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. 

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.

What Do You Do When Sundays are Taken Away?

Recently I read *Resilient – Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. One of the things that stood out to me was when the authors described that most kids’ ministry leaders don’t have a metric for measuring success in kids’ ministry.

I know this to be true because one of the questions I ask at conferences is “How do you measure success in kids ministry” to which most people respond with a particular number of kids that attend regularly. I then ask “What do you do to disciple kids?” To this question, most people respond by saying “Sunday Morning.” I say this because there was a time in my life when those would have been my answer.

The metric I used to use was how many kids came and did they have fun. This wasn’t a metric that reflected kids who were becoming disciples of Christ. It was metric that measured fans of Pastor Sam. I was sincere. I was also sincerely wrong. I wanted kids to have fun. I wanted kids to think I was fun more than I wanted them to love and treasure Jesus. I would never have said that but what I measured did for me.

Around twelve years ago God opened my eyes to see the gospel like I never had before. It led me on a journey I am still on to be someone who treasures Christ above all else. It changed my priorities in life and it changed how I measure success in ministry. There was a time in my life where being known by my peers trumped being known by God. I would never have said that but what I measured (likes, fans, and Blog stats) did for me.

If we want to raise kids who treasure Christ. Kids who say Christ is enough for me. We have to lead different we have to measure different things.

Mistake Number 1
– I thought that you disciple kids by being more innovative in looking forward rather than sacred in looking backward.

If I was raising my kids 10, 50, 200 years ago what would that life look like and what would my priorites have been. Just to challange my thinking to think beyond the expectations of the norms of today’s culture. So I would really challange that parent (pastor) to think what are those long term outcomes and goals for your child and what would the pathway be to help your child get there?

Matt Markins CSO Awanna

As a pastor, I thought innovation was the key to discipling kids. When I was young everything new was always better. The older I have gotten the more I have come to realize that what kids don’t need is a relentless barrage of new. What they need is old and true that is presented as new.

What do we measure in our kids ministry? Do our kids know the ten commandments, do they know the overarching story of the Bible, do our kids know the first question of the New City Catechism. Do our kids leave our ministry knowing Jesus is everything?

Mistake Number 2 – I counted kids to know how many were coming rather than who is missing.

Numbers are not wrong. Counting how many kids you have is not wrong. Thinking you are discipling kids because you have 99 coming is not discipleship. You should be counting your kids not so you can revel in the 99 but so that you know the 1 that is missing. We have fallen victim to the American spirit of entrepreneurialism rather than the biblical definition of a shepherd.

We measure how well we are doing not by sheer numbers alone but by who isn’t there and finding out why.

Mistake Number 3 – I thought kids loved Jesus for the rest of their lives by me making information fun, accessible, and memorable.

I spent hours coming up with fun creative ways to transfer information. Should kids ministry be fun and exciting? YES! I have come to learn over the years that the primary goal is not to get kids to know all the facts about God. What matters more than what kids know is what they love. Our job as leaders and parents is to form their loves.

Do we create opportunities for kids to experience God? I don’t mean in any way that we elevate experience over truth. As I have said earlier our kids need to have faith that is grounded in scripture and informed by history so that when they have an experience with God they have the proper framework to understand it and that experience does its work. It forms their loves.

Kids need to know the truth about God but kids also need to experience the person of God.

What should our metric be in kids ministry?

What do kids know?
Catechism
10 Commandments
Lords Prayer
Apostles Creed
The big story of the Bible

Is every kid known by someone?
Does at least one adult leader know each kid and their family?
Can each kid name at least one adult they admire from the church?

Is what kids love more important to us than what they know?

Do we create opportunities for kids to learn to hear God speak?
Do we create opportunities for kids to respond to God?
Do we model as leaders what a life that is gripped by the love of God look like?
Do our kids know that how they love others shows how they love God?

We have got to think in terms of creating disciples more than creating environments. We have to elevate the discussion around how are we as the church going to look backward so that we can move forward.

We see how serious a pandemic can be. If we do not start talking about discipleship, holiness, and gospel centrality in kids and youth ministry the church in North America will become a sterile form of religion that is driven to and fro by every wave culture sends our way. We have to realize that Sunday alone is not enough to disciple kids because we now know Sunday can be take away. If we want to raise kids that are resilient we have got to start measuring more than attendance and discipling with more than take-home papers alone.

How to Deal with Difficult Kids

When I was new to children’s ministry, one of the most challenging things for me to deal with was kids who misbehaved. I so wanted difficult kids, all kids actually, to like me and parents to think well of me. I avoided hard conversations with kids and parents. What I have come to realize is that by avoiding those hard conversations, I was not partnering with parents, and I wasn’t acting lovingly towards their child. Over time I learned you could be fun and firm.

Before we talk about correcting kids, there are a few things you need to remember about most parents.

  1. They love their kids
  2. They want their kids to do well in life
  3. They need help and don’t know how to ask

When we talk about disciplining kids is not primarily about managing your classroom; it is about discipling families. What we are called as the church to do is not turn undisciplined kids into pillars or moral virtue. We are called to preach the gospel and make disciples. In the radically individualized culture, we live in, we are so often seduced by the idea that I can grow in my faith and into Christ. The scriptures tell us that sanctification doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs in the community.

