I have a distinct memory of a child who was in the kids ministry at a church where my wife and I served in California many years ago. We were young first-time parents at the time, and the care and handling of our own infant daughter was something that we were both very concerned with and aware of. We were intentional to feed her a healthy balance of yogurts and cereals and fruits and vegetables in appropriate quantities and at the right times in order to help her grow physically strong, develop on schedule, and stay in good health. It was within this context that we encountered the Coke-and-Cheetos kid, and simultaneously became acutely aware that different people measure success in childrearing by different standards. The first time this child was dropped off at Sunday School with a breakfast consisting of half a family-size bag of Cheetos and a spill-proof cup filled with Coca-Cola we were … surprised. But, hey, everyone has a rough morning occasionally, and sometimes you just feed kids whatever you have handy. I get it. It soon became evident, however, that this was not a fluke; this was the norm. The little girl was perfectly happy. She was more than willing to indulge in this chip-and-soda breakfast. She was also proud to show off her orange-stained fingers and the tell-tale prints they left on everything she touched.
Would you be surprised to hear that this child had a difficult time concentrating at church? That she could not sit still to listen to the lesson? That she didn’t retain much of the Bible story content? Would you be shocked to hear that she swung from bouncing off the walls at the beginning of class because she was on a sugar and red-dye rush to crashing into a whiny coma by the end of Children’s Church? Would you be stunned to hear that she displayed behavioral challenges that distracted and disrupted others? No. You wouldn’t be surprised at all. Why? Because you know that what you put into a kid directly affects what comes out of that kid. Sugar, caffeine, and artificial orange food dye are not exactly the recommended input if you desire health and growth and concentration and general wellness.
For the record: I believe strongly that we need to extend all the grace we can to families who are trying to make it through another rough day. My purpose in sharing this is not to shame or belittle this family. I share this example to make the point that what we feed our children directly affects their health and behavior and development as they grow. Please also note that the responsibility for this falls on the adults, not on the child. Of course, kids want Coke and Cheetos and candy and cake for breakfast. They are kids. Children don’t understand that there can be negative long-term effects of a fast-food/junk-food diet. It is we, the adults who care for them, who have to take responsibility to teach our children good and healthy habits because we know it will be far better for them in the long run.
While we may shake our heads at the literal nutritional practice of feeding kids Coke and Cheetos for breakfast, many kids ministries dish out the spiritual equivalent in regard to the biblical diet we feed to kids in our churches. It can be tempting for leaders to substitute candied and caffeinated attractional programming for solid meaty spiritual truth, believing that they can draw in more kids with a Coke-and-Cheetos kids program. Be very careful of this potentially dangerous mindset. But we must be aware of the risk that this approach might ultimately do more harm than good. Attractional junk-food content lacks the real spiritual nutrients that real kids need to grow real faith in the real world. Kids need a clear and true understanding that God rules, we sinned, God provided a way for forgiveness through Jesus who gives us as forgiveness and salvation as a free gift, and that we must respond to what God has done through Jesus. They need to understand that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And they need to grasp the power of the truth that we do not behave in good ways to earn God’s favor, but that our good behavior is as a result of being changed from the inside out. The goal of our kids ministries must not be to produce Christian-looking kids but to generate mature adult believers who don’t walk away from the church after they leave their youth group. What we teach matters.
James 3:1 warns of the additional burden of responsibility we carry as teachers of God’s Word. We must take seriously our call as ministers of the gospel to teach Jesus to our kids. If we have loads of fun but sugarcoat the message, we will have missed the mark. Look around your kid’s wing to see what color fingerprints your kids are leaving.
Chuck Peters is Director of Operations for LifeWay Kids. A graduate of Columbia Bible College, Chuck has served vocationally & voluntarily in Student and Children’s Ministry for many years.