Sunday, August 28, 2022

YOUTH: Another interesting Bible Inquiry idea!

I recently read an article about The Benefits of Incorporating Print Magazines Into English Class and it got me wondering how we can use that idea for teaching the faith to teenagers. After all, with all the misinformation out there, there are some skills we would really like them to have, such as: 
  • The ability to read and understand faith related or theology articles.
  • The chance to practice thinking about what they believe.  
  • We want them to develop curiosity and find reading about faith issues interesting.
Before you say no, and write this idea off as something they'll find boring, give it a chance, and that's more than one week. Here's how it works. 
  1. Take some time to collect some good faith magazines. You can have people donate them or check out your local library or see if there are any other sources that might have back issues. They do not have to come from your denomination. Keep in mind that some Lutheran magazines will not be your denomination, which is a good thing and should provide some interesting discussion. 
  2. Let kids take 10-15 minutes to flip through the magazines and choose an article they think is interesting. Give them 15 minutes to read the article, then ask them what they read. 
    1. Do they think it matches your doctrine? Why or why not?
    2. Can they see what may or may not be unbiblical?
  3. If one person has an article they find really interesting, see if someone else has one and ask what the similarities or differences are. 
  4. You may find some unexpected connections. Of all things, make sure there are Bibles and catechisms in the room. It doesn't matter what other people think, it matters what the Bible says. 
As you do this, you may find they start looking forward to it and recommending articles to others. The greatest thing that can come of it is for kids to become curious and feel confident in reading faith issues critically. If it's high school, they may find the most interesting articles are about social issues. It'll be great to have time to talk about them. Make the time. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Saturday, July 2, 2022

PODCAST: Children's Messages

To Cause to Learn - Episode 8 

If you want to know the truth about effective children's messages check this out! 


If you don't have time to listen and just want me to get to the point, keep reading to get the basic script. 

As promised, today we will be talking about children’s messages for the Narrative Stage of faith education. First, a quick reminder of the 5 stages of faith education: Narrative (PS – 2nd), Knowledge (3rd – 5th), Understanding (6th – 8th), Reason (9th – 12th), and Wisdom (adults).

So, welcome! and let’s get started!

The Tip of the Day is: There are a lot of options besides object lessons.

Question 1: What are children’s messages? What is their purpose?

The children’s message is… basically an attempt to make church more relevant to young kids who have a hard time participating in the service and understanding the sermon. It can be a long time for them to be quiet and a challenge to keep them as still, but busy, as possible. We DO want them to be in worship, to hear the word of God (even if they don’t seem to get it the Spirit can still use it to create and grow faith), and to learn the process and traditions of worship. We also want them to feel a part of the church family and a part of their family and not separate them. Worship is a family event. So, children’s messages help them be a part of worship.

Before crafting a children’s message, a few questions should be considered. First, what is their purpose? I know what I just said, but what is the purpose of YOUR children’s messages? Hopefully, it’s to leave the little ones with a nugget of God’s truth and a reminder that they are greatly loved by Him unconditionally. The next question, to whom is the message addressed, depends on the answer to the first one. Here’s why. Some people haven’t really thought about it, but their children’s message is more for the adults than the kids; and sometimes they don’t even know it. I’ll talk about that in a bit. The last question to be considered is; what are the ages of the kids who come up for the children’s message? If you’ve listened to some of the other podcasts you know how important it is to understand what young children understand. That brings us to question 2.

Question 2: Think about the age group of those who listen to your messages. What do you know about them?

Usually children’s messages are for kids in preschool through 2nd grade (ironically, that’s the Narrative Stage), but sometimes parents will bring up their younger children and sometimes a few older kids will come up too. It’s okay to include 3rd graders and even 4th graders, but then the question becomes, on which age do you focus the message? A lot happens in the body and world of a child between preschool and 4th grade. So, what do you do? Do you focus on the older kids or the youngers? If you focus on the older kids the youngers will get little from it, but if you focus on the youngers the older kids will still get something from it. Obviously I recommend focusing on the youngers.