Blogger and author Tim Challies says it this way:

I need to grow in holiness not just for my own sake but out of love and concern for those around me. If I love the people in my church, I will grow in holiness for their sake. I am prone to think that holiness is an individual pursuit, but when I see sanctification as a community project, now it is more of a team pursuit. I am growing in holiness so that I can help others grow in holiness, I am putting sin to death so I can help others put sin to death. My church needs me and I need my church, and this is exactly how God has designed it.

Tim Challies

We can not have a personal relationship with Jesus apart from the context of the community God provided and Christ inaugurated. Disciplining children is gospel work.

There are a few different types of kids workers; most people fall into one or more of these categories.

  1. Freddy Fun – You want to play games have a good time, and your solution to most discipline problems is fun, games, and prizes. (This was me.)
  2. Debbie Doormat – You let kids walk all over you because you don’t want to be harsh or unloving.
  3. Ned the Nonconfronter – Lets kids get away with everything because he is afraid of kids not liking him and parents getting mad at him.

Is there help for these three? Yes, there is.

Come Prepared

Classroom management starts during the week with your prep. You can’t manage your classroom and try and prep at the same time. You need to prep during the week, so you know what you are doing, and so you are free to deal with issues as they arise. Freddy fun – you can’t truly be fun unless you prepare truth to make that fun have meaning. You can’t be fun over time without taking the time to grow in your abilities. You want kids to sit and pay attention? Prepare during the week, so you have something to say during the weekend. This should only take 20 to 30 minutes.

Understand Grace and Understand Work

Something easy to forget when working with kids is not that they need grace, that is quickly apparent. What is easy to forget is we need grace and have received it in Christ. When we remember we have received mercy, we are much more likely to give it to others. You also need to know that what we are doing is not easy, but it is meaningful and so relevant. That as you work, it is Christ who works with you, for you and in you.

How do you Correct Kids in Light of Discipleship

How do we correct kids in Uptown? 1. Warn 2. Redirect 3. Warn 4. Remove. The only exception to this would be if physical with leaders or kids. If this happens, they are to be removed instantly. Make sure that once kids are removed, you affirm them and thank them for coming this week and tell them that you can’t wait to see them next week!

Follow Up

When removing a child from the classroom, I find getting the parents to come to the classroom is much more effective than bringing the child to the parents for several reasons.

  1. When you get the parents (or page them) and bring them to the kids, you can explain what happened. When you bring the kids to the parents, you lose this opportunity to talk with the parents and explain what we do and why.
  2. I find when parents are communicated to, they understand and are more willing partners in the discipleship of their kids.
  3. Parents having to leave the service to deal with their kids makes them more focused and more intent on not having to do that again.
  4. Follow up with a conversation next week, an email or phone call. Make sure parents know that our desire is not to punish their child but to make their child more like Christ.
  5. If a situation is beyond you, make sure you contact the kid’s pastor or ministry leader to deal with the issue.

Bottom line: The goal of managing a classroom is not to have well-behaved kids but rather to conform our kids into the image of Christ. We want disciples, not just good citizens.

When You Say Easy They Hear Unimportant

We live in the golden age of children’s ministry curriculum resources. Lessons that were once written by teachers who were not professionals but did what they had to because children’s ministry curriculum was no-existant or challenging to come by. We now have the opposite problem. We have more options than we have ever had. The difficulty is finding the right one for our church. We have video-driven curriculums, free curriculum, curriculum that is written by our denomination we have fun ones and others that are more serious. Yet despite their diversity, each of these curriculums has one thing in common. They all claim their curricula are “easy to use.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The technology that has promised to give us more free time seems to be consuming more than it provides. We have our kids doing more activities, and we are busier than ever. We as kids ministry leaders get this because it’s true of us as well. So when our curriculum providers do the heavy lifting for us, we don’t argue. When they tell us their curriculum is easy to use, we dutifully pass the message along. How do I know? I have done it. The problem is that when we say “easy,” what our volunteers hear us say is “unimportant.”

We unintentionally build a culture that requires very little from our volunteers, and what we get is not discipleship for them or from them. What we get are leaders who love kids but see what we do as just another thing they do rather than the most important thing. Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples.

Lots of things are discussed in the kidmin community, like how to make our programs more fun or pull off events on a small budget. There is nothing wrong with these discussions; what I am becoming more aware of is the reality that very few conversations are centered on discipleship and Christlikeness. Christ commanded us to do one thing make disciples Paul obsessed over one thing, Christlikeness. We should likewise obsess over these as well.

How do we change the conversation from ease to importance?

  1. Change our vocabulary. – Please don’t say we need your help; it is really easy. Explain that what you will be doing isn’t easy, but it is meaningful. People want to make a difference. If they feel that they are not making a difference, they will quit.
  2. Don’t do all the heavy lifting. – Challange the people you lead to prep during the week to think about the kids they will be teaching. Challenge your leaders to prepare what they are going to say. Challenge them to pray for the kids that will be there that morning.
  3. Don’t look at those you lead as volunteers filling a hole. – Look at those who are volunteering as a person who needs to be discipled, just as much if not more than the kids they are leading. Often people don’t disciple others because they have never been disciplined themselves. Show them what discipleship looks like by disciplining them, don’t just tell them to do it.

People want to make a difference, not fill a hole. Let them. Don’t make things easy. Teach them how to do what they do well so they will push through the difficulty and become good at what they do. In pushing through and growing as a leader, they would become more proficient in what they do that they make complicated things, and stressful situations look easy.