By / Jul 7

I long wrestled with dissatisfaction around the schedule for each of our children’s ministry classrooms. Don’t get me wrong. My Type A personality loved the down-to-the-minute schedules handed to each lead teacher, and I felt a sense of success when things ran on time. Grasping to the slightest amount of order in a classroom of 3-year-olds felt like a win on a Sunday.

But my heart began to stir for our children and team members to make their way through an order of service that carried deep, theological purpose. I began to dream of making the moments we had with our children more aligned with the service their parents attended. From that desire was born our Paradox Kids classroom liturgy. 

Let me explain the basics of this classroom liturgy, and then I’ll walk you through how we train the volunteers at Paradox Church to use it. The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” The order of service we repeat as adults on Sunday morning is our work of service rendered unto God. And simply put, liturgy is the rhythms and patterns we rehearse every week as we gather for worship with God’s people. Even our youngest children can be invited to participate in liturgy rather than sitting back to observe or be entertained. The work we invite them to participate in — individual pieces of our classroom liturgy serve as habits and practices that shape their hearts to love and know Jesus.

We keep our children’s liturgy simple so that children will know the glory and grace of Jesus throughout our classroom time and their lives: we invite children in, preach the gospel, give room for response, and then send our littles out on mission. The five liturgical movements of the classroom liturgy are as follows:

  • God Gathers His People
  • We Pray to God for Help
  • We Listen to God’s Word
  • We Respond to God
  • God Sends Us on Mission

This language gives our team members a vision to lead in the classroom, not merely serve as babysitters. By identifying the flow of our classroom environments with the flow of a worship service — God initiating and people responding — every volunteer can see how they fit into the work God is doing in our children’s hearts. 

Here is how it works. We have a poster on the classroom wall with the schedule/liturgy. Classroom time is broken down by minutes so that volunteers and children know what is coming next. Here is how each section of the schedule works. 

God gathers his people

God loves to be with his people.Throughout the Scriptures we see God pursuing his people. He gathered his people to the tabernacle and later to the Temple. He established festivals and sacrifices that called his people together to meet with him. Now God’s church gathers on Sundays because God dwells with and among us.

We remind our children’s ministry team members that it is God who brings families each Sunday. We greet them with kind eyes, soft smiles, and welcome children into the classrooms warmly as Jesus gathered children around him — saying each child’s name and getting on their level. As kids enter the classroom, they gather with their peers over a puzzle or coloring sheet, and we follow the Spirit in reminding kids about how God longs to dwell with his gathered children.

We pray to God for help

If you’re familiar with The New City Catechism, you may know that one of the questions is, “What is prayer?” The answer to the question is, “Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God.” This language communicates to kids that we can trust God. What a beautiful habit for our children to be taught. When they have a need, when they are suffering, when they are grateful, when they find joy outside of God, they can come and pour out their hearts to their Good Father.

I want every child in our ministry to stand in awe of God and his power and his might. I want them to tell stories of the God who is so close that he hears our every prayer, so mighty that he can part the Red Sea. We don’t shut down children’s prayer requests, knowing that what might seem silly to an adult is precious to Jesus. We train our teachers not to hinder the children in their classrooms by making prayer eloquent or fancy or by merely dictating the content of their requests. But rather to believe that God hears both our silly requests and our suffering requests. It is the pouring out of our hearts that matters.

We listen to God’s Word

The third movement in our classroom liturgy is the most central. When we gather as a congregation, we read the scriptures and hear them taught through the sermon. In the case of children’s ministry, the teacher’s “congregation” is made up of young children who were created by God to know and love his Word.

As Haylee Bowden, our current Paradox Kids Director, and I worked on training materials for the team, she wrote these words about this part of our liturgy: 

“Each week as you lead our kids to listen to God’s word, you are not leading them to listen to a historical story or learn helpful life lessons. You are leading them to commune with the God who made them, loves them, and desires to be in relationship with them. When we believe that God’s Word is true, alive, and that it changes us, we can freely lead children to listen to God’s Word. We don’t have to carry the weighty responsibility of changing kids’ hearts. We get to rely on the true, alive, and transforming Word of God to do that. May that truth free us to delight in leading our kids to simply, yet profoundly, listen to the words of our Maker.”

