What can we learn about God and our Christian faith from children?
"For me it was just learning again about the heart of God from the heart of a child," shares the Rev. Jacob Armstrong of Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, who interviewed 59 children about their faith. "They just did it a lot better than we usually do, I think."
In this episode of the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast, we talk to Armstrong and Jennifer Rodia, Chief Communications Officer at United Methodist Communications, about those interviews. There are lots of laughs and surprises, but there is also much to learn from the children.
"Their Words. Our Beliefs."
- "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors." explained by the children, and a behind-the-scenes overview of the campaign.
- Watch the "Children's questions for God" videos.
- Learn more about the national advertising campaigns of The United Methodist Church.
- Providence United Methodist Church, Mt. Juliet, TN when Jacob serves as lead pastor.
- Books by Jacob Armstrong at Cokesbury.com.
Join the conversation
- Email our host Joe Iovino about this episode, ideas for future topics, or any other thoughts you would like to share.
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More Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes
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This episode posted in June 2017.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Today I’m pleased to be in the studio with Jennifer Rodia, the Chief Communications Office here at United Methodist Communications, and Jacob Armstrong, the pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Welcome, you guys.
Jennifer Rodia: Thanks for having us.
The Rev. Jacob Armstrong: Thanks, Joe. Glad to be here.
Joe: Today we’re talking about the 2017 advertising campaign for the United Methodist Church, that’s called “Our Beliefs. Their Words.” It features a series of interviews with children. So Jennifer, I want to start with you. Tell me a little bit about the idea behind the campaign.
Jennifer: I think there’s something special about using children to help tell our story and to help craft our story, but it’s important to note that we didn’t give them these words. That’s why we call the campaign “Our Beliefs. Their Words.” because none of these children were coached. We went to local churches and invited children to participate if they wanted to. Then when they arrived on our set, they met Jacob, but they came in cold.
Jacob: Yes, definitely. That was one of the best parts about it—hearing what they would say and where we had to react from their beautiful words and their beautiful hearts.
Joe: How many kids was it and what age were the kids?
Jennifer: We had a total of 59 children participate. They represented ages 5 all the way up to 12 was the oldest. Multiple ethnicities from multiple churches in the area, and just all kinds of energy and fun. There were a couple that took you for a ride there, Jacob.
Jacob: We never knew what to expect. Some of them would come in completely ready to talk. Others would want to play. Others would be distracted by some of the cameras in the room. I definitely learned a lot.
Joe: It looks like you had a lot of fun with the kids. There are some clips I’ve seen in some of the videos of kids doing cartwheels, and a light saber was involved at one point.
Jacob: Yeah, we had a blast. The team there allowed me to just be real with them. Sometimes a kid would come in, and to be most comfortable they wanted to go play with a dinosaur. So, I got to sit down on the floor and play with the dinosaur. We did have a wonderful light saber duel that took place.
But really it was just allowing them to feel comfortable, and then allowing them to share their hearts out of the questions. If we needed to take a break and loosen them up a bit we could, but as Jenn said the really beautiful part for me was just to hear them share about the church, about God, the questions that they had. It was really cool.
Joe: What were some of the things that you heard that were moving?
Jacob: We’ve had one section that’s already come out that was about Easter. It particularly struck me to hear them talking about what they thought about life and new life and particularly miracles. Several of these kids had really personal stories of how they had experienced miracles in their lives, or even where they had prayed for miracles and they didn’t quite see it go the way that they had hoped. So in other words, just like you and me, but to hear it from their kind of pure, authentic place took our breath away at times. Sometimes we’d have to stop and just pause and just let it sink in.
Jennifer: There’s something, too, about the assurance that some of these children walked in with. We know as adults we wrestle and we have doubts and we have been clouded by all of our experiences in our lifetimes. These kids are coming in and so many of them just have such an absolute certainty of God’s presence with them. That was really wonderful not only to see and experience, but I mean, it touched me. I’ve thought back to that multiple times.
Joe: I’ve heard you talk about that, saying something along the lines of that they knew that God was with them, and that’s something that we, as adults, sometimes forget. That really moved you.
