One of the most important symbols in modern Christianity is a circle inside a square, its sides marked red, blue, green, and yellow, divided by diagonal lines. For some Christians, it is a literal mark of orthodoxy, a subtle indicator that a church teaches Scripture authoritatively and rigorously (and usually from a particular Reformed, premillennial, cessationist perspective).

The square has changed little from its origins in the 1940s at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Church youth leader Art Rorheim had been having trouble with traditional two-team games as his youth group grew; his four-team court was designed to let 100 play with little downtime. Now more than 10,000 churches in the United States use it as they host Awana programs.

Some of Rorheim’s early games “were unconventional and even illegal,” according to Awana: God’s Miracle, Awana’s official history book. Boys ran out of the building and around the block, then fought in the halls to slow each other down. “That game was short-lived when the church board heard about it,” God’s Miracle notes. Others continue today, largely unchanged since some clubbers’ grandparents’ day. Baton relay races. Three-legged-races. Balloon volleyball. Four-way-tug-of-war. Throwing bean bags to knock over plastic bowling pins.

As Awana leaders have seen it, the game circle is why kids showed up week after week, year after year, decade after decade. “Game Time surely is the drawing card to the gospel presented in Council Time!” in the words of God’s Miracle (emphasis in the original). And both fans and critics of Awana stress that its competitive streak doesn’t end at game time—awards, competition, and celebrating elite achievements have been the ministry’s hallmarks.

But lately the $40 million global ministry has been reconsidering just how much competition has shaped its approach. Is making disciples really about counting weekly memory verses? Is leadership development really about helping overachievers achieve more and more? Can you motivate unmotivated kids by challenging them to finish handbooks faster than their friends? These aren’t new questions for the 67-year-old ministry. But in a significant methodological shift, Awana clubs are now trying to look less like spiritual sports leagues and more like small group Bible studies.

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All Together Now

This fall, Awana is rolling out the second of its four new handbooks for its most popular program, Truth & Training (T&T), aimed at children in third through sixth grade. Largely designed as comic books, the new handbooks differ significantly from their predecessors.

“The response has been mixed and expected,” says Bill Gunter, who runs a large unofficial Awana website, “Every time Awana makes a shift you get the same kinds of responses. Some love it, some hate it.” Some think the new handbooks have too many verses to memorize, some think too few, and some wonder whether it has too many activities unrelated to Scripture memory.

Image: Photo Courtesy of Awana

But it’s Awana’s instructions on how to use the handbooks—not the handbooks themselves—that are the most significant change. Under the old system, students worked through handbooks at their own pace, one after another. Highly motivated students could blitz through all four in a year if they wanted to (and sometimes they did). A slower learner, a busier one, or a less motivated kid might need several weeks to memorize a verse and complete a section. This approach meant that each student was learning different verses and different concepts week-to-week, and that the large-group teaching times rarely dovetailed with the handbook lessons.

Now Awana is introducing its “All-Together Method,” a kind of “No Child Left Behind” for Christian youth discipleship. Students will all work through the books together, one section a week, in small groups, with the large-group time reinforcing the same Bible stories, verses, and theological concepts.

“This doesn’t limit kids’ ability to memorize Scripture,” says Chris Marchand, Awana’s executive director of children’s ministries. “They can still go to town on it, and in fact there are more opportunities for memorizing than even the old system. But imagine you’re a math teacher with one kid doing number placement, another doing fractions, and another doing polynomial factoring. You won’t be able to teach any of them much in an hour-and-a-half time frame.”

Now everyone gets the same lesson, with the same verse to memorize. If they want to do more, there are extra credit questions to fill out and additional verses to memorize at the end of each lesson.

In other words, T&T handbooks used to be a marathon that kids generally completed as quickly as they wanted to—motivated by a sense of personal achievement, a desire to beat one of their friends to the finish, or a physical award. Now they’re more like a nature hike that everyone is supposed to finish together, with highly motivated kids encouraged to do burpees every quarter mile. The hike with add-ons is probably less motivating for elite overachievers. But the marathon is daunting for the uninitiated.

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This fall, Awana has also introduced a tool to T&T to make those handbooks even less daunting: “Essentials” books strip the lessons to their bare essentials, shrinking six pages of comics, activities, and information to a single page. (A similar Essentials approach has been used in Awana’s junior high and high school programs.)

