"Youth! On the March!" - if you know where that catchphrase comes from, we're sorry. On today's episode, we are diving deep into the world of Awana and various other midweek Bible clubs like The Pioneers and Christian Service Brigade. I hope you brushed up on your verse memorization! You think you're the better Christian? Prove it. Let me see you pins.
AWANA: God’s Miracle by Robert Moeller
Jey: I'm so ready for this episode to be done. Because out of all of the episodes, this one has the most annoying theme songs.
Clint: I think it's the only one so far that has any theme songs.
Jey: Daddy Ham probably has a missionary lizard song somewhere.
Clint: Well he does have a knock-off Awana program.
Jey: I had a friend this week that I haven't really talked to since middle school, but she messaged me that she listened to the podcast and I knew her because she was one of the cool emo kids when I went to public school for like two brief years. And when the Gideons used to come and pass out Bibles to school, her and her friends would eat the Bible to like, get godly powers and stuff.
Clint: Eat it?
Jey: Yeah, like rip out pages and like, nom nom nom.
Jey: She messaged me and she was like, “Oh my God, I'm listening to your podcast and I had no idea when you and other Christian friends would tell me about, like Young Earth Creationism, that you were serious. I just thought it was a joke the whole time.” And it’s just like, “Oh, no, sweetie.” Like, I passed a billboard today in Austin, Texas that was literally like an ape turning into man. And it had it crossed out and it said “In the beginning, God created. - Genesis 1.”
Clint: I had an interaction along those lines recently as well. I went to the Chicago premiere of a new documentary called Conversion. We talked all about it in last week’s minisode so check that out to learn more. Long story short, the movie is about conversion therapy so there were a lot of people there who grew up like we did - gay, Evangelical, yada, yada, yada. Anyway, I was talking to some folks who have been listening to the show and they were like, “We listened to the Young Earth Creationism episode and it blew our minds. We’ve thought dragons were real this whole time.”
Jey: No! Oh baby, They are mythological creatures.
Clint: Hey, at least we aren’t the only ones learning shit from this show.
Jey: Welcome back, listeners, to season two!
Clint: New year, same us.
Jey: We are so excited. We've got a lot of stuff planned and by a lot of stuff, I mean, I know what the next episode is going to be at least.
Clint: Well lucky for you, one of us plans more than two weeks ahead. I’m Clint Keller, he/him.
Jey: I'm Jey Austen, they/them.
Clint: And this is How Gay Thou Art, a comedy podcast about growing up queer, Christian and hella confused. I hope you brushed up on your Bible verses because on today’s episode, we’re tackling Awana. Youth! On the march!
Jey: Oh, God…
Clint: Awana, A-W-A-N-A, is an international, non-denominational, Bible-centered, parachurch youth organization providing weekday clubs and other programs for kids ages 2-18, which they call the “2-18 Strategy.”
Jey: Awana is the main one, but we're covering Christian scouting programs. They masquerade as scouting programs, but really, they're Christian nationalist indoctrination.
Clint: They’ve co-opted the aesthetics of American scouting programs - outdoorsy vests and shirts covered in patches and pins you earn by achieving this or that. But really, it’s just a mid-week Bible club. If you want your kid to learn survival skills or give back to the community, Awana is not for you. Awana is held at churches around the world, usually on Wednesday nights. And like Jey said, there are tons of knock-off programs but we’re focusing on Awana because it is the biggest, oldest, and has grown well-beyond their roots as a Bible club for kids.
Jey: You know, it's children's ministry. If you can reach them while they're young, you'll have a Christian for life, supposedly.
Clint: Clearly not true. I've been asking people in my life recently if they went to Awana and almost none of them had ever even heard of it, which was a little surprising because it was founded here in Chicago.
Jey: One of the people that I know went to Awana, I know went to Awana because when I joined Awana halfway through the year, they had dropped out. And so I got their Awana book. So my Awana book had their name on it.
Clint: Chicago aside, I expected to know more people who were in Awana simply because it is a gigantic program. Every week, 4 million kids go to Awana alongside 470,000 adult volunteers and 260 field staff in over 47,000 churches around the world. So the word Awana is actually an acronym, A-W-A-N-A. Do you know what it stands for, Jey?
