Game Plan for Growth
By Danielle Bell
Growing up as an avid soccer player, I was blessed with a high school coach who poured countless hours of drills and skills into my training time. As goalie, I was the last line of defense against the opponents’ opportunity to score. I got the tools I needed to be successful at my post from countless sweaty sessions of repetitive training before games—training that prepared me for what I’d face when practice ended and the real game began.
Shortly before our regional tournament, my coach surprised me with a new technique in his training methodology. He edited our game films and compiled a video of all the goals scored on me during the season. My coach was very thorough—so thorough that he even edited my errors in slow motion so my weaknesses and vulnerability became obvious. Though it was uncomfortable to watch myself make mistakes (especially in slow motion), I was able to dissect where I’d gone wrong and formulate a corrective approach. Together we spent hours assessing each goal and determining whether I was using the techniques I’d learned in practice.
All those pre-game drills and exercises did help prepare me for the real game, but my real growth as a competitor came during those sit-downs when my coach and I evaluated my progress and examined my weaknesses. The game film was living-color proof of the basic principles of goal-keeping I’d mastered and those I hadn’t quite grasped. I’ll never forget all the bruises, bleeding knees, and muddy jerseys that came along with goalie practice, but I know my learning curve soared when we took time to gauge my progress as a player.
In our privileged role as children’s ministers, we spend many hours in preparation and practice as we deliver lessons to kids. Our hearts are passionate about preparing these children for a lifelong walk with Jesus. But how can we know whether children truly grasp the truths we teach? How can we evaluate what makes it from practice to the field when it comes to kids’ faith? And how can we help them make progress in their faith journeys?
“Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves,” wrote Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5-6. “Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. As you test yourselves, I hope you will recognize that we have not failed the test of apostolic authority.” The Corinthians had professed faith in Jesus, and Paul was challenging them to make their walk match their talk. To be effective ministers to children, we too need to consider how kids’ beliefs play out in their lives.
Matthew 5:13-16 instructs us to be salt and light in a dark world. Salt is often described as the more subtle influence—the small, daily decisions that season our life. Light is the obvious influence—our words and actions that demonstrate to the world where our allegiance lies. If you replayed the footage of your children’s daily lives, what would it reveal about the salt and light in their lives? What evidence would their words and actions give that they truly grasp the truths we teach?
A friend of mine went to church every Sunday with his grandfather. Every Sunday on the way home from church his grandfather would ask, “What did you learn today at church?” Every Sunday, my friend answered, “God hates sin.”
The lessons changed weekly, but my friend’s answer remained the same. As adults we can be so quick to accept kids’ first answers and be content with “proper” Sunday school responses that we rarely dig deeper to investigate what truths kids really understand and where they are spiritually.
Three simple tools can help you gain better understanding of where your children are spiritually: good questions, life application, and loving accountability.
Jesus knew how to ask good questions, and he often used questions as a way to gauge whether his followers really understood his teachings. Some examples:
* In John 21 Jesus asks Simon Peter three times: “Do you love me?”
* On the raging sea in Mark 4 Jesus asked, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
* “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked his disciples in Mark 8.
Jesus already knew their answers, but he used probing questions as a teaching tool to shed light on his followers’ beliefs. Often Jesus used a series of questions to dig into his disciples’ faith and understanding.
Good questions give you valuable insight into where kids stand spiritually; mediocre questions, on the other hand, don’t. Mediocre questions merely gauge kids’ grasp of content, but good questions help discern whether kids understand, internalize, and apply principles in their lives. Good questions require time, thought, and patience—but you’ll hit pay dirt when you gain fresh understanding about a child’s spiritual growth thanks to thoughtful questioning.
Don’t settle for pat Sunday school answers such as “God hates sin.” As vital as asking appropriate, thought-provoking questions, so is seeking meaningful and truthful answers. Ask questions to discover what kids are really learning in your class, and keep asking until you strike the core of their belief.
Good questions lead to the next tool for gauging kids’ faith: life application. When you give children practical ways to apply the truths you teach, you’ll get a better view of how their beliefs translate into actions and how they live and think. Jesus taught content, but he also wisely offered his disciples opportunities for application. Jesus’ classroom extended outside the church walls—into populated hillsides, dusty streets, ocean waves, and farther. Remember when Peter walked on water? Now that’s an unforgettable example of Jesus using application to gauge Peter’s faith.
