Avoiding the Self-focused Gospel
Oprah Winfrey recently delivered a commencement speech at the USC school of journalism, inspiring graduates with this message: “Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.”1 Oprah’s message exemplifies the self-focused culture in which we live. Our children are growing up in a society that tells them to find self-defined happiness through self-expression and self-made success (see 2 Timothy 3:2).
Meanwhile, many of our well meaning kids’ ministries focus their curriculum around godly character traits such as integrity, generosity, self-control, and honesty. Weekly Bible classes include lessons about “being brave like David, wise like Solomon, or forgiving like Jesus.” Whether intended or not, the self-focused message our children hear is that the Bible tells us how to be happy, successful people.
But happiness and success, whether empowered by secular self-expression or biblical lessons in self-improvement, aren’t the reason we’re here. We are here to worship and reflect the triune God, who saved us from the very self we idolize (see Psalm 86:9). Thankfully, we’ve seen a welcome return to a gospel focus in many churches—we’re talking about Jesus more! Many children’s ministries are reading Bible stories in a way that points to Jesus instead of merely promoting improved moral character.
Yet in our excitement to teach kids about Jesus, we must remember that kids can still become self-focused in their understanding of the gospel. Living in our self-centric culture, it’s easy for children to hear the gospel in a way that makes salvation all about “me”: I am special because God saved me, God helps me on my spiritual journey, God has plans for me.
It’s easy for children, just as it is adults, to see God as an important character in their story, rather than discovering their place in His story. It’s easy for their eyes to stay on their own faces, instead of beholding the face of the eternal, infinite, omnipotent, I AM (see Psalm 27:8).
So how do we avoid teaching the self-focused gospel?
We need to point our children away from the worldly focus on self to the character of God.
It’s important to teach kids the great things God has done but also who He is, because in the person and character of God lie all the answers to our life and purpose—to know, love, worship, and reflect the God in whose image we are made. Worshiping and glorifying God starts by understanding how He is completely unlike us in His self-sufficient eternal omniscience. Living out the greatest two commandments—to love God and others (Matthew 22:36–40)—starts by knowing Whom it is we love and by what example we love others.
John Milton famously said that the end of all learning is to know God, and out of that knowledge to love and imitate Him. So let’s teach our kids who God is!
Three practical steps to avoid the self-focused gospel:
- Teach kids who God is—study His attributes. What do our kids think when they hear the word “God”? A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” It’s important to teach children what God is like. They are curious, and we should answer their curiosity with deep truths about God’s character, which is revealed in the Bible. How is God different than us? (He is omniscient, eternal, infinite). (We can exhibit mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness). Children’s hearts are soft soil; their small souls are craving to know the God who made them.
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3, ESV).
- Encourage kids to read the Bible, looking for “clues” about who God is. Help kids understand that the Bible not only teaches us how to live, but through His Word, both written and incarnate, God tells us about Himself! Once, they’ve learned the attributes of God, help them look for those attributes in each story or lesson. God has revealed to us some of who He is, and we have the privilege of with His Spirit to guide us.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13, ESV)
- Teach kids to praise God when they pray. So often children learn to pray by asking God for what they want and then thanking God for what He gives. Praise and adoration is easy to leave out, perhaps in part because our kids haven’t yet experienced or understood the multi-faceted nature of who it is they are praying to. When kids learn the character of God, they can learn to thank God for more than just His gifts; they have reason to praise Him for who He is!
“Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 113:1, ESV)
The important role we have as children and youth ministries workers:
Holocaust activist and survivor Corrie Ten Boom famously said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” Children and youth ministry workers are uniquely positioned to point the hearts of children away from the world, beyond themselves, to the soul filling gospel and character of God.
Lydia is the author of The Attributes of God. The Attributes of God for kids is a devotional or curriculum resource for kids ages 4-11. With 64 full color pages, this bright, engaging book walks through 10 unique and 11 moral attributes of God’s character. http://attributesofgodforkids.com/
Here at Cmalliancekids we believe strongly in the importance of making sure the kids in our care are safe. Things like background checks, volunteer applications, and policies may seem mundane or overwhelming but they are crucial to our ministry. This month I talked with with our General Counsel at the national office-Gary Friesen. Gary offers some excellent insight and ideas for making sure we are keeping our kids safe.
