Revisting Awana’s Move Toward Contemplative – And Another Look at “Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation

Update April 2012: Because Awana’s book, Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation is circulating the market, and because we hear from Lighthouse Trails readers who ask about Awana and their promotion of Spiritual Formation (i.e., contemplative), we are reposting this information about this book. Prior to posting this revisit article, we contacted Broadman and Holman, the publishers of the book, and learned that the book is still in active print.


Is Awana naive about contemplative spirituality? If so, then we beseech them to educate themselves and request a recall on their book, Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation.

In the February 2008 edition of The Berean Call newsletter, a question was asked about Awana:

I’ve heard that Awana is drifting toward mysticism in the way they are ministering to children. What do you know about that?

The Berean Call gave an excellent answer, stating that the issue arose from a book titled, Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation. Two leaders in the Awana organization are contributors of the book, and comments they made promoting the contemplative approach have caused concern for the direction Awana may be heading. In the Berean Call answer, it was suggested that perhaps Awana is naive when it comes to contemplative, and this is why they made the comments they did. In other words, when they spoke favorably about Richard Foster and other elements of contemplative, maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about.

This naivete presents a problem, however. And for Christian leaders, naivete is not an acceptable excuse, because people (and in this case, children) can be misled and spiritually hurt. So what can Awana do about this? If their comments in the book (that they offer in their store and use in their Rorheim Institute) are based on their naivete of contemplative spirituality, and if they truly do not want to take Awana in the mystical direction, then two things need to happen.

First, they must educate Awana leaders who are under their tutelage about the true nature of contemplative spirituality. Secondly, they will need to request a recall of the present edition of Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation and revise it so statements like the following are no longer in the book. These comments are made by Greg Carlson and John Crupper, executives of Awana. A comment of explanation by Lighthouse Trails follows each of their statements:

Page 82: “In his excellent overview, Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster outlines six different spiritual traditions that present within the Christian faith. They are the contemplative tradition, the holiness tradition, the charismatic tradition, the social justice tradition, the evangelical tradition, and the incarnational tradition. Each of these has played an important part in the larger history of the Christian church…. Each of these traditions has made significant contributions to Christian spirituality and each has weaknesses when isolated from other traditions.” (emphasis added)

Our Comment: It is in Streams of Living Water that Foster quotes panentheist Thomas Kelly as saying “within all” there is a “Divine Center” (p. 23). Foster also talks about a “kingdom of heaven” and a “vision of an all-inclusive people” (p.12). He later in the book reveals his “I see a people” essay, which is a description of this all-inclusive kingdom (p. 273). This “great gathering of the people of God” includes evangelical pastors, Catholic priests, and contemplative monks.

What Carlson and Crupper seem to have a problem with when it comes to contemplative, isn’t contemplative itself but rather that it should not be isolated but should be included in Christian spirituality. That is why they said each has weaknesses when isolated from other traditions. Thus they give the green light to contemplative as long as it is combined with other “traditions.” They say: Each of these models can learn from the other (p. 83).

Page 83-84: “While we believe that the Contemplative-Reflective Model highlights some significant needs in children’s spiritual formation, we should see it as an addition to the base provided for us in the Scriptures….We share agreement with the Contemplative-Reflective Model in a number of areas … we have much to learn from the Contemplative-Reflective Model. Many of our children’s programs are far from reverential, and the constant barrage of impulses does not seem to help in developing this interior life.”

Our Comment: This “interior life” of getting rid of distractions is classic contemplative spirituality. Contemplative mystic Henri Nouwen stated: “to empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God” (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart)

Page 85: [W]e would see many of the techniques [from the Contemplative-Model] of teaching as valuable tools for learning … the ideas of repetition and routine … are important; and we affirm them.

Our Comment: If the Awana writers in this book are trying to persuade readers that they do not promote contemplative spirituality, they have done a terrible job in expressing this. On the contrary, they have given minor cautions and major affirmations. They conclude with: “Given this framework, the Contemplative-Reflective Model becomes, at best, an important tool in helping provide a balanced development of the Christian spiritual life” (p. 87). While Carlson and Crupper point out some of the flaws in the Contemplative-Reflective Model, they make it clear that there is much good in it. Their response to contemplative spirituality leaves one message to readers: contemplative has some problems but if incorporated with other spiritual traditions, it has great value. This will take Awana in the same direction as Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.

Page 88: [Carlson and Crupper] “appreciate the Contemplative-Reflective Model’s commitment to the development of the child’s spiritual life. We are not in disagreement about the necessity of this. Nor would we disagree with the validity of the model to build upon the foundation that is laid by knowing Scriptures. Further, we would acknowledge that the commitments that drive this model provide a necessary balance within the larger scheme of things.”

Our Comment: Perhaps Carlson and Crupper do not realize that the “commitments that drive” the contemplative model are based on the spirituality of Thomas Merton as the book points out, and they are aligned with panentheism that states all humans have God within.