“I was that kid who walked into Awana and had only been to church on Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Easter,” Marchand says. “It was a little terrifying to see all these kids burning through verses. The best lessons for those kids born in the baptistery are going to be where they’re initiating the learning process, so we have a lot of spaces to fill in reflections and observations, and we use comic strips as a narrative to tie the lessons together. The kid who is coming in and asking Jesus who? maybe doesn’t need all those spaces to fill in. They’re saying I need someone to tell me the truth. We don’t want to put everyone into one pipeline, but we want them to be in the same group, being part of the same conversation.”

Marchand points to a cartoon by his desk as illustrative of the mindset he’s trying to fix: A man sits at a desk, facing a bird, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, a fish, a seal, and a dog. “For a fair selection everyone has to take the same exam,” the man says. “Please climb that tree.”

Still, to continue the metaphor, Awana has been remarkably successful over the last seven decades at finding its young monkeys and driving them to climb ever-higher trees. The monkey in that cartoon is wearing a big smile for a reason.

“My boys used to love Awana and Bible memorization, but the new curriculum killed their Awana spirit,” one mom complained on Gunter’s site, “It almost seemed as if the new [handbook] was geared toward outreach of non-churched/unsaved children.”

The tension is familiar to any ministry trying to mix evangelism with discipleship, newcomers with experienced elites, or leadership development with broad outreach. It is felt acutely in an organization like Awana that has prized achievement and competition. But Marchand remains convinced that if Awana is actually driving the high achievers further into Scripture, then they will listen to Paul’s injunction to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (2:3–4).

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“This can be a teachable moment, a discipleship moment,” Marchand says. “We need to tell the kid who is always raising his hand and always wants to give the right answer, ‘We’re not setting up the tee for you; you get the pitching machine: Can you sacrifice personal achievements for the sake of others?’

“If they finished a handbook, awesome. But I want to make sure that if someone smells [their] life, it’s not something manmade, but something that has its genesis in another kingdom.”

It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer, biblically speaking. But how easily can it be implemented in a culture so heavily defined by incentivizing achievement? There are badges, ribbons, and loads of candy for memorizing verses; not so many for letting the new kid answer a question during small-group time. Can a new Awana help kids make the switch?

Where Your Treasure Is

Awana long wore its indebtedness to the scouting movement literally on its sleeve, though many of its clubs have moved away from merit badges and military-style ribbons in the T&T age range. The organization’s early 20th century predecessor, the Moody Tabernacle Scouts, aimed to “win every boy for Christ” and counted Moody pianist Lance Latham as one of its first two scoutmasters. One couldn’t simply join the group; instead, prospective members had to memorize several sections of Scripture and pass multiple written tests. This may have seemed like a simple task to Latham, who had already memorized John, Romans, and James in their entirety—at age seven.

When Latham moved across town to plant North Side Gospel Center in 1933, he soon identified the young Art Rorheim as his youth leader. Rorheim developed his own exclusive force of boys. Any of them could be part of the church’s Pal Club, but only the elite could join the Sword Club, with its special multicolored beanie and pins. “Art followed [Latham’s] philosophy: leaders need to offer incentives which cause the less motivated to stretch toward goals beyond,” Awana: God’s Miracle records. The Pals Club and Sword Club would eventually become Awana, with its philosophy in full bloom.

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There have always been some critics of that philosophy (which Awana leaders have called the “Instructional-Analytic Model”), but only in recent years has that criticism become more public. “When extrinsic incentives are involved, it is often the award that is treasured more than the task or content that is learned,” wrote Scottie May, then associate professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College, in the 2006 volume Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation.

Another writer in the volume recounts his own experience with Bible memory contests, saying, “It didn’t really matter to me that I was memorizing the Word of God as opposed to any other book. My interest was not in the content or the Author but rather in the fame and fortune of walking away with the most valuable prize and the renown of the group, being proven as the best, the winner.”