We respond to God

As we — both adults and kids — listen to God’s Word, it changes us. It evokes a response in us. Have you thought about how you respond when God’s Word is read or taught to you? We stand in awe of God, or we’re convicted by his Word and we respond by repenting, bursting forth in song, or rejoicing as we take communion. What if in the flow of our classroom schedules, we made room for a response from our children?

To help kids learn the classroom liturgy, consider making cards to hand out when children enter the classroom. Cards can have icons so that even non-readers can follow along with the schedule. This can help children who struggle with transitions to know what comes next.

Giving kids an opportunity to respond involves more than doing a craft or pulling out a bag of blocks to entertain kids during the last minutes of class — though those activities could be a part of the response time that reinforces the teaching. 

The goal of the response is for children to wrestle with the truths they have heard. When we confront the reality that we are sinners who need the grace that only Jesus can provide, this reality chips away at hardened and dead hearts so that we are led to burst forth in joy. So most often during the response movement, we invite kids to sing and confess their sins. 

God sends us on Mission 

Our classroom liturgy concludes with an emphasis on how God sends his people on mission. Our children are called to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13, 14). Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19). Children can learn about the importance of God’s mission even as God is calling them to salvation!

As class time is wrapping up, we prompt kids to hold out their hands and receive the blessing of God’s Word read over them. (The Great Commission is a good place to start!) Some of our teachers have put to memory a phrase like: “God is with you all week, and we can’t wait to see you again next week!” 

We train our team to see this as a powerful spiritual moment, and we give them a vision for being faithful teachers up to the last minute of class time. The spoken blessing and “sending” lets a parent hear at pick-up time how we see their child as valuable and important in God’s kingdom.

This classroom liturgy is what we use to train our team members. We pray that its simplicity and richness will sow a love for Christ’s church in our littlest people that will bear fruit for decades to come. We also believe that the children’s liturgy trains our team members’ hearts. It shows each teacher how they can model to children their dependence on God through prayer, listening, and singing to God in grateful worship.

May the children in your classrooms be transformed by the Word of God. May God pour out his love for his people in a way that forms our children in the gospel and gives them a firm foundation for a lifetime of faithfulness. Amen.

By / Mar 22

News consumption does not merely inform us, it forms us, argues Jeffrey Bilbro in his new book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News. Our daily scrolling of the news may seem routine, but it shapes our sense of who we are, our values, and how we see the world we live in. As such, Bilbro calls readers to gain perspective on the nature and purpose of news and the power it has to shape and form communities around its content. Reading the Times helpfully suggests practices, or “liturgies,” to offset the side-effects of our media-saturated habits and cultivate healthier rhythms of life and reading. Below are some of the insights Bilbro shared from his important book on our relationship with the news. 

Your latest book is a “literary and theological inquiry into the news.” What is the purpose of news, and why do we need a practical theology for how we consume it?

Part of the challenge with considering how to understand and relate to what we might classify as “the news” is that it serves so many roles in our lives today. The news can give useful information about the weather or local happenings; it can provoke outrage; it can help us understand complex and ongoing events like a pandemic or climate change or economic trends; it can amuse; it can foster a sense of community among those who share particular moral convictions or cultural affinities; it can relieve boredom; and it can direct our attention toward particular people or events. Some of these purposes are good and some aren’t so good. 

In this book, I reflect on how our citizenship in heaven and God’s call to love our neighbor might shape how we attend to contemporary affairs. What do we need to know to love our neighbors well? Or, to frame the question differently, to what do we need to attend in order to live faithfully in this place and in this time?

The title is inspired by a Henry David Thoreau quote, “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities.” What is the significance of this Thoreau’s words today?

Thoreau was writing during a time of rapid technological change when the telegraph and other technologies were rapidly increasing the speed and reach of the news. People were becoming inundated with information about distant events, and it was difficult to discern what they should pay attention to. Thoreau warned that our human tendency is to get distracted by unimportant, titillating news: he jokes that when the transatlantic telegraph cable is in place, “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” In response to this altered information ecosystem, Thoreau recommended dedicating most of our attention to words and ideas, and stories that have stood the test of time. 

