I’d like to share some resources that have helped me over the years while working with children and families in church ministry contexts.
You’ll notice one book in this list that seems out of place (the Jonestown one). I included that as a narrative about how NOT to lead families and children in ministry. It is a warning to all of us who work with children to steer clear of the vices that plummet leaders into grave destructiveness.
Jerome Berryman. Godly Play. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together. New York: Harper, 1954.
Diana Garland. Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide, Second Ed. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
Jeff Guinn. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Catherine Stonehouse. Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Teacher Tip: How can I help these kids best learn what I’m teaching?
Notice I didn’t say, “How should I teach the content of my topic to these children?” There’s a big difference there. Do you see it?
One is teacher-focused. The other is learner-focused.
Your work as someone who teaches kids in any capacity is not to show off your knowledge to them – or even to put on a good show and entertain them. And it is not to simply download information into their little brains as if you have all the knowledge and they don’t.
Ask yourself, “What is the end-goal here? And what is the most effective way to help these students move from where they are to this end-goal?”
Think about the children: who they are, the context of their community, culture, and family life. Think about how you can best translate the content of your teaching into their world, their minds, and their actions. And do so humbly, admitting that you have a lot to learn from them as well. Then follow up on it and see if they are grasping and living out your hoped-for-outcomes.
Finally, take what you’re learning from that process and do it all over again with the new knowledge you gained from that first cycle. Repeat.
I’m so proud of the first class of students of Camp Carnival RVA! This was the first circus arts camp of its kind ever in the state of Virginia. Every day for two weeks, these kids got to “run away” from home and join a variety of instructors who taught them the ins and outs of circus skills. Don’t worry, their parents/guardians dropped them off and picked them up at the end of each day.
One day, I was driving to the arts camp with my family in the car. Our six-year old asked, “Where are we going, Daddy?”
I said, “To my workshop.”
She said, “Where you build things?”
Then my wife chimed in and said, “Yes, where Daddy builds jugglers!”
I love Sarah’s answer. Myself and several other circus arts instructors had the privilege of building young circus artists. What a joy to share our passions with the younger generation and see the future of variety arts innovating and flourishing.
Here in Richmond, Virginia, there happens to be a large enough contingency of variety artists to sustain a camp like this. Heidi Rugg from Barefoot Puppets taught puppetry. Heather Bailey of Host of Sparrows Aerial Circus taught silks and aerial. Seasoned clown performer Christopher Hudert taught clowning. Natalie Kane of Circular Expressions led the students in hooping. And yours truly got to teach juggling and diabolo workshops. The day camp consisted of classes in the various arts and culminated with a demonstration of skills for the parents on the final day of camp.
Enjoy some pics of camp!
In a skit in Texas I had an Aggie fan get beat up, only to be passed over by two more Aggie fans and then compassionately helped by a Longhorn fan.
I was warned in Mississippi that this would open up a can of worms by bringing up these two opposing fandoms in the skit.
BUT THAT IS THE POINT!
Jesus was opening up a can of worms by telling a story where the bad guy is the good guy. He was trying to show that your neighbor is the person that society tells you is unclean.
In Mississippi, the kids got all fired up for their “team” by shouting and screaming in support when they saw their respective characters in the story. But when the Bulldog knelt down to help the Rebel, it got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. They got it. They understood that even our enemy is our neighbor and that people we think are different than us are not excluded from the command to neighborly love. Our neighbor is NOT just our team, our street, our gang, our state, our country, our skin color. Our neighbor is, well, everyone.
Usually, when someone says “Samaritan” in today’s North American culture, they’re talking about a stranger helping a stranger. We hear about “Samaritans” in the news who stopped on the highway to help someone who got in an accident or other similar stories.
That’s a good start (strangers helping strangers), but it doesn’t capture the whole meaning of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus was talking about an enemy coming to the aid of Jesus’ Jewish audience.