You can’t fully determine how well your children apply what they’re learning until you see them in environments other than church. Watch how they handle relationships, temptations, conflict, and more using the spiritual truths they’ve learned. Go onto kids’ “playing field”—school lunches, sports events, or other activities outside the church—and watch them in action.
Some of the most profound experiences I’ve had watching children apply what they’ve learned have been during an annual event with our sixth-graders. Each year we ask a church member who’s lost a loved one to talk openly with kids about grief and its effect on families. Children get to ask this person any question because we want them to gain insight on how to minister to grieving families. At Christmas, we take the group of kids caroling—to the homes of church families who’ve lost loved ones. This experience gives kids a chance to exercise the truths they’ve learned. Our initial goal was to help children learn about death and how to be prepared when confronted with it. The blessing is that adults have an opportunity to view kids’ application of what they’ve learned and gauge whether they understand the sensitivity needed in this special ministry opportunity.
3 Loving Accountability
Once children have a chance to exercise their faith, hold them accountable. Popular author Steven Covey writes, “Accountability breeds response-ability.” In other words, when you lovingly hold children accountable for living out the truths they’re learning, you help them grow into spiritually responsible people.
As a teacher and mentor, you hold considerable sway over what influences kids and how they establish values. By gently questioning them, asking for their opinions, and challenging their thinking, you’re holding them accountable for their faith growth. When kids know that their words and actions matter—especially to you—it pushes them to think through the impact of what they do. Your continued positive presence fosters good spiritual habits and builds kids’ sense of self-worth when they know you have high expectations for them and are willing to hold them accountable. Good spiritual habits that last a lifetime are the result of training and loving accountability.
The most productive time my coach and I spent pouring over a year’s worth of missed goals was the moment I realized I had a weak left arm. Every time the ball headed to the top left corner of the goal, I dove through the air leading with my right arm as I attempted to deflect the ball. And I came up short every time. That evaluation was critical to my growth, and ultimately it helped me overcome my weakness.
Take time in your ministry to evaluate kids’ words and actions in their “playing field.” Gauge whether they truly understand and are experiencing a growing relationship with Jesus that’s real and personal. Push them to move beyond “church answer” knowledge. These tools—good questions, life application, and loving accountability—are invaluable when it comes to determining where children are spiritually. By helping kids discover and overcome their weaknesses and vulnerabilities now, they won’t fall short later in life. cm
Danielle Bell has been a children’s minister in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for 10 years. She’s served as a Children’s Ministry Magazine Live (www.group.com/cmml/) presenter for six years.
Good Questions For All Kids:
* What did you learn about God today?
* How do you understand God better after today’s lesson?
* What does this lesson teach you about Jesus Christ?
* Tell me what the Scripture means in your own words.
Good Questions For Older Kids:
* What changes do you need to make in your life after hearing today’s lesson?
* How will today’s lesson affect your day tomorrow, either at school or with your family and friends?
* How would you explain this lesson to a friend at school this week?
* What attitudes or actions in your life need to change to help you live out the truths in today’s lesson and Scripture?
* Don’t just teach a lesson on mercy and service and assume kids get it. Take kids to a soup kitchen and observe them in action to see whether they really grasped the lesson on service.
* During camps, retreats, and special events, give kids role-playing situations where they have to act out and even defend their beliefs.
* Family ministry events are a great way to get insight about kids’ faith growth as you watch them interact with their nearest and dearest.
* Outreach events also offer windows into how kids interact with their unchurched peers.
* Take time each week to revisit the previous class lesson. Ask review questions. Inquire about kids’ weeks. Ask whether the lesson did or didn’t change their words and actions.
* Pair children with adults in your church who’ll pray with them. The adults will act as an additional teacher and help hold children accountable for their words and actions.
* In small groups, leaders can journal back and forth with their kids about daily events and issues. Journaling is a great opportunity for leaders to compare the topics discussed with what kids are learning.
* Equip parents with ideas to play an active role in their children’s spiritual health.
This article “Game Plan for Growth” by Danielle Bell is excerpted from Youth Ideas Unlimited, www.youthspecialties.com, May 2006.