A History of AWANA’s Contemplative Track Record and the Implications of Their New CEO

For over a decade  now, Lighthouse Trails editors have been concerned about the direction that the AWANA children’s club is heading. Today, in this report, we want to first give an overview of our past decade of reporting on AWANA, and then we want to share some new information that should concern every parent and grandparent who has a child or grandchild in AWANA.

It was just over ten years ago, in Feb of 2006, that we posted our first article about AWANA after having contacted them about our concerns. That article talked about connections AWANA had with Willow Creek (for documentation on Willow Creek, see links at the end of this article). In that article, we stated:

Awana Clubs has been a respected and trusted Christian organization for many years. Countless children have been Cubbies and Sparkies and have memorized Scripture through the program.

With so much of the church heading into the contemplative/emergent camp, also known as the spiritual formation movement, what a tragedy it would be to see Awana being sucked into this also. Few things are stable these days … is Awana the next to cave in?

As 2006 moved forward, our concerns heightened as AWANA continued promoting contemplative materials and the Spiritual Formation movement and showed no signs of breaking away from Willow Creek.

In 2007 and 2008, we posted a number of other articles documenting the organization’s move into the “new” emerging spirituality. Two phone calls from us and sending printed materials had no apparent effect. And as one of our articles stated, “Today, we received another email [from AWANA] backing up their insistence that nothing is amiss.”1In one article we wrote in 2007, we explained:

Awana is showing signs that it is becoming a full-blown contemplative organization. First of all, through Awana’s prison project, the organization is incorporating New Age sympathizer Ken Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus Encounter program. On July 13th, 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.

However, 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?”

For Awana to include Ken Blanchard’s teachings into its organization, shows that the situation is quite serious.

In that same article in 2007, we announced the release of a book, partly authored by two AWANA leades (at that time), called Children’s Perspectives on  Spiritual Formation. We stated:

[T]here is something even more disquieting with regard to Awana and their slide into contemplative – a book that is recommended by Awana and also carried by the Awana store: Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation. A description of the book is as follows:

“In childrens ministry, models, methods, and materials abound. How do you decide what direction you want your ministry to children to take? Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation allows you to examine the four prominent points-of-view in the church today. You will then be able to make a more informed decision on the way in which your ministry should take.”

The book offers four different views on how to transform children. One author, Scottie May, a professor at Wheaton, writes the section titled, “Contemplative-Reflective Model.” May gives a hearty promotion of centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, Christ candles, the Catholic Eucharist and an strong endorsement for contemplative spirituality ala Thomas Merton, whom she favorably quotes in the book. Two Awana staff writers respond in the book to May’s contemplative approach and give it a thumbs up with only minor cautions. But overall they believe that contemplative is a valid approach for all Christians, including children. Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation is giving a green light to Awana leaders around the world to practice contemplative prayer.

In 2007, we wrote an article titled “Awana Revisited: Is it or is it not promoting contemplative spirituality?” that examined in more detail the book (Children’s Perspectives on  Spiritual Formation) that was still being promoted by AWANA. Here are a couple quotes from that book written by the two AWANA leaders:

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. (bold added)

P. 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 [this is the mystical contemplative life that Teresa of Avila practiced].” (bold added)

Our response in 2007 to these and other comments from the book was:

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 Carson and Crupper [the two AWANA leaders] 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. And it is this attitude that is going to take Awana down a slippery slope of deception, unless they truly come to understand the underlying dangers of contemplative and then make every effort to rid Awana of its influence. (bold added)

In 2012, we contacted the publisher of Children’s Perspectives in Spiritual Formation and learned that the book was still in active print. Sadly, AWANA leadership had decided that the contemplative approach was valid.

In November of 2015, we posted a letter to the editor titled “Concerns By Awana Leader About Awana Linking Hands with the Emerging Church.” The letter from one of our readers who was a former AWANA leader, stated:

Dear Lighthouse Trails:

My family has been involved with the Awana ministry for almost 20 years both as “clubbers” and leaders.

Awana came out with new junior high curriculum. I reviewed one of the books and was not happy. The high school level curriculum too is in the process of being re-written with the help of a man named Josh Griffin. Josh Griffin is the high school pastor for Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Griffin is associated with Doug Fields who was a speaker for Youth Specialties, then went on to be a youth pastor for Saddleback before returning back to work for Youth Specialties. Both Fields and Griffin have written books together and share a blog.