What difference does that make (I hear people quietly asking themselves as they listen)? Well, actually, quite a big difference when you think about the kids and what those in the Narrative Stage understand. The biggest one is concrete thinking and the ability to transfer one idea to another. Here’s an example. At one church there was one lady who always gave the children’s message on Christmas day. People raved about it. Every year she pulled an elaborate Rube Goldberg type of toy into the sanctuary and the children oohed and aahed over it. She would put a marble in it and it would go through all these tubes and drops and spins as it made its way to the bottom. She would then talk to the children about life’s challenges and how Jesus was born to save us from our sins and help us through life’s challenges. My question: What does a kindergartener understand about life’s challenges? They don’t think of life as easy or hard, they just live it. How does a preschooler connect that cool toy to their life? They can’t. For the younger kids, that children’s message was all about watching the cool toy and had nothing to do with Jesus. That’s transference. There are points they just can’t connect even when an adult tries to explain it.

Here’s another one. I’ve seen people try to explain the Trinity with an apple, a hardened sinful heart with a Tootsie Pop, and the Holy Spirit with a balloon, to children who cannot transfer the object (no matter how clever or obvious it seems to an adult) to a concept (that they cannot understand).

A final example: One Sunday the sermon was called Rejected! It was based on Luke 4, specifically verse 24 where it says, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” The person giving the children’s message started telling the kids a story about how somebody got a letter of rejection from Harvard University. First of all, children 3-7 years old have no understanding of rejection and it would be a challenge to explain it to them as they have no experience with it. Second, they have no idea what Harvard University or a letter of rejection is. He might as well have been speaking to them in Chinese. He asked questions they couldn’t possibly answer and finally let them go. This was a non-object object lesson.

The truth is that the majority of children's object lessons aren't for the kids if the kids are under eight or even under 10 or 12 years old. The young kids who come up to the front of the church for your object lesson don't have the ability to connect the object to your intended concept. Again, that’s transference, the ability to transfer a quality from the object to a religious concept. It's a higher order thinking skill and their young brains simply can't get it.

So, the first step in a good children’s message is to know the children. I call the early years of faith education the Narrative Stage because of how influential they are in a child’s learning experience. We all learn through experience that connects to previous experiences, but a child’s experience is limited. These little lambs:
  1. Have little ability to think in terms of general principles (kindness, goodness, sin, forgiveness, etc.).
  2. Have little ability to think about non-physical entities (God, heaven, etc.) that they haven’t seen or experienced. God the Father is a really big dad. Heaven is an actual place like the library or a big park, but apparently it’s in the sky sitting on the clouds.
  3. Have little ability to understand symbolic meaning. Visual symbols do not initially have symbolic meaning -- children must be taught what the cross means as a symbol.
  4. Cannot relate one fact to another, for example, the heart being like the inside of a tootsie pop that was hardened on the outside by sin? No way.
  5. Cannot make generalizations like what happens to a Sunday school class when the word of God is shared. If they can’t see it happen; super no way.
  6. Classify Bible stories as any other stories. There are none more or less important. Jonah and Pinocchio are on the same level of truth or make-believe. They start coming out of this in second grade.
  7. Primarily perceive miracles in the same way as magic in fairy tales. They cannot understand them as real or fantasy. Again, they start coming out of this in second grade.
  8. Determine the difference between real and make believe better as they age, but that's different than taking something that sounds like it can't be real (coming back from the dead) and assuming it's real. Of course, they don’t really understand death because it looks like sleep. When my son-in-law died his young son kept asking when daddy was coming home. He couldn’t understand death.
  9. Do not understand metaphors. Their literal thinking would have them believe the Holy Spirit IS a dove (or at least a bird), a hardened heart actually gets hard like a rock, Jesus lives in a tiny room in their heart, or a stiff-necked people actually have stiff necks and should go see the doctor. 

So then, question 3…

Question 3: If object lessons don’t work. Where do you start?

