By / Sep 14

“Lord, please protect my children.” From the earliest days of parenting, Christian moms and dads have prayed these words a thousand times—I know I have—prayers for safety through the night, protection at school, and preservation from harm and evil. As a parent in the 21st century, these words are never far from our lips and hearts—and for good reason. Recent statistics have raised the alarm. A 2019 survey by Lifeway said that two-thirds of “American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.” More teens are not only walking out of church, but are walking away from the Bible’s teaching about gender and sexuality. The currents of today’s culture seem to be more treacherous than ever before.

Yet these dark waters are nothing new. In the New Testament, Jesus prayed for the safeguarding of his own in the world. He said, “I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15, CSB). And in the Old Testament, Psalm 78—that justly famous chapter on the next generation—also sounds the alarm over two perilous currents that endanger God’s children. In its 72 verses, Asaph unfolds a cautionary tale in two acts.

Act 1: Psalm 78:9-39 highlights the bad example of the Ephraimites—one of the tribes of Israel. In the day of battle, Ephraimite archers, armed with bows, turned back (Ps. 78:9-10). And this was not a neutral battlefield decision made in the fog of war. This was retreat.

Act 2: Psalm 78:40-66 tells another tale of failure. When the generation whom God had rescued out of the greenhouse of Egypt, encountered an idolatrous culture, they embraced it. “They enraged [God] with their high places and provoked his jealousy with their carved images” (Ps. 78:58). This isn’t retreat. This is surrender.

Constant threats

Together these two cautionary tales are a matched set. They offer side-by-side contrasts of the two undercurrents that threatened God’s people. Both accounts deliberately use the word “bow” (as in bow and arrow) to describe the problem (78:9 & 78:57, the only occurrences in this chapter). The Ephraimites carried bows but did not use them. The Exodus generation were like bows that did not work. Both verses also use the same Hebrew word, which means “twisted” (hphk), a word used only one other time (78:44). The Ephraimites “turned back,” while the Exodus generation “turned away” (twisted) like a warped bow.

The Ephraimites turned from risk in order to save their lives. This is running away out of fear of something bad. In contrast, the Exodus generation turned to idolatry to meet their needs. This is blending in out of hope for something better. And aren’t these the two missteps of every generation?

On the one hand, we are tempted to flee from the enemy—just like the Ephraimites. We are tempted to run from the threats and dangers of our day, of our culture. And on the other hand, we are also tempted to embrace the enemy—just like the Exodus generation. We are tempted to assimilate with the opportunities and benefits of our day, of our culture.

Yet as Jesus prayed, every generation must remain “in the world,” yet they are not “of the world” (John 17:14-15). But, with the riptides of withdrawal on the one hand and capitulation on the other, how do we as parents steer a course between these two perennial threats? 

A countercultural people

Psalm 78’s answer might surprise you. The root problem with both the Ephraimite’s retreat and the Exodus generation’s surrender is the same. In their present moment, they had forgotten the works of God in the past. So Asaph, the author of this psalm, rehearses what each group should have remembered.

Act 1: When the Ephraimite archers went out to battle, they should’ve recalled how God had previously provided for them. They should’ve recalled his provision in opening the Red Sea (78:13), in leading them through the wilderness by day and night (78:14), in giving water in the desert (78:15-16), and in sending bread from heaven and meat to eat (78:17-28). In spite of all this, the Ephraimites did not trust God’s ability to provide (78:17-22; 32-33; 37). Yet God, showing compassion, continued to provide for his people (78:38-39).

Act 2: Similarly, Asaph recounts the works of the Lord which the Exodus generation should have remembered. God sent plagues on Egypt and all their false gods (78:42-51). God delivered his people, but swallowed up their enemy at the Red Sea (78:52-53). He brought his people into the land, but drove out the nations before them and gave their land to his own people (78:54-55). In sum, God wielded supernatural power to deliver his people and defeat their enemies.

Both groups failed because they forgot what the Lord had done. The Ephraimites gave up because they didn’t remember how God had provided what they needed, and the Exodus generation gave in because they didn’t remember how God had defeated their enemies. 

But isn’t that counter-intuitive? It’s not what I would have written. 

A counterintuitive counterculture

On the one hand, if I had sketched out the history lesson for the Ephraimites, who fled from battle, I’d have wanted them to remember that God is a warrior who defeats his enemies. But Asaph puts this truth with the other bad example. 

And, on the other hand, if I were summoning the Exodus generation to remember what God had done, I might say: Don’t look to idols to provide what you need—because God has always provided for you. 

But that is not what Asaph says. Instead, he says, when you face the enemy, remember how God has provided. And when you’re tempted to idolatry, remember how God has triumphed over his enemies.

This is counterintuitive. And this is wisdom. Because, if we face hostility under the banner—“God will defeat you”—we might be overly optimistic of what God will do through us. We’d be tempted to relate to the culture in pride and combativeness: “We will crush you people.” Instead, we can face cultural opposition calmly knowing that “God will provide.” 

Or if we face the promises of idolatry, armed only with—“God will meet my needs”—then we might be overly pessimistic about what God can do around us. We’d be tempted to relate to the culture in fear and doubt: “Is this really the right and better way for everyone?” Instead, we should face the lure of idolatry confidently knowing that our God has routed any supposed rivals and is infinitely superior to them all.

Bringing it home

We must protect ourselves and our children against the lure of an idolatrous culture that is increasingly hostile toward Christianity in a demonstrable way. We must not retreat. We must not give up out of fear of something bad. But we must stand with the calm assurance that no matter what happens, our God will provide. 

Whether we lose the culture war, whether we are marginalized and canceled, whether we are slandered as bigots and hate-mongers, whether they take away our constitutional liberties—despite all these things, our God will still provide.

And we must not surrender. We must not give in out of hope for something better. But we must resist the little compromises, the tiny bargains, the costly silences in confidence that we know how this story will end. We humbly know that it is not the world nor us who sits on the throne of this world, “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”

Recalling this balance—that God will provide and deliver—will help us and the next generation to engage our culture without wavering, and without fear. 

By / Feb 16

When building a children’s ministry at a church, there is so much to consider: Which curriculum should we use? How many volunteers do we need? How do we keep parents in the loop? And that’s before we run into stalled check-in computers, missing activity sheets, and floors that need to be vacuumed. In his newest book, Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission, Jared Kennedy shares a four-fold approach for gospel-centered, missional children’s ministry. In the book, he helps leaders — who can easily get distracted with all tasks of children’s ministry — to keep their focus on the gospel. Below, Kennedy answers questions that will help you form a faithful ministry to children.

What are the four big ways that the gospel shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and how do these gospel goals translate into a strategy for children’s discipleship? 

In children’s ministry, we’re sometimes tempted to let the trappings of serving with excellence keep us from seeing where the real glory is. I’ve experienced this temptation practically. I’ve let the missing activity sheet and empty Goldfish box stress me out. While it’s not a bad thing to want to welcome families to our church with open arms, there are times when my worry over doing ministry well has revealed a misplaced faith. The level of anxiety I feel reveals that I’m trusting my hard work or attractional programming instead of trusting in Christ. 

Paul stands in stark contrast to the way we tend to operate. In his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul gives us his vision for courageous, gospel-centered ministry — the kind of ministry that finds strength even in the midst of weakness. I believe there are at least four ways the simple gospel message shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and we can see each of them present in Paul’s description of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 1:31–2:5. 

First, the gospel seasons our hospitality with humility; we don’t come to children with lofty speech but with humble and full hearts, boasting only in the Lord. 

Second, the gospel centers our teaching on Jesus Christ and him crucified. All else pales in comparison to the central place of this message. 

Third, the gospel forms our discipleship; we’re intentional about training children, and we have confidence that the Spirit’s goal is to grow kids in conformity with Christ’s story. 

Finally, the gospel fuels our mission so that the next generation’s faith does not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Some people today question whether or not having an age-graded children’s ministry is even needed. Why do you think it’s still important? 

It’s true. Some church leaders have decided that children’s ministry programming is no longer necessary. Their desire is to empower parents as disciple-makers and also to help kids build relationships with people of all ages in the church. These are good and biblical desires, but there are downsides to eliminating children’s ministry from the church calendar. Kids trained from an early age might pull off sitting through a long sermon without rolling matchbox cars down the wooden pews, but will unchurched visitors and new believers be as successful?

