If you have been a Baptist in the United States over the last 50 years, it is likely that you have heard of the discipleship organization known as AWANA. Not only are they a popular discipleship program for Baptist churches, but according to their web site they are used in over 100 denominations worldwide. Pray’s Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia (where I am the pastor of families), has used AWANA for some two decades. Hundreds of children have learned the Roman’s Road, John 3:16, Genesis 1:1, Psalm 19:1, the books of the Bible, the 10 Commandments and a whole host of other biblical information during this time. What a blessing to have God’s Word hidden in the hearts of so many over the past 20 years. However, as is with every good program, they should regularly be reevaluated. We shouldn’t just do something because “that is the way we’ve always done it.” Every program or every tool that we use needs to be measured by its usefulness in any given season. There are times when a once good tool is found to no longer be as effective as it once was. This is part of the reevaluation process.
As I, as well as other pastors and key leaders, have been thinking, evaluating, and praying about our discipleship and family ministry we have come to the decision that it is time for a new season in the life of our church. As we looked at the scope and sequence of what we believe would be the best for our kids and their families we came to the conclusion that it was time to retire our AWANA ministry. Our next season of ministry will focus not just on scripture memory but theology as well. Instead of simply memorizing scriptures from different parts of the Bible each week, we want to help our children know the Word in a more systematic way. . . . in a more historical way. We want our children to understand the “whole counsel of God.” Our new ministry will help them to do that as well as teach them how to rightly interpret the scriptures in their context.
So, what caused us to make this shift away from AWANA? Well, there are some practical reasons and some theological reasons for making the shift.
The Practical Reasons:
Just to be honest, this pandemic has hurt us. We knew that this year was going to be very difficult on our Wednesday ministries because some of our volunteers are not even back at church yet. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it is simply a reality. Because of this reason, in God’s providence, we felt like this was the right time to make the changes that we had been talking about for a few years. The pandemic has caused us to fast-forward those plans. As we looked at our children’s ministry landscape, we noticed a few things that have led us to this point that I would like to share.
- The sheer number of volunteers needed to make this ministry run smoothly.
We are not a massive church. On any given Wednesday night we run 100-125 total people. On average there are at least 25 volunteers needed for AWANA. Many have been working in AWANA for two decades (what a blessing). Yet, in that time some have expressed their desire to also be in the adult class. Many of our AWANA workers also work with children on the Lord’s Day and this keeps them from any meaningful small group opportunities with adults. With our new format, we will likely only need half the number of volunteers. We consider this to be a win for our people in light of our current circumstances.
- We desire to streamline our children’s ministry so as to be intentional about connecting what they are learning.
When we looked at what all our children were learning we saw a very sporadic approach to their learning. There was intention behind it, but it was a very broad approach. There is a disconnect between what our kids are learning in AWANA and in their Sunday School class. If they went to Children’s Church (K – 2nd grade) they got something different. When they were in corporate worship and or family worship . . . you guessed it . . . all different. We understand that children are able to take in a lot of different information on different subjects. They do it all the time in school. However, it is our desire to streamline this for our children. We want to connect what we are doing on Wednesdays to what they are getting in our sports ministry, our Wednesday night ministry, and in the home for family worship. We want a more systematic approach for our kids and families instead of a more sporadic approach that we have been doing. While these are some of the more practical reasons, there are also theological reasons for this shift away from AWANA as well.
The Theological Reasons:
- A doctrinal shift
Over the past few years, we have seen that some of AWANA’s convictions do not line up with ours. Are they heretical positions? By and large, they are not. Yet, they are some concerning secondary doctrines that we very much disagree with. Though their “What We Believe” section on their website seems to be broadly orthodox, their social media presence appears to be heading into the deep waters of the Social Gospel movement. One article that sheds light on this subtle shift was entitled, “How to Talk (With Our Kids) About Racial Equality.” In this article, the author props up Martin Luther King, Jr. as a near hero of the faith. While I am grateful that the Lord used King for some much needed social reform in the United States, I cannot, as a Christian, look at him as a hero of the faith due to his liberal theology and his known marital infidelity. Even more troubling than the lauding of King is the suggested reading at the end of this article. The author, and AWANA (by virtue of allowing the article to be published), believes that James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” is quality Christian literature. The truth is – it’s heresy. James Cone is the founder of the modern “Black Liberation Theology,” which is a false gospel, and antithetical to the true gospel. It is troubling that AWANA would tout this as something profitable for Christians to glean from. This is just one example of why we cannot support these decisions and this new direction from AWANA.
