It’s a major American export. Church ministry methodology. Much of it is accomplishing great things for the sake of the Gospel. And some exported ministry practices are just, well, embarrassing.
I’ve been traveling in South America, and visiting some churches and ministries. It’s really interesting to see how Protestant churches here often closely resemble North American models. There appears to be an assumption that if many U.S. churches are using a certain technique, it must be the holy grail.
Last Sunday I observed an American-exported children’s ministry program in Peru. Small children lined up to be drilled on scripture memory. If they recited the Bible verse perfectly, word for word, they received the teacher’s praise and some candy. If they missed a word, or used a same-meaning alternate word, the teacher sent them off to the sidelines to study harder.
I watched as a boy and a girl tried, failed, tried again, failed again, tried again, and failed again. Over and over and over and over, for 30 minutes. With each attempt these kids grew more exasperated. When the time was up, the kids slapped shut their program booklets. No rewards for them. And no guidance on the meaning or application of the verse being strictly drilled.
Though most American churches (as well as most schools) have moved away from such required rote exercises, the methodology continues to be exported. I’m sure the intentions are good–on both the export and import sides of the border. After all, we’re talking about scripture. And kids learning, early, about scripture is a good thing, in any language. Plus, unlike other aspects of spiritual growth, Bible memorization is a very easy thing to measure. Besides, the Psalmist wrote, “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you,” (Psalm 119:11), a verse often used to support scripture memory drills.
But then came Jesus. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14.) That’s the Word that I pray those kids last week will take to heart. May Jesus himself reside in their hearts.
Don’t get me wrong. Rote memorization isn’t a bad thing. After all, we use it naturally in other aspects of our lives–remembering a phone number, an address, relatives’ names, etc. And, though Jesus did not advocate scripture memory drills, he often quoted scripture from memory.
The problem arises when word-for-word memory drills overshadow or squeeze out time for scripture understanding and application. Without solid comprehension, children quickly pick up that the Bible is less a story of God’s love, and more a pile of one-liners to parrot in order to win a prize.
And by the way, that whole rewards mentality in children’s ministry is another dubious export. Fans like to call it a rewards program. But it’s really a bribe program. Do we really want our kids learning that scripture–and following Jesus–are so unappealing that the only way they’re worthwhile is if there’s an instant goodie to be won? Is this how Jesus taught? Did he say, “Love your neighbor, and get a lollipop”? Or, “Feed my sheep, and get a sticker”?
As I watched the children last week, I did notice that some children breezed through the memory drills easily. That reminded me that children learn differently. Some are gifted to memorize sentences precisely. But for others, it’s a hopeless and humiliating task. They’re simply not wired that way. So, building a children’s ministry around this one-size-fits-all rote memory regimen is simply poor stewardship.
It would be better to allow those children who possess the ability to memorize to do that, while other children are encouraged to explore the scripture in other ways that are better tuned to their learning styles.
During my travels the past couple of weeks, I also saw a lot of wonderful work. Some of it was the result of American exportation. And some of it was the result of indigenous ingenuity. And that stuff (subject of another article) would make a great export to the United States.
An honest, courageous and refreshing breath of fresh air – thanks Thom! I have been privileged to travel to many places in the world, including South America (Brazil twice, Peru once). My mother and parents emigrated from the USA, my son and daughter-in-law did a recent church-plant in the LA area, and my wife and I spent some time there.
In so many places, including my own country, we have seen this ‘if it’s from the US’ it must be a good thing (like you, I am NOT denigrating much valid ministry in the US, otherwise I would not be reading your and other US-based blogs on a regular basis as a means of learning). Some years ago our local church did a non-denominational church-plant in the Peruvian Andes among the Quechua and Morochucos people, which is now growing autonomously. I remember the occasion when visiting Peru with a team to encourage our missionaries, we came across an American group in Ayacucho who were amazed that we weren’t familiar with their videos and evangelistic programs and special speakers. When we reminded them of the poor households who could not afford electricity and electronic devices, they suggested we buy generators.
I am aware of such children’s ministries as you have mentioned in my own country, and oh the drivenness to produce results! The motives may be good, but the delivery is counter-productive. I have missionary friends from the US in my city who likewise have been saddened by the pressure from back home to ‘perform,’ at the cost of realistic and true disciple-making in Africa.
Let’s all do our research, let’s study the context, above all (N. Americans, S. Americans, South Africans, Orientals) let’s all follow in the footsteps of Jesus with a humble heart, seeking first his way and his kingdom here on earth.
I have always been a fond supporter of Sunday School. But I have not been a supporter of children’s church ministries.
Well you may ask how can you advocate one and not the other?
I am 63 years old and I have noticed that Sunday School is more centered around learning a story or truth from the Bible.
But Children’s Church seem to be learning about worshipping and a lot of times about entertaining the children.
I don’t advocate a lot of ” Worship” practices being taught our younger people, because they seem to center around fulfilling the flesh more than the spiritual.
Whereas, I have seen the younger people being in an adult service, they are more spiritually grounded, because the Holy Spirit is more capable of getting people grounded spiritually and puts the emphasis on the Spiritual desires in fleshly appetites and desires.
One idea in your article that particularly struck me “… unlike other aspects of spiritual growth, Bible memorization is a very easy thing to measure.” There does seem to be a certain kind of urgency, particularly in denominations that place a very high value on evangelism, to quantify the results of their labors.
As errollmulder said in his comment above, well-meaning Christians can put pressure on themselves and other Christians to produce measurable results. These are often counted by numbers of “converts” or numbers of “souls saved”. It seems fear-based to me as though we think God uses numbers to evaluate our worth as Christians and will be upset with us if we don’t work harder and faster on this task every single day.
This approach reminds me of an idea called the “McNamara fallacy” where you make the mistake of measuring results only in ways that can be quantified. Here is an example of that from the business world:
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide. – Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)
I believe that we can spread God’s love to others in a much more authentic and effective way if we focus on quality rather than quantity.
Memorization must work. Almost every cop show on TV has the good guys and/or the bad guys, quoting scripture effortlessly. And, it’s usually the most grizzled cop or the worst bad guy.
Roger commented on Facebook: “I agree with you that children learn differently. There are those who cannot–simply cannot–memorize the multiplication tables and they should be provided with other ways of learning math. But it seems to me a shame that a whole generation has grown up without knowing The 23rd Psalm by heart.”
There is a difference between rote memorization to get a prize and memorizing scripture for the comfort and encouragement it can bring. We need to instill in children a love for God’s word so that they will what to know his word in by heart. Rote memorization brings back into the picture God only loves me if I do something rather than God loves me just because
I am me.
“Some are gifted to memorize sentences precisely. But for others, it’s a hopeless and humiliating task. They’re simply not wired that way. So, building a children’s ministry around this one-size-fits-all rote memory regimen is simply poor stewardship.”
Children, teens or adults, a “one-size-fits-all” thinking and process doesn’t work. The ‘one-fits-all’ makes it easy for leaders in church, work or government but this way of doing things will hurt as many as it helps. When it comes to working with other people, anywhere, you have to be tolerant and flexible. Yes there needs to be foundational things to build on. The 10 commandments are foundational. Love is foundational. Application of foundational thing in our lives require flexibility and tolerance that no one is going to do it all the same or do it perfectly.
Perhaps we need to import the practice of 1 Corinthians 14:26 into the American church.
I am waiting for the next article. I read how you perceive the wrong things done in Children’s ministry, I am excited to hear how they did things right!!
Too close to the bone, perhaps?