Think about it. Why should we have young children sit all the way through a sermon they don’t understand? As we pursue ways to help children experience intergenerational church life, we also need ministry approaches that remember kids from unbelieving homes and that capitalize on the pedagogical advantage of age-directed lessons. Even within the Bible, there seem to be some parts — Song of Songs, for example — that should be taught publicly (2 Tim. 3:16–17) but seem to be reserved for adults and older teens, not for younger children (Song 8:4). Other parts of the Bible, such as Proverbs, are geared toward youth (Prov. 1:8; cf. Ps. 119:9–16)! 

We have to keep our priorities in order. The church’s goal in discipling the next generation is not to train kids so they can sit quietly through church services. Our goal is for them to hear about the Savior and, by God’s grace, be changed by him. 

In the book, you say that children’s ministry is like PBS Kids®. What do you mean?

Once I was addressing a seminary class about how to create kid-friendly and engaging children’s ministry games. One of the students objected, “That sounds like something you’d see on the children’s cable channel, Nickelodeon. Is this just keeping kids entertained?” It was a good question. After all, I think the game in question did involve slime. 

Sometimes with kids’ activities there is an entertainment factor, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect on that student’s question, I’d say (and I did say in the book!) that children’s ministry activities aren’t like Nickelodeon; they’re more like PBS Kids. There’s a goal in mind with a children’s lesson that is larger than entertainment alone — one that is bigger than selling a product or a character. Like the interactive exhibits at a children’s museum or the skits on Sesame Street, children’s ministry is an experience, but it’s an experience with an educational and relational aim. Dave Ainsworth, one of the pastors at Citizens Church in San Francisco, puts it this way: “Children’s ministry done well leads kids to learn about Jesus through hands-on, real-life, engaging discovery.” 

What does the biblical storyline teach us about kids? How should we view our children’s ministry in light of the big story of redemptive history?

We can summarize the gospel story as a fourfold movement: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And each part teaches us about children’s ministry.

First, we discover that God created children for himself. Kids are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Their lives are imbued with the glory of a universe that reflects God’s beauty; they’ve been endowed with imagination and an ability to think and know. A child’s life has value because he or she is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). Children’s ministries, as a result, should emphasize safety and child protection. We protect kids because they have dignity; they’re worth it. Moreover, as image-bearers, children are also made for worship. From childhood, every human is fashioned for giving praise, so we engage kids in singing and hand motions. We teach them from their earliest days that they are made to worship their Creator.

Second, our children are fallen and sinful. They inhabit a world marred by sin, abuse, suffering, and death; they feel its pain. You’ve probably seen that children’s program where the wooly mammoth, vampire, monsters, aliens, and an overgrown canary have all invaded a side street in Manhattan. In his brilliance, Jim Henson took some of our greatest fears and made them cute and educational. The child-friendly terrors that live together on Sesame Street should remind us of the hidden reality of childhood. 

Children are glorious and beautiful gifts from God and yet within each child — behind the cuteness — there’s a fallen heart that’s twisted from the moment of conception. Even kids exchange delight in God’s glory for delight in the pleasures of the moment (Rom. 1:21; 3:23). There is a battle for affections going on in kids’ hearts, and our classroom management strategies must be aware of this reality. Yes, children need comfort, care, and a healing touch. But they also need honest correction, because it’s only when kids see the terror of their sin that they’ll see their need for redemption.

Third, redemption comes for children through Jesus. Remember, Jesus himself said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matt. 19:14 NLT). Jesus’s rebuke of his friends who would’ve kept kids at a distance should inspire us to include children in the life of our church communities. And his welcome of children should encourage us to call even the youngest children to faith. 

Finally, in light of the coming consummation, our children are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. When we get to glory, the most enduring relational reality will be our relationship to the Savior (Matt. 22:30). To be embraced by God’s redemption is to be adopted as God’s child, gaining a new identity, which transcends every earthly status and relationship. Rob Plummer describes it this way: “If our children stand beside us in eternity, it will not be as our children but as our blood-redeemed brothers and sisters (Rev. 7:9–12).” But if our children are going to join us as brothers and sisters in glory, they must hear the gospel now. 

Children need us to help them to look outside of themselves to the salvation Jesus offers. When we teach Christ-centered lessons and practice child evangelism, we’re helping each child see that Christ is his or her only hope.

By / Dec 8

More Than a Story is a new kind of Bible resource for children — taking children on a chronological journey through the Bible with a God-centered, gospel-focused, discipleship-oriented, and theologically grounded perspective. Though the Bible is full of stories, it is more than a story; it is the authoritative Word of God that, throughout its pages, proclaims and magnifies the majestic character of God, his work in this world, and his plan of redemption for sinful men through his Son, Jesus. 

Truth 78 is releasing the New Testament volume of More Than a Story just in time for Christmas 2021. The book’s author, Sally Michael, answers a few questions about this helpful resource below.

More Than a Story has a different feel from other Bible books written for children. Why is a book of this type and tone so important? 

Sally Michael: We have many children’s Bible resources consisting of collections of key Bible stories written in an engaging manner. But what seems to be lacking is a comprehensive overview that covers the breadth and depth of the message of the Bible. The More Than a Story Old and New Testament volumes attempt to fill in those gaps, giving children a solid foundation of the manifold character of God, the plotline of the Bible, and key Bible doctrines in a child-friendly, engaging, yet respectful manner. It also incorporates many of the non-narrative portions of the scriptures. Children need to be exposed to the wisdom of Proverbs, the comfort of the Psalms, the warnings and promises of the prophets, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the reminders of the gospel and instructions for Christian living in the letters, and the Revelation of the glories of the Coming King who will make all things new. Children need a solid foundation of truth to develop a strong faith. 

While the Bible is full of fascinating and exciting stories, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is the authoritative, clear, necessary, sufficient Word of God. So, the tone of the book, though appealing to children, is also respectful and honoring of the Bible. There is an appropriate sobriety regarding the seriousness of sin as well as glorious, exalting joy in the redemption bought by Jesus. I have tried to treat the truths of the Bible in a manner worthy of God’s Word while still being engaging with children, interactive, and creative. Many actual texts from the Bible are included so that children can experience the power of the Word of God and become familiar with the text of the Bible, God’s actual words. 

How does your experience as a Bible teacher determine the tone and focus of this book?

SM: In my experience of teaching children who grow up in the church, I have often seen a sketchy knowledge of the Bible and a simplistic understanding of its teachings. I have also noted that it is not unusual for children from Christian homes to have head knowledge without heart engagement. One of the most frightening verses for me in the Bible is Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

I am at heart a teacher, not a writer. Writing is just a medium to expand the scope of my teaching. So, when I am writing to children, I am intent on teaching them solid, life-giving truth. I am very intentional to teach a logical scope and sequence, to present accurate knowledge, to ask the hard questions; to teach children to think and draw conclusions, to see themes and patterns in Scripture, and to accurately interpret the text. But good teaching is not just dumping information in the minds of children — it is helping them to interact with that knowledge so that they see the connections between the Bible and their own lives; it is helping children to wrestle with the hard truths and the glorious truths to engage their hearts.

And I think that the prayer of every good Bible teacher is that the will of the child is influenced to trust in God. So, when I write, I am actually teaching. I intentionally try to inform the mind, engage the heart, and influence the will.

You’ve noted that one of the goals of More Than a Story is to teach children Bible study skills. Have you found that parents don’t feel equipped to do that? Is this difficult for churches, too?

SM: I think we underestimate children, and we certainly underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit. Children can be taught to look at a text, ask questions of the text, define words, wrestle with the meaning of a text, draw conclusions, and discern truth. The simple skills of observation (What does the passage say?), interpretation (What does the passage mean?), and application (How does the meaning of this text apply to me personally?) can be learned through prayer and practice. Children can make amazing connections when they are taught the Bible, and the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God and is faithful to bring forth fruit.

In my former church, a little 2-year-old girl learned the verse, “No one can serve two masters.” At 3 years old in the preschool department, the teacher was teaching about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. She asked the class, “Should they bow down to the statue of gold?” This little girl became very agitated, and she jumped up and said, “They can’t! They can’t! Because of that verse.” She was pointing to a card with the recognition symbol for “No one can serve two masters.” 