First of all, remember the Brain Rules for memory. They are the same at every age and will come in handy.

  • Remember that children’s lives are much simpler than ours (thank God!). They have, but don’t understand complex emotions. They primarily recognize happy, sad, and angry or mad.
  • The vocabulary you use is important. Be careful about using theological language they don’t understand. Be aware of the good/bad behavior language. Jesus doesn’t love them because they’re good and when we attach God’s love to behavior kids really hear that.
  • If you ask a question and kids answer correctly, it doesn’t mean that they understand a concept. It’s okay to get them familiar with terms before they understand their meaning. Concepts can come later.
  • Young children love stories and they indirectly learn from them. Use them!

Question 4 then must be...

Question 4: So, what actually works?

Our greatest desire is for children to know that God loves them more than they can imagine and after that, to become familiar with Him and His people, of which they are one. We want them to know that they are part of a family of believers who are people that care about them. We do not need to try and explain life to them. They will experience it as they grow. We do not need to find clever ways to try and explain things they cannot understand. We can tell them that God is so amazing and cool that there are mysteries that only He knows. The Trinity is three people, but one person. What? How can that be? There is no possible way to explain it, especially to young concrete thinkers. Don’t tell them it’s an apple (seeds, fruit, skin) or water (solid, liquid, ice). They can’t imagine that anyway and it’s not actually a true description. The Trinity is not three different parts that make up a whole. It/they are three and one at the same time; always. It’s a mystery. Let it be.

When you are creating a children’s message, before you look for cute or clever ideas, decide on your goal. What do you want the children to leave believing? (I use the form on this website under the Confirmation Resources Tab.) If the pastor’s message is about Jesus going back to Nazareth and being unwelcome, you could briefly tell the story and show pictures. Young kids like pictures to go with their stories. It's why there are picture books for that age. If you don’t have a screen they can easily see, you should print pictures and hold them up for them. You can easily find pictures online or use a good children’s Bible. Little kids don’t know what it means to be rejected or to go somewhere and be unwelcome. They certainly don’t understand the concept of a prophet being rejected in his hometown and what that’s all about. So, think about your goal. What, out of that story, can they understand? 

Also, what the pastor talks about won’t necessarily be what the children’s message can be about, and everything can’t be about how somebody was treated and how that makes them feel, which seems to be a regular go-to or children's messages. Everything is not an emotional moral lesson or about how they should be good. Sometimes we have to flip it over. Here’s an idea:

Tell a story. Message: Jesus loves us even when we aren't nice, don't get it, or don't believe.
In the Gospel lesson today we heard the story of when Jesus went home to Nazareth to visit. He was a little boy there and grew up in the same way you’re growing up here. He lived there and played with friends there. He was Jesus, the carpenter’s son. Carpenters build things. Nobody knew He was God’s son except Mary, Joseph, and him. So, when He came back as a prophet (a guy who delivers messages from God) the people didn’t believe him. They said, “You’re not a prophet. You're Mary and Joseph’s son! You’re a carpenter! When did you get so smart? Who do you think you are?"
Do you think Jesus stopped loving them when they were mean like that and didn’t believe him? No! He didn’t! If you were there what would you want to tell those people? I would tell them that Jesus loves them even if they're mean. Let's do that now. Say this after me (use hand motions too), “Jesus loves you! (point to them) Jesus loves me! (point to yourself) Even when we’re mean (mean/angry face) or don’t believe (you're safe baseball action)!” Say it in rhythm a couple of times. Then, have them teach it to the congregation. "That’s the thing with Jesus. He loves us no matter what! Always!"

