Why Our Kids Ministries Should be More Like Mr. Rogers and Less Like Disney.

One of the pressures that kids pastors face from parents, leaders, or themselves, and sometimes it’s all three, is to be like Disney. I have often looked at how Disney engages kids as inspiration in engaging the kids I lead. I have had people suggest kindly to me that we take a look at how Disney does things. I even went to Disney and have sent staff members to Disney for inspiration for ministry. The older I get and the longer I do kids ministry, the more I realize that Walt’s idea of child formation was wrong, and Mr. Rogers was right. (Editorial note I am not a Disney hater, I have taken the required pilgrimage to Orlando with my family.)

When you look at the aesthetics of the two kingdoms they both built, they reflect how each saw the world. Walt’s world was a perfect version of what our world should look like. His world is shiny songs playing everywhere. Every restaurant serves chicken strips and hotdogs. Never any dust, never chipped paint. Excellence and creativity abound. Fred’s world was simple, even plain. His puppets showed wear, and his set grew old along with Fred. Two worlds trying to reach the same kids. 

The two kingdoms they built were the result of two visions of the world. Walt created a world that was an escape from the real world. Fred lived in a neighborhood and showed kids how to navigate through the real world. 

Walt built a fantasy world. Fred lived in a neighborhood.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. Kids need fairy stories. Tolkien and Lewis were both shaped by fairy stories. They have different takes as to the ontological value of stories. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were reflective of God in that they were an example of sub-creation. Lewis thought that you could smuggle truth in fairy stories and steal past the watchful dragons that would not give faith a hearing. In this debate, I side more with Lewis. Fairy tales are more valuable in helping us escape this world, not for the escape alone but to show us what is broken and how to fix our world. Fairy stores should not be only an escape but should contain truth that entertains our minds but be filled with truth that changes our hearts. 

Walt’s world, on the whole, is an escape from reality, sustained by entertainment. You enter the park, and you enter the world as it should be – no trash on the ground, no gum on the sidewalk, and no tears in any eye. It’s perfect. It plays to our right desire for a better world. It reminds us in miniature form that our world, the real world is a shadow, and our heart longs for a perfect world free of sin and pain. 

Fred’s world had fantasy elements in it. But Fred never lied. He said we are going to the land of makebelieve. His fiction was grounded in reality and founded in faith. Fred lived in a neighborhood like you and me. His set was old, his puppets were tired, but he connected with kids in a way few others have. Mr. Rogers had friends come by who struggled with difficult issues like divorce, physical disability, and even race. He didn’t create an alternate universe by which he could escape reality. He lived in a house and told kids when makebelieve was happening. He used fairy stories to smuggle truth.  

Walt Entertained Kids. Fred Empowered Kids.

Walt’s world is all about connecting kids to fun to entertain them. This is a trap I fell into early in my years of children’s ministry. For years I would ask kids if they had fun at the end of the service. I wanted the church to be an escape for kids from the difficulties of home and school. The problem with entertaining kids is you have to out create yourself every week. Kids go to Disney once to a few times a year max. They come to church once to a few times a month. Entertainment may bring them, but we don’t have the budget, creativity, and time to create programs for kids that rival or compete with Disney’s magic. 

What Fred did was different. He didn’t distract kids from the pain and questions that were making them sad or scared. He looked in the camera and spoke from his heart to theirs. He did this because he remembered what it was like to be a child once. He wasn’t trying to force kids to grow up and act older than who they were. He was interested in helping kids understand that we grow, learn, and love in families, communities, and neighborhoods. It isn’t castles and clouds that make us forget our problems for a day. It’s the embodiment of being in a particular time and a particular place. 

Kids don’t need to be entertained as much as they need to be loved and listened to. Anyone can put on a video and walk away. Anyone can create an event that is non stop excitement, and I think the church has gotten really good at production values and excellence. What we need to get better at is remembering that we were kids once. At telling kids the truth. At listening to kids and looking at them in the face when they are speaking to us. Kids like Disney, but they live in neighborhoods. 

Walt was more concerned about your experience. Fred was more concerned with who you are becoming. 