As to the question, “Are parents and the church equipped to do that?” Absolutely! They can ask who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. They can help children to apply Scripture by answering the questions: “What should I think? What should I be? What should I do?” The question is not one of equipping but of intentional exposure to the actual words of Scripture. Are we intentionally teaching our children to be Bereans who are “examining the Scriptures daily”? How often do we actually ask children to read a text and answer questions about it?

In More Than a Story, you aren’t afraid to ask children to look at sin and its effects. How do children process a topic like that? 

SM: Children are pretty matter of fact. They don’t have the emotional baggage adults have to cloud their thinking. They more readily accept hard truths than adults do because suffering and difficulty are not usually personal for children but rather academic.

That said, I think it is good for children to feel uncomfortable, even concerned about the right things. As my former pastor John Piper once said, “[I]f we don’t know what our real plight is, we may not recognize God’s rescue when it comes.” Randy Alcorn agrees. He writes, “Fear of Hell serves as a merciful call to repentance.”

We want children to feel the discomfort of being a sinner, of deserving the wrath of God. The cross is meaningless to a person who does not understand that he is under the just judgment of God. To minimize sin is to minimize Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. So, More Than a Story does present the essence, pervasiveness, and problem of sin. We are serving our children when we teach the seriousness of sin because their eternal souls are at stake. 

But we must also pair that sober news of judgement with the gloriously good news of the gospel. The goal is for children to treasure the Savior, run to him for rescue, and put their trust in his work on the cross. Yes, More Than a Story presents the bad news, but it also surely portrays the glories of God’s mercy, the incredible forgiveness for sin paid for on the cross, and the glorious message of the gospel. The good news of a merciful God permeates this book. It presents the good news as GOOD NEWS! 

Which biblical events in More Than a Story hold particular meaning for this very difficult year? 

SM: Rather than just pick a particular event I would say that the message of God’s providence, his faithfulness to his people, the pervasiveness of sin and the effects of the Fall, and the reality of future glory are the truths that hold fast our hope in these difficult times. I want children to know that God is sovereign and good, to know that all his promises are “yes and Amen in Jesus,” to know that weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning, to know that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory steadies the soul and informs our emotions for the difficult times.

A story in the Bible that particularly illustrates this for children is the story of Joseph. The truth that God is always at work accomplishing his purposes and that what others meant for evil, God intended for good is so easy for children to see in the story of God’s faithfulness to Joseph and the offspring of Abraham.

What are your hopes for More Than a Story?

SM: My hope is that More Than a Story will impassion parents to take the spiritual nurture of their children seriously and that it will be a good foundation for them to understand how to do that.  My prayer is that this book will ignite in children a desire to seek God and that this book will lead them to the Book — the inspired, trustworthy, precious Word of God.

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 16, Truth 78 featured More Than a Story on their Zealous podcast. The Truth 78 leadership — David and Sally Michael as well as Jill Nelson — let us listen in on one of their recent conversations at the Truth 78 staff retreat. The end of the podcast includes a call to action for men from David and an explanation of the More Than a Story vision and how the resource is a great tool for families to begin with in their homes.

By / Sep 23

“Parenting isn’t for wimps.” That’s how Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins open their book, Full Circle Parenting: A Guide for Crucial Conversations. In the chapters that follow, they show you why. But more importantly, they show you how to approach parenting with wisdom, grit, and gospel focus.

They do so with the recognition that “Christian parents have to have rock-ribbed convictions, nerves of steel, tender hearts, and open arms—all accompanied by a fantastic poker face” (3). This sort of honesty is refreshing, because when it comes to books on parenting, all too often we’re met with content that is laughably formulaic. A three-step strategy that offers a fast track to turning your child into a Christian, an honor-role student, and homecoming king is sure to sell copies. The only downside: it’s never that simple.

Not only that, but in the publishing world it’s mystifyingly easy to find marriage books written by near-newlyweds, or parenting books from authors who are looking forward to their child’s upcoming graduation — from kindergarten. Instead, the best sorts of books in this vein are from those who are further along and offering wisdom that only comes from experience and tempering. Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins offer precisely this sort of wisdom, and, frankly, are precisely the kind of parents I would want to emulate myself.

Over the course of the book, the authors work through a series of topics that will be of use to any parent: sexuality, technology, peer pressure, realities of substance abuse, bullying, and how to have challenging conversations. Throughout these topics, several things in particular stand out.

Full-Circle Parenting is realistic

Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins provide a remarkably clear-eyed view of the challenges that come with parenting, particularly in chapter two, which lays out a Christian vision for parenting, and chapter three, which outlines how children themselves are complex. Throughout, the authors explain how sin warps both parents and children. Children, for example, are going to act in stupefyingly inconsistent ways — even “good” kids. Like the pediatrician reassuring the anxious young parents, “Oh, that cough you heard is completely normal and you needn’t worry,” Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins remind us what we should expect when we approach parenting.

Full-Circle Parenting is gospel-focused

Additionally, Full-Circle Parenting moves beyond a vision of what’s to be expected, to how we may address each of these topics in the context of the gospel. Each of the subjects the authors cover are placed in the context of the 3 Circles tool — which traces God’s design for our lives, the sin which leads to brokenness in our lives, and the remedy of repentance and belief in the gospel that allows us to recover and pursue God’s original design. This tool, originally conceived as a tool for evangelism and gospel presentation, is endlessly helpful when applied to issues of parenting and the Christian life as well. These aren’t “Jesus bits” tacked on at the end of a chapter but rather than main thread that weaves together everything the authors say on a given topic. Grounding each one in the context of God’s design, sin, repentance, and flourishing is not only helpful and practical but exactly what a Christian book should be.

Full-Circle Parenting is timeless

Thankfully, this book does not provide granular advice on how to block harmful websites or how to utilize particular apps to track location or whatever the case may be. As necessary as this sort of information is, these technologies move far faster than the publishing industry does. Instead, Full-Circle Parenting writes from a decidedly 21st-century context, but one that speaks to issues in ways that will be still be relevant 10 and 20 years from now. Instead of, for example, providing a specific age and kind of phone to provide to one’s children, the authors talk about the principles dictating how they use phones, who is responsible for them, how we should think about technology, and how we can model what we prioritize in our own lives. This kind of counsel does not suffer from an expiration date.

Full-Circle Parenting is practical

Perhaps the most noteworthy element of Full-Circle Parenting is just how endlessly practical it is. Throughout the book, there are sample conversations of how to address situations with one’s children and scripts to give to children to help them navigate difficult conversations. There are innovative ideas, like “sibling time” in chapter seven, which details specific ways Jimmy and Kristin have sought to create a culture of togetherness and friendship within their family. There are candid admissions about how they counsel their children to deal with peer pressure and bullies. Most importantly, there are gospel principles throughout which will continually remind readers of the foundational issue (and solution) behind every problem.

In all, Full-Circle Parenting succeeds most notably in providing an honest and compelling vision of what it takes to parent faithfully: both gospel and grit. It focuses on the importance of creating an environment where families can thrive, modeling a life that children can emulate, and providing a tool that parents in all life stages can use to think clearly and biblically about how to shepherd their children faithfully and point them to the gospel. Parents should read it; pastors should stock their shelves with it; and churches should give it away regularly.

One of things on social media I regularly enjoy is when Jimmy Scroggins posts video clips of athletic coaches talking about discipline, strategy, effectiveness, skill development, and growth, or any number of issues. When he does, he often adds a single line of commentary above: “Pastors should learn from coaches.” In their new book, however, Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins are themselves the coaches — outstanding ones we should all learn from.

By / Aug 11

Sandra grew up in a Christian home. She was a good girl in church — read the Bible, prayed, did her quiet time. She was homeschooled by solid parents. She never snuck out or did anything crazy. She’d never even been to a high school prom. On the outside, it looked like Sandra had a sheltered and safe Christian childhood, but on the inside, there was a lot more going on.

During her freshman year of college, Sandra met June, a girl who quickly became her best friend. They spent hours each day together, and, over time, their worlds began to revolve around each other. Their emotional closeness became codependent and inappropriately physical. One day it happened, and they freaked out. They cried and prayed and asked God to help nothing like that happen again. But it did. And Sandra and June never told anyone. They even promised one another they’d never tell their future husbands.