Background checks are important. I asked our Facebook group who they use for background checks. Head over to www.facebook.com/groups/cmalliancekids to see their answers and chime in with your own answer.
When Bullying Comes to Church
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must
clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12, NLT).
Put a handful of kids in a room, and before long they begin to establish a pecking order. Girls squabble, boys wrestle—they are testing their boundaries figuring out where they fit.
Most of the time it’s harmless, but occasionally it can get ugly.
As an elementary and middle school substitute teacher, I see the dynamics between kids play out in a variety of ways. Sometimes things get out of control.
Recently, the consequences of bullying have hit close to home for me. My 12-year-old son is small for his age. During his last couple of years in elementary school we saw an increase in unwanted attention because of his small size. Now that he’s in middle school, each day has painful challenges. He’s pushed, cussed out, and teased—life for him can be downright miserable.
The groundwork is laid early for bullying and being bullied. Things can get out of hand at church just as easily as they do at school. (I found my son locked in a closet one night at youth group.) It’s tragic when bullying shows up at church. Thankfully, in our situation the youth pastor responded appropriately and swiftly to the bullying.
As I’ve watched kids navigate a challenging world, I’ve asked myself: How should we—as parents, teachers, and leaders—respond?
I’ve been offered advice on this topic, ranging from “Tell him to turn the other cheek” and “Teach him how to stand up for himself” to “Boys will be boys.” But what, realistically, should our expectations and responsibilities be for the children in our care on the issue of bullying? Here are some principles I’ve learned:
First, it’s important to establish an environment of respect.
- Let all of the kids in your church’s children’s ministry know up front that you respect them and you expect them to respect you and their peers.
- Don’t tolerate rude, unkind, or rough behavior.
- Don’t turn a blind eye to the sneaky, manipulative, or aggressive youngster.
Kids feed off of each other. You may find that members of a particular Sunday school class or small group have a negative tone or tend to be unkind toward each other. If that’s the case, find a way to weave in discussions on kindness. Or, take a break from what you’re teaching and deal specifically with God’s plan for our relationships.
Don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. Don’t expect that the kids will infer spiritual truths on their own. Pray with them about their heart attitudes, ask them questions about their behavior, help them heal any broken relationships, and point them toward God’s Word on the matter.
Set the example. I’ve seen children and youth leaders who loved sarcasm. They would pick on a kid for his appearance or a trait and then say, “I was just teasing.” I always felt uncomfortable in those situations. Would we want kids to do that to one another?
Be careful about how you talk to, and about, the kids and adults around you. No joke is worth the possible embarrassment or shame it could cause another person. If we are careful to speak truth, to be kind and encouraging, we will gain trust and, hopefully, be emulated by the kids we’re discipling.
If a child is bullied in any way, don’t give advice like “Turn the other cheek,” or “Don’t be a baby,” or “Just work it out.” It is important for the wounded child to learn forgiveness, but first—children need to know that they are safe.
Absolutely God expects us to follow the example of Jesus by laying our lives down for others and loving our enemy. But He expects adults to protect children. The children in your church all need to know that they
- Are safe there;
- Will be taken seriously;
- Are protected, and
- Will receive justice.
- Will receive justice.
Children, and their parents, are watching us to know how to act. When we deal with firm, compassionate discipline toward an out-of-control child, it
- Creates a sense of peace for all of the children;
- Sets the right example for parents; and
- Provides correct discipleship for the child who is out of control.
In working with a child who bullies, try to get to the underlying issue(s). Children may be bullying because they themselves are being bullied. They could be
- Dealing with any number of painful issues causing them to act out; or,
- They may be children with strong personalities who haven’t learned how to submit to the authority of Jesus and to their leaders.
If possible, spend time one-on-one with the child and with their parents. Ask appropriate questions to figure out what’s going on. Don’t overreact. The child needs your help and compassion as much as the one he or she has been hurting.
Once the situation has been addressed, it is important to lead the affected children toward restoration.
- Help the child or children who have been hurt to understand the importance of forgiveness. They may not want to renew their relationship with their offender; given the circumstance, this may be the best course. But help them to have a right attitude.
- Lead them in praying for the hearts of the persons who hurt them and help them recognize that Jesus loves the offenders too.
Even though it is right to expect children to grow in forgiveness and grace toward one another, it is not okay to leave a situation unresolved and their need for security unaddressed.