The comments made in Perspectives in Children’s Spiritual Formation are not the only indications that Awana is being heavily influenced by contemplative spirituality. For instance, through Awana’s prison project, the organization has partnered with New Age sympathizer Ken Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus Encounter program. On July 13th 2007, we spoke with Lyndon Azcuna, Awana Cross Cultural Ministries director, who told us he was a Lead Like Jesus facilitator. Azcuna works in the main headquarters office of Awana. He said that the project was using Ken Blanchard’s materials. When we explained to him that Blanchard promoted the New Age and mystical meditation, he said that the program did not have these elements. And in the 1999-2009 Ten Years and Counting report by Lead Like Jesus, reference to this partnership with Awana is made several times (on pages 16, 20,  23).

Update April 2012: On of the steps that the Ten Years and Counting report gives to “Lead Like Jesus” is:

“By engaging the habits of solitude, prayer, and study of the Scriptures, I seek to align my Servant Leadership efforts with what Jesus modeled, and to constantly seek ways to be a servant first and a leader second with the people I encounter in my leadership responsibilities.”

What Ken Blanchard means by “solitude” and “Servant Leadership” is not what it may sound like. Blanchard, who wrote the foreword to a book called What Would Buddha Do at Work?, has consistently promoted New Age mysticism books for over twenty years. And the term Servant Leadership suggests that Jesus is more of model whom we can follow as opposed to a Lord and Savior. While Blanchard says that Jesus is his Savior, he continues to promote the New Age. To this day, he still sits on the advisory council of the Hoffman Institute, an ultra New Age think tank and resource center for New Agers.  We do not believe Ken Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus program is a good fit for Awana, that is supposed to be ministering biblical truth to children.

The Lead Like Jesus Encounter is largely based on Blanchard’s book, Lead Like Jesus, and that book does include contemplative elements. For instance, in the chapter called “The Habits of a Servant Leader” a palms-up, palms-down exercise is described (something Richard Foster has encouraged)(p. 158). The book gives a typical instruction on contemplative:

Before we send people off for their period of solitude, we have them recite with us Psalm 46:10 in this way: Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know. Be still. Be…. When people return from their time of solitude, they have big smiles on their faces. While many of them found it difficult to quiet their mind, they say it was a powerful experience. The reality is most of us spend little if any time in solitude. Yet if we don’t, how can God have a chance to talk with us?

Blanchard participated in the Hoffman Process and said it made his spirituality come alive. We believe this experience he had through Hoffman is similar to what Blanchard refers to in his Lead Like Jesus book, when he says people who “quiet their mind[s]” during the Lead Like Jesus Encounter have “powerful experience[s].” This means that now children and families in Awana could possibly wind up with the same experience.

Blanchard, who has been a professing Christian since the 1980s, wrote the foreword for a 2001 book titled What Would Buddha Do at Work?. In the book, Blanchard said:

“Buddha points to the path and invites us to begin our journey to enlightenment. I … invite you to begin your journey to enlightened work.”

Blanchard has made numerous other similar statements about other books. After a 2005 report by Lighthouse Trails exposed his connection with Rick Warren, Blanchard placed a statement on a page of his website for a short time that said some of his previous endorsements had been wrong. However, since that time, the endorsements have continued, including his connection with the Hoffman Institute. One example of his continued endorsement of meditation practices is his back-cover statement on Jon Gordon’s 2006 book, 10-Minute Energy Solution, in which Gordon makes several favorable references to eastern-style meditators and the practice itself (see ATOD, pp. 164-165). Another example is Blanchard’s June 2006 endorsement of Thom Crum’s book, Three Deep Breaths.

Amazingly, in the book that inspired the Lead Like Jesus Encounter that Awana is using, Blanchard acknowledges Norman Vincent Peale’s role in his spiritual walk. According to Ray Yungen (For Many Shall Come in My Name – p. 47), Peale had strong New Thought connections. This could partly explain Blanchard’s leanings toward the New Age.

In the past, we have written other articles about Awana. One was showing their promotion of Youth Specialties. The other was pointing to their affiliation with Willow Creek. Affiliation with these two organizations could explain how Awana has been drifting toward contemplative.[Both Youth Specialties and Willow Creek are on our 50 top Contemplative organizations list.]

Ken Blanchard, Norman Vincent Peale, Richard Foster, Youth Specialties, and Willow Creek – these cannot help Awana lead children in a direction pleasing to the Lord.

While some may say our strength in this article is inappropriate – after all, look at all the good that Awana has done – it is done with the utmost love and concern for the children being taught through Awana. Strong yes, hateful no. We beseech Awana leaders to consider these requests to both educate their leaders and have Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation recalled and end their partnership with Lead Like Jesus. Without these two things taking place, it will be difficult to alleviate grave concerns over the future welfare of Awana.

Note: Awana has removed the Youth Specialties link from their 24-7 Ministries site. However, they have now formed a partnership with Student Leadership University. SLU, which encourages students to take a “20 year quantum leap,”  is an organization that uses the materials of Ken Blanchard and Ron Luce (Teen Mania – see our article, “Teen Mania Goes Contemplative“).

 

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