Curriculum Wars: 2 Philosophical Shifts

UncategorizedJared Kennedy9 Comments

On Wednesday, I posted about how the recent release of new children's ministry curriculums has sparked an interesting discussion in the children's ministry community. Leaders like Jonathan Cliff have observed how vocal children's ministry leaders are waging battle over which curriculum is best. Jonathan coined the phrase "Curriculum Wars" to describe these battles. In the comments section of his post, he described them this way:

The war I see waged is waged all over the place.  You need only walk through a resource center or read any ministry magazine to see the content aimed at what "they are NOT doing" to see the dig.  It's in conversations at conferences. It's in letters and/or blog postings directed to curriculum developers. It's in the reluctance to embrace the holy convictions between curriculum providers, and it's found in slight digs and rhetoric all over the blogosphere.

The moment I read the phrase "Curriculum Wars," I thought about the "Worship Wars" that have been waged in churches over the last three decades. The phrase "Worship Wars" describes controversies that arose when contemporary worship music was first introduced into traditional churches. The worship wars got out of hand. Church staffs and entire churches split over the issues that were at stake. I pray that nothing like that happens as a result of curriculum wars, but I do think there are helpful parallels between this new conversation and the conversations worship leaders have been having since the 1980s.

Worship leaders can tell you that the "worship wars" were not just about having a drum set and an electric guitar in the sanctuary. Church leaders were having bigger conversations about relevance and contextualization. The musical shifts that were made may have sometimes been stylistic preferences, but in many cases they were related to a shift in vision--a rediscovery of Paul's missionary flexibility ("all things to all people" 1 Cor. 9:22).

The same is true with the curriculum wars.  There are larger conversations going on behind the "curriculum wars" conversation. I'd argue that there are two major philosophical shifts that are impacting the way children's ministry leaders think and talk about curriculum. These are shifts in overall theological vision, not just methodology. This is what I see:

1) A Shift Toward Partnering with Families. What I'm referring to here is a rediscovery of the Bible's emphasis on the home as the front-line of ministry to children. Children's ministry leaders have come to see that if they really want to impact the lives of kids then they must partner with families, because the Bible makes parents the primary faith trainers in the lives of their kids (Deuteronomy 6:7; Psalm 78:1-7). Reggie Joiner and the ReThink group have led the way in this movement with the mantra that "two combined influences make a greater impact than two separate influences." Churches have followed suit, and curriculum writers have followed as well. I'm thankful.

2) A Shift Toward Centering Teaching around the Gospel. Of the two shifts, I believe this one is much more important. What I'm referring to here is a rediscovery of Jesus's central place in the message of the Bible. A key passage that defines this shift is found in John 5:39, where, while speaking to the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said , "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me." The deepest concern of people who are part of the gospel-centered movement is that Christians can have biblical teaching but miss Jesus. At the beginning of the Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones describes this concern simply:

The Bible isn't a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It's an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It's a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne--everything--to rescue the one he loves.

Back in 2008, Dr. Russ Moore critiqued the creative minds behind Veggie Tales and other children's ministry resources. His critique is one of the harder and more straight-forward ones that I've seen in print. I appreciate Dr. Moore's boldness. He sees the same issue that has been observed by Sally Lloyd-Jones:

They take biblical stories, and biblical characters, but they mine the narrative for abstractions–timeless moral truths that can help children to be kinder, gentler, and more honest. There’s almost nothing in any episode that isn’t true. But what’s missing is Jesus... When you see through Jesus, you see the interpretive grid through which all of reality makes sense.

The young, restless, and Reformed crowd (with names like Tim Keller and Matt Chandler) has led the way in this movement with mantras like "Jesus + Nothing = Everything." But the shift in focus isn't limited to members of the Reformed movement. In the launch video for What's in the Bible? Phil Vischer explains why he's changed focus in his new project:

When I first started working on Veggie Tales, I discovered it was a really great way to re-tell key Bible stories and teach Christian values, but it wasn't such a good way to explain the entire Bible, how all the stories fit together to tell just one story--who wrote this book? How did we get it, and why do we think we can trust it? And, most importantly, what difference does it make in my life? ...The Bible tells the story of God and what he's done for us.

I don't know Phil Vischer personally, but his shift in focus from Christian values to "the story of God and what he's done for us" has made a world of difference in the depth and, I believe, the longevity of what he is teaching.

Now, I would argue that these two philosophical shifts are hugely important. But why are they causing conflict? Why has this led to digs and charged rhetoric? How can we avoid the sins and disasters of the worship wars? Recognizing that there are shifts taking place is just the beginning. How can this recognition help us lead and relate to one another with Christian love? I'll post some thoughts next week. In the mean time, join the conversation and tell me what you think.