A kid like Sandra should feel safe confessing her sins to Christian parents and her church community. But there’s understandable shame for a kid confessing same-sex attraction or transgender feelings, especially if that child has grown up around coarse gay jokes or politically charged opinions about the LGBTQ movement. It’s understandable for a kid who grows up in that context to fear losing friendships if they allow their struggles to become public knowledge.

What can a parent or a church leader do in the face of such shame? What does it look like to show love and compassion for a child who experiences the discord of gender confusion or same-sex attraction?

First, cultivate empathy. If we’re honest, we know kids’ fears about confessing disordered desires are not unfounded. Many parents don’t react well. Some parents’ first instincts are to run from the situation and ignore it. Some become overwhelmed emotionally and get angry, whether with God or with their child: “How can this be happening? You were raised better than this!” These kinds of responses only create more distance between parents and their children. Like the Pharisees, many Christian communities sometimes teach true doctrine all the while judging and marginalizing those who publicly confess sin that makes us particularly uncomfortable or is socially unacceptable (Luke 18:9–14). We must remember that those who experience gender confusion or same-sex attraction are not unique in battling brokenness or sinful desires. Cooper Pinson asks:

Can you relate to a student who wants to follow Christ, but finds strong, competing, sinful tendencies within himself that moves him in destructive directions?1Cooper Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction: Guidance for Parents and Youth Leaders, (Greensboro: New Growth, 2017), 8.

If so, you’re more like your child than you may have originally thought. When we acknowledge what we have in common and move toward kids who struggle rather than away from them, we reflect the kind of love with which Jesus loved us (1 John 4:19).

Second, acknowledge the courage it took to be honest.2Adapted from Tim Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay, (Greensboro: New Growth, 2013), 8–9. Even if your child’s confession is hard to hear, thank them for being honest enough to tell you the truth. Acknowledge how hard it must have been for your child to speak this secret and get it out in the open. Thank them for trusting you, reaffirm your love for them, and assure them that your relationship will not end because of this confession. Affirming your love for your child and expressing gratitude for their truthfulness will help you cultivate an ongoing relationship that is built on authenticity.

Third, listen before you speak or act. If your child begins the conversation, respect their initiative by allowing the dialogue to be about what you can learn from them and not what you feel they need to hear from you. When seeking to understand, the most important thing is to ask comfortable open-ended questions.3Brian Hambrick, “Talking to My Boys after the Transgender Talk at Their Public School” (May 16, 2016), accessed online at http://bradhambrick.com/talking-to-my-boys-after-the-transgender-talk-at-their-public-school/. If your child says, “I’m gay,” “lesbian,” or “I want to transition,” for instance, it’s important to understand what they mean by that. Ask your child how they came to this understanding, how long they have been considering this, how certain they feel it is true, and why. Ask whether or not your child is content with this expressed identity, or if this is something they don’t want. Don’t assume your child or their friends understand these terms in the same way you do. 

It may be that your child is confessing a sinful experiment with a new gender identity or same-sex sexual intimacy in the same way a cheating husband who wants to turn away from unfaithfulness confesses, “I’m an adulterer.” When a Christian owns his or her identity as a sinner in this way, it should never be discouraged (1 Tim. 1:15). Your child is most likely describing an ongoing battle in which they feel oppressed and helpless. As Tim Geiger observes, “He might really be saying, ‘I’ve been struggling with these feelings for years, and the only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that I must be gay.’”4Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay,21.

Fourth, acknowledge your child’s suffering. Kids who struggle with gender confusion or same-sex attraction may have heard many times from the church that homosexuality is wrong. But rarely have we acknowledged their unique form of suffering and intense temptations. Students who experience same-sex attraction “often contend with intense loneliness, confusion, fear, and even despair as they wrestle with something that seems as if it’s an essential part of who they are.”5Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction, 14. The same is true for kids who experience gender dysphoria.

Having disordered desires, whether these desires consist in same-sex sexual lust or gender confusion, is not the same thing as giving in to these sinful desires, that is, dwelling on those desires and acting upon them. Both are sinful, but the kind of repentance required and the kind of change we can expect is different. We must turn from all sinful behavior. But where we can repent and refrain from sinful actions related to sexual temptation, disordered desires — while they should be resisted, confessed, and put to death — may nevertheless remain throughout our lives. Sharing your own struggles — how you may not always feel at home or comfortable in your own body, or, as appropriate, your own ongoing battles with lust and temptation — will demonstrate that brokenness and sexual sin is not unique to your child.

Fifth, pray for your child. We can educate our children as much as we want, have conversations, and teach them the biblical point of view. But in the end, their hearts must be in submission to God or these words will fall on deaf ears. A child’s repentance ultimately depends on the Holy Spirit’s work in their heart and not on a parent’s actions. Some things only come out by prayer (Mark 9:29). So, as parents, we must appeal to God to act on behalf of our children. 

The parents of Sandra or June may be in for a long journey. Sometimes it seems that we do and say all the right things, but our hearts break because our children continue to choose the wrong path. In these times, one of the best ways to care for our children is to advocate for them while on our knees.

Finally, gently communicate what it looks like to follow Jesus. By adopting an empathetic posture and listening carefully, you set the stage for speaking redemptive truth. If your child is determined to pursue an intimate same-gender, sexual relationship or transition their gender, there may be no way of avoiding defensiveness on their part. Remember that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Your child needs kindness too. It’s doubtful that arguments will convince your child their perspective is wrong. But if they are open to dialogue, share sensitively a biblical and compassionate perspective on suffering with sexual brokenness. We can encourage a child who experiences besetting and persistent trials with the truth that all Christians are called to suffer. As Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).

Following Christ while enduring gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction will involve taking up crosses. It will mean rejecting impulses that run counter to God’s created design. It may mean that your child remains single and celibate into adulthood or resists temptation while their psychological distress increases. You should never gloss over or minimize these hard realities, but you can remind your children that they have a high priest who can sympathize with them in their weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). As Andrew Walker observes, “No one ever experienced greater dysphoria than the perfect Son of God being treated as a sinner.”6Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, 89. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24).

As you encourage your child to persevere, keep in mind that this most likely will be a long journey. Change is slow. A girl like Sandra, whose story I told above, may gain confidence to confess her sins and grow both to live a life in obedience to the Bible’s commands and even to disciple others who experience same-sex attraction. But that same girl may still struggle to discern whether or not missing one of her girlfriends who is out of town is just a normal part of friendship or evidence that she’s still battling a sinful pull toward codependence. As Chris Torchia writes:

We all appreciate the success stories of someone coming to Christ and experiencing complete freedom from ingrained sin patterns, but God doesn’t always work that way. A more accurate picture of repentance is a gradual process of turning away from sin and turning to God more and more, usually with many bumps along the way.Chris Torchia, “Coming Out as Gay or Transgender: Five things parents must do—part 4,” The Student Outreach, (Sept. 21, 2017), accessed online at http://thestudentoutreach.org/2017/09/21/coming-gay-transgender-five-things-parents-must-part-4/.

Parents, you should find the kind of support network that will stick with you through the long haul. Don’t hide your weakness from your Christian friends. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help from your pastors and biblical counselors like those at Harvest USA (www.harvestusa.org).

We can be confident that Christ is ready, willing, and waiting to meet us even where brokenness seems profound and irreparable. We can persevere with faith, knowing that we share in Christ’s sufferings so we may also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). For those who do not shrink back, God has prepared a great reward. We do not belong to those who shrink back to destruction but to those who persevere and are saved (Heb. 10:36-39).

This article was adapted from A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: Helping Kids Navigate a Confusing Culture.

  • 1
    Cooper Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction: Guidance for Parents and Youth Leaders, (Greensboro: New Growth, 2017), 8.
  • 2
    Adapted from Tim Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay, (Greensboro: New Growth, 2013), 8–9.
  • 3
    Brian Hambrick, “Talking to My Boys after the Transgender Talk at Their Public School” (May 16, 2016), accessed online at http://bradhambrick.com/talking-to-my-boys-after-the-transgender-talk-at-their-public-school/.
  • 4
    Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay,21.
  • 5
    Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction, 14.
  • 6
    Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, 89.
By / May 27

A few weeks ago, a pastor friend who supervises children’s ministry staff at his church reached out to me and asked, “If you were coaching a children’s ministry leader on event planning and communication, what tips would you give them?” My friend’s question is a great one. After all, children’s ministers have a lot of people with whom they need to communicate. 

