Rooted in Faith, Wrapped in Fun - Reforming Children's Ministry
After working in children’s ministries, both Troy Bassett (M.Div. ‘08), pastor of FreeChurch.net in Rochester, N.Y., and author Tami Thurber (M.A., ‘09) noted that children had an alarmingly low retention rate of the Bible stories they learned in church. And possibly even more alarming, most do not know what they actually believe. In addition, Rebecca Chaffee (C30, M.Div.), program director for children, youth, and family at Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church in DeWitt, N.Y., found it problematic that children are too often excluded from worship services. In response Bassett, Thurber, and Chaffee, among other Northeastern Seminary students and alumni, are effectively reforming ministry to children—rooted in biblical truths to give children a firm foundation to build upon.
“When our kids attended Sunday school, we’d ask them what they learned and frequently they couldn’t remember,” Bassett recalls. So when he accepted a role in children’s ministry in 2005 he decided to write his own curriculum to rectify the problem. Bassett says that Kid’s JAM, now used by over 30 churches, is “rooted in faith, wrapped in fun.” Loosely based on Martin Luther’s catechism for children, Kid’s JAM ensures children have a firm foundation in biblical truths. Throughout the program, children memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and selected scriptures such as Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. Bassett confirms this focus on memorization and application of texts helps “kids remember the key teachings for the rest of their lives.”
The Kid’s JAM curriculum acknowledges that 21st century kids have become accustomed to fast-paced, high-quality productions. Accordingly, the program creates a unique set design for each year’s theme, and incorporates drama, art, music, media productions, and engaging teaching.
Tami Thurber, much like Bassett, was alarmed to find that while most children can recite Bible stories they do not know what they believe. Her concern is, “if a child leaves home with the understanding of how to live the Christian life without understanding why, then they are much more apt to fall away from their faith.” This motivated Thurber and her husband, Tim, to identify the foundational truths they wanted their three children to understand before they left home. Together they wrote the family devotional Handing It Down: Teaching your Children the Basic Truths of Faith. In it they focus less on Christian behavior and more on Christian beliefs, discussing the foundational truths of the Bible, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, people, and the church.
The aim is to help parents realize their importance in their child’s spiritual development and to strengthen their own biblical understanding to better equip them with the
tools they need to actively teach biblical doctrine. Informed by Malachi 2:15 the devotional is divided into two sections: Digging Down to convey the biblical truths to an elementary audience; Digging Deeper to convey truths to those who already know the basics.
Reforming children’s ministry does not stop with content development. Rebecca Chaffee sees a need to reform children’s worship programs as well. With experience in industrial theatre, music, and drama, Chaffee noticed that children are often excluded from authentic worship experiences because most assume children cannot understand what the rituals symbolize.
“Children learn best by doing,” notes Chaffee, and “faith practices, routines, rituals, and experiences help children grow worship skills.” So children’s worship at her church now combines all elementary-aged children and continues the routines that began in the sanctuary. Children read prayers, share Bible stories, role play, use figures to act out stories, and practice taking communion followed by a discussion about the significance behind the sacrament. Because, as Chaffee says, “worship is caught rather than taught,” this active involvement in worship allows them to gain a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. Likewise, when children are involved in liturgy and memorizing prayer they come to understand the meaning behind the rituals.
The centrality of historical truths is reflected in all three visions for ministry. Recalling his own foundation Bassett shares, “Northeastern Seminary has helped me to think more critically about what is taught and preached in the local church. My studies helped give me an even greater appreciation for the historical past of the church.” And when he relates research findings from the Barna Group that “what you believe at age 13 is pretty much what you’re going to die believing,” the challenge of vital children’s ministry is all the more keen. As Chaffee reminds us, “children aren’t the future of the church; they are the church now.”