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.