When planning for events or ministry initiatives, it’s important to be on the same page with other church staff. On at least a weekly basis, it’s necessary to have regular communication about the service schedule and weekly teaching plan with your volunteers. And speaking of volunteers, it’s essential to have a clearly communicated assimilation process — application, background check, interview, and training — for those who desire to begin serving in the ministry for the first time. Oh, and I haven’t begun to talk about the need to communicate with parents, to promote events through regular announcements, and to think intentionally about how your ministry might use social media as an equipping resource.

Many children’s ministers stepped into their ministry roles with backgrounds in education — even Christian education — but fewer of us had training in event planning and administration when we began. We might know how to interpret the Bible and teach the next generation, but we have a lot to learn about managing a ministry. 

With these realities in mind, I forwarded my friend’s question to several organized ministry leaders that I know. Here are their encouragements:

First, begin your communication about events or ministry initiatives as early as possible. 

Sandra Peoples, who is a disability consultant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and a women’s and disability ministry leader at Heights Baptist in Alvin, Texas, told me, “At our church, anything that’s going on the calendar needs to be requested at least two months in advance. It gets discussed and approved at staff meetings. Then, we begin the planning process.” 

I love Sandra’s idea of a two-month planning minimum, but for larger, church-wide events like vacation Bible school or a community harvest festival — or with any communication of events in a very large church — the communication will need to start even earlier. In his article, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth,” Dr. Timothy Keller makes clear that an increasing redundancy of communication is even more necessary as a church grows. Keller writes, “Without multiple forms and repeated messages, people will feel left out and complain, ‘I wasn’t told about it.’ You know you’ve crossed into a higher size category when . . . informal communication networks (pulpit announcements, newsletter notices, and word of mouth) are insufficient to reach everyone.” Once that is the case more lead time is necessary to communicate effectively; fluency is the goal. As Heather Thompson, communications director at Paradox Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, told me, “When you are tired of saying it, that may be just the beginning of people starting to get it.”

Second, as you plan the event, use a checklist. 

If you’ve purchased a vacation Bible school director’s guide or any sort of event planning kit from a Christian publisher, you’ve likely discovered that those kits contain planning timelines or checklists that begin up to a year in advance. Peoples told me that an event planning checklist her church uses includes details like “room setup, registration, graphic design, turning on the AC, and getting keys to whoever needs them.” But the checklists also cover matters of communication. 

In fact, director’s guides and resource kits may even include sample email communication for volunteers and parents or promotional materials such as videos, posters, mailers, and graphics for the church bulletin or social media. One of the great things about these kits is that they not only give you these resources for communication, they also tell you exactly when in the planning process to use them.

When planning an event without any sort of pre-set guide or kit, I’ve often taken a planning checklist that I’ve used before (for an event like child dedication, for example), and then I’ve adapted it as a template for the new event. I just make any necessary adjustments (e.g., enough recruiting lead time for events that require more volunteers) and then follow the checklist step-by-step.

Third, be consistent with your regular communication. 

Consistency with the channels you use to communicate will help the parents in your church and the volunteers who serve in your ministry know where to find the information they need. If, for instance, you’re consistent with sending out the children’s ministry schedule and curriculum via email each Tuesday morning, teachers will learn to look for it on that day in their Inbox. It can be possible to use too many communication platforms, narrowing your communication to one landing page on your website and the most used social media platforms can make your communication more clear.

Jared Crabtree serves as pastor of Families at Redeemer Fellowship Midtown in Kansas City, Missouri. He told me that his team works to have a presence on Facebook and Instagram that follows a regular schedule — ”typically a video with one of our staff or leaders teaching hand motions for the lesson memory verse on Mondays and something like an activity or resource for families on Wednesday or Thursday as well as regular volunteer highlights.” 

I love that the Redeemer team is intentional about celebrating volunteers, because, as Thompson told me, “Regular communication should not just revolve around announcements, promotions, or policies. Great communication is an ‘encouragement channel’ that celebrates what you value; it’s consistently communicating your vision and values for your team and the people you serve.”

Sandra Peoples highlighted another reason for a consistent communications schedule or planning checklist. It minimizes decision-making. “You don’t have to think of everything every time,” she said. “Make one decision that you can apply over and over when possible. I do this in dozens of ways. I have assigned days for posts on social media and a schedule for what I want to share; I also wear the same shirt every Monday, and we always have the same meals on the weekends.” 

I get it. We have Taco Tuesdays and Tuscan Thursdays (pizza or spaghetti) every week at the Kennedy house! As Peoples told me, “It may feel restricting for creative types at first, but then they realize how much brain space they have for the things that really matter when they put the rest on auto-pilot.” Planning in advance when you’re going to post on social media gives you the opportunity to be more deliberate about what you say and the tone with which you say it. It also gives you the time to have a well-rounded plan that addresses each of your target audiences — parents, children, and team members. Planning ahead gives you the opportunity to be prayerful, deliberate, and intentional.

Finally, make event planning and communication a team project. 

Rachel Mills and Alix Carruth, who serve with Crabtree at Redeemer Fellowship, run one of the best children’s ministry Instagram accounts I’ve seen. To help with consistency, they’ve put together a shared spreadsheet that maps their regular social media posts, and they use Slack, a team communication app, to share ideas for headlines. Carruth told me, “We alternate days of posting on Facebook and Instagram, but we meet every two weeks to plan for two weeks in advance so that we can be two weeks ahead.” 

Working together makes Mills and Carruth’s work lighter. Teamwork makes the dream work! It provides built-in accountability, too. Whether you’re leading a children’s ministry as a volunteer, serving as the only staff member, or part of a larger team, it’s important that you find others in your church who can help you bear the communication load.

All leaders communicate, and as Proverbs 25:11 (NKJV) says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” If you are a children’s ministry leader, you have a unique communication burden due to the numerous communication channels you have to manage — with fellow church staff, volunteers, parents, and the congregation as a whole. It’s one that can be carried with God’s help. By prayerfully planning ahead, using a checklist, being consistent, and working with a team, you can communicate in a way that’s gentle, intentional, and effective. 

By / May 26

Recently, I wrote a short post on Facebook about some of the difficult decisions my husband and I are facing in parenting, echoing conversations I’m having with other parents. Our kids are 13 and 10, and like every parent for all of time, I frequently hear myself saying, “Things are just so different than they were when we were growing up.” And while this has been true through the ages, it does seem especially difficult to raise children in an era when technology is advancing so rapidly and contributes to a vastly different childhood experience than the one in which we grew up in the 80s and 90s. 

In the Facebook post, I reflected on a recent conversation I had with a friend in which I joked, “If we could just get all the parents in a room and agree to not do cell phones or travel sports for kids, we could solve all the problems.” While this was a joke, it was also my simplistic way of expressing some of the difficult decisions we face at this stage of parenting. And judging from the responses from friends, we’re certainly not alone in wrestling with these things. There are unique challenges facing parents right now, and we need wisdom to parent our kids well.

Kids and phones

There’s a scene in the 2008 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who in which one of the daughters of Whoville’s mayor pleads with her father, “Can I please have a Who-phone, Dad? Everyone else in my class has one.” Like so many parents, myself included, the mayor responds with sarcasm, “Oh really? Everyone?” The daughter then presents him with photographic evidence — a picture of herself standing alone in the midst of 11 other students, all of whom are happily talking away on their phones. Most parents can relate to this scene. It is no exaggeration for my child to tell me she’s the only seventh grader without a phone. In fact, it’s only a slight exaggeration for my fourth grader to say the same. 

The statistics back up our childrens’ claims. The website SellCell surveyed 1,135 parents in the U.S. with children between the ages of 4 and 14 in 2019. They found that:

  • 40% of U.S. parents let their kids have their own phone by the age of 10
  • 56% of pre-teenage kids have a phone by the time they reach 13
  • 20% of kids first received phones at 13 or 14 years old
  • 7% were 15 or 16 when they received their first phone

The study also reported that 42% of kids are spending 30 hours each week on cell phones.

You have probably seen the statistics on the links between smartphones and anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and other issues in kids. The past year has only exacerbated many of these things. Parents who were holding off on phones have made the decision to give their child one during the pandemic because of the combination of the child’s need for socialization and the parent’s difficulty managing working from home. I spoke with a counselor who said his practice has seen a dramatic increase in children who have been exposed to pornographic content through device usage in the past year. 