There are a lot of options for children’s messages besides object lessons. Most of the good ones involve the congregation. Here are a few examples:

  • To illustrate that the message is more important than who gives it, one presenter had a few children read something simple written for them. Then those little ones who couldn’t read were taught by the readers to repeat it so they learned it. After they knew it, the little ones taught the congregation to repeat it.
  • A Director of Christian Education at my church used the congregation to tell the story of Jesus calming the storm in a very clever way. He had the congregation make storm noises and wave their arms like waves and the children were to be Jesus. The children walked down the aisle and the storm grew as the waves got bigger and bigger until the kids shouted, “Stop!” The storm died down as the people stopped. They did it a couple of times and the lesson was that Jesus has power over nature. 
  • Tell stories that are close to the emotions of the children. Stories that use human characteristics such as loving, sharing, and caring are excellent at this age.
  • Use poems, riddles, and songs. Putting scripture to rhythm and song helps them remember it. They need to be short, so break a verse down into a memorable phrase and have them repeat it multiple times throughout your message.
  • Use illustrations when telling stories. Children read picture books and we know from Brain Rules that pictures help us understand and remember.
  • You can also use props, pictures, voices, puppets, and/or volunteer actors to tell stories.
  • If you have an abstract moral they won't get it, but they can answer simple questions like, "What happened when I...?" "What happened when (the puppet) hit the other one?" "What would happen if you...?" The information needs to be relevant to their experience.
  • Make the message about a picture of a story by showing it on the big screen and having kids answer questions about the picture. "What's happening in this picture?" It’s okay for kids to have their backs to the congregation so they can see the picture.
  • Add movement to a story you’re telling. What if you taught them the stories of the Old Testament with hand motions. The first one would be creation and might be using your arms to make a large circle above the head. The second would be the fall and that motion could be two hands making a breaking motion. There’s not a motion for every story in the Bible, but if chosen wisely and one taught a week, by the end of the year they’ll be able to tell the whole Old Testament! Imagine if the young kids and everyone in the congregation could tell the story of the Bible because of hand motions, which help with memory.

I bet you’ve got all kinds of ideas now!

Next time we’re moving on to move into the Knowledge Stage, 3rd – 5th grade! Things are getting interesting! Don’t forget, if you’ve got a question or a curiosity you’d like to have answered you can contact me and we’ll talk about it here. Whatever it is, if you’ve got a question, I’ve most likely have an answer. You can submit questions using the form right here carpentersministrytoolbox.com under the podcast tab.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

CONFIRMATION: What do you believe and why do you believe it?

 Every year in the Lutheran church we confirm the faith of 14 year-olds and then nothing. We, essentially, tell them to repeat the answers we've given them and then tell us in public that they're willing to die for their faith in Christ because He died for them. It's been going on for centuries (beginning in the early Catholic church). 

The average life expectancy is 80 years today and the brain is fully developed at about age 25. Dr. Frances Jensen (2015, The Teenage Brain) tells us that the teenage brain is "like a brand new Ferrari. It's primed and pumped, but hasn't been road tested yet." In middle school their bodies release hormones and the brain has to learn how to deal with them. Their frontal lobe, the part that deals with executive functions and self-regulation, is the last part to develop. This area is the CEO of the brain. It's the manager of the other cognitive operations, deciding what to do when, dealing with planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and the ability to do multiple tasks. While the emotions are ready to run, the part of the brain that says, "Slow down, buddy, this may not be a good idea," is still under construction. 

Think about it this way. Children begin being able to think abstractly and logically in the middle school years, so it's a good time to start them thinking about faith (an abstract concept) issues. That's about (because brains don't all develop at the same rate) age 12. For the first 12 of their possible 80 years they're not ready to understand the complex issues talked about in the Bible, but can learn about it. We teach them stories and introduce them to God, Jesus, other people in the Bible, cultural issues, etc. (2021, The Art of Teaching the Faith: Preschool through Adult). Then, at 14 years-old (just 2 years later), we teach them the doctrine of the Christian faith (the 6 Chief Parts), have a big party about it, and then... nothing... for the next 66 years. 

I am not saying that we should do away with Confirmation. I'm saying that it's time we put it in perspective. It's time we realize what's going on in a 14 year-old's brain and life and not expect this to be their moment of great commitment. Fourteen years is the first 20% of an average life, of which 85% of that is too young. It's similar to expecting an 18 year old to decide what they want to do for the next 52 years of their life. Fortunately, changing your job doesn't affect your eternal life. 