Walt was concerned with how his park made you feel. There is close attention to sights, sounds, and smells. Fred was more concerned with who you are becoming. In his now-famous interview with Mr. Rogers in Esquire Magazine, Tom Junod said of Fred that “There was an energy to him, however, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy.” This is the problem with entertainment; it leads to a consumer-driven faith where we show up and get our money’s worth. The production values are high, and we expect nothing less—excellence matters. God is a God of creativity and excellence we tell our selves. Yet when God sent his son into the world, he did so in such an ordinary way. He sent him in a way that most people missed Him because they were looking for a conquering King, not a helpless baby. 

Fred’s idea was different. He was not driven by flash but by substance. He was not about entertainment. He was about incarnation. He showed us that loving your neighbor well matters. We must be more obsessed with who our kids are becoming, not just how we can get more kids coming. Who our kids are becoming will force us to lead different to love different to focus on things that don’t just take their mind off their pain. But instead, point them to the one who can destroy their pain with the power of his love. 

Mr. Rogers was not against big things; he just knew that they came from small beginnings. “He wanted to tell children that what starts out little can sometimes become big, and so that could devote themselves to little dreams without feeling bad about them.” Mr. Rogers reminds us as kids ministry workers as parents of kids that presence trumps production value. To show up. Listen. Insist on intimacy. Tell your kids the truth; they like to be told. Remember that you were a kid once. Most of all, remember that God was a kid once.

Billy Graham Had a Rule so Should You.

A couple of years ago Vice President Mike Pence mentioned that he follows the “Billy Graham Rule.” This created confusion outside the church and fresh debate inside the church as to how men and women should relate in the workplace.

If you are not familiar with the Billy Graham Rule it came from Reverend Graham’s observation that so many evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. Billy said “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”

For those of you who disagree with this rule let me say that I hear you in many ways it has gotten weird. I remember a couple of years back talking to a seventeen-year-old boy. He told me he is following the Billy Graham rule. I told him does he plan on getting married ever. He said yes. I then told him there is a good chance he will need to revisit that rule.

This has become a much-debated topic in evangelical circles. Many do not like this rule because it is seen as misogynistic and limiting of women in the workplace. The argument goes that if women are excluded from dinners and meetings they will be excluded in boardrooms. While I am not nieve enough to believe this never happens I don’t think it’s systemic in churches or organizations.

I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What seems to be far more systemic in culture and churches is divorce. Does disobedience to the Graham rule mean you will have a divorce? Not at all, but in twenty-plus years of marriage counseling infidelity never starts in the hotel room. The two most prevalent causes of infidelity are extensive time with the same person of the opposite sex and alcohol. In saying that I am not saying spending time with the opposite sex is sinful nor is alcohol inherently sinful. Yet there is rarely a story of a spouse breaking their marriage vows that didn’t involve the excess of time and alcohol. We need guardrails. All of us.

For those who think this is a right-wing white evangelical issue. It’s not. Its wisdom. Here is a quote from an Atlantic interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates who is black and an atheist.

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

I share Coates’ concern. I want to be honorable. The way we function in an honorable way is within boundaries we create with our spouse. We need to create boundaries that serve to protect our marriages from going over the cliff. Pastor and author Andy Stanley says it this way

We need personal guardrails so we don’t stray into areas of life that can harm us or the people we love. If there’s one area in which personal guardrails are most needed but also most resisted, it’s in our relationships.

I don’t think one blanket rule is the best way to create guardrails but its a good starting point.

How Do We Create Healthy Guardrails?

Understand what the Bible teaches about the total depravity of mankind. – The Bible if you have read it is full of stories that reinforce the theological understanding that everything has been marred by sin and tainted by the fall. Ta-Nehisi Coates said this about himself “I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.”If you don’t see yourself as a sinner who needs a savior but rather as basically good you will overestimate your willpower your tolerance and your faithfulness. If Coats as an atheist can see this? Why can’t we?

Talk with your spouse about what guardrails need to be in place to honor God and each other in your marriage. Go with whoever has the most sensitive conscience on this topic.

If you need to make an exception to your per-determined guardrails communicate. My wife and I have a few guardrails we have set but when I am going to meet with a woman I always let her know before and discuss with her after.

Understand you are not Billy Graham. People who are powerful and famous have to be far more careful than someone who works from home. Fame, influence and travel all make guardrails so much more necessary. For most of you reading this those are not realities for you so even though you need guardrails you probably don’t need the same ones as Pence and Graham.

Our desire as Christians should be to primary to honor God in all we do, secondarily to love our spouse and kids well, and lastly to love our neighbor as ourselves. Setting clear guardrails helps us do all three.

