Even that earned it $1 billion+) Clearly there's something attractive about what these movies propose!

I wonder if part of the reason so many people are willing to pay billions to see redemption is because we secretly crave it for ourselves. Even the many movies that aren't necessarily redemptive (like the #2 grossing movie of all time, Titanic, a tragedy), it strikes me that they're still put in terms of their redemptive value. "How did the movie end? Did the hero/ine succeed or fail?" the conversations often go. To be fair, there are of course other conversations: artistic value, production value, etc. But compelling stories are compelling long after they're told. I don't know that we find this sticking power with the other convos.

The other day Annie was away for the day, and coming off a stressful week I'd been feeling down. Being the strong, manly, courageous pastor-type that I am, I... ended up lumping out on the couch playing computer games for hours. To my great surprise, this didn't seem to help. So I asked God about this unshakable ick. I felt like God said, "Why don't you go take a walk?" I remember saying something like, "THAT'S your great advice?" To which I felt I heard an optimistic, "Yes, you should totally go do that!" So I did, and, like, it worked. Whatever heaviness was there seemed to lift off. I went onward with my day on a brighter note.

So I wonder if the sort of redemption that's found in following Jesus has as much or more to do with everyday than at the point of death. That's the sort of life that interests me - one where I'm offered real perspective and direction on my marriage, career, and friendships that I need. However compelling a life is that's driven by raw discipline or abstract beliefs and concepts, it doesn't stick with me. But the life that Jesus offers I'm clearly drawn to.

But talk to me - what interests you? Proving what must be my overwhelming naivete, I'm absolutely positive that at some point you, dear reader, will astonish us all and leave a comment, even through the layers of links and clicks it takes to make it happen. Cheers --

Sunday, July 31, 2011

#4 - History of Children's Ministry - Sunday School

Sunday School started in the late 1780s in England as a response to poorly educated children. The booming industrial revolution left little time for children's education, with many working 6 days a week for 10 or 12 hours a day. Sunday was their day off, which to Robert Raikes, a local churchman in Gloucester, England, meant a window of opportunity. He bootstrapped his way to starting a "school" program on Sundays (to oversimplify), using the Bible to teach children how to read. Within 15 years, some 250,000 kids were in Sunday School. Although other Sunday Schools are on record as having started before Raikes' programs, Raikes is given credit as the one who popularized them.

About forty years later, in 1831, an additional million students were attending Sunday Schools, putting the number up to around 1.25 million. Pretty impressive, as we're talking pre-Internet, pre-telephone, and even the first electric motor only coming about in 1821! Seems like a profound need was being met, indeed.

Well, just like the pencil, sewing machine, and the World Wide Web, the UK arrived at Sunday School before North America (sorry, patriots). The first national U.S. Sunday school effort didn't start until 1817. The American Sunday School Union, then-and-now dubbed "American Missionary Fellowship", formed by that time. Their publishing branch continued using tracts, hymnals, and a reward-system for Scripture memorization for some 150 years. Their name probably stems from sending missionaries -- that is, traveling paid workers -- to other states by horseback to establish Sunday schools and revive dying ones. Through this systematic and intentional growth, Sunday school remains a prominent part of many kids' church experience.

Through this History of CM project we've been looking at the larger Kids Church experience, which hasn't received much documentation - Sunday school, however, is something that many churches have thought about. Type in "Sunday school" on Amazon on you get tons of results on everything from history to inspirational to curricula. It's something church leaders have thought about for a while. However, I suspect that in the next few decades, excitement for Sunday school will decline. I predict it will be something churches start to "fight for", not something that secular America is excited about.

(The following editorial departs from the prior historical stuff, fyi!) I find it super interesting that Sunday School was originally designed to meet a social need. While it quickly evolved into both educational and evangelistic in nature, the heart and soul at the outset seemed to be to establish a method of some kind. A routine. But not a dry routine - a helpful one that would allow for a curriculum. The many teachers I've worked with tell me that curriculum is next to useless without consistent attendance, as the idea is to build upon what's been taught previously. How great that someone saw the need, worked hard to empower kids, and went on to be successful. Best I can tell, Sunday School worked! The state school system in the UK traces their roots, at least in large part, to Robert Raikes. Mission accomplished. It wove itself into the day-to-day lives of children and parents. It wasn't just part of the system; it was the system. Fast forward some decades, labor laws firmly in place, children now in school weekly, and suddenly we have a system that, in my view, has lost its relevance to the majority of secular America. For people who follow Jesus who want to increase their knowledge of the story of the Bible, Sunday School seems like a good fit. The problem for me is I don't know many kids for whom Bible study equates to a vibrant long-term connection with Jesus. The percentage of people for whom this approach is lastingly meaningful is around 15-25%, the stats tell us. So, like, a quarter of attenders in the best case scenario. Perhaps this is the reality because we have a totally reversed reality than the industrial revolution: our kids learn all week long, and then Sunday is their day off (probably Saturday too - though in my house that was chores day). So to take the same industrial-revolution-approach to Sunday church - teach the Bible - doesn't this seem backwards? The needs have changed. The system has changed.

But, I suppose it's probably difficult to unravel something so deeply ingrained in people's minds as to what church should look like - heck, it's been more than 200 years! All to say: I wonder if many churches' rethinking their Sunday school programs is a healthy step.

As an aside: how crazy was it to have been a kid in the industrial revolution! Imagine that... work 6 full days, and then school on Sunday... what a week! Note to self for further reading!! I'm remembering my childhood, playing Street Fighter 2 Turbo and feeling like, "Wow, if I can beat Guile on level 8, now THAT'S an accomplishment..."