The Samaritans in the first Century were viewed by Jesus’ Jewish audience as half-breed scum. Contact with them was to be avoided (John 4:9). This is why it was so shocking and revolutionary when Jesus even spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
So when an “expert in the law” wanted to feel good about himself for obeying all of God’s commands, he asked Jesus for some clarification about the definition of one’s neighbor (as in, love your neighbor as yourself).
Jesus replied with the famous story:
A man (presumably a Jewish man) goes walking down the road and gets attacked by thieves. He is left for half dead and then gets passed over by a Jewish priest and a Levite (two people who would be expected to help).
Then comes the Samaritan. And this perceived low-life turns out to be the hero who helps.
Jesus shocked his audience by making the enemy the good guy.
Jesus asked the expert in the law who the neighbor was. And he replied, “the one who had mercy on him.” He couldn’t even gather himself to say, “the Samaritan!”
Jesus tells the expert (and all of us), “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Try it out with your group. Find two opposing groups (the more they hate one another the better) in your local context (north of river vs south of the river, this team vs that team, etc.) and tell the story using those groups. Make the guy who gets beat up (and the two passerbys) the majority group in your audience. Then have someone who is perceived by your audience as an enemy be the Samaritan in the story.
It’s bold. But then again, Jesus was bold and revolutionary. The least we can do is try to retell his stories with some contextual accuracy.
So here’s a way to teach a Bible lesson using a fidget spinner….
What Really Lasts?
Bring and show off as many of these fad toys as you can find (show pictures if you don’t have the actual toy):
- the hula hoop
- Lincoln Logs
- the pet rock
- the Rubix Cube
- the slap bracelet
- Beanie Babies
- Super Soakers
- Razor Scooter
- Silly Bandz
- the water bottle flip
- and now……the fidget spinner!!!
Then, if you have some skills, show off a few fidget spinner tricks or have a volunteer come up and do some.
Then read Isaiah 40:6b-8:
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (NIV).
So the Bible says that our human existence here on earth is very temporary. People come and people go. The same can be said about the things we make – buildings, clothes, airplanes, and even toys! All these toys come and go. Their fame will only last for a short time. Fads come and go, but the Word of the Lord stands forever….
You see, God is eternal. He has no beginning and no end. The same can be said about His Word – which we have in the form of the Bible.
Don’t put your trust and your joy and your excitement in these temporary man-made things (like fads), put your hope and passion into God and His Word. His Word will last forever, long past these toy fads. So let’s learn from Him and His Word!
Feel free to show this video as part of the lesson – I combine the fads of 2016 and 2017!
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Want to learn how to juggle? Here are the basics!….
The fad of 2016 meets the fad of 2017! It took me a while to finally get this combo trick, but the patience paid off….
I just finished a new book by Jeff Guinn and published by Simon and Schuster (2017) called The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Before reading it, I had been aware of the general story of what happened in Guyana in 1978 and how a crazy cult leader somehow led over 900 people to their deaths in a religious-socialist commune carved out of the jungle.
But that was about all I knew. Guinn’s book takes the reader on a journey that explores the upbringing of Jim Jones and the story of the genesis, growth, and dramatic end of Peoples Temple. It is essentially a lesson in leadership: a warning as to what can happen when someone with strong leadership skills can horribly abuse their position of power to destructive ends. It came as no surprise that the poisonous problems that eventually led to a literal poisonous death for nearly a thousand people lay in one man: Jim Jones.
Just like the cyanide-laced powdered fruit drink (Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid) that killed the cult, so also Jones himself was a mix of positive charm and destructive abuse. On the one hand, Jones boldly stood for racial equality, raising up the poor, and fighting injustice. Those things, along with his charismatic oratory skills and pseudo-pentecostal “healing” performances are what drew so many people to follow and adore him. But on the other hand, Jones was a dictatorial demagogue who stopped at nothing to ensure that his adoring followers remained wholly committed to what he called “the cause” and ultimately, to himself. As his following grew, so did his ego, his harem of mistresses, his drug abuse, and his physical and sexual abuse towards others (including raping a young teenage girl).
