Monday, November 22, 2010

Helping Children Weather the Storms of Church Conflict

Several times over the course of our ministry, my husband and I have witnessed church members argue or gossip about church issues in front of an open classroom door. Those times have left marks on our hearts like unwanted tattoos, for we know how such talk can leave even greater destruction in the spiritual future of the children who overhear the harsh, ugly talk.

Church conflict is never pleasant for anyone. In the case of when a minister is forced to leave, the conflict can set a church back for decades. I know more than a handful of people who have a minimal faith in Christ, but steer clear of associating with a church because they observed upheaval in their childhood church at an impressionable age.

Church conflict, while destructive and inevitable because church members are still sinful human beings learning how to set their minds on things above, can be minimized if a congregation is willing to follow the pattern of the Scriptures. When church conflict occurs, the church must be united on at least this important front - to protect the faith of the children. Here's how you can do it:

1. Shield the children from gossip and disagreements. So many times, I've seen adults talk about church problems in front of a classroom of children as if the children are deaf. Other times, I've heard volunteers explode in anger at each other in the middle of a class session. Children hear and understand more than we think. Our negative talk about people they hold as role models infuses their spirits with negative emotions they are ill equipped to handle. They may then lash out at those adults, not even understanding why.

Absolutely avoid talking about church problems in front of children. if someone does start to gossip or vent, have the courage to say, “Please don’t talk about this in front of the children.” According to Jesus’ directives in Matthew 18:15-17, church conflict should be kept as self contained as possible. It is more essential to secure the long-term faith of your children than to keep the short term peace with another adult by remaining silent or getting sucked into a destructive conversation.

2. Pray for discernment and wisdom. If the children do hear or do need to know that a volunteer or minister is leaving, pray to know what to say, how much to say, and for discernment of how the church conflict is affecting your child. God will give you wisdom (James 1:5,6).

3. Be honest if the conflict blows into public knowledge or your children are directly impacted. When my husband was summarily dismissed from one congregation, our girls couldn’t help overhearing the angry hurt voices of the over twenty people who streamed through our house during the next week. We decided it was better for them to hear the truth from us rather than a one-sided story from others. We also coached them on how to handle comments from schoolmates and church people they encountered around town.

Honesty, however, is giving a full picture, the positive as well as the negative. In each conversation, we tried to leave the girls with feelings of compassion for others, hope for the church and faith in our future. At your child’s level, share how you see God working through the conflict. My girls were awed when we told them an e-mail listserv representing another denomination was praying for our family.

4. Be objective. I struggled against spewing my own feelings in front of my daughters. While I needed to be open about the situation, I realized I had to distinguish between the facts and my opinions. I also needed to follow Paul’s advice not to allow “unwholesome talk” to come out of my mouth, but only what would build others up (Ephesians 4:29). That included encouraging my children and building others up in their sight. I learned through Colossians 4:6 to speak graciously about the people who had hurt us.

5. Use the conflict to teach spiritual truths. This is a prime opportunity to teach children about forgiveness, anger management, faithfulness to God no matter what the cost, and about spiritual warfare.

Several days after the dismissal from our church, my older daughter flared at the situation. “How could the church leaders do this to us?” I told her about the concept of spiritual warfare found in Ephesians 6:11. “Satan does not want the church to succeed and grow. He will do anything he can to thwart growth and destroy congregations. It’s our job, through Christ, to not let him get the best of us.” I knew my words had struck home when, several hours later, she designed a computer-generated graphic of Ephesians 6:11 and quietly hung it on the refrigerator. Months later, when she overheard two woman arguing before a church meeting, she whispered to me, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . .”

How serious is this? Church upheaval, with a few misguided conversations, can shipwreck a lifetime of teaching. As children's ministry workers, we're not merely teaching bible stories to our children. We're not just teaching ethical standards. We are teaching them about the transformational power of Jesus Christ to save and change lives. We teach by verbally sharing that message and by living it.

Think of a heat t-shirt transfer. Just as the heat of the iron softens the glue and makes the transfer adhere to the fabric, the trials of church conflict offer you the opportunity to make the message of the gospel stick to the spirits of the children you teach. Make it real, make it objective, share your confidence that in spite of all, God is over all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Storytelling for Preschoolers

"Tell me another story!" The four-year-old boy before me bounced on the balls of his feet.

I lay my stuffed dog I had dubbed as Ulfilas in my lap. My goodness, I didn't think my Early Church historical story about Ulfilas the Goth who brought Christianity to the Germanic tribes in the fourth century A.D. was that exciting. I love the early stories of how passionate Christians through the power of God spread the gospel from the epicenters of Rome and Jerusalem. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in Early Church History, listening to Dr. James North of the Cincinnati Christian University make history come alive through his vivid retelling of historical accounts. But was I crazy? Telling early church history to a four-year-old? Venturing where angels fear to tread, I plunged into my favorite, the story of St. Patrick, escaped slave who returned to his homeland of Ireland to evangelize his own people.

My enthralled listener begged again, "Tell me another story."

Preschoolers are a tough group of children to teach. The older I get, the more exhausted I feel. Their nonstop energy and their short attention span demand constant teacher attention. Sadly, I've seen too many preschool Sunday School classes and worship hours turn into glorified babysitting services because, let's face it, you have to have planned a different activity for every five minutes of class time. Also, teachers are unsure how much this age can learn since they aren't old enough to read.

Yet, my impromptu story time reminded me how this age group loves a good story. Storytelling is something anyone can do. Know your story well enough to not have to look at the Bible, put a bit of dramatic excitement in your voice, add a few sound effects, and you are in business. If ad libbing isn't your style, your local Christian bookstore sells inexpensive paperback bible story books you can use for talking points.

