By Steve Olshewsky
Class discussions with Wade Rowatt can read like a page from the Talmud, such as when the rabbis were asked: “which is more important, study or practice?” Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph answered: “study is more important because study leads to practice.”
Wade answered a class question about who should be responsible for a child’s Christian education, the parents or the Church, by telling his students that the Church needs to take a responsibility for the child’s education, but also for the parent’s education to empower good Christian parenting. I guess rabbi and doctor really do mean the same thing in different languages.
Do the things we learn about in class really work? How would we know when we have no reports of children’s programming to compare? Wade challenges his students to generate the discussion needed to inform decisions about teaching our youth.
As we develop programs to enhance our children’s Christian education, it would be helpful to know what works, but that would require having access to what our various churches are already doing. Seven principles found in healthy families can serve as guidelines for healthy church programs. These might not be conclusive as objective standards, but they suggest values we can look for when evaluating the results of our youth programs.
- Faith sharing as a family brings obvious benefit to the entire household through common understandings and the establishment of mutual priorities. These advantages can inure to our church families by coordinating what we study, e.g., by providing children’s lessons that mirror the sermon topics, or by reading scriptures in adult classes that connect to the children’s stories told in their classes.
- Commitment to each other is described in Ephesians chapters five and six where the model of covenant with all parties giving 110% is patterned by Christ and the Church. Commitment provides a sense of importance, and is taught by requiring accountability. Valuing commitment suggests allowing children to take responsibility for some aspects of worship in the church.
- Effective communication is hoped for in any family discussion, but especially when talking about our Christian values. It behooves us to learn how to speak to children in their own language. How many times over would the benefits of sharing in church be improved if we all learned to speak in ways that maximized our abilities to be heard and understood by others?
- Conflict management is every family’s responsibility since friction is a natural part of life, and coping with other people can involve dealing with disagreements even among family members. Some churches have made dispute transformation their mission as a way to heal our divisions in families and in the world. A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). Anger management, and wrestling with our fears allow us to talk about such things productively. Christians learn to fight for reconciliation without fighting to get even.
- Affirmations encourage children to do their best to explore their full capabilities. Anyone feeling affirmed is better able to stand against cut-downs, or even the kind of teasing insults that pass for humor these days. How do we affirm our children, and their place in the body of Christ?
- Quality times together, not merely in faith sharing as a family, but also in joyful appreciation of God’s gifts including free time, nature, recreation, and play, knit us ever closely together. This suggests inter-generational fellowship requiring full involvement in activities of the family or of the Church.
- Flexibility means adapting to changes over time. Wade describes keeping the rules intact while expanding the boundaries, so that a child learning how to act in their own backyard can act similarly when allowed to go to the park. Flexibility is required by the changing nature of any environment, and children need to be equipped for whatever future they find. A child’s transitions are better when talked about, and celebrated in the church by everyone. This requires the full system of children’s programming to be anticipated by as many people as possible, and involving every generation of believer in the process.
Imagine a dozen happy children running down the chapel aisle to join their families, holding jars of various sizes and shapes, filled with different colors of liquid holding sparkly glitter swirling all around. Then as they settle into their seats and as the congregation calms back down, so too the glitter swirls less and settles to the bottom of these homemade snow globes. The colored liquid stands as clear and calm as the demeanor of the children, their minds seeming to embrace the physical solemnity of the room as the service concludes in prayer.
This vision requires planning throughout the church. The main service would need to wrap up for the most part five to ten minutes early to allow for this interruption at the end. The children’s Sunday School would need to end 15 minutes early to stage an entrance. Even more, it would take church planning and engagement to collect empty jars (with tight lids), to talk about prayer, not to mention experiencing prayer together across generational lines including possible homework.
Young children can follow the recipe to make glitter jars, enjoy shaking them up, talk about how sitting in silence has physical and mental aspects of irritation and activity just like the glitter jars, and finally be challenged to sit silently watching the glitter settle down.
Over subsequent weeks, they can describe how their physical sensations and mental unrest seem to calm as they watch the glitter, perhaps this is something they can try at home with their families, perhaps even during prayer times. If they end up able to articulate the differences they feel between normal moods versus how they feel during prayer, they can become more meaningfully involved in religious discussions.
As a student at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, I need that meaningful level of involvement so I can learn what works. Wade’s preference to have data available for the promotion of the most helpful church practices requires a broad involvement and sharing. If we are blessed with people who want to move the Church forward with effective children’s programming, then let us all work together in the attempt to design reasonable approaches to education, and report on the fruit born of our efforts.
Steve Olshewsky is a student at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown, Ky., where Wade Rowatt teaches a class about caring pastorally for children, adolescents and families.