For those that don’t know, I’m currently an intern at Morning Star Community Church for their Early Childhood Director. Because of this I get to be involved in planning the Vacation Bible School for this summer. Most churches use prepared curriculum for their VBS. Themes don’t vary much. Space adventure, jungle explorations, sea quests, and western round-ups are common. When I look at these it causes me to ponder how effective they will be in connecting with the kids they are intended to reach.
Children in this culture are saturated with popular media. This makes it harder to get their attention. Younger children have become acculturated to media that in earlier generations would have been viewed as too mature for them. For example, a movie like Pixar’s Cars is popular with pre-kindergarten kids, but losses its coolness around the time of 3rd grade. For the older children it is for “little kids.” Only edgier, from their point of view, material catches their attention. Cars has an ability to hold the interest of a wider age range than most movies (as do many Pixar movies). The media tastes and preferences of the average American child is being moved up. They are also getting it from the top down. Parents are unconsciously or consciously exposing their children to media that is appropriate for themselves. The children develop a taste for media once restricted to adults. All of this is of course my own opinion from working children. A few examples might help.
If you really want to know what children think you must talk to them, not at them. Most adults talk at children rather than talking to them. One of the questions I like to ask when talking to children is to ask what is their favorite movie. No lecture about media choices, just conversation. A couple years ago I asked a group of 4-5th graders (roughly ages 9-11) what their favorite movies were. I expected some kind of superhero movie i.e. Spiderman, though usually those movies are rated PG-13. The first movie to be mentioned and supported by others was Casino Royale. The movies that followed were mostly “darker” PG-13 action movies. Another time I asked the same question of a 4th grader at my church. His favorite movie was Taken. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what it was about, something he knew was bad. (It may have helped that he just saw it which tends to influence kid’s favorite lists.) All these kids came from families that regularly attended church. Theoretically they should have been above the average American 4-5th grader morally. Though enjoying the first Transformer movie I was also bothered by it. I knew it was inadvertently targeted towards 4-5th grade boys, a group with I have a special heart for. They may not fully understand all the sexual innuendo, but it would prematurely mature them. A few weeks ago an unchurched seven year-old I was with said the f-word in front of me, but back to VBS.
For this reason I am really excited about the VBS at Morning Star. It is called “Your Story.” The theme comes from the Toy Story movies (Toy Story 3 is coming out this summer). Pixar’s movies have the ability to connect with a wide ranges of ages. I am sure that the Children’s Ministry staff will do a great job at putting it all together. I think this will connect much better with the kids it is intended to reach than more generic curriculum and VBS themes. Past years have stared Willy Wanncha and the Character Factory and a space themed VBS drawn from Star Trek, Star Wars, and yes Space Balls. Most churches don’t have the staff or funding necessary to create there own VBS. Children’s ministry traditionally has gotten low priority in churches. Still I think creative uses of the culture are needed to allow children to engage with the gospel. Its what Jesus did as he told parables involving farming, kings and servants, and local traditions. I think Morning Star’s Children’s Ministry is doing something right.
As a disclaimer I was not given any compensation to write this. If I do get anything for this it will be for sucking up to my superiors. It is much easier to talk about what you think is wrong than to about what is going right. This is just an example where I think Christians are doing a good job of relating to culture.