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Putting The Heart Before The Course

Influence their thinking

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You know not to put the cart before the horse.  But do you know to put the heart before the course?

If you were to apply biblical criteria to the selection of curriculum, how would you choose it?  You would target the heart of a child with scriptural truth.  Nearly every time Scripture refers to the teaching and training of children in spiritual things, the word “heart” is in the very same verse or passage.  Here are some examples:

 

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … these words, which I command you today shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons …”
― Deuteronomy 6:5-7

 

“Impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul … and you shall teach them to your sons …”
― Deuteronomy 11:18-19

 

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.”
― Proverbs 3:1

 

“When I was a son to my father, tender, and the only son in the sight of my mother, then he taught me and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live.’”
― Proverbs 4:3,4

 

“Thy word I have treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee.”

― Psalm 119:11

 

The target of spiritual training is always the heart, not simply the mind.  The mind is an avenue to the heart.

What IS the heart?  

It is the center of our emotions, desires and relationships, you say.  Absolutely.  We say we want children to develop a “heart for God”; we want them to desire God.  As a result, we know that curriculum isn’t enough.  The relationship with the teacher is so critical. But the heart is also something else, and that’s where I want to focus today.

It is where we think.  I know, we think with our minds, but following biblical imagery, the heart is where we think.  When I was very young, I memorized the phrase, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  We’ve all been there—doing one thing and thinking another. When I do that, which represents the “real me”?  The action or the thought?  The thought, of course.  So what does this have to do with curriculum?  Our children’s ministry tools must be focused on changing the thinking of a child, not merely the behavior.

My good friend Shawn Thornton, senior pastor at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California, describes the process of growing to spiritual maturity this way:

He bases it on Philippians 4:8-9, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute—if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” [Think Right.]  “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things.” [Do Right.]  “And the God of peace shall be with you.” [Feel Right.]

Shawn says when you think right, you will do right. When you think right and do right, you will feel right.

Of course, our culture would dictate the process this way:

In other words, if it feels good, do it, and then adjust your thinking accordingly.

Behavior modification is this (it doesn’t address the issue of feelings):

How about the curriculum you choose?  Is it designed to address feelings or actions or thoughts?  In what order?  I believe curriculum must follow the biblical pattern in its design, not just in its content.

 

Adjust your curriculum criteria.

Put your primary focus on finding what will help children think.  I’m on a crusade to change the way people think about “practical application” or “relevance.”  In children’s ministry, we like those words—no, we love them.  Practical applications in lessons often are concerned mostly with what children do; yet, it must first be about what they think.  Why?  If we change what they do, it may not necessarily change what they think.  But, if we change how they think, it will automatically change what they do.  Jesus said it this way, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the ear” (Matthew 12:34) and “… out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murders, adulteries …” (Matthew 15:19).  Again, we know it’s true because we’ve all done it ourselves—we have acted a certain way on the outside but had completely different thoughts in our heart.  What’s the difference?

Here’s a practical application focused on what a child is to do: Here’s a practical application focused on what a child is to think:
“This week, honor your mother by setting the table for dinner three times.” “Figure out a way to honor your father and mother as often as you can this week.  Be ready to tell us next week what you thought of, what you did and what happened as a result.”
Of course, this kind of an application is a good thing, but it focuses only on behavior. This application forces a child to think, test and evaluate the result.  It includes accountability, repetition and reinforcement from week to week.

 

 

You’ve all seen the research about our young people abandoning their faith.  Who do you think will stay true to their faith?  Not the kids who merely do right, but those who think right!

Don’t focus on just knowledge of the facts, either.  We all know someone who is a Bible trivia whiz but is not a Christ follower.  However, since thinking right must be based on truth, learning biblical truth is essential—but what truth?  The truth base that must be developed early in a child’s thinking is about worldview issues.  For example:

Who is God?

Who is Jesus?

Is there an eternity?

Is man a sinner?

Is Jesus the only way?

How did our world get here?

 

Five curriculum characteristics to influence God-centered thinking

Our curriculum must be truth-filled.  I’ve yet to come across a Christian curriculum that doesn’t profess to be based on Scripture, yet some use it so briefly that the truth being taught gets lost in the jungles of methodology, creativity and technology.  Here’s a good test: sit in on one of your classes.  Pull out a stopwatch and time the seconds that the scriptural truth is being directly discussed in some way.  Some of you will be greatly surprised.  Glancing at Scripture while gazing at the plethora of methods we use to try to dress it up isn’t the most effective way to help a child think biblically.

Our curriculum must be God-centered and Christ-centered.  So often, we fall into the cultural trap of being me-centered, even in our children’s ministry curriculum.  My favorite way of illustrating this is to ask people to search Google™ for “David and Goliath” and “lesson” and see what comes up for the lesson aim.  Here’s one I found: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, God can still help you do important things.” What’s wrong?  It’s me-centered.  To think rightly, our children must learn to think in a God-centered way.  Instead, this lesson aim should be: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still help God in important things.”  Here’s another: “We can do anything when God is on our side.”  This one is not only me-centered, it’s simply a lie, maybe coming out of a misinterpretation of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  A better lesson aim is, “We can do what God wants us to when we are on His side.”

Our curriculum must build a truth foundation sequentially.  In preschool and early elementary ages, we need to build a truth foundation for how kids think.  Children think concretely at that age.  That is a great word: concretely.  Think concrete = foundation.  Those are the years when children can learn the most, so pour in basic biblical truths.

Our curriculum must include repetition.  Most of us are deeply persuaded that 4 x 9 = 36.  How did we get to think that way?  Because first we repeated it over and over until we memorized it.  Then, we tested it with story problems and found it really was true.  In learning God’s truth, just like math, that simple approach serves us well.  Teach truth; repeat it often.  Review more than once or twice.  Quiz them.  Build from year to year.  Lessons that include a memory verse that is learned one time then never reviewed probably aren’t effective in influencing thinking.

Our curriculum must include participation in thinking.  Being a spectator has little influence on thinking; being a player does. This means asking “why” and “how.”  It means small groups for discussion.  It means one-on-one interaction between teacher and student.  It means testing and experiencing the principles being taught.  It means involvement.

Don’t first look for the most attractive, latest, greatest curriculum.  Be enough of a student of the heart to seek curriculum that is effective in influencing the thinking of a child.  After all, as a child thinks in his heart, so is he.

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About the Author

Larry Fowler serves as executive director of global networking for Awana and KidzMatter. Both organizations are committed to helping churches and parents raise children and youth to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. For nearly 30 years, Larry has pursued this mission in a range of capacities, including local-church Awana volunteer, missionary, speaker, author, teacher and executive director of international ministries, program development and training. Larry is an author of four books – Rock-Solid Children’s Ministry, Rock-Solid Volunteers, Raising a Modern-Day Joseph and Rock-Solid Kids – and a speaker to audiences worldwide both inside and outside of Awana. He is also a recognized expert in issues facing families and churches in the 21st century. Larry and his wife, Diane, have two grown children and five grandchildren. The Fowlers reside in Riverside, California. awana.org