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?
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