- We want our kids to not just know the Bible, but the God of the Bible.
We are told that it is good to “hide the Word in our heart” (Psalm 119:11), but we are told to do more. In 1 Corinthians 14:19 Paul says, “In the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” In Acts 18:25 Apollos said that, “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord.” The word “instruct” in the Greek is katecheo. This is where we get the word “catechism” from in English. Catechism simply means to teach Biblical truth in a systematic fashion in the form of a list of questions and answers to be memorized. If we put the commands of Paul together and marry them with his admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13, (“Follow the pattern of sound words which you heard from me“), we find the purpose of the catechism. We want to help our families to hide the word of God in their hearts, but we also want them to be “instructed in the way of the Lord” in light of the whole counsel of God.
- Catechisms have long been used by the church to teach the Word and theology.
There are several historic catechisms that we could choose from. Have you ever heard the question asked, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Many Christians over the past 300 plus years have answered this question in the same way. Why do so many know this answer? It is because it is the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (one of the most popular catechisms ever written for Protestants). There is a reason why the church has used this method of teaching and Bible study for hundreds of years. These catechisms are great tools for helping to hide God’s Word in the hearts of God’s people and they provide a means of understanding deep theological truth in a methodical way. Our plan is to use them in this way as well here at Pray’s Mill. We will use, “A Catechism for Boys and Girls” for our K – 3rd-grade children and the “The Baptist Catechism” for 4th – 6th grade as we start our new season of discipleship on Wednesday nights this fall.
AWANA has been good for us over the past two decades. Yet, in God’s providence, we believe that it is time for something new for our families.
The New Season: T&G Kids
Our new Wednesday class will be called T&G Kids. What exactly does T&G Kids stand for? T&G stands for “Truth and Grace.” Founders Ministry produced three books called Truth and Grace. These three books are meant for three different age brackets. Our plan is to use book 1 and 2 for kindergarten – 6th-grade children. Each book has, the catechisms (with scriptures that coincide with the catechisms), selected Bible memory verses, Bible basics (10 commandments, Lord’s prayer, historic creeds), hymns (old and modern) for use in family worship, and a worksheet to track the children’s progress.
Our plan is for each child to receive a book. Each Wednesday the child will come prepared with their Bible, book, memorized catechism question and answer, and their verse memorized as well. Each Wednesday we will meet for an exciting time filled with interactive games, Bible lessons based on the catechism question, and a time for our adults to hone in and help our kids learn their catechisms. As we do all of this it is our hope that in this process our parents will use this opportunity to ask these catechism questions to their children during family worship each week. This will not only help the child to memorize the catechism but it will help the parents as well. Part of our jobs as pastors is to “present every person mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We believe that T&G Kids will help us to accomplish this for our people.
At the end of the day, our job as the church is to do our part in fulfilling the Great Commission. Part of that commission is the maturing of disciples (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. . .”). There are a variety of tools that can help us accomplish that goal. AWANA was a successful tool for many years in the life of Pray’s Mill to do just that. However, it is now time for us to walk away from AWANA as we seek to continue to fulfill the Great Commission. The right tool for this season we believe is an old tool . . .the tool of the Q&A session . . . the tool of the catechism. It is now time for T&G Kids to be used to help our families grow in the knowledge and holiness of God. May the Lord use it for his glory, the growth of our families spiritually, and the Kingdom of God as a whole.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B. Burrell