My friend Paul Mercer from Mission Eurasia says, “We are what we love, not what we know.” That’s a statement worthy of consideration. Particularly when, according to Mercer, “the educational model of the church is failing without a corresponding model that impacts our hearts.”
What is the “educational model of the church” and is Mercer right in saying that it’s “failing without a corresponding model that impacts our hearts”?
From the perspective of children’s ministry in the local church, the more popular educational models are:
- Self-contained age-specific classrooms with one teacher
- Large group/small group meetings with all age groups meeting together for worship then meeting in age-specific groups for Bible time
- Children’s church (kids version of adult worship time)
- Theme based rotation workshops in a different room/lab/studio each week
- Learning centres offering various activities related to a Bible story or theme
- Multi-generational family services where the music, message, and other elements incorporate children and adults
While generalizations are dangerous, an evaluation of the curriculum and practices associated with the models mentioned above indicate that the dominant focus in children’s ministry is helping children know about God and His Word. That is, the aim of the educational model in the church is for children to have some knowledge about the Bible, understand the beliefs of the church, and behave in the right way.
Is this a failure? From a biblical and methodological perspective, it is. Here’s why:
The Great Commandment insists that we are to love the Lord our God (cf. Matthew 22:37). The action and outcome that God wants from us is love for Him – not knowledge about Him. So the most important activity of the local church shouldn’t be teaching children about Jesus – it should be inviting, urging, and encouraging children to love Him with all their heart, soul, and mind.
That’s not to say that children don’t need knowledge about God in order to love God, but it is to say that if knowledge about God isn’t eclipsed by children loving God, we’ve missed the mark. The Bible is clear on this point. While it enjoins us to take every thought captive to Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5) and be transformed by the renewing of our minds (cf. Romans 12:2), it doesn’t advocate the acquisition of knowledge as the primary approach to spiritual formation.
Fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo said, “Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.” Augustine’s statement is consistent with the Scriptures. Everything flows from the heart (cf. Proverbs 4:23). If everything flows from the heart then what we’re doing in the church should be centred, not in educational models geared to acquiring knowledge, but in worship models. James Smith in You Are What You Love says these worship models should “incubate our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom.”
Nurturing a child’s “loves and longings” is crucial for a child’s faith development. Children are more than giant bobbleheads! Our primary task isn’t to inform a child’s intellect, it’s to teach them how to curate their hearts. When Jesus reinstates Peter after his betrayal He doesn’t ask, “What do you believe?” He asks, “Do you love me?” John 21:17. There’s no question more important than this question. Questions like “Do you know the memory verse?” or “Can you name all the books of the Old Testament?” or “Who did what and why?” pale into insignificance compared to questions related to, “Do you love Jesus?”
Knowledge is not the condition for love; rather love is the condition for knowledge. The process of a child’s faith development shouldn’t be head to heart to hands, it should be heart to head to hands.
Heart first and then the head. Our love must “abound more and more” (cf. Philippians 1:9-11) because our wants, longings and desires are at the core of our identities. That means that as we disciple children, we must make sure that helping them hunger and thirst for Jesus is a higher priority than teaching them what to know or believe about Him.
It comes as no surprise that the biblical view that the heart is at the core of identity flies in the face of Enlightenment philosophy. René Descartes falsely taught that we’re fundamentally thinking beings. He said, “I think, therefore I am.” Unfortunately, Descartes’s philosophy has faultily influenced many Christians. If we are what we think, then why is it that children being pumped full of Bible knowledge aren’t becoming passionate followers of Jesus Christ?
Children are what they love. Hebrews 4:12 indicates that Jesus comes to judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Children’s ministry isn’t an intellectual project. Children aren’t sanctified through the transfer of information. Jesus wants their hearts. He wants them to align their wants and longings with Him – to desire what He desires – to crave nothing less than a life totally devoted to Him! And if that’s going to happen, then children’s ministry must stop seeing children as safety deposit boxes into which we bank knowledge and ideas, but see them as lovers with desires that need to be nurtured and inspired to live for Christ.
© Scripture Union, 2020