Further reading for all my fellow nerdlings:

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Surprising Upshot of Opposite Birds.

In a college psychology course a few years back, the teacher said the following: there are two cliche statements people accept to be true about friendships, but we rarely think about them at the same time. 1) Birds of a feather flock together, and 2) Opposites attract. Those are competing thoughts that most people hold to be true, he said, but both aren't true. Studies show that the first one is almost always the winner. Generalizing, but statistically true: people tend to stick with those who are like them, he argued. Having married since then, I think of ways that Annie and I are similar & different. I wonder what you think about this!

One thing Annie and I want to do more is read together. One reads aloud, the other listens, then we trade. The conversations that happen are often more fun than the book, and this time we're reading The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. He's a college student at liberal Brown University, English major, but switches paths for a semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. We're only 15 pages in, but we're excited as our own life stories track a bit with Roose's, but in reverse.

Annie grew up in Very Red City in Very Red State but did college in Iowa City, and I grew up in Houston but did college in Boston. I don't think either of us did that for the cultural experience per se, so I guess our inner dog-ears perk up when we hear of people intentionally jumping ships. That's probably part of what attracts me to music. It's fun to see music evolve as people take their indigenous styles to new regions. With the internet, the evolution sped up drastically, and new hybrids are being formed all the time. I mean, there's a whole documentary (I think it's still on Hulu...) dedicated entirely to mash-ups like this:

I can't help but think this is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus, at least for Annie and me. We're sold that we're forever enriched by being intertwined with people who have different backgrounds and/or perspectives than our own. As Roose points out, one could travel overseas to find such an experience, but, it also seems that we can finding such people living next door. Plus, Annie and I are slowly coming to terms with the fact that WE are "such people", and for all the emotional messiness and embarrassing moments that may come with the territory, we feel blessed. We've had so many moments in the last month or two where we looked at each other and exchanged the facial expression, "I can't imagine our lives without our closest friends!"

I suppose this sort of unexpected friendship gives me hope that real, lasting change on any number of issues - both personal and world - becomes possible. For example, at iCamp we gave money for water filters to people in Rwanda who need and want it. Or I can remember when a close friend offered to tow my broken car around midnight one time, saving us towing fees, time, and paperwork!

There are times when I've felt blessed to help someone, and be helped by someone. If I were in school writing a paper on "what I want most in life," pretty sure that'd be on the list!

So, here's to grabbing a cup of java with an unexpected friend this week!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

iCamp Recap

Last Friday we finished our second annual iCamp. While the name may be trendy, there's no connection to Apple! The "i" simply stands for interact. The idea goes: as we see needs around us both small scale (someone accidentally drops a $5) and large scale (1 billion people without clean water), we become empowered to do something when we interact with those people. It's an entry point into positive change. I'd also pitch that we're particularly empowered when we interact with Jesus - the resourcing, direction, and wisdom he provides is crucial to seeing any lasting change. Here was our schedule @ iCamp this year:

- M-F, 9a-7p
- 9a - Morning chapel
- 10a - Team games/activities
- 12a - Lunch
- 1p - Service projects
- 5p - Dinner
- 6p - Evening chapel

A few memorable moments:

- New to iCamp and our church, "Ted" (I'll call him) was not only the smallest guy, he was possibly the shyest. His default was to hang with adults, and our efforts to redirect him to other kids wasn't gaining much ground. Until Wednesday. Wednesday our team games reflected the gameshow, Minute to Win It, where kids had one minute to complete a challenge. There was one game where no one had succeeded... you can almost hear the movie trailer voiceover, "Many had tried, all had failed." We moved on and neared the end of our day. But Ted decided to give the difficult game a shot. He finished in 26 seconds! As the crowd erupted into uninhibited applause, the activities director hoisted Ted up onto his shoulders, and this was a changing moment for Ted. His confidence rose, and suddenly we found Ted starting impromptu games with others, donating input, and actually commanding other kids (we actually had to reel him back a bit)! So, a hopeful week for him.

- Service projects at several homes, The Safe House, Valley House, the police station, a retirement home, Salvation Army, & Humane Society. Common remarks were, "I didn't know all of this needed to be done!" and "It was fun to see people thankful," and, "Next year let's be sure to bring Round-Up" (that last one may have been from adults.....).

- We collected a daily tithe/offering, 100% of which was donated to 20liters.org. They work to provide clean water solutions primarily to people in Rwanda. From their website, "... water-borne diseases are the leading cause of death globally for children under the age of five, and half the patients in the world’s hospitals are suffering from diseases related to unsafe water." 140 bucks provides 20 people with clean water for 10 years, which was our iCamp target. Second-to-last day, we had around $26. After one final appeal that night, we ended the last day of camp with just over $150!
- Several kids in attendance that were not members of our church (which is where iCamp was held). One even joined us for church the following Sunday - it was fun to see the iCamp kids huddled before service, swapping stories.

- Our fantastic media team put together a recap DVD for parents to take home on the last night. So cool!

- Dunno if I'm allowed to list this, but, I was really helped by our debrief meeting afterwards. Among other very useful suggestions was the idea of flip-flopping our service projects and team game times. The afternoon is 95+ degrees outside, and doing projects in the cooler morning might help. Team games in the afternoon may also help the flow of camp (work first, games last).

So, after tearful good-byes and umpteen stories of things God seems to have done for and through kids, we had such a fun week. I'll join in with the handfuls of kids who chanted excitedly, "I can't wait for next year!"