Towards the end, Jones had become so drugged, delusional, and apocalyptic in his thinking that it took very little to ignite his wrath. So when a US congressman (Leo Ryan) visited Jonestown to check on some of his California constituents whose relatives were concerned their loved ones may have been held against their will, Jones was convinced the world was against him. Ryan’s visit started smoothly, but quickly descended into a fiasco when some of the residents wanted to defect and go home with the congressman. Tensions flared, Ryan and some others were murdered while trying to leave the area, and Jones convened a group meeting to end it all before the US government retaliated by (supposedly) torturing all their children. 918 people died that day. Just a few dozen survived due to various circumstances (for example, the Jonestown basketball team was out of town that day playing another team and did not drink the poison). Two men (Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes) managed to slip into the jungle during the drinking ceremony and lived to tell valuable eye-witness accounts of the tragedy.
Jones had all the flags of a cult leader who was destined to go down in a ball of flames. What nobody saw, though, was the sheer number of people he was going to take down with him in his ball of flames on November 18, 1978. People have correctly pointed out that this was not a mass suicide, but rather a mass murder. Several hundred of the dead included infants and children who were force-fed the poison drink.
Guinn’s book reads like a thriller. I was immersed in the narrative from beginning to the end. What in the world led to this terrible end? Guinn attempts to answer that question by simply telling the story. I had to stop every few chapters and remind myself that this was a true story. But truth is stranger than fiction. And Jim Jones certainly did some strange things (like planting assistants in the audience to wave bloody chicken gizzards in the air and claim it was “cancer” that had just miraculously left the body). It is so sad, tragic, and sobering. It is a constant reminder how not to lead people. It is a story that shows just how destructive the human ego can become – especially when mixed into a poisonous concoction of lies, drugs, abuse….and a little colored sugar to make it look good on the outside.
Curt Nelson has a video that shows kids eating from a bag of M&M’s, not knowing that there are skittles hidden in the bags. The reactions are fun and it makes for a good intro to a Bible lesson about how we should “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Check out the video here:
I do a lot of large group events. I’m always on the lookout for games that are fun and easy for huge crowds. When people come together in large groups, there is a lot of potential energy that can be tapped in the form of socialization, laughter, competition, and shared human experiences.
So here are some of the resources I have found to be particularly helpful in leading fun experiences for crowds of people:
This organization creates and sells (at super affordable rates) crowd games that you can run on your computer and then project on the big screen. Browse around at all they have to offer – http://crowdcontrolgames.com/
How about crowd thumb wrestling?! Invented by monochrom and officially called “massive Multiplayer Thumb-Wrestling.” Here is that game led by a game designer on the TED stage….
You can also lead your crowd in making the sounds of a thunderstorm. This video shows a choir on stage doing it. But you can just as easily lead an audience of any size in the same exercise:
I have also compiled a blog post category of group games over the years on this blog. There are over twenty entries and growing, so read through all these great crowd game ideas such as “Heads or Tails” and “Bring Me This.” Click here.
Juggling is really old.
Did you know that images of jugglers have been discovered on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is about 4,000 years old? Near the town of modern-day Minya, Egypt, you can visit the Beni Hasan tombs. In tomb number 15, you can see an unmistakable illustration of multiple women juggling balls or rocks of some sort (some to themselves and some with one another). Researcher Billy Gillen believes the juggling had some sort of religious funerary significance to it – like an offering of performance art made on behalf of the deceased (Juggler’s World, Vol. 38, No. 2). The first image is a darkening of the drawing. The second image is a still shot of a video someone took inside the actual tomb.
Other depictions of juggling throughout history have been discovered as well, like this illustration of a juggler on a tomb wall in China that is nearly 2,000 years old (Dahuting Tomb, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China):
You can actually see the newly acquired skill of juggling show up as grey matter in a brain scan!