Jennifer: Absolutely. It’s one of the themes that we’ve tried to draw out for the piece that we’re trying to do around back to school. You know, we know that when kids are going back to school, that’s a challenging time. I mean, it’s exciting. There’s all kinds of wonderful experiences in parts of that. But it’s also a little unnerving. It’s new. As we thought about, where is the church’s place in this? Where is God’s place is this? We send our kids off to this new environment where we’re not with them during the day. But who is? God can be with them.
As we’ve thought about, just looking through their interviews and pulling together the pieces that made sense for this, we’ve got this message that the church has a role in that, too. If we can help kids remember who their identity is in Christ, they are beloved children of God, no matter what else is happening in the world, then they have that assurance as they go into any new environment. They can not only feel more secure themselves, but hopefully reach out and touch the kids around them.
Joe: We know what we’re talking about here, but I’m a little concerned that we haven’t mentioned how these videos are gonna be used. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that? Tell us how that’s gonna happen.
Jennifer: Right. So the structure of this campaign and what we’re trying to accomplish over all is that we will end up with multiple messages all told by the children, that talk about different themes. We look at complex religious ideas told through kids’ words. In doing this, we hopefully get to invite people who are outside the church and who might not realize, or might not be able to always find God in their present moment, that this might give them a glimpse or a window into how they might connect with a church. How they might connect with God. How they might be part of that story.
Joe: One of the beautiful things about this is that sometimes we make faith stuff so complicated. You alluded to this Jacob a little bit earlier, but it came out really simply as the kids talked about it.
Jacob: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. If you had—which would have been a bad idea—used someone like me to share, I think… So often we have barriers of language things that we use that keep those who might not be accustomed to our language or be outside of the church. As Jennifer was saying, the kids are able to speak in a way that just makes sense. It comes from the heart. Then everybody can understand.
For me, like I was saying, it was a reminder of just the beauty, the simplicity of the faith of the child. That doesn’t in anyway mean it’s less intellectual or less deep or anything. It was deeper, but we really felt like and are seeing that it is connecting with people of all different backgrounds, of all different church backgrounds, of all different levels of amounts they may go to church.
Joe: One of the videos that’s out right now is one on questions. It seems like you just asked the kids, What would you like to ask God?
Jacob: That was it. I think we did it for almost every kid that came in. We would ask them, “If you could ask God one question, what would you want to ask God?” They ranged from the very theological questions of the problem of pain or why do bad things happen to good people, all the way to ‘Is my dog gonna be with me in heaven?’—which actually is a deep theological question.
Joe: The one I liked was, ‘Why did God makes bees?’ That’s a good question. Why did God make bees?
Jacob: Yes, I know that child.
Joe: I think you do.
Jennifer: You hit on something there, too. That was part of what was fun for us, is that these really were real kids, and Jacob and I each had our own kids invited into this. I had no idea what mine would say. I’m sure that Jacob had some surprises in yours.
Jacob: Yes, my daughter does not like bees apparently…at all.
Joe: But you also got questions like ‘why are we here?’ Kind of ‘what’s the meaning of life’ questions.
Jacob: I think the thing that really struck me, you know, having different kids from different places and different backgrounds, some of these kids had seen and experienced things in their lives that I have not experienced, for which they have some deep questions. There were questions related to violence, questions related to race, things that are happening in our world in a real way that are on our children’s hearts in the same way they’re on ours, and the way they were able to articulate those questions—a question to God, not really to me. But I think it’s really compelling for all of us to consider. The kind of God that would hear that question and receive it.
Jennifer: That’s part of why we’ve been trying to choose these topics. One of the reasons we asked the kids these questions is that when we think about what it means to be United Methodist, we’re open to questions. We’re not a denomination that says this is exactly what we believe on every subject, and there’s no room for you to bring your own thought to this. We’re meant to come to God with our questions. We’re meant to work together in small groups and to go to the Bible and to look for answers. It’s the exploration that brings us deeper.