Image: Photo Courtesy of Awana

Multiple peer-reviewed studies support May’s argument that rewards undercut the development of intrinsic motivation. But one of the few studies of Awana published in an academic journal found that even a decade ago, the ministry didn’t actually use many rewards. A team led by Cedarville University psychologist Michael Firmin interviewed Awana leaders and visited clubs across six states. “The milieu of the clubs did not highlight trophies, plaques, or other permanent mementos of successful clubbers,” the researchers wrote. “[A]lthough Awana clubs did use extrinsic motivation through reinforcements, they were mostly low-key about them.” Candy and gifts were “not prominent,” they found. “In sum, visitors or new clubbers would not appear to be drawn to Awana based primarily on the extrinsic motivators provided by the leaders of the club.”

But there’s a catch: Competition was counted both as an extrinsic and an intrinsic motivator. If the students said they wanted to compete to get candy or a trophy, it counted as an external motivator. But when students said they “like to compete to see who can say the most verses” or were “competing on who says the book the fastest,” those were intrinsic motivators.

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Motivations aren’t always clear, says Laura Nolan, an Awana ministry director at Faith Chapel in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “I made it” can look a lot like “I’m the best,” she notes, and “I’m the best at this” can be a humble statement when it’s accurate.

“I know in my own life I go to work because there’s a paycheck,” she says. “I do certain things because of what results. Over time, competition and rewards can develop healthy habits.”

Nolan says her club in many ways has doubled down on Awana’s competitive aspects in the last few years, shifting from an abstract point system to awarding teams coins that accumulate over the night. For example, kids who come to group with the week’s verse memorized get twice as many coins as those who memorize during the meeting. The tactile coins have worked well, she says, but “candy is still the best motivator.”

Outside the Game Square

Beyond the coins, however, Faith Chapel’s Awana program has scaled back competition in some ways. On theme nights, they used to give awards to the best dressed. “Now we just give points for whomever showed up in costume,” Nolan says.

Game time is changing too. “The purpose of game time was to be the calling card—to have a fun aspect of Awana that kids want to do and come back for,” Nolan says. “I’m finding that more and more kids don’t want to do game time; by offering some different electives we can broaden our reach.” She’s planning monthly electives, such as a cooking night, where kids who don’t want to run around the game circle can make meals for shut-ins.

It’s an increasingly common approach in larger clubs. At Peavine Baptist Church in Rock Spring, Georgia, for example, “recreation” (traditional Awana games) is only one of six electives every week, along with art, music, drama, martial arts, and Lego robotics.

“I don’t see a trend away from our classic games and the things we’re known for, but there is a natural innovation,” executive director Marchand says. “We’re seeing churches doing incredible innovations and trying to learn from them. It’s different than it was back in the day. Parachurch ministries need to lean into the local church and bend to the local church instead of the church bending to the ministry. We’re trying to give agency to the church instead of saying, ‘Here’s the box you have to stay in.’ ” He means that literally—in both game time and curriculum shipments, Awana is trying to help churches think outside what comes in the box.

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The shift away from “handbook time,” where kids would recite verses from memory, to “small group time,” where the kids discuss the verse and its context, is also heavily influenced by innovations in local churches, he says. The relational aspects of Awana—especially the relationships between leaders and students—have always been part of Awana along with Bible memory, he says. “But it’s been hard to talk about. The church has made it easier. The idea of ‘small group’ alone has helped to frame it for us.”

Ironically, the challenge that many churches are finding with the new Awana methodology isn’t with the kids at all—it’s with the volunteers.

“There’s a pretty significant shift in the mindset from leaders as section signers to actually discipling,” says’s Gunter. “It’s gone from a low prep/no prep scenario to asking leaders to do real preparation. I used to recruit a lot of people by telling them they didn’t have to do much. But now they have to really be ready and do their homework.”

Nolan, whose church was part of Awana’s testing of the new curriculum before launch, had a similar challenge. “Half of my leaders are really equipped to be small group leaders; the other half are equipped to be helpers in that,” she says. “When I just threw everyone in the first year, some did well, some did not.” For both kids and grownups, Awana is working through how to create disciples when people have significantly different bases of knowledge and motivation.

“We want to move leaders from being a section signer to a child discipler,” Marchand says, “but you can’t take someone to a place spiritually that you haven’t been yourself. These kids are going to be asking, ‘Are you in there with me?’ The candy will get eaten. The vest will go into a memory box. But the kid will remember your name and your story and the time you spend with them. Our best incentive and reward is our leaders. Our best way to motivate and incentivize is to give kids time with a leader rooted in the Word and fire to fulfill the Great Commission.”

Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today.

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