In 2004, a group of scholars published an article in the journal Nature that described how they found new areas of grey matter on brain scans of people who had recently learned how to juggle. Basically, they did brain scans on a group of people. They then split the group into two parts and taught one part of the group how to juggle over a three-month period. The people who learned how to juggle then showed new grey matter in a particular part of the brain while the non-jugglers showed no new grey matter. Furthermore, the new jugglers intentionally let their new skill fade away for the study. They stopped practicing for three months. A final scan was done at that point and the grey matter had faded into a smaller size of grey matter!
This means that when it comes to our brains, if we don’t use it, we literally lose it (that is, the muscle memory we had built up when originally learning something). It also shows what is called the neuro-plasticity of our brains. Our brains can grow and learn new things throughout our entire lives (and conversely lose things that we stop working on). Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Here is the reference for the article: Bogdan Draganski, Christian Gaser, Volker Busch, Gerhard Schuierer, Ulrich Bogdahn & Arne May. “Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training.” Nature 427, 311-312 (22 January 2004).
Juggling is a powerful force of art.
Pretty much all art has the power to communicate messages in remarkable ways. I have found that the art of juggling is no exception. This does not mean we should necessarily “exploit” art for the purpose of communication. Often, art stands on its own as great art with no intended message. But if I want to teach children about the solar system, character development, gravity, or about loving one’s neighbor, I have found that juggling will not only hold their attention for the message, but it also helps them visualize a point and even retain it for a long period of time.
Let me give an example: One of my first shows when I was just starting out was a Parent’s Night Out event at a church in Marion, Indiana (Hanfield United Methodist Church). I was a young college student at Taylor University just down the road. I was responsible for entertaining of room of about 30 or 40 kids on Valentine’s Day evening while their parents went out on a date. I performed my show, the kids loved it, the parents came back, and everyone went home happy.
So happy, in fact, that the event organizer invited me back the following year for the same event on Valentine’s Day. I was still young and new at performing, so this was my first repeat customer. I figured it had been an entire year since my last show, so there would be no problem performing the same routine…right?
I was wrong. I started my show that second year and noticed that many of the same kids from the previous year were in the crowd. How did I know? They started feeding me the lines of my stories and jokes before the words came out of my mouth! They had remembered my words A YEAR LATER. I was dumbfounded. What if kids could retain everything they learn in school and church the same way?
I realized two truths while performing that show: Number one, juggling is a powerful tool for teaching as it somehow causes children to remember whatever you’re saying with the show with amazing precision. Number two, I needed to work on some new material!
So I often present some sort of story or message along with my show. It might be a Biblical story for a faith-based group or a topic related to hard work and character development for a school assembly. I also perform shows that are strictly entertainment. Those are fun too, because we all know that sometimes, the best thing to do is just relax and laugh without a particular message or agenda being presented.
Which brings me to my final story: I once was asked to perform for a group of mostly Arab children in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem at one of the schools there. The year was 2000, and I was a study-abroad student that semester at Jerusalem University College. What became known as The Second Intafada flared up while I was there. It was a period of intense fighting between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters.
My host was one of the school’s administrators and showed me around a village that had been destroyed by the fighting the night before I came. These children lived and saw war all around them. I humbly stood before them and performed my juggling show. They laughed and had a great time. So did I.
After the show, my host came up to me and said, “Thank you so much, Jesse. This is exactly what these kids needed. When they go outside for recess, they play funeral. They line up in a procession and pretend to carry a coffin and march through the playground. What you did today made them laugh and brought smiles to their faces. Thank you.”
Play funeral?! Wow. And here I am, just a silly juggler from another country doing something that I enjoy doing. I didn’t have all the answers to their troubles and I certainly don’t have all the answers to war. But the little bit that I did by doing a juggling show somehow helped, even if just in a small way. The small things we do (whether juggling or something else) can be more powerful than we ever know.
Do you juggle? If so, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about juggling in your life? If you don’t juggle, what are some surprising things you’ve learned about life from your interests, hobbies, and work?