Not every situation you face in children’s ministry is going to be cut and dried. More often than not you’ll be dealing with two parties who share the blame. Occasionally you will have a child who is truly a bully.
It’s important to have right expectations and a plan from the start. Even very young children can learn what it means to be a healthy member of Christ’s Body. Discipleship must be at the heart of all we do. When viewed properly, conflict is another opportunity to disciple kids as well as their parents.
Adapted from a blog post by Christian author and “accidental mom” Beck Gambol https://beckgambill.wordpress.com
Breaking Up With Your Curriculum: When It’s Time to Call It Quits
Our church began to pray and dream about what God may have for us regarding the future of children’s ministry. We were feeling tension in a few areas, and it seemed as though evaluating our curriculum was a good place to start. As we compared our current curriculum with three recommended options, it was evident that a change was on the horizon. When weighing the contributing factors, three emerged as pivotal to our decision to make a change:
- It’s Not You, It’s Me This could mean a number of things. In our case, there were three senior pastor transitions (including an interim), an exodus of young families from the church, and an influx of new families with new needs coming into the church—all within a three-year period! Our children’s ministry dropped from about 60 kids to around 35. The size, scope, vision, and direction of our senior leadership changed. We were looking for something different. We needed a curriculum that introduced the possibility of multi-generational discipleship. It wasn’t anything our previous curriculum did wrong, it was simply that our needs as a church had changed.
Action step: Assess the current needs of your church. Has anything changed that would necessitate a change in curriculum?
- My Friends and Family Don’t Approve Curriculum is a resource for teachers and parents. If it no longer serves their needs or assists them in their ministries, it’s time to “put it out to pasture.” Our teachers were sorting through 50 pages of material to teach from 4 pages. The digital curriculum was taking three times as long for our volunteers to download and print; and a printed curriculum wasn’t an option. The take-home pages were frustrating our parents each week. They practically had to bring another bag to carry home their child’s classwork!
Action step: Take the time to listen to your teachers and parents. Is the curriculum still serving its intended purpose as a useful, time saving tool?
- The God Card As children’s leaders, our personal relationship with Christ is key to our ability to lead. By keeping our eyes focused on Him, our ears attuned to His voice, and our hearts open to His instruction, we place ourselves in a posture to move as He leads. In our case, I sensed God calling us to something more. I felt a deep desire for kids to know His story. I wanted them to see evidence of Jesus throughout the pages of the Bible and to be able to identify not only people who God used to write His story but also how they fit into Christ’s redemptive work. I yearned for our young families to grow in their knowledge of God’s big story and, as a family, become part of His plan and help complete the Great Commission. This was the call God placed on my heart, and our current curriculum wasn’t the best fit for accomplishing it.
Action step: Prayerfully ask yourself—and the Father—if you, as a leader, are keeping your eyes focused on Christ, your ears attuned to His voice, and your heart open to His guidance for you and your church family.
As we began evaluating the new curriculums offered, one in particular stood out as a good fit for our church. Not only did it help resolve the tension we were feeling as leaders, but it also aligned well with the mission, beliefs, and purpose of cmalliancekids. While it was hard to say goodbye to our old curriculum—which had served us well in years past—we as teachers, parents, and church leaders shared a fresh excitement about where God was taking us and how this new curriculum could help get us there. It took time and intentionality to make the shift, but we are moving forward and following God’s leading into this new partnership!
A Note from Mel (Melissa J. MacDonald) National Children’s Disciplemaking Specialist: Below is how we evaluate curriculum here at cmalliancekids. Every curriculum we recommend or talk about runs through these questions. Feel free to use these or adapt them to fit your needs. Thank you Abby for writing about such an important topic.
Cmalliancekids Curriculum Criteria
- Does it emphasize relationship with Jesus over character building and performance?
- Does it present the Bible as God’s complete, inspired, and authoritative Word?
- Does it have a clear strategy for biblical disciplemaking?
- Does it promote spiritual practices that enable a child to learn to hear from and respond to God.
- Does it help a child apply God’s Word to their every day life?
- Does it seek to convey and shape a Biblical identity and worldview?
- Does it encourage intergenerational relationships within the faith community?
- Does it foster a partnership with parents?
- Is it adaptable to multiple contexts?