Jacob: That’s a great point. So often as adults, staying on the question thing, we want that tried-and-true, black-and-white answer. The children’s questions allow us to live in that mystery. As Jennifer was saying, it’s really a place that United Methodists can live and dwell. I think that’s something we would hope to get out, that we’re, you know, in the midst of a world where there is a lot of gray area that it’s okay to spend some time there, and spend some time there with God.
Joe: And one of the things that you asked the kids about as well was the ‘Open hearts, open minds, open doors.’ What were some of the things you learned from that about open hearts, minds and doors?
Jennifer Rodia, Joe Iovino, and the Rev. Jacob Armstrong chat on an episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape about what children can teach us about God, faith, and the church.
Jennifer: Well, as far as their ‘open doors’ they were very literal. You know, that is a great and wonderful thing about kids is that they can be so literal.
I think also, though, when it came to open hearts and open minds they absolutely blew us away with just their understanding of compassion and openness and what it means to truly love your neighbor, and who your neighbor is. Then there were moments when I was in the back because Jacob’s out there in front, and I would hear a child talking about this, and I would keep referring back to my paper. I’m like, surely we’ve gotten the age wrong. This child can’t be 8 years old. Somehow I’ve recorded this detail wrong, because I cannot believe the insights that I’m hearing.
And the passion with which they spoke. These were not just ideas that parents had passed along to them. These were things that… they owned these beliefs.
I think that one important point that came out in this for me, too, was remembering that children have their own ideas and purpose. We’re not waiting for them to become something. We’re all on a path to becoming something. Children already are created in God’s image. They’re already people with ideas and God communicates through them.
I know we see that all the time with our own children — I’m sure, Joe, you experience that — but it was a really wonderful reminder.
Jacob: I was just going to say I’ve noticed in my own life how often I underestimate the scope of the grace of God. As we were asking those questions about open hearts, open minds and open doors, the kids seemed to have a much more natural connection to just how wide and deep is the grace and openness of God and openness of the church.
Jennifer: And a really great understanding, too, of what love is and how we show love to one another, and that we should, that it shouldn’t really be this option. Especially again from some of those kids you referenced before who are dealing with challenging backgrounds. You could just tell from some of the things the kids referenced that not everybody has an idyllic life. We can’t make that assumption that we all have the same set of challenges, or that they’re all equal.
Jacob: I was thinking about some of the ways we were asking them to talk about even some of the biblical stories. They can make those come alive. Again, sort of hearing them talk from a place of not having 30 or 40 years of church experience. I remember asking one kid about the Christmas story, and he proceeded to tell me about, you know, the Red Rider BB gun and The Christmas Story movie.
Jacob: It helped to take away a lot of assumptions.
Joe: I like that kid.
Jacob: Me too.
Joe: One of the things I really like about this campaign is that it’s exactly that, that you’re listening to the children. So many times when we think about children and church it’s about teaching them. Bring them to Sunday school and teach them the stories, but this was a place where people were receiving and learning from the children. What were some of the things that you learned from the kids?
Jacob: That to me was the biggest part, just that receiving. I was a little bit part of forming this and shaping this, and we said we really want to just leave it in their court, have these open-ended questions. But we had to be honest, we kinda wondered, what would we get from that? We did have a hope for what would be communicated. Then we were just inundated with so many things, again, underestimating them.
I think for me it was just learning again about the heart of God, if that makes sense, from the heart of a child. Hearing their articulation of their faith. They just did it a lot better than we usually do, I think.
Jennifer: There was one little girl in particular who stands out. Joanna. Do you remember? She came in and her answers were just so amazing. It was actually hard to not use almost everything she said as we kept editing things together — we can’t have just this one child here. When she was done on set, Jacob, you stopped production and we just prayed.
Jacob: For one, I needed to take a breath, but I’d sensed just deeply a call on her life. You could almost see and sense her…. I don’t want to say…. I’m not a prophet, but I could see her leading a church, being the pastor of a church, doing amazing things in ministry. I can feel that even now just remembering her. It was a beautiful thing just to be able to stop and pray for her and with her. I encouraged her to go and tell her pastor, you know, about this experience.