Looking at the statistics, it seems like a simple decision to just say, “No phone until 16,” or some other age in the distant future. But as with most parenting decisions, it’s not that simple. Decisions around safety and the ability to stay in communication during after school activities cause many parents to allow phones. Some are intentional about starting with phones that limit access to the internet or social media. Others use smartwatches for the same purpose. For some parents, the gradual exposure to phones allows them to teach their children how to use technology responsibly. You can read more about making decisions like this here

I have spoken with parents who have allowed their children to have phones in middle school or earlier, while others have waited until high school. Some have had good experiences, although most admit it’s an additional burden to themselves as parents to stay on top of their children’s tech use. They have their kids sign contracts and treat a phone much like they would a car — as a tool that is a privilege, and one that can be taken away with irresponsible use. Other parents have admitted they regret giving in to their children’s pleas and wish they had waited longer. 

There are no easy answers when it comes to our kids and phones. 

Kids and sports

Another area in which parents feel pressure is that of youth sports. Studies consistently show that kids involved in athletics develop long-lasting skills helpful beyond the court or field such as confidence in relationships, empathy, problem-solving, and accountability. Most of us who have children in middle or high school grew up in a time when you could try out several different sports, and even play two or three in high school. It was rare for an athlete to specialize in one sport from an early age, and club or travel teams were the exception, not the rule.

I went to volleyball tryouts at my high school as a ninth grader in 2000 having never played before. Without any club experience, I was able to make a small NAIA college team four years later. If I could transport my ninth grade self to 2021, I wouldn’t have been able to make most middle school teams. Friends whose daughters have played on their schools’ sixth grade teams have received a lot of pressure to have their daughters play club ball. It’s common knowledge that they won’t be able to play in high school unless they spend time and money playing year-round. This for a sport in which less than 4% of high school players go on to play in the NCAA, with only 1.2% playing in Division I. 

This problem is not unique to volleyball. The statistics are similar for most sports. (Although, if you want your daughter to play college sports, ice hockey is your best bet; 26.2% of female high school ice hockey players go on to play in the NCAA.) 

As the popularity of travel sports has risen, the overall participation rate in sports has declined. Families who are able to pay are funneling money into more elite teams, while those who cannot pay are forced out of competitive athletics. A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that the overall student participation rate in sports is now only 39%, with rates the lowest in urban (32%), high-poverty (27%), and charter (19%) schools. 

It can feel a bit like a chicken and egg scenario. We don’t want to do travel sports, but we want our kids to have the benefits of playing competitively. Because it’s so hard to make teams or get playing time, we pay the often exorbitant costs and sacrifice our time to ensure our kids get the experience of playing the sports we loved at their ages. For some families, it’s about setting kids up for college scholarships. But for many, they see the benefits of discipline, commitment, and team building — things we all want for our kids. Of course, the sacrifice often includes missing things like gathering with a local church family. And what we prioritize as a family speaks volumes to our kids about what’s important in life.

Where is wisdom?

These are just two out of many issues we are wrestling with as parents. Each generation has its own struggles, and in that way there’s nothing new under the sun. But even as we encounter new challenges, we need timeless wisdom.

I remember sitting in a Bible study as the mom of a 1-year-old when a new mom shared that she had been convicted to go to God in prayer, asking for wisdom in parenting decisions rather than just going straight to Google. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my mind. I was a Google mom. My kid wouldn’t sleep through the night, so I went to Google. She would only eat orange foods, so I went to Google. She wasn’t walking yet, so I went to Google. 

I didn’t solely look to Google for solutions; I often asked friends. We would compare notes on milestones and tips on what was working for us. Often, both the internet and my friends were helpful. God has given us the common grace of wisdom through experience and the research conducted by experts.

The problem I’ve found with looking to these conventional methods first for obtaining wisdom is that I’m prone to make and justify decisions based on what my peers are doing. In that way, I’m not much different from the children I’m trying to raise. We can easily find people arguing for one side or another of a difficult decision, and it’s convenient to look for opinions and evidence that confirm our natural inclinations. 

Twelve years later, I’m still trying to learn the lesson my friend taught me in that Bible study. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” It’s such a comfort to know that we can go to God first with all our needs for wisdom, and to know that he doesn’t reproach us for not already knowing the answers. 

God will often answer our prayers for wisdom through the words of Scripture, the words of another person, or through circumstances. As we wrestle through the challenges of parenting, there will always be new issues that arise, and we will frequently lack the wisdom we need. Statistics, firsthand reports, and the words of friends can be helpful and wise, but we need wisdom to sift through the noise and determine what is best for our individual children, and the grace to not fault our friends for the decisions they make. 

I am trying to learn to respond to my children’s requests with this statement: “I need to pray and ask God for wisdom about that.” Whatever the decision, I hope this reminds my children and myself that he is the ultimate authority in our lives and source of wisdom. I also hope it reminds my kids that we’re on the same team and that their parents want God’s best for them. 

As we prayerfully submit our decisions to the Lord, we can trust him to guide us in the right direction. And we can trust that he will do the same for our children when they leave our home one day. This is, after all, the message of the book of Proverbs: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (Prov. 4:7b).

Whether our kids have phones or become college athletes, may our greater desire be that they get wisdom. And may God give us the wisdom that we need to impart to them. 

By / May 21

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss Dr. Moore resignation from the ERLC along with his move to Christianity Today, views on masks guidance, the latest on Israel and Hamas, Texas signing a six-week abortion ban, and SCOTUS taking up Mississippi case. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jordan Wootten with “How do we make sense of modern culture? An interview with Carl Trueman about The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” Ethan and Michaela Holsteen with “The importance of the church when dealing with disability and grief: How one family leaned into community after their child’s diagnosis with Cri du chat Syndrome,” and Jared Kennedy with “3 subtle sins to warn your kids about: Any why it matters when wrestling with sexual temptation.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Russell Moore to Join Christianity Today to Lead New Public Theology Project
  2. Onward.
  3. Mask guidance
  4. Latest on Israel and Hamas
  5. Texas governor signs into law bill banning abortions at six weeks
  6. SCOTUS takes up MS case

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By / Apr 15

If you were a child of the evangelical 1980s and 90s, you likely saw a VHS tape containing a morality tale. Whether it was McGee and Me, Quiggly’s Village, or a plunger-headed cucumber fighting rumor weeds and fibs from outer space, you were told tales of the dangers of lying, envy, and other numerous sins with the help of cartoons, puppets, and animated vegetables.

I don’t remember all the plot lines of such shows, but I do have vivid memories of great tragedy befalling the protagonists when they committed various vices that spun out of control.

While there’s a place for discussing the merits and drawbacks of such entertainment, the aim of cultivating virtue—and warning against vice—is very appropriate. It smacks of the philosophy of the Proverbs. You might say Proverbs was written, among other things, as a warning to young people against vices. The sage tells the young man to avoid joining gangs for a false sense of belonging. Wisdom creates a hedge for the youth against the deadly allure of illicit sex.

Now this is important. Stories cultivate moral sensibility. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior makes this case deftly: when we read books well, we practice moral judgments and further develop our own moral convictions. Stories reduced to mere morality tales are not good literature, but all narratives when told truthfully will develop our understanding of virtue.

How much more does history, when told truthfully, serve us—and our kids—with the formation of virtue.

History is full of women and men who exhibit virtue. And unlike morality tales, these history-shaping men and women live in a very real world, a world like our own. To quote Voltaire, “History doesn’t repeat itself. Man always does.”1Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv. No matter what era we study, we are still gripped by our shared imago Dei. Our humanity connects us with figures across history. Indeed, humanity gives us access to models of virtue, and examples of vice.

For every virtue has at either extreme a vice. If the path of virtue is a road, then on each side is a ditch. Virtue is about staying on the road, and not walking into either ditch. If virtue is about keeping to the center, vice is found in among the cattails.

Arius’ overgrown ambition

History has many figures among the cattails. One of them was a man named Arius, and there are three things you should know about him:

First, he was handsome, gifted, and a golden-tongued teacher. He was an influencer. If Twitter was a thing back in 300 A.D., Arius would have had the blue check.