In September, Awana sent out an e-mail invitation to the 2015 National Youth Convention put on by Youth Specialties. Awana had a booth there.

A link on the e-mail connects to a promotional video where you see many people including Tony Campolo. Also Mark Matlock, the director of Youth Specialties tells his audience, “Youth ministry reminds the church that teens are not marginalized members of the body, but are co-creators and conspirators in the divine work of the church.”

This is chilling considering that the words co-creators and conspirators are words associated with the New Age.

Speakers of the conference included such emerging church personalities as Doug Fields, Dan Kimball, Tony Campolo, Mike King, Jim Burns, and Alan Hirsch. Josh Griffin was the M.C. for the worship sessions.

The convention also offered spiritual directors for one-on-one sessions.

It is truly sad to see Awana linking hands with the emerging church movement.

This brings us to the present, 2016. On March 9th of this year, a press release came out announcing the retirement of long-time AWANA president Jack Eggar who was being replaced by an interim president and CEO, Valerie Bell. Bell is a member of Willow Creek (and her husband is a Vice President of Willow Creek Association). The fact alone that AWANA has selected someone from Willow Creek to lead AWANA should be enough to show that AWANA has at least in part absorbed the spirituality of Willow Creek, which is the spirituality of the emerging church (and that is NOT guilt by association). But the selection of Valerie Bell has even deeper roots in the “new” spirituality.

Valerie Bell

While Bell has some disconcerting resource links on her website, the one that stands out the most is Hungry Souls, the website of David and Karen Mains.  For a number of years, the Mains have had affinity with New Age concepts and teachings as has been brought out by a number of different discernment ministries (you can do a search on the Internet and see this for yourself). For example, a 2005 article by pastor, researcher, and author Gary Gilley reveals that in a book written by Mains, Lonely No More, Mains “chronicled her journey into Jungian psychology, visualization and the occult.” Gilley stated, “The spiritual path that Karen Mains describes in Lonely No More can easily be found in most occult spiritual transformation books.” That book, Lonely No More remains available today on Amazon as a Kindle book.

In a more recent book of Mains, The God Hunt, in a Further Reading section in the back, a number of contemplative/new spirituality authors are listed including Tilden Edwards (co-founder of the panentheistic Shalem Prayer Institute in Washington, DC), emerging church leader, the late Phyllis Tickle, and contemplatives Esther de Waal and Kathleen Norris.

Furthermore, on Karen Mains’ site in an article titled “The Practice of Silence,” she says, “I became convinced that no deep spiritual growth could occur in my life without the practice of silence that allows us to develop the capacity of holy listening.” This “holy listening” and the “practice of silence,” of course, is contemplative prayer.

There is no question that Bell and Mains share a spiritual affinity. In 2008, they traveled to France together and lead a group in a 10-day “pilgrimage.” Promotional advertising for the trip said:

We will teach you how to “read” great art and then how to use those same viewing exercises to develop a contemplative prayer practice for the soul.

Among various teachings and practices included in the trip was instruction in the contemplative practice, Lectio Divina.

In addition to promoting David and Karen Mains, Valerie Bell shares her own views on contemplative spirituality on her website. On a page with the subtitle Soul Care (another way of saying contemplative), it says:

Valerie has a strong interest in soul-care as a way to find spiritual well-being and relationship with a loving God. Her approach invites people to learn spiritual practices that can sustain them through the most difficult life challenges. Her book, A Well-Tended Soul, describes the nuances of that inner journey and is a core resource to her spiritual formation seminars. (bold added)

There is no question that AWANA  is becoming a whole-hearted emerging/contemplative organization, and children in the program will eventually feel the effects. Unfortunately, deception can often be slow and subtle so parents may not realize their AWANA Cubbies and Sparkies are being influenced, a little more week after week through the AWANA curriculum. While we still believe there are AWANA local teachers who love the Lord and are trying to present a biblical view, the handwriting has been on the wall for over a decade, and it’s getting easier to read all the time.

Lighthouse Trails Articles on Willow Creek:

Calvary Chapel, Bill Hybels, and Jesuit Mysticism

Lynne Hybels’ “God”

“Christian Palestinianism” & Emergents Lynn Hybels and Jim Wallis Come to Multnomah University For “Justice” Conference

No Repentance from Willow Creek – Only a Mystical Paradigm Shift

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