Jennifer: And the whole crew felt it. It was great to see the people running the cameras like stop, bow their heads and just be part of it. Even just the space on set, felt like everybody knew something important was happening here. It wasn’t just another day in production.
Joe: There’s this interesting story in Scripture where Jesus says to the disciples that whoever welcomes a child welcomes me. I thought about that when I was watching some of the videos. As the kids were walking into the studio, who is walking in beside them? It sounds like what you heard often was the voice of God speaking through them.
Jacob: That welcoming part was probably one of my favorite parts. I got to be the one…. You know, this big door would open. They’d been on mom and dad, or being prepped or they were walking into this dark studio. I had the gift of being able to lead them through wires and cameras into this space. With many of them we walked them around that space and let them look at things and take in this moment. Because I do think we were seeking to honor them as children. I think they felt honored.
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I think that’s very much that we were wanting to welcome them as we would have welcomed Christ.
Joe: On a practical level, what have you learned about kind of listening to the kids in your lives? Or, what advice would you give to parents or grandparents and how they can do what you did in this studio in their living room?
Jacob: I know, Joe, you talked often on this podcast about spiritual practices, and I was thinking about that coming in. A spiritual practice that I gained from this was trying to listen to my kids. As Jennifer said, we had invited my girls. So I got to sit there in this much different situation with a light on them and really them talking and me listening. I reflected on how I never do that, as well as I wish. So a spiritual practice I’ve taken up is just trying to sit on the front porch and be a better listener to my girls, to hear from them, to hear about their lives, to hear about their faith experience, which is so very real to them. I didn’t expect to take up a new spiritual practice by being a part of a campaign, but I really have. We’ve found a lot of joy in that as a family. Stopping a little bit…. The studio makes you do that. You have to stop. You have to be quiet. You have to focus in. It’s more difficult to do that in real life.
Jennifer: It just makes me as more questions, too. My son who participated in this actually has a disability as well, and so things are a little more challenging for him. It’s very easy for people to often underestimate him. I’m sure, even as his parent, I fall into that trap, too.
I almost hesitated to have him as part of this because I really didn’t know what he might share. Even just his take on what a miracle is.
I was sitting there listening and just not knowing what he would say. He tends to speak in very short sentences because it’s easier for him. He captured it so well. He just said ‘a miracle is when God surprises us.’ I thought, what a unique twist on that and what an interesting way to look at it. Yet that’s been his experience. He sees God differently.
Joe: That’s quickly become my favorite definition of a miracle, when God surprises us.
Jacob: Me too.
Jennifer: And because of him defining it that way, I think even since we shot that back in November, I tend to look at surprises and think of them as God’s miracles. So it’s reframed even how I look at the world around me.
Joe: And we can all do this. I mean, that’s been one of the beautiful things about this campaign. Not only is it teaching us something about the church or about the children, but it’s modeling for us something that we can do at home with the kids in our lives. So I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Jennifer, can you tell us a little bit more about some of the other themes that are gonna be coming up?
Jennifer: We’ve already done a whole piece on ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors,’ really looking at who we are as the United Methodist Church. Of course, we did the piece on miracles around Easter.
We’re getting ready for back-to-school with this idea of preparing children for resiliency and letting them see that their identity is in God.
Then we’re working up towards Advent and the retelling of the Christmas story and seeing that God is the true gift, which is really what came out of that piece.
In between all that we may not put advertising dollars behind everything, but we’re gonna be looking messages around forgiveness and gratefulness and gratitude, which honestly, if we think about spiritual disciplines is, I think, one of the places where my heart sort of rests.
When I hear you talk about getting your spirit in shape I was thinking, you know, really what is a daily practice? Because I have to say, my life is a bit chaotic. I travel a bunch. I’ve got a young kid in school. I’m running around, and I can’t say that I have the same consistent routine every day.