Jey: Approved workmen are not ashamed. And it's from first or second Timothy 2:15 Okay. Yeah, yeah. See, look at me remembering things, sort of.
Clint: Study to show thyself approved unto God. A workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. - 2 Timothy 2:15
Jey: That was beautiful.
Clint: This name has always felt a little ooky to me. It has a lot of implications, like you’re not allowed to feel shame for doing the lord’s work, which in Awana means evangelizing to the point of annoyance. And if you do feel shame, then you’re not “approved” anymore.
Jey: There was something I read about the Church of Latter day Saints, Mormons, where doing mission work - missions, in that sense, meaning going door to door - that it’s not about the people that they're trying to convert. It's actually about keeping people inside that particular religion because they're seeing how everyone's rejecting them and the only people accepting them are that religion. And so it keeps people inside of it. I don't know, something about the approved workmen are not ashamed. It kind of reminds me of that.
Clint: I think that is absolutely part of what’s going on here. Kids who attend Awana are constantly pressured to bring their friends. It’s part of the curriculum and was a requirement for progress until recently. They push kids to evangelize to their friends while simultaneously telling them to expect rejection because the world hates the gospel. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Like, yeah, your friends will probably eventually reject you if you’re an annoying little shit who runs around proselytizing all the time. Who wouldn’t get sick of that? And it leads to a sense of vindication for Awana leaders when kids inevitably face this pushback and then they’re like “We told you the world's going to reject you, but you can't feel ashamed. You have to keep spreading the gospel no matter the cost.” But the culty aspects of Awana don’t end there. They have their own theme songs, some of which are disturbingly militaristic. They have their own flag and accompanying pledge of allegiance. They have the scout-like uniforms. They even have their own currency called Awana Bucks.
Jey: That you take to the Awana store so you can buy more Bibles. Shout out to Chelsea Burns who called Awana “Farmville for zealots.”
Clint: It's so true. It's time gated, it keeps you coming back every week, and it provides no tangible benefit to your life. But yeah, the Awana store kinda sucked. You can earn Bucks by memorizing Bible verses and winning at games, stuff like that. But the store doesn’t stock anything that any kid wants to buy. It’s like Bibles, devotionals, Bible carrying cases, religiously themed bookmarks, highlighters to use on your Bible. Sometimes they would have candy but most of it was church-related paraphernalia, which really makes it feel like more of a burden than a prize. Similar to most children’s programs, Awana has age divisions. It starts off with 2-3 year olds, called Puggles. Two years old - that feels really young.
Jey: They still have verse memorization back then too. Then we have Cubbies, which are a little bit older.
Clint: Yeah, Cubbies are 3-5 year olds, but pre-kinder.
Jey: And then Sparks are kindergarten to second grade. And then T&T, Truth & Training, is third through fifth. And then there's Trek for middle schoolers. And then Journey for high schoolers.
Clint: Each year has a corresponding curriculum and that’s one of the ways they keep kids coming consistently. If you don’t come every week, you’ll fall behind, and at a certain point, it becomes impossible to catch up because each grade has unique pins and patches. So if you slack off during fifth grade, you’ll never be able to go back and earn the pins you missed. It can become really high pressure in that way because if you’re missing patches or pins from your vest, that’s like visual evidence that you’re a less devoted Christian. The time table is a little more lax for the older kids. Also, the high schoolers, Journey, will act as Awana leaders for the younger groups sometimes, so that service aspect comes in more heavily as you get older.
Jey: Yeah. Yep. I was an Awana leader. I was an Awana leader for like, Sparks, I think.
Clint: So what do kids actually do at Awana? Well, verse memorization is at the core of it. That’s the primary way to earn patches and pins. Each year, kids purchase a workbook - yes, purchase, because there’s nothing more Christian than capitalism. And the workbooks will be filled with Bible verses. To stay on track, you have to memorize 5-10 verses each week then recite them to an Awana leader so they can initial your workbook. And there are other things that have to be completed too, like little quizzes or whatever.
Jey: There's certain sections that you wouldn't pass if you hadn't brought a friend, if you hadn't done like X, Y, Z. Oh goodness, this whole thing has just brought back way too many unpleasant memories because Awana was never something that I wanted to go do. It was always something that I was forced to go to.
Clint: I was pretty into it for a few years, but as a homeschooler, it was my primary point of social interaction. That kinda fucked me on the bring-a-friend thing though because literally every kid I knew was already at Awana.
