This post is part 4 in a five part series on four imbalanced children’s ministry frameworks. In children’s ministry, balance is crucial. An imbalanced children’s ministry will lead to collapse. What is the purpose of children’s ministry? Much of what we will look at this week flows from thoughts on that very question. The next imbalanced framework often employed in children’s ministry we will examine is what I will call “The Game-Time Framework.”
This framework views children’s ministry like recess. Volunteers lead children through various games and create an atmosphere that is vibrant and exciting. This framework is more common in more modern churches. Typically, leaders and volunteers are most concerned with the environment and the primary goal is fun. Attract them with things they like, and the kids will come; that is the motto.
The Game-Time Framework
Picture in your mind a dark room with streaming lights, multi-colored walls creatively painted with loud music blasting from the speakers. Imagine an energetic and loudly dressed leader standing on a stage in front of a group of kids. Within minutes, a few games are played, followed by a short message, which leads into the group of kids dividing into small groups to play more games. After about 30 minutes, the kids gather back together and play even more games. By the time the parents pick the kids up at the end of the service, their kids are excited and exhausted.
If you have ever been to a summer camp for kids, you have a good idea what I mean by the “Game-Time Framework.” I almost called this the “Show-Time Framework” because the end of this framework is fun and the means is energizing lights, sounds, music, and games. If you are a part of a smaller church, this framework will seem foreign to you. But for those in bigger churches, the game-time or show-time framework is all but expected. This framework is appealing to me. I am very competitive and love games. I am also all for anything in children’s ministry that keeps kids’ attention, and these elements do that.
As you have probably noticed in each installment of this series: if the things we are discussing, like childcare, stories, and games, are used as elements they can be helpful. But, when any one of those individual elements roots out the others and becomes a framework on which the whole ministry is based, we have a problem that often leaves out the gospel.
In this framework, your children’s ministry better have a creative name, theme, and way to attract kids. In fact, I believe this framework is one of the crucial reasons why churches grow. Big churches grow bigger when they have an energetic and fun children’s ministry. This reality can play out in two ways. It can be an element within a balanced children’s ministry. Or, and this is the danger, it can be the framework on which the children’s ministry is built in which a children’s ministry can grow without Jesus.
The danger in focusing primarily on games, music, and excitement in children’s ministry is that kids love games, music, and excitement. It sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. If you put your primary energies and focus on things like games, music, fun, and excitement, you will be attracting kids with those things, to those things. They are not just means, they are an end. When God is not the grand end of our ministry efforts, we will not be leading kids into true and lasting satisfaction. We will be offering them fleeting joys—salt water in a glass mug.
In the introduction to his book Gospel Wakefulness, author Jared Wilson writes,
“Have you ever heard the statement ‘what you win them with is what you win them to’? I think quality music, powerful videos, strategic lighting, well-performed dramas, and interesting set pieces and architecture can be helpful tools in service to reaching for Christ people who are dying and going to hell. But if these things are what we are winning people with, we are only distracting them from their numbness for a while, entertaining them in a break from their restlessness, before they stall out spiritually or move on to other ‘experiences’” (16-17).
This perfectly communicates my concerns with the Game-Time Framework. The elements employed are in and of themselves helpful, and can be used to help better communicate the gospel. But when these things are what we are using to attract people, kids included, we are using these things as ultimate ends rather than helpful means.
The fear in churches and children’s ministries who employ the Game-Time Framework is that kids will be bored, that the ministry will stall and fizzle out because kids are just not as easily entertained. Like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if we build an energetic and entertaining children’s ministry, they will come. But what I fear is that they are right. It is possible to grow a large children’s ministry without the gospel. When we attract kids with the festivities or with events, we are attracting them to festivities and events. We had better keep them coming. The Game-Time Framework is unashamed of this. It spends its resources, energies, and monies to have more games and skits, and better lights and sound.
But there is a better way. We should deeply care about the passions and desires of kids. We should even use games, engaging music, and create a fun and exciting environment in children’s ministry. But we should use them as a means to point children to the greatest End. We should attract kids with the gospel, to the God of the gospel!
When we show excitement and joy over games and activities, and then seem bored with the gospel, it should not surprise us when our kids follow suit. Our presentation of the gospel should be engaging. It should be thrilling. It should show that the cross of Christ is not just the most important new in the world, but the most exciting news in the world. In your presentation of the gospel, communicate with your words and demeanor that it actually is good news.
“But! Oh man. If we are regularly and excitedly engaging people in the good news of the finished saving work of the sacrificing, dying, rising, exalted, sovereign Jesus Christ who is the death-proof, fail-proof King of kings before all things and in all things and holding all things together as he sustains the world by the mere word of his power, the ones whose hearts are opened by the Spirit to be won to Christ will be irrevocably changed. Numbness will be the exception, rather than the norm. We will not have to lead them through hoops of creative entertainment, constantly hamstrung by the limits of our artistic brainstorming sessions, seeking to keep their attentions stirred by a well-composed aesthetic this or that” (17).
Wow. Wilson nails it. The Game-Time Framework communicates that other things are more exciting than Jesus, and we need them to attract kids and families to him. Friends, Jesus doesn’t need our creativities to draw people to himself. And when we show that games are more thrilling than the gospel of Jesus, we shoot ourselves and our ministry efforts in the foot. Games can be useful. But they must not be ultimate in children’s ministry. Attract kids with Jesus to Jesus. And then trust in the power of the gospel and Spirit of God to resurrect little hearts, so that they may be forever changed and ushered in to a joyous experience that will never end.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.