One thing that I’ve tried to do, as long as I can remember, going back probably ‘til before I was Lukas’s age even, is practicing an attitude of gratefulness. The harder things are, the worse the day is, the more I try to take intentional moments and stop and thank God for something. I try to get creative and think of different things. Depending on how bad it is, sometimes it’s just enough to be thankful for the air in your lungs and the fact that you’re sitting there. It really doesn’t take long before the list is so long you’ve completely distracted yourself from whatever.
I try not to let it be like a once-a-day thing, but almost like taking in air. If I’m talking to God I want to start it with an offering of thanks. And it’s interesting, too, because what I’m finding is, is when you live into spiritual practices and you have people in your life that you love and love you, they will tend to adopt those practices. Then they kind of hold you accountable when you miss the boat there. It’s never more apparent than when I step out of the door to go to school in the morning. And you know, you’re racing and you’ve got the backpacks and you’re running and I’m hurrying along, and Lukas will throw the door open and I’ll hear him from behind me say, “You forgot.” “What did I forget?” “You didn’t greet the world. You didn’t thank God for this beautiful day.” So before we can get in the car and before we can put on our seat belts we have to greet the world.
Joe: Just shifting gears a little bit. It’s a little weird to talk about this — it’s scorching hot out — but we’ve got a Christmas campaign coming up. Tell me what the kids told you about Christmas that was either fun or something profound.
Jacob: Not surprising, a lot of them would think, and we were asking about, gifts that they had received. But my favorite part was when I would ask them about the Christmas story, as I mentioned — and then I had to get more specific — tell me about the Christmas story in the Bible. Their retelling of that was really cool, to hear about just the way they would describe Mary or to think about Joseph or his dream. The wise men usually made their way into that.
There would be these moments where they would forget, I felt like, that they were talking to a pastor, and you could see their brains beginning to remember the story. As they began to tell the story of what it was like for those different people to go and meet with Jesus. It was sort of like Linus on the Charlie Brown Christmas Story, “That’s what it’s really about.” You could almost see them making that shift after having talked about gifts, which are great to receive, that when you just really get to the heart of that story of what it means for us to receive Jesus into our lives. That was my favorite part.
Joe: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is…I heard that recently you used Jennifer’s son Lukas to help lead worship at Providence.
Jacob: I did.
Joe: Can you tell us about that Sunday?
Jacob: Absolutely, and Jenn, you can fill in any details.
First, I have to say, Lukas and I are friends. We have a great relationship, and he’s been an encouragement to my kids and my family. But a year or so ago, Lukas was not wanting to go to church as much—I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with my preaching—but he wasn’t wanting to go to church.
Mike and Jenn…Jennifer’s husband Mike…were asking Lukas, “Why don’t you want to go to church?” He ended up saying, “It’s because I don’t want to wear a handsome shirt,” and they realized that was a button-up shirt. They of course said, “You don’t have to wear a handsome shirt; you can wear whatever shirt you want.” He said, “I want to wear my Star Wars shirt.”
Lukas and I have a bond that we both love Star Wars. So, of course, you can wear your Star Wars shirt. So, Lukas comes to church that Sunday with a Star Wars shirt on. I see it, and I remember that the shirt I have on underneath my handsome shirt is a Star Wars shirt. I told Lukas that and we had this awesome moment. I know for all of us it was a reminder that God will do anything to remove those barriers for us to come in, it’s not about what we wear. For both Lukas and me that moment was a God-surprising-us kind of deal. I didn’t expect him to have a Star Wars shirt on, and he didn’t expect me to.
So on Palm Sunday I invited Lukas to share in worship with me as we talked about a great surprise, this great king coming into the world is riding on the foal of a donkey, and is not coming as a triumphant kind of military leader, but as a humble servant. So I wore my Star Wars shirt to church that day… just that. I was given a few funny looks as I preached my whole sermon in that. Then I shared a little about Lukas. Then Lukas came, which was certainly the best moment, and we served communion together in our Star Wars shirts.
It created this ripple effect that now all kinds of people are wearing Star Wars shirts to church — men, children — which I didn’t anticipate, but it’s just kind of this fun, joyous, lightness. Yeah, we can be who we are.