You don't have to wait for Sunday morning and you don't have to be an official teacher either. My student was a boy I babysat in the church nursery while his mother attended a funeral. Another time, I regaled a child with a story in a restaurant where a number of church members gathered for lunch after worship services and his grandmother looked on in grateful relief. Anyone can engage a child with a story, whether you are a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a babysitter or a fellow customer in a line at Wal-mart.

You don't have to know a lot of stories. Choose three or four stories that are your favorites. I am known for my retelling of Naaman the Leper (2 Kings 5:1-18) and the Woman with a little bit of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7). Those two stories are my trademarks. What are yours? Choose your personal favorite stories then practice them until you can tell them well. Go into your bathroom, close the door and practice the stories in front of the mirror. True confession: another way I've practiced is to wait till the family is out of the house, then I've practice my stories in front of the dog. Being a Welsh Corgi, she is notorious for cocking her head at anything I say. If I can get through my story without giggling at her, I've got it nailed.

Finally, you don't always have to use stories from the Bible to share your Christian faith with a child. I gather stories from church history. I've told my girls stories that show our family's Christian heritage like the story about Great -Grandma traveling from Ohio to Arizona in 1920 on a train with four small children and a sick husband, fearing she would be a widow by the time she reached that strange land. I can hardly wait to tell my grandchildren about the time when my four year old daughter prayed for a sale on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and God answered her prayer in a significant way.

Recently I heard a Holocaust survivor say, "You should put as much in your head as you can because they can't take away from you what is in your head." If you fill your head with the great stories of the Bible and of your Christian heritage, you will have that with you always. When you give a child a story, you do not lose it; instead, you find it again and it becomes more embedded in your mind.

As Paul told Timothy regarding his preaching, "Be prepared in season and out of season." (2 Timothy 4:2). When you have ready-to-serve Bible based stories in your head, you become a teacher in a mobile classroom, for your storybook is with you wherever you go, ready and available to build up and teach the next generation.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Future of Christian Education

Recently my minister-husband and another local minister confessed to each other that the children's ministry in both their churches is "drying up." We continue to hear that our little church is not alone, that children's programs are receding both locally and nationally. Bob Russell, in a compelling article in the Florida Christian College's "Son Life" newsletter, blamed the declining numbers of students interested in the preaching ministry on "the secularization of society, the postmodern mindset that denigrates anything authoritative, the declining number of teens in Christian Service camps and the passive involvement of ministers in the lives of teens." If the trend of shriveling children's ministries continue, the absence of trained and dedicated young people will turn the shortage of preachers into a crisis situation.

We need to raise up a new generation of Christians. The Church has a New Testament mandate to carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally pass on the package of truth we call Christian doctrine. How can we, though, when our classrooms stand empty? I'd like to offer a few suggestions:

1. Start over. This is the tact the two ministers are taking in our community. Sometimes, you need to let go of dying programs and begin again. Our church assessed who we do have and, lo and behold, there are three three-year-olds in our church nursery! We need a class for them. God has been faithful by providing two teachers ready to teach that class. Our goal is to pour ourselves and our faith into these little ones as long as we have them and, hopefully, prayerfully, build our program up from this point.

2. Let go of conventional programming. I used to get so annoyed at people who had, what I called, a "50's mentality," those who believed the way to teach children is to sit them in little chairs, tell a bible story and have them complete a worksheet. These sweet, well-behaved children would come every week with both parents and would placidly listen to everything the teacher said. Those days are long gone.

But I recognize that I am stuck in the 80's, the era of exciting interactive bible stories with lots of activities. Like the 50's mentality, it has its strong points and worked for that generation. But, Christian education experts now recognize, we fell into the temptation of making everything fun and exciting as a means to draw the kids back the follow Sunday. Too often we sacrificed content because we were afraid we would drive the children away. We had to make every lesson more attractive and up-to-date than the last to keep them coming back. Today, no matter how exciting the programs are, how much cutting edge technology we use, no matter how many helium balloons you release in a balloon launch, the kids aren't there. Parents are overwhelmed with activities, so many kids bounce back and forth between two household homes, that church becomes an afterthought if there isn't anything else going on.

Children's ministry workers need to regroup and find new methods to reach the kids. We may even need to let go of the traditional Sunday morning Sunday School and Wednesday evening youth group hours and find new ways to reach the children. I don't have any ready answers. So much depends on your community and your church situation. But I do have one more strategy:

3. Reach out to the parents and grandparents. If the children won't come to the church, let's take the church to the children. Imagine this: let's challenge our core church members to each target a family in their community: a neighbor, friend or adult children. Church members would become involved in that family's life. Attend their ball games. Take cookies over to them. Invite them over for dinner. Remember the kids' birthdays. Offer to babysit the children. Be available in crisis situations. Live the Christian lifestyle vividly in front of that family. And, as the family opens up, start sharing the gospel message. Teach the kids. Read bible stories to them. Tell them you are praying for them. Model Jesus in front of them. Empower the parents to teach their children. According the Deuteronomy 6:6-9, that's the way we should impart Bible doctrine to our children anyway.

This approach will take time. It will take commitment. It won't look very compelling on your church attendance board. Ministers will have to revamp their approach to ground their members in church doctrine well enough so they can confidently go forth and share the gospel message with their neighbors, friends and extended family.

But isn't that what the Great Commission and 2 Timothy 2:2 is all about? In a day when personal communication is defined by Facebook and text messaging, people long for personal contact, someone to care about them. I believe the best way, the only way, to reach today's children is to become personally involved in their family's life so they can see Jesus in us, the hope of Heaven's glory.