We Are Going to Have to Start Over

Over the past few months, we have learned that there really is only one thing that remains constant…that is that nothing is constant. COVID has come in and seems to change everything we have held dear for years overnight. Just when we adjust there are new challenge and changes we face daily. COVID has come and has done damage to the health of our country but also it has shaken the foundations of our confidence and the normality of our daily lives.

In times of prolonged uncertainty novel is not the answer. People don’t want a new normal they don’t want digital everything they want the comfort of old truth. Coming out of quarantine I knew that we were going to have a slow path back but I don’t think I was fully prepared for what the reality presently is…I think we are going to have to start over.

I say this because about 10% of our kids have come back and only 10% of our volunteers have returned. There are lots of reasons for this. Many in isolation have reevaluated priories and have moved to be closer to family, some are still scarred by the daily barrage of media, still, others are waiting for a cure. These are uncertain times. These are times filled with difficulty for every leader because no matter what decision you make someone will not be pleased.

We in our churches have been dealing with things as they have arisen on the fly. I have seen much creativity from the church in creating Zoom small groups for Youth and doing kids shows on YouTube. Those are great adaptations but the longer everything lingers the more I am convinced that I think the reality is that we are going to need to start over. I have often thought about what would I do differently in kids and youth ministry if I had to start over from scratch knowing what I know now after 23 years leading in the same church.

Here are a few things we are going to need to change.

  1. Discipleship needs more thought and investment than environments. There has been much focus on excellence in kids and youth environments and not enough on how do we create lifelong followers of Christ. What things do we need to teach and how can we teach them to kids in a way that creates lifelong faith in Christ? These need to consume our thoughts and drive our budgets.
  2. We need to rely more on training live teachers and less on video elements. Video doesn’t have the same impact in a zoom or online setting that a loving teacher teaching kids live over zoom or making phone calls to kids can make. Video is wrong but people are better.
  3. Small group leaders are going to have to know kids better. When difficulty hits small group leaders that know their kids are better equipped to reach out to those families. We are going to need to create opportunities for small group leaders to connect more intentionally with parents and look at their small group as a little church and not as child care during the service. We need a better structure for coaching small group leaders to spiritually direct kids rather than to simply disseminate religious information to children.
  4. We are going to have to run more of what we do like a small church rather than a megachurch. Our bigger campuses have a return rate of 10% but at our smaller campus kids are coming back at rates like 80%. It seems like for the foreseeable future people are more comfortable in smaller settings. Over the last 30 years, the people who we have looked to for direction are the kids and youth ministry experts from the largest churches in America. I know many of these people and they are amazing leaders but our solution going forward does not seem to be bigger and better but intimate and intentional.
  5. Our preaching needs to be more Biblically driven and less topically driven. The reason for this is our kids need to know what God reveals to us in his word more than cute stories and applications that are fun but not formational. Kids need fathers in the faith to proclaim Biblical truth far more than they need cool older brothers to hang with them. I am not saying our approach should be informational at the expense of being relational. What I am saying is that our approach needs to Biblical if it is to be transformational.

I know starting over sounds overwhelming because it is overwhelming. I also think that this is a great opportunity for us to re-evaluate our approach to ministry, our motivation in ministry, and ultimately what the fruit of our ministry should look at.

If we walk away from COVID unchanged by its far reaching effects in every area of life we have missed an opportunity to start over to reset and and to reevaluate what matters most.

Pastors, we can’t go back to a new normal. We shouldn’t try to keep things the same. We need to take this moment to learn how to make our churches smaller and make our ministry more personal.

How would you start over if you had too? Because I think we are going to have to do exactly that.

Is it True?

We live in a world that is hyper-political and completely tribal. As I type this, there is now a mask-wearing tribe and “non-maskers.” We have successfully politicized public health and a worldwide pandemic. We also live a world that values experience over and above objective truth. Truth is relative, and experience is authoritative.

We have a generation that is ruled by their emotional response to any given situation, yet they have failed to stop and ask, “Is this true?” Truth is not relative; there is objective truth. As Christians, we believe that objective truth is the Word of God. We have to teach our kids to check their ideas, information, and presuppositions against what the Bible tells us the truth is. We do this by pointing them back to scripture over and over again. We do this by personally showing them how we filter our political, moral, and spiritual decisions based on what the Bible says over what someone tells us we should say or do as an “Evangelical Chrisitan.”

