The children gathered excitedly in front of me, sitting on their little red or blue plastic chairs. There were about thirty kids, ranging in age from three to seven years old. I sat my large dalmation Firedog puppet from Amaze Healing Wings on my right knee. A previous generation of kids I pastored long ago had named him “Scruffy.”
As the children quieted down, I began to interact with him. Normally, I do not try to do conversational ventriloquism; I usually have the puppet whisper quietly in my ear so that I can tell the children what he has said. Put simply, I have not been trained and I am not very good at verbalizing puppet characters with minimal movement of my lips. But I figured why not give it a go? So, I did.
As I interacted with Scruffy, the younger children giggled and laughed. But one of the older boys piped up, saying, “You’re moving your lips!”
I paused. The older kids looked at me expectantly, wondering how I would respond. But then something happened. Scruffy turned to me slowly, and stared balefully at me. I looked at Scruffy in mock horror. Scruffy opened his mouth as if to emulate my surprise. The children began to giggle. Scruffy said, “Are you mocking me?” Of course, my lips still moved as Scruffy said this, so he continued, “You ARE mocking me! You’re mouthing the words I speak!” By then the children were laughing out loud. When they calmed down, I was able to explain to Scruffy that yes, I was moving my lips, but that he was still doing the talking for his part. And no, I was not mocking him.
By taking what could have been an honest, but awkward interruption to my presentation and using it as an opportunity to propel the content of my story forward, I performed what I like to call verbal judo for children’s ministry. That is, I took the energy from an action or words of another person and used it to diffuse any difficulty and transform the situation into something redemptive and memorable.
Verbal judo for children’s ministry is like real judo. No, it is not studying martial arts and throwing people around. However, like real judo, it does harness the actions of others in ways that counteract their intentions by redirecting the placement of their focus and movement. Therefore, it is simply the act of being alert to others and utilizing optimal opportunities to calm them down, redirect them into more appropriate behavior, and do so with minimal conflict. Law enforcement officials throughout the USA and abroad are very familiar with this concept, thanks to the writings and training sessions of George Thompson, author of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, as well as other similarly titled works.
Now, thanks to the quick thinking of Scruffy, you too can add this way of responding to difficult situations to your portfolio in order to better prepare you to work with the children, volunteers, and parents you influence. With prayer and humble application, it is possible that conflicts or awkward derailment of class activities will be minimized and understanding will be further advanced in your ministry.