My bigger question is this: How do you teach confirmation and what is your expectation of the outcome? How long do you expect them to remember what they've learned in 7th and 8th grade? In 2 years time, if a friend asks them whether or not the 10 Commandments are valid today, why we baptize babies, or how on earth we would believe the Lord's Supper contains Jesus' body and blood, how will they respond? If that friend then presses with, why do you believe that? Can they answer with anything other than, "I'm not really sure," or do we prefer "that's what my pastor told me." 

So, what do I mean when I say we should put it in perspective? 

  • Do not assume that memorizing the catechism or all the right answers will stick with them the rest of their lives... or even until they graduate high school. 
  • Do not assume that kids who do well in confirmation class at 14 will have a faith that lasts 66 years. 
  • Do not assume that because the box is checked in the database that they've been confirmed, that they have any idea of what the Bible says or teaches. 
  • Without regular revisitation, most, if not all, will be forgotten sooner than you realize whether you have them write an essay, participate in a questioning night, or create a video, or not. 

What's the answer? It's not about starting earlier. It's about continuing through the 80% of their life that occurs after the age of 14. 

Some people will never want to learn more than they did in confirmation. Some will study and learn for the rest of their lives. You can't depend on people showing up for a class to review the 6 Chief Parts, especially the way we currently educate. A simple, easy to participate form of Confirmation review needs to be built into the regular life of your congregation, and no, friends, I do not mean that you should copy and paste sections of the catechism into the weekly bulletin. 

I'll post more about what that would look like next time. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

CONFIRMATION: Is it time to change how you teach confirmation? Probably.

 In a new podcast I answer the question: Why should you change how you teach confirmation? There are some pretty compelling reasons to consider how you teach and how middle schoolers learn. Take a listen here. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

EDUCATION: Early Communion - 5th Grade


I wrote this workbook The Feast of Victory: Preparing for First Communion. for my husband who was asked by his church council to have a 5th grade first communion option for those parents who want to explore that possibility.

The Feast of Victory is a basic course on the Lord’s Supper for those who are interested in participating in the Sacrament earlier than eighth grade confirmation. It is designed for students in 5th grade and includes text, Bible readings, thoughtful questions, family discussion questions, and a quick quiz at the end of each lesson. It also has a certificate at the end that the pastor can fill out for each student. The information is told in a narrative fashion with Scripture and thoughtful questions, leading students to an understanding of the mysterious Sacrament. Lessons can be read and understood easily and can be taught by the pastor or by the parent.

The workbook begins at the beginning, explaining to students why we need a Savior in the first place and moves forward to the purpose and gifts of the Lord’s Supper. There 6 lessons which are:

Lesson 1 – The Fall: Why We need a Savior
Lesson 2 – The Law: Why We Cannot Save Ourselves
Lesson 3 – The Gospel: God’s Plan to Save Us
Lesson 4 – The Meal: How God Nourishes Us
Lesson 5 – The Exam: How We Prepare
Lesson 6 – The Gifts: How We Are Blessed

Taught by the Pastor
The pastor can walk and talk students through the workbooks, asking questions and completing both the discussion questions and brief quizzes at the end of each lesson, which can be done orally or written. The workbook can be completed in as many sessions as the pastor deems necessary. Each child needs their own workbook. The final quiz is best given orally by the pastor to show confidence in understanding. After the final quiz the certificate at the end of the book can be signed with confidence that the student is ready for participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Taught by the Parent
The pastor can have a parent walk and talk their child through the workbook, discussing the questions and checking the quizzes at the end of each lesson. Quizzes may be written or oral. They should also meet with the pastor either one family at a time, or all together once or twice to have questions answered or problems discussed, and understanding assessed; the number of meetings to be determined by the pastor. In this case either the child or both the parent and child could have a workbook or the parent can be given the leader’s book with answers. It can be very valuable for parents to have to work through the questions with their child as a refresher as well. In this case the pastor would give the final quiz (oral or written) and the certificate at the end of the book can be signed with confidence that the student is ready for participation in the Lord’s Supper (and the parents have had a great review as well).