Second, Arius is an example of the failure of temperance. Arius served under Alexander, the man who held office as the bishop of Alexandria, arguably the most important church office in the ancient world at the time. Arius wanted that office, and his ambitions birthed in him a jealousy that eventually overtook him.

Third, in his jealousy, Arius began making up lies about Alexander. And then things got really out of hand. Consider gathering your kids in the family room, or my favorite—around the campfire—and telling them this tale: 

The young jealous Arius dug up an old heresy, one we now call modalism, and he accused Alexander of denying that God is one in three persons. Alexander tried to reason with Arius. This first charge was an easy charge for Alexander to defend, but Arius’ jealousy carried him to the next phase, and the rumor weeds grew. 

Next, Arius stirred up other bishops and the people. Arius began to explicitly teach that Jesus was not God from eternity. He famously said, “There was a time when the Son was not,” effectively denying Christ’s full deity and saying the Son was a created being. Then, Arius went even further and said that the Spirit was not God.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Arius worked hard to recruit allies to his cause. He used his gifts to gather around himself a group that aligned with Arius’s innovative teaching. To complicate matters, all this took place during the rule of Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor. Constantine had hoped to use Christianity to reunite the faltering Roman empire. The last thing Constantine wanted was for his Church to split over what he saw as a petty theological issue. 

So what began with Arius’ unbridled ambition and jealousy grew into an enormous political controversy. Constantine called a meeting, inviting 1,800 bishops from across the empire, representatives from the Christian East and West. 

The meeting took place in modern day Iznik, Turkey, a city that was then called Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops actually came, which is a rather good turnout considering how costly and time consuming such a journey would have been in those days.

The meeting was long. We’re talking March-to-August long. The council determined that Arius had indeed diverged from the Church’s teaching, and they affirmed a statement from which the Nicene Creed we recite today originated. Arius, along with his followers that wouldn’t yield, were banished. 

Now, if only that were the end of the story. The trouble is that the Council was unable to fully uproot Arius and his followers’ vices. The proud man and his adherents regrouped, and many (though not Arius) found ways to wiggle back into church fellowship. They used clever words, avoiding language that was condemned at Nicea, without actually changing their heretical theology.

Athanasius against the jealousy weed

Just five months after the Council of Nicaea, Alexander died, and a young man named Athanasius was elected as his successor. He had served as Alexander’s assistant, and he’d played a critical role at the council. 

Athanasius was a man of virtue. He wasn’t a brash man but was known instead for being gentle and pastoral in his approach. And yet he took the Arian threat seriously. He held tightly to the truth of the Scriptures and the deity of Christ without yielding to the political pressure to merely keep the peace. 

Athanasius’s commitment to truth made him a problem for Arius and his followers. They saw him as an enemy to be thwarted. But because of Athanasius’ virtue, they were hard pressed to find an accusation that would stick. Nevertheless, they tried.

One of the factions of Arius’ followers went so far as to fake a man’s death, hide him in another city, produce a severed hand (probably from a real corpse), and then claim that Athanasius had maimed and killed the man with sorcery. This attempt to remove Athanasius from power only failed when authorities were able to produce the alleged victim and reveal that he was still alive with two hands!

This wasn’t the end of the story. Arius and his tribe were successful in their attempts multiple times. He was forced into exile on five different occasions by four different emperors.

But when we take a close look at how Athanasius withstood these trials, we see the role of virtue in his life. One critical virtue he demonstrated was fortitude. His commitment to truth was resolute. He endured in faith in spite of banishment and fleeing for his life. Despite these continuous trials, he stayed the course, maintaining his conviction in the deity of Christ and his commitment to the true God made flesh. 

There is some scholarly debate, but most likely Athanasius’ magnum opus, On the Incarnation, was written during his first exile. Those who argue against it being written at this time point out that Arius isn’t mentioned in this work. I think it’s more likely Athanasius had his eyes set on a different prize—the purity of the Church. 

Athanasius wanted God’s people to know the beauty and majesty of the God who saw fit to dwell among us. He wanted the world to know that the exalted God who created the universe came to dwell on earth as a human. To paraphrase a lengthier passage from On the Incarnation: Just as the prestige of a city is raised when a great king dwells in it, how much more is the human race, when the God of the universe takes on flesh.2Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69. In his writings, Athanasius was clear, and he shows us where true virtue is found—only when we are rooted in Christ. 

Athanasius wasn’t alone in his biblical convictions about the person of Christ. There were many other leaders and fellow believers who gave him aid and shelter in his exiles, but the well known phrase Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world,” is fitting because it captures the gravity of the pressure he faced and the virtue with which he stood.

Meanwhile, Arius—our man caught in the cattails of vice—who enviously desired the throne of Alexandria, found himself at the end of his life upon another more ignoble throne. While Arius’ case was under consideration for his readmittance and welcome into the fellowship of the church, he experienced a pain in his bowels, entered a public latrine, and immediately died upon the toilet. 

When Constantine heard this news, he immediately concluded that Arius was a scheming liar, because—in his view—no man of God would die such an ignoble death.

Arius, in his jealousy, sought fame and influence at the expense of virtue, and it led to his destruction. By contrast, Athanasius, a man of Christ-centered virtue, suffered intrigue and exile but found a prize more valuable than rubies. Nothing could take him away from the pearl of great price he found in Christ. 

Just as Arius serves as a somber warning against the dangers of unchecked vanity, envy, and pride, so also Athanasis serves us and our kids as an example of Christlike humility and a tenacious and humble refusal to compromise on the truth. 

Passing along church history from generation to generation

In Psalm 78, Asaph tells us of the importance of passing down the story of the faith from generation to generation. The psalm focuses on telling children about acts in history “so that our children should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God (v. 7).” 

Often when we cite this passage, we think about passing down the stories of our faith that we find in the Bible. But it’s also wise to tell our children about the works of God throughout the history of the church, of the men and women who endured many trials with faithfulness and of those who failed by giving into vice.

We need resources to help us do this well. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones. Covering the span of church history this book has full color pictures and illustrations. It also includes the fun stories and legends that kids love (like the tall tales of “Saint Nick” punching Arius in the nose).
  • Light Keepers is a fantastic series that tells the stories of historical figures through the lens of childhood in a way that captures kids’ imaginations. 
  • Super Heroes Can’t Save You. Todd Miles cleverly breaks down Trinitarian and Christological heresies into gripping stories from history, and clear explanations of doctrine—using superheroes! If you think church history and theology are boring, check out Miles, he’ll change your mind. 

Let’s tell our children stories from our shared Christian history. When we tell them the story of Arius’ jealousy and Athanasius’ fortitude, we aren’t just telling kids morality tales of vice and virtue. We are giving them a framework for how to view the entirety of history through the lens of God’s grace. In the stories of men and women who lived lives of virtue, we’re teaching our kids about how God has shown himself faithful across hundreds of years. When we tell them about the works God has done through men and women with Christian virtue, we are strengthening their hope in the God who gives grace to the humble and fortitude to those who depend on him. 

  • 1
    Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv.
  • 2
    Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69.
By / Apr 8

A year ago, as we headed into weeks and months of pandemic lockdown, children’s ministry leaders were in survival mode, scrambling for ideas on how to equip their teams to minister to children from a distance. As we saw the end of pandemic restrictions on the horizon, many lifted their gaze and began to explore reopening plans. Now those same ministry leaders are in the midst of implementing those plans, teaching volunteers new sanitizing protocols and welcoming families back into teaching environments with new social distancing requirements.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about children’s ministry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that most children’s ministers spend more time each week thinking about getting ready for Sunday than they do thinking about the philosophy and methodology that has shaped the way they do ministry. Children’s ministers work in the ministry but on a week-to-week basis, most don’t give as much thought to what it would look like to work on the ministry

Children’s ministry as an academic discipline

That’s where a book like Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (Zondervan, 2020) can be a big help. The book is edited by Mimi L. Larson, children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church-North America, and Robert J. Keeley, professor of education at Calvin College. It grew out of presentations made at the 2018 Children’s Spirituality Summit, an ecumenical gathering of children’s ministry scholars and practitioners hosted by the Society for Children’s Spirituality at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The book includes chapters from a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners that includes Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, Kevin E. Lawson, professor of Educational Studies at Biola University, Adam Harwood, professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Karen F. Williams, a book publishing and education consultant based in Nashville, and Henry Zonio, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and others. These authors and more explore children’s ministry as an academic discipline. While the book is aimed at ministry practitioners, it invites them into deeper reflection on what might be described in an academic seminar as the issues and theory that shapes our practice of children’s discipleship.