Jey: I liked it as a kid, but I hated the middle school/high school stuff because that's when they started forcing purity culture on you.
Clint: My church didn’t do it past elementary. I think it ended at sixth grade. At that point, you were supposed to have “grown in the spirit” enough to sit in the regular adult service on Wednesday nights. The thing that kept coming up for me as I was researching this is the apocalyptic reasoning behind why Bible memorization is so important. It’s often presented as a safe-guard against Christian persecution or the Bible being outlawed in America.
Jey: That feels very weird. When I was listening to their Spotify, the verses that they go through in order, it really struck me as they're pulling out all of these verses, which are pretty standard, but a lot of it focuses on the word of God as perfect. And you can't get to God with works, just believing. And this is a Christian teaching in general, but it's just really weird. It's like being a good person isn't good enough for God, so you can not be a good person. You just have to believe in Jesus. I mean, obviously you're supposed to repent, turn your life around, and be better, but it's all based on whether or not you check the mark of believing in the Jesus terms and conditions. It has nothing to do with whether or not you try to not be an asshole.
Clint: They never take time to consider the ramifications of that reversal. You can be a good person, but that's not good enough. You have to believe in Jesus. If that’s true, the opposite must also be true. Assholes who believe in Jesus get the exact same reward as good people who believe in Jesus. All that matters is that you believe. That’s all god cares about according to them.
Jey: But then they tell you that you need to go to church and do all your life stuff. And it's like, Well, no, you said I needed to check the check mark, actually.
Clint: But their explanation is that if you really accepted Jesus into your heart, then you would be so compelled to do good that it wouldn’t be an issue. You would feel too guilty to be a full-time asshole. Of course, the absolutely abhorrent behavior of Evangelicals at large really undercuts that idea.
Jey: What also struck me about the verses that they're getting kids to memorize- And you can go to Spotify and check it out. These are just on there right now. I mean, I wouldn't do it, but a lot of them are like, “No one should die. Everyone needs to repent, love God, have no one else before your love for God.” So they're teaching these kids denial of the self before the kids even get to realize who they are. If you teach them all of this - deny yourself, deny yourself, deny yourself - while you're growing up and supposed to be figuring that out, then you just become a mindless Awana drone because you haven't done any self-discovery. You've just been doing memorization and believing exactly what they tell you to.
Clint: Some of the songs are literally about death and eternal torment, but played in G-major with a ukulele backtrack.
Jey: Yeah, it's like Kidz BOP, you're going to die in eternal torture. I remember going around at fucking recess when I was a kid and telling my friends that they were going to go to hell because they didn't believe in Jesus and making kids cry and then having to get pulled into the principal's office because I told people they were going to go to hell at a Christian school.
Clint: Approved workmen are not ashamed.
Clint: So verse memorization is at the heart of Awana, but obviously, that’s not what attracts kids to the program. The big draw for kids is the Awana games. Awana has an entire proprietary game system.
Jey: Proprietary games.
Clint: Yep. And they all revolve around a special court layout called the Awana Circle. Christianity Today said, “One of the most important symbols in modern Christianity is a circle inside a square, it's sides marked red, blue, green and yellow, divided by diagonal lines.” So not the cross, not the Ark of the Covenant, not the Bible, but the Awana circle is one of the most important symbols of modern Christianity.
Jey: That annoys the shit out of me because first of all, Awana, a lot of it was originally culturally appropriating. And the Awana Circle itself looks very much like the Sioux Nation Medicine Wheel.
Clint: Yeah the similarities are striking.
Jey: It just really annoyed me and I just wanted to bring that up. But you're saying this is the most important symbol in Christianity when it's from an entire nation that you tried to wipe out?
Clint: And we're going to get into all their appropriation of Native American culture later in the show.
Jey: Okay. I just wanted to bring it up.
Clint: All good. It's an important point. But anyway, they use it to play a bunch of different games. They've got all kinds of stuff, various forms of relay races and dodgeball-type things. There is also an Awana Olympics. Kids from Awana programs all around the country will compete locally, regionally, and even nationally. I recently read the official Awana history book titled Awana: God’s Miracle. The book contains extensive interviews with Art Rorheim, Awana’s founder - we’re going to get to him a second. But on the topic of Awana Games, he said, “Some of the early Awana games were very unconventional and probably even illegal. Boys ran out of the building and around the block. They fought in the hallways to slow each other down. That game was short lived when the church board heard about it.”