I also created a parent packet which includes a letter introducing the option and questions parents can ask their children to assess whether or not their child is ready for early communion, as well as a description of the process. If you're interested in those document, feel free to contact me and I can email them to you. 

Watch the video below to learn a little bit more about the workbook.


Monday, January 31, 2022

YOUTH: What's the purpose of a youth group?

Someone recently asked me, "What's the purpose of a youth group?" 

People have been asking this for years, and the answer may seem obvious. A CHURCH youth group must include worship, prayer, Bible study or faith education, discipleship, and fellowship. After all, it's not a club. It's not just a place for kids to get together and "hang." Our main goal is that they grow in knowledge of God's word and that their faith grow and strengthen so that when they get out in the world they can confidently answer two questions: 

      • What do you believe? 
      • Why do you believe it?

The challenge is to make it a place that teens want to be so that we can educate and challenge their faith in a way that encourages spiritual growth. This is why I spend so much time writing about knowing what's going on in the hearts and minds of kids. It helps us know how to equip and encourage them in the faith. 

So, what's most important to teens?  The answer is much simpler than it is to make it happen. At that time of life everything is about belonging. Beginning in about 5th-6th grade kids develop a strong inner drive to belong to a group. They've got hormones raging around inside them pushing them, they're brain is heavier on emotion than reason, and how they see themselves is highly dependent on how their peers see them. Girls are looking for a best friend or a few best friends, and guys are looking for their "squad." A teenager's life is all about social connections, being with friends, and "hanging out." Given the chance they would not go to school. Not one of them gets up every morning excited to go to school and learn Algebra 2 or Biology, even though they may enjoy those classes. They get up excited to see their friends and hear the latest social information. They are social creatures. It's their basic need and it's a challenge to have an effect on someone whose basic needs aren't met. 

A teenagers basic need is belonging. They will choose the group that accepts them no matter what the values of that group are, so, one of my primary purposes is to provide that group where they can feel safe, valued, wanted, and connected; with Jesus at the center. What does this mean? It means that your goals and their goals are different, and that's okay. 

Knowing that teenagers' goals are social and focus on belonging (and knowing that an adult is not the best answer to that), we understand and work with it. Some people think that youth group should be fun over everything in order to keep them coming, but coming for what? This is not a social club. It's an intentional social club with the intent of Bible education and faith growth. In spite of what they want, we have a much broader and more important goal; looking toward their eternal life and not just this one. When they leave your church to go out into the big mean world, as Christians we want them to be confident in their faith because the world will eat away at any faith they have.  

Honestly, ALL people want to feel they belong somewhere to a degree, but in the teen years it's very strong. So, what happens after high school? They continue to look for that group, but they're out in the world now. EVERY church near a college or university should keep that in mind. Create a ministry to connect your high school graduates to a Christian group if they leave town. That's why we need a men's ministry, a women's group, and opportunities for children and families to be encouraged and stay connected in the faith. Everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone needs to have someone they feel safe talking to about life issues. Everyone needs friends and it's hard to hug a computer. 

For more about teaching the faith to teens in a way that touches on their social needs, see The Art of Teaching the Faith


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

EDUCATION: Bible News is now available!

My congregation had the wonderful opportunity to read the Bible in chronological order this past year and many succeeded. In order to make things less confusing for them I created the BIBLE NEWS for all 66 books. There is so much information that we don't have when we start reading the Bible; especially the Old Testament. There are all kinds of commonly used terms that we aren't familiar with, ancient Hebrew poetry (what's up with that?), themes that span the whole Bible that we should be looking for, common misconceptions, and situations with the prophets that we don't know. This information definitely deepens our understanding as we read. Researching and writing them was a great blessing to me and I hope they are to all who use them as well. Interested?