Clarifying for our kids what is true will help them properly filter information that they are given or come across on their own. If they are not clear on what is true, they will believe a lie. If they don’t have an external filter for the truth, they will believe things about God and themselves that aren’t true.

The next thing we have to do is confront your child’s emotions with truth. Often times our kids will be upset because another kid or a sibling said something that was hurtful. The first question I ask is “Is it true?” They usually say no. I then say then don’t worry about it. With the emotional tripwires exposed we then discuss why they said what they said and how we can be a better friend or sibling as a result.

Our kids are growing up in a world where “lived experience” is how “truth” is established. The problem with our experiences is that divorced from objective external truth they become tyrannical and subjective. Our experience is meant to reveal our sinful hearts and our need for a savior not to justify our own sinful responses to those who have hurt us.

Our experiences are meaningful and diverse but they are not authoritative. It is only when those experiences are filtered through truth outside of us that they are properly understood.

Lastly, as we are holding fast to the truth as seen in the Word of God but do so with humility. We have to listen to others before we speak. Raw truth devoid of charity is rarely transformative. We need to model to our kids how to interact with and pray for those with whom we disagree. We live in a world that will cancel you for the slightest infractions of social norms. We as Christians must forgive and model forgiveness not because of our experience alone. We have experienced forgiveness but because the objective Word of God demands it. If you do not forgive you will not be forgiven.

KB recently on his Instastory said it better than I can.

This is the church.
We will rebuke you when you are wrong.
We will forgive you when you repent.
But we will not cancel you when you are down…for Christ did not cancel us.

Cancel culture is not kingdom culture. We don’t just applaud the righteous we restore the fallen.

KB

Why is what KB saying true? Because of the lived experience of all truth in the son of God made a way for us to be reconciled to God and restored to each other. That is the truth our kids need every day. We can be restored to one another because we have been reconciled by God. May we live our lives in light of that truth for our Good and God’s glory.

3 Things That Need to Change About How Our Kids Worship

Most of the time when we talk about worship for kids or youth ministry its most often in the context of practical tips. What songs are hot right now? Where can I get videos for this song? Most recently can I use worship songs that have copyright for our online services during COVID-19? What we fail to ask is why we worship and are we worshiping God in the way he desires to be worshiped.

This question of how we should worship is not new. For centuries the church has referred to this question as “the regulative principle it is simply the assertion that we must worship God in the way that he has revealed himself and the way he has commanded us to worship Him in His word. We need to worship God according to Scripture. Our worship needs to be directed by Scripture. The form and the content of our worship needs to be in accord with the Bible, informed by the Bible, and warranted by the Bible. It needs to be founded in the Scriptures. That is an emphasis that is so important today.” (via RTS.org)

It seems today the questions that we ask in the arena of worship are more around production value than around the Biblical basis for the songs we sing. We need to think deeper about how our songs are forming our kids. We need to think about how our songs are painting a picture of who God is and what he has done.

Yancy, recently released a new worship album aimed at pre-school and early elementary it’s called Ready, Set, Go! It’s fantastic. Yancy’s passion for the local church and for worship is so evident in everything she does. I love that her focus is always faithful over famous. I sat down with Yancy Richmond to talk about three things in kids’ ministry worship that need to change.

Engagement Not Just Aerobics

The first thing that needs to change in kids is we have to engage kids and not just lead them in aerobics. It seems in the last six or seven years that actions in kids ministry worship have gone from something helpful to being almost the totality of the worship experience. We seem to no longer judge our worship by transformed hearts but by how many people are moving at the same time. We are all guilty of this one because it’s easier to measure how many kids are jumping, it’s much more difficult to measure how many hearts are being transformed.

I think it gives kidmin leaders a false sense of participation. To be able to step inside the room and see it bouncing up and down and think “Yeah we are winning at worship.” Motions have a time and place but somewhere along the way, we started to shove motions in every part of every single song that we do instead of when it actually makes sense and when it actually enhances that song.

Yancy

We rightly want our kids to engage but what I’ve found is that when kids do dance moves they don’t sing. When kids don’t sing they don’t memorize the words of the song that when written well will be truths from God’s word that will be forever lodged in Kids Hearts. It seems that we have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.

We have lost the art of teaching our kids to sing a heart song in exchange for Tik Tock.