In many respects, Thoreau’s advice parallels what the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we are rooted in these eternal verities, we will be better able to discern which contemporary events are important for us to know about and how we should respond to them.

What are chronos and kairos, and how does the tension between these understandings of time affect how we interpret current events?

Chronos is basically our modern understanding of time as quantifiable duration. It’s linear and sequential. Kairos names a kind of propitious time, time that is right for a certain action: it’s time to plant a crop, time to drink a cup of coffee, time to celebrate Easter. Chronos names the horizontal timeline on which human history plays out, and kairos names the pattern of God’s redemptive work within creation. Christians are caught between these two times. The Old Testament prophets provide good examples of how to navigate this tension as they connect particular, historical injustice or sin with the recurring acts of divine judgment and redemption. 

Phrases like “the wrong side of history” or “the arc of history” indicate that chronos is the horizon against which the morality of particular events can be judged, and they suggest that humans are somehow morally progressing as history unfolds. Christians should be skeptical, I think, of this Hegelian view of historical progress, and such a view of time can lead us to overvalue the news. What happens in history does matter, but it matters not because it can be slotted into some arc of moral improvement. Rather, events matter because they are part of God’s ongoing work in his creation. The prophets judge current affairs against that divine pattern of action: idolatry or economic inequality is not on the wrong side of history, but they are on the wrong side of God’s character and commands. So the prophets—and the later heirs of this prophetic tradition—can guide us toward a better way of assessing the significance of current events. To put it in the terms of Thoreau’s dictum, they judge the times on the basis of the eternities.

You’ve included “liturgies” that media consumers can practice to offset common maladies tied to news intake. Why did you decide to include this in the book? What is one example of a helpful practice?

I’ve been encouraged by the recent theological retrieval of the importance of liturgies. The church has long known that what we habitually do with our bodies shapes our thinking, and more people seem to be remembering this reality of human nature. If we check our social media feeds the first thing each morning, we’ll inadvertently base our emotional posture toward the day on the latest outrageous story. If the TV is on in the background of our living rooms, it becomes the backdrop against which we understand the meaning of our lives. So the liturgies I recommend are meant to invite readers to reflect on how they might practice their theological convictions regarding the news—and how in turn their practices might be shaping their theological convictions. 

For instance, the simple act of taking a walk through your neighborhood can recalibrate your attention away from the distant dramas playing out on a screen and toward the neighbors among whom you live. What is happening in this place and with these people? What might you need to know to dwell more faithfully and redemptively here? We may still need to read and learn about events happening far away, but regularly walking among and talking to our neighbors might help us better understand the relative importance of distant events.

How can Christians better practice discernment while consuming the news?

Discernment is not an individual skill we can hone with a few mental tricks or technological hacks. It’s a communally-formed habit of mind. As I write in the book, belonging well precedes thinking well. Social psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have argued—persuasively, I think—that the vast majority of our reactions and decisions are based on socially-formed intuitions and biases rather than on deliberate, careful reasoning. If we imagine ourselves belonging primarily to a political party or an ideological group, we’ll filter all that we read through this identity. As Christians, however, our primary community should be the Church. We’ll be better able to discern the significance of the news that we read to the extent that we are formed as members of Christ’s body.

You discuss the ways that online and public communities have affected us in a digital age. What do you mean when you say, “What we really need is to be shaped by embodied communities that are rooted outside the public sphere and its unhealthy dynamics”?

Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, more and more of our relationships are mediated digitally. Some online communities can be genuinely life-giving, but the digital public square tends to foster unhealthy forms of belonging: it encourages swarms of outrage, virtue-signaling, and moral grandstanding rather than the patient, difficult work of building lasting friendships. We need such friendships and thick communities, however, both for the sake of our own spiritual formation and to help guide us as we seek to love our neighbors and participate redemptively in our broader communities. I point to Dorothy Day and Frederick Douglass as two examples of Christians who belonged well to embodied communities and wrote and published for a wider audience on the basis of that belonging.  

You can order Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News here