Jennifer: And the force is with us.
Joe: You told me about Lukas sort of high-fiving everybody up the aisle. Is that…?
Jennifer: Yes, he was nervous at first, and then he got his groove. We have three services at Providence, so by the third one he kinda took a victory lap after communion and just sort of high-fived people around the sanctuary. Sometimes you just have to let those things go.
Joe: But there’s also this symbol of connection there that he was home, with his church family. What great opportunity, which brings us back to these videos, I think. To a certain degree this is part of the message that we’re bringing out is kids have a place here, not just to receive, but also to teach and to share.
Jennifer: I also think at its core, church is that community. Right? We’re not meant to go on this spiritual journey alone. And if church is doing church right then we’re there for each other and we’re there as a group and as a unit. New people should be welcome. People who are there should feel included and excited.
One of the things that Sundays like Star Wars Sunday, or Palm Sunday as others know it, we’ll remember is that there was a great sense of community in that room. Lots of people came up to me afterwards and it did, it broke down some barriers for them. It reminds you yet again…it just strips away pretensions from the whole service and experience itself.
Jacob: And I will say, you know, as we think about the campaign we used the “Miracle video” in worship that morning as a way of just kind of setting the table for where we were headed. Those clips have a wonderful way of just focusing our hearts on, again, as we’ve been talking about, that distilled message.
Joe: The last question I usually ask guests is about a spiritual practice that they can recommend. At Get Your Spirit in Shape we talk about that we have talked about is kind of the spiritual nutrition and that we try to recommend spiritual exercises. Jacob, do you have one you want to share? Or did you already….
Jacob: Yeah, I would recommend that again just by…’cause I never thought of the spiritual practice of listening. I don’t think it just has to be a child, but just being able to be still before God in a place where your heart can be still and listen to the voice of God, whether that’s through, like, for me a 7-year-old girl named Phoebe, or through the birds, or the sun rising over the trees.
Joe: Life is so noisy and so busy that I think that’s an important thing, to get quiet and be able to listen. Jennifer, you talked gratitude in the everyday.
Jennifer: Yeah, I think that’s really it — finding your moments of joy and realizing that they are ever present. No matter what’s going on there is still something... you can still see God at work in this world.
Joe: Wonderful. Anything else you want to tell us about the campaign?
Jennifer: I think one thing that I’d love for churches to be on the lookout for is that we really are hoping to support the churches with this campaign this Christmas. We’re working on partnering with Discipleship Ministries to have a sermon series that goes along with it, as well as video bumpers that churches could use in their churches. We’re putting together an entire marketing calendar that will lead you up through the entire month of December with memes created, the posts ready to share, and the schedule for how you would do this, to be really invitational in your community.
When I think about what my life has been because of knowing God, I want to take every opportunity to invite everybody we can into some kind of relationship. If we can put tools in the hands of our local churches and make it a little bit easier for people who are….
So many people, they’re a one-person shop trying to do everything. They don’t have time to create videos and marketing calendars and if we can help with that, that’s what we’re wanting to do with this campaign.
Joe: So we all need to tell our pastors and get on the lookout for this new campaign coming out for Christmas. Great. Well, thanks, you guys. It’s been a great conversation.
Jacob: Thank you, Joe.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Jacob: Enjoyed it.
Joe: That was the Reverend Jacob Armstrong of Providence United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and Jennifer Rodia, Chief Communications Office, (and my boss) at United Methodist Communications.
To see the videos of the children and learn more about the “Their Words. Our Beliefs.” campaign, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for Get Your Spirit in Shape, episode 18. We’ve posted links to some of the videos, a story or two, and places where you can learn more about Jacob and Providence United Methodist Church.
While you’re there, send me an email about what kids have taught you about God, life and faith. I love to hear from you.
Also on UMC.org/podcasts you can subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape using iTunes, GooglePlay, Stitcher, or just about any other provider. When you subscribe new episodes will automatically download to your device as soon as they’re available. We’re working on one on prayer that I think you will especially enjoy.
Hey, thanks for listening. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.