Along the Way, Part 1: We Had Lots of Fun! But What Did We Miss?
This post is part 1 of a 4-part series on faith formation in children. It features editors and contributors to the newly released book Along the Way: Conversations about Children and Faith. Thanks to Dana Kennamer Pemberton, Ron Bruner, Ryan Maloney, and Suzetta Nutt for sharing some of their insights in this blog series.
Walking into the children’s areas of many churches, you will find an environment filled with bright images, media, and Disney-like characters. These ministries are high-energy, fast-paced, and fun. Advocates contend that to capture the attention of today’s children, we must compete with television, video games and other forms of high tech entertainment. The objective is to provide a dynamic, fun, kid-friendly environment.
Entertainment approaches to children’s ministry often utilize cartoon images and themed environments (e.g., a spaceship) to make the biblical story more interesting to children. This is problematic. First, the implicit assumption is that children will not be drawn to God’s story unless it is made cute, funny or flashy. Second, these cartoon images and themed environments can be distracting and confusing for spiritual development. Vegetables may be entertaining, but you will not find them in the biblical text.
Entertainment models are also promoted for their potential to attract young families. Contemporary parenting values activities for children—lots of activities! Since parents often choose churches for their programs for children, we had better have programs that are attractive and most definitely fun! If we get the kids we get the parents—the real target. And when children have fun in class they may also invite their friends. More growth! More numbers! More energy! Everyone wins!
But does everyone really win? Mercer contends that it’s the children who lose when they’re used in church efforts to recruit new members in a competitive market. It’s dangerous to view children as a marketing tool.
“This reflects a utilitarian view of the smallest humans that reduces them to being merely the means of achieving some more desirable end. Our church leaders speak and write about the need to attract families with young children so that their congregations will have vitality. The desire for vitality is not in itself wrongheaded. But the interest in children primarily for the purpose of getting adults onto the church rolls or making the congregation appear to have life objectifies and commodifies children . . . The theological notion of welcoming children easily slips into advertising through children.” 
I have visited with many children’s ministers whose churches use entertainment models and know their hearts. They deeply love children and are dedicated to sharing God’s word with them. Still, expediency and fear can guide program choices. What if children don’t like Bible class? If they like it, they’ll come. They’ll listen better and remember more, right? After all, they’re hearing God’s word. Isn’t that the point? Does it really matter how we share it? Of course God can work through our flawed, imperfect attempts to share the word. Still, we must think critically about our focus on fun.
While “fun” is not an evil to be avoided, neither should it be the guiding framework for our ministry practices. Scottie May asks what might change if we replace fun with meaningful, asserting that “children are eager to be involved in things that are meaningful to them, things that may not always be categorized as fun.”  The emphasis on fun assumes that children won’t engage with the biblical story without bells and whistles and gimmicks. This implies a limited view of both the power of the word and the spiritual capacities of children. There is a lack of awareness of the “children’s ability to encounter God and experience his presence and the inherent attraction that children have to awe, wonder, reverence and mystery.”  Focusing on fun provides little space for wonder and reverence, overshadowing the true purpose of our children’s ministries—the spiritual formation of children.
At a church I once visited these words flashed on the screen to announce the time for the children to leave the communal gathering: Children’s Church! Never boring, always fun, and all about Jesus! The intent was to attract children (and their parents) by providing enjoyable programing, but I was disturbed by the underlying messages. What does this say we believe about children, worship, and the word? Do we believe that the Bible is boring? Are we telling children that church must always be fun and provide what they want? The call to community is the call to service and hospitality. It includes moments of deep joy and great blessing, but it is often challenging and, at times, not at all fun. Jesus never said, “Let the little children come to me and we will have fun!”
Do we believe that children must always have fun and never be bored? Like Joyce Ann Mercer, I’m concerned that we are nurturing in our children a selfish “hunger for spectacle.”  The need for excitement and entertainment pervades contemporary culture and has shaped many church practices, creating a consumer approach to spirituality. We also treat children as consumers, making sure to offer them fun experiences they’ll like. While we’re always shaped by our surrounding culture, God’s people must engage in continuous communal discernment to determine aspects of culture not consistent with the way of Jesus. A consumerist perspective of church is clearly inconsistent.
Is the spiritual formation of children nurtured by the search for the amusing, fun, and exciting? Is doing what kids “like” or “want” an appropriate measure for choosing our ministry? Children like and want many things that they do not need, and they need many things that they do not yet realize they want.
“It is a challenge to distinguish children’s needs and yearnings from their wants. Marketing through various media creates wants that are obvious, resulting for many children in a form of impoverishment—a poverty of affluence—since many parents desire to meet children’s wants. Yet children also have yearnings and needs for belonging, feeling welcome, being secure, having quietness, understanding, meaning, and connecting with God.” 
Rather than mirror our consumerist culture, might churches instead provide space for children to step out of the fast-paced world and enter into meaningful community? In this kind of community, adults spend time with children, rather than doing things to or for them.  In this kind of community, there is laughter and great joy, but there is also space for questions, struggles, fear and faith. We learn with children the true and eternal blessings of community as we walk with them along the way.
 Joyce Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005), 34.
 Scottie May, “The Contemplative-Reflective Model,” in Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation: Four Views (ed. M. J. Anthony; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 209.
 Ibid., 252.
 Mercer, Welcoming Children, 91.
 May, “The Contemplative-Reflective Model,” 66.
 J. H. Westerhoff, “The Church’s Contemporary Challenge: Assisting Adults to Mature Spiritually with their Children,” in Nurturing Children’s Spirituality (ed. H. C. Allen: Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 359.