Children’s Spirituality begins with foundational matters, exploring the philosophical emphases, theological assumptions, and cultural history that shape contemporary children’s ministry curriculum and programming (chapters 1–4). Next, the book explores the environments that shape a child’s faith—church culture and programming, the changing shape of today’s families, and the experience of trauma and grief (chapters 5–8). The book’s final sections explore various methods for children’s ministry. An emphasis is placed on telling Bible stories (chapters 9–11) but the book also addresses the shape of contemporary curriculum (chapters 12–13), spiritual direction with children (chapter 14), and the importance of play (chapter 15).

Among the book’s highlights were Lawson and Harwood’s chapter that outlined the similarities and differences in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologies of children (chapter 2); Karen Williams’s very practical chapter on cultivating children’s ministry environments that foster racial diversity (chapter 3); Erik Carter’s taxonomy of approaches that churches take to welcoming children with special needs (chapter 4); and Zonio’s sociological study of racial representation in the images and language used in published children’s ministry curriculum (chapter 13). If you are a family pastor or children’s minister, each of these chapters is worth your time and careful consideration.

Ministry to, for, and with children

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality represent a diversity of perspectives from a broad range of Christian traditions. As I read, my desire was to engage the book with openness and thoughtfulness about the assumptions I bring to children’s ministry as a committed Baptist.

The book’s first chapter, written by Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, helped me to put my theological and cultural assumptions into a historical perspective. May sees American children’s ministry as developing in three phases (24–35):

The conservative evangelical movement in America began with a theologically sound emphasis on the Bible as the authority for discipleship (2 Tim. 3:16–17). May points out that as a result of our confidence in the Bible, many evangelical churches from 1940–1965 gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies and viewed children as sponges or empty vessels into which the teacher—the authority in the classroom—was responsible to impart knowledge. She calls this ministry to children.

With the advent of children’s television and the widespread acceptance of developmental theory, children’s ministries from 1965–1990 become more student-centered. The attractional children’s ministry models of this era saw children as participants, explorers, or even consumers, and the teachers were given the role of engaging children in active learning. “Sometimes the learning was so active,” May lamented, “that the teacher would feel it was a three-ring circus” (27). She calls this ministry for children.

The newest models of children’s ministry—and the ones that are most prominently highlighted in Children’s Spirituality—are process-centered and emphasize spiritual formation as a journey (Gal. 4:19). The new models are rooted in the contemplative theological stream and highlight new findings in neurobiology that have challenged many people’s developmental assumptions about when learning begins (26). May calls this ministry with children.

Some benefits of a process-centered approach

May’s three-phase overview demonstrates how children’s ministry scholarship as a whole has swung from what I might describe as a Classical education model across the bow to something that looks more and more like a Montessori-style model of Christian education—one that emphasizes imagination and wonder, asking open-ended questions about Bible stories, allowing kids to discover their own readings or interpretations of the text, giving children more choices, and learning through play. 

We now know that learning happens before birth and that all children have a sense of awe from a very early age; they are aware of spiritual things. With this knowledge, many children’s ministry scholars (and a growing number of practitioners) have begun to view teachers as co-learners with children; they’re embracing a reciprocal learning relationship with children and even finding ways to empower children to lead. “This rather revolutionary thought recognizes that children can indeed teach adults something, including and perhaps especially spiritual insights, if the adults only have ears to hear and eyes to see” (27–28). 

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality have helped me to see at least three helpful correctives that a process-centered approach offers:

  1. A process-centered approach finds freedom to engage the Bible’s more difficult stories without having all the answers. Often evangelical children’s ministries have used Bible stories merely as a way to teach moral lessons to children. With this approach, Bible people are seen either as heroes or villains, and it’s no wonder that many stories (like the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) or details in stories (like Noah’s drunken nakedness after the flood) are left out of children’s ministry curriculum.

    Even with a more God- or gospel-centered approach that emphasizes God’s actions for his people in history, our desire to find one main teaching point can keep us from sitting in the mystery of why a story’s events unfolded as they did. Why did God choose a man like Samson as a judge (Judges 13–16) or give us that awful story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? In his chapter on sharing hard stories with children, Robert J. Keeley writes, “Much of the Bible is mysterious. . .  I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small” (172).
  2. A process-centered approach doesn’t merely tell children what to think; it cultivates their affections and higher-level thinking skills. At the beginning of her chapter, Mimi L. Larson wrote, “I believe the church desires children to learn and be spiritually formed as a result of instruction, but are we engaging in methods that will actually increase their learning in formation?” (187). Behind this question was a research project where Larson used Bloom’s taxonomy for evaluating educational learning objectives to study 39 randomly selected lessons in five popular, evangelical, mostly nondenominational children’s curricula.

    Larson came away from this study with a conviction that children’s ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and curriculum writers may be good at telling children what they should believe and how to apply God’s Word—teaching lessons with clear main points and incentivizing the memorization of Bible verses and doctrinal truths. But they are less skilled at cultivating a child’s affections or in training kids to think at a higher level—about how to analyze and study God’s Word for instance, or to think through ethical situations from a biblical frame, or to produce a creative and affective faith response.

    Larson calls for greater intentionality in both our curriculum development and in the way we cultivate reflective classroom environments: “By encouraging children to think and discover biblical understandings under the guidance of a skilled teacher and mature believer, the child is learning how to think biblically and not just specifically what to think” (197).
  3. A process-centered approach encourages active engagement with children while they play. Shirley K. Morgenthaler is distinguished professor of Curriculum, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University, Chicago. In her chapter on sacred play, she writes, “Within Christian education, we feel a tension to ground a child in the gospel, to explain and teach the foundations of faith from a young age. We also know that play impacts both the life of the mind and the life of the body . . . Can play also be a form of spiritual development?” (228).

    Morgenthaler encourages children’s ministers to create spaces where children can act out Bible stories and rhythms of worship—perhaps a little church with pews and a pulpit in the corner of a classroom, or a nativity scene with Bible costumes during Advent and Christmas. She sees these environments as centers for self-discovery but highlights the need for wise teachers to provide guidance.

    If play is a part of a child’s spiritual formation, it must be more than a time-filler or recreational activity. “This is not the time to be holding a cup of coffee and ‘watching the children,’” she writes (238). Rather the teacher must be fully engaged and discerning about when to allow kids the opportunity to exercise their creativity and when to step in and ask guiding questions.

Embracing a process without losing the gospel

If there’s a danger in a process-oriented approach, it’s that in focusing on the process, ministers might begin to deemphasize the importance of the gospel message. As Baptists, we might worry that when teachers pursue a role as co-learners with children, they may be attempted to also abandon their own authority as the teacher—or forsake the reality that the Christian faith has a defined content that must be passed along from generation to generation (Psa. 78:5–8; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2:2; Jude 1:3). 

Conservative evangelicals will want to emphasize that while it can be helpful for children to make their own choices and struggle to discover the meaning of Bible passages, kids are also both sinful and immature. One role of a Christian teacher is to bring correction when a child strays onto the wrong path—not only in behavior but also in thinking. We must be gentle with children but also unafraid to confront them with the reality of their brokenness. As Charles Spurgeon once warned: 

Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.1Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.

Spurgeon makes clear that an essential way of cultivating affection in children for the gospel is to show them their need for it. At times as I was reading, I wished that perspective was more front and center in Children’s Spirituality

But with our love of the truth, we also must demonstrate to the next generation that we have the heart to walk alongside them—and even learn from them—as they discover the beauty and goodness of the Bible’s message. To that end, I found this book to be a great help.

One prayer I have for the churches and leaders who are welcoming children again after COVID-19 is that they’ll take time in this season to slow down and think deeply about the theology and methodology that drives their ministry—that they won’t just work in but work on their children’s ministry. Maybe Children’s Spirituality will help you to that end. As with the children we’re leading, growth for us as ministers isn’t always cultivated in the activity but in the process of both doing the work and taking the time to reflect and wonder. 

Jared Kennedy and the team of leaders at Gospel-Centered Family offer both one-on-one and cohort coaching opportunities for children’s and family ministry leaders. Find out more at gospelcenteredfamily.com/coaching 

  • 1
    Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.