A child in North Korea explains to her teacher that she did well on a test "by God's grace." Later, she arrives home to find her parents have disappeared.
Such stories in a new Vacation Bible School curriculum from persecution ministry Voice of the Martyrs have some children's spirituality experts questioning whether it encourages children's faith or burdens them with inappropriate information.
Launched last year, the ministry's Kids of Courage curriculum "came about as a result of churches' desire and [our] desire to tell the story of persecuted Christians in an age-appropriate way," said media director Todd Nettleton.
Church for the Harvest in Alexandria, two hours northwest of Minneapolis, used the curriculum last summer. Children's director Katy Kiger is a former missionary to South Africa and liked that Kids of Courage includes stories from China, Egypt, India, Nigeria, and North Korea.
For example, stories from Nigeria talk about Muslims converting to Christianity as well as terrorists attacking churches.
Many of the children in Kiger's program attend public schools where they face a milder form of antagonism. Still, she said, "It was awesome to hear how kids talk about their own struggles."
"The kids here need to know what is up in the world today," said Jalil Dawood, pastor of the Arab Church of Dallas, whose members and their families have faced death and severe persecution in their home countries. His church hasn't used the program, but Dawood says it is important for American children to learn about the challenges of being a Christian in other parts of the world.
It is important for children to confront difficult or challenging topics, says Scottie May, professor of Christian spirituality at Wheaton College and co-author of Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey. However, she said, "I have concerns about materials that might introduce pain, torture, and death to a young child without a context for them."
Ginny Olson, director of youth ministry for the Covenant Church's Northwest Conference, agrees. She said, "There is no way a teacher can be attuned to the differing levels of sensitivity of a group of children. Little kids need to experience scary stories in the presence of a parent who can protect them."
Still, telling stories of God's presence with his people who suffer on his behalf has a long history. "Jewish children heard the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego," said Holly Allen, professor of Christian ministries at John Brown University and author of Nurturing Children's Spirituality. Stories of suffering in the mission field have been told to children in recent centuries.
"Six- or seven-year-olds can hear and process these stories," Allen said. "We have mis-represented God's work in the world when we avoid telling stories where God does not save. The deeper, more foundational truth must be told: God will not abandon us, even in our death."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on youth ministry include:
Apologetics Makes a Comeback Among Youth | Youth ministry sees the return of reasons. (August 31, 2011)
Setting Up Camp Afresh | Christian camping is revamping but not out of the woods yet. (August 11, 2009)
It's Never Been About the Abstinence Pledge Itself | Researchers should ask what causes teens to abstain, not whether a public vow is a magic bullet. (January 23, 2009)
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