In her book, “Condi: The Condoleeza Rice Story,” Antonia Felix explains Secretary Rice’s description of one difference between liberals and conservatives that I had never heard before but that makes sense to me. In the area of foreign policy, conservatives are realists and liberals are idealists. Realists recognize that a nation will fight when its national self interest is threatened; that it is in the best interest of our nation to stand firm and to uphold our moral values when they are threatened by a show of power from another nation. Idealists believe that the best chance for peace lies in cooperation. In other words, realists want to meet power with power; idealists want to sit down and “talk about it,” assuming that the other side is also interested in “talking about it.”
What does this have to do with children’s ministry? I see the same opposing views from children’s ministry workers. Part of our job in teaching children is to recognize sources of authority, that God is ultimately in charge of our lives. But children and youth, just like the rest of us sinful creatures, want to be in control. Power, as one of Dr. Rice’s favorite authors explained, is the “control of man over man.”
Does that mean any misbehavior can be couched in terms of a power struggle: adult vs. child? Actually, children misbehave in your classroom for one of several reasons: 1) They’re tired and cranky and need their basic physical needs met, 2) they are wanting attention and don’t know appropriate ways to get it. 3) their inexperience causes them to make poor choices, or 4) they are in rebellion mode and want to be in control of their own lives.
Too often over the past fifty years, the church has been seen as a legalistic rules oriented institution. I’ve heard stories of people who felt like the church tried to push a religion of rules on them. I’ve seen teachers act with harsh words, displaying the attitude of “Let’s shape them up.”
Yet I’ve also seen the extreme of the compassion and cooperation model. This attitude projects that any discipline will demoralize the children’s self-esteem. Sadly, the right to discipline has been stripped away from our public schools in the interest of not damaging children’s self image. Parents, teachers and youth workers alike think that we should be able to “just talk about it” and the child will accept our ideology.
The results? A different kind of tyranny. Students become disrespectful, out of control and destructive because they know no one will touch them. They end up controlling us.
So what’s the answer when we face a power struggle with children within the church? Like the political realist, we must stand firm and protect the best interests of God’s Kingdom. We must not allow anything to undermine the values we hold dear as expressed in the Bible. We must teach our children about justice and proper models of authority.
We can learn from the idealists too. We need to show compassion. We need to make sure we don’t automatically label infraction as a power struggle but take the time to understand other reasons for the errant behavior. We must look at our own motives: do we want the children to behave in a certain way because we are trying to teach them how to live holy lives or because we’re on a power kick and it jives us when children follow our lead?
The Bible, our Sourcebook for all that we do in children’s ministry, has a pithy five word phrase for how we need to help our children and each other grow up so that we accept Christ as the Head, the one ultimately in charge of our lives: “ . . .speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).” We don’t speak harshly but we do teach and stand by the authority of Jesus Christ, teaching with patience, gentleness and diligence.
God always did have the best idea.