Jey: Oh no.
Clint: There is also a movie that Awana made back in the 70’s. It’s a Leave It To Beaver kinda thing about a preacher who learns about Awana and brings it to his own church, kind of a short film/commercial. But there is a scene in the movie where the Awana Games are happening and it’s literally just four boys beating the shit out of each other with weighted bags.
Jey: What was in the bag?
Clint: I have no idea. They were like burlap sacks filled with something. But it had some heft because they were knocking each other over with considerable force. I think it was a king of the hill thing where they were supposed to knock each other out of the circle, but it looked like a bar brawl. But anyway, a night at Awana is divided into chunks. Part of the time is spent reciting verses, part of the time playing games, but there is also a block for small group time, called councils, where kids share their testimony and listen to Bible stories or whatever. There is always that one annoying kid who always has some sort of testimony to offer. Like, we all know your salvation story, Jim. Sit the fuck down. But let’s talk about the rewards aspect because that is really important. There are the Awana Bucks and the store, but the real prizes are the patches and pins that go on your uniform. That’s what it’s all about. I absolutely believe there is a direct correlation between my years spent in Awana and my current compulsion to get 100% completion on every video game that I play.
Jey: When I went to Awana, we didn't have patches or pins. There was this little name tag type of thing and you got these bubble stickers, whatever. And I never got the fourth book because I started Awana late and hated verse memorization because I was a little kid with ADHD who spent all of the verse memorization time literally walking all over the tables. And the poor sweet college volunteer was just like, “Can you not…?”
Clint: And that’s really the basics of Awana. There are, like we said, a lot of similar programs that do this part of it, the Wednesday night Bible club. There's one called Master Clubs, there's the Pioneers, there's Kids 4 Truth, the Ken Ham, Answers and Genesis version of Awana.
Jey: There's the Christian Service Brigade.
Clint: I don’t know how that one isn’t a CCM band name.
Clint: Before we get into all the other crazy shit Awana is doing these days, let’s take a quick trip through history.
Jey: Yeah, let's fucking get into this shit.
Clint: Awana was founded in Chicago in 1941 at the Northside Gospel Center by Art Rorheim. He wanted to create a weekly club that would appeal to churched and unchurched kids. They still use that word - unchurched. Originally, it was just about getting community kids off the street and into a church program to hear the gospel. Over the next few years, the program grew exponentially. Now, Art attributed this to god and a child’s innate hunger for the gospel, but it probably just meant that Chicago didn’t have enough community outreach programs for kids back then. Eventually, it grew so much that Rorheim officially established Awana as a parachurch organization in 1950.
Jey: They're all fucking parachurches. These bitches. That's why all of this stuff is so hard to pin down. Oh, my God. I went all into their taxes because of course I did. And their annual revenue is $30.3 million and it's all volunteer run. They only have like a few hundred employees.
Clint: Yeah, Awana consists of almost entirely free labor. And it is a money-making machine. So it's founded as a parachurch in 1950 and by 1960, only 10 years later, 900 churches were hosting Awana programs.
Clint: In 1972, Awana started its first international Awana Club in Bolivia. Today, kids in 104 countries participate in Awana programs with millions of adults as alumni, and it serves churches from a hundred different denominations. Art Rorheim ran Awana as president from its beginning in 1941 until 1999 when he retired. And despite its exponential growth, Awana stayed pretty much the same through all that time. It was just a weekday Bible club. Kids memorized verses, they played games. But in 2002, 3 years after Art retired, Awana underwent a major rebrand. And this overhaul was definitely a good thing because the original curriculum, which was used up until 2002, was themed around white colonizers and indigenous people. It had a Lewis and Clark and their Native American buddies kind of vibe. We mentioned earlier how there's the different age divisions, right? There's the Cubbies and the Puggles and all that. Well, those groupings used to have very different names. It was also gendered. 3rd and 4th grade boys were called Pals, sub-divided into Braves and Warriors. 5th and 6th grade boys were called Pioneers, sub-divided into Explorers and Voyagers.
Jey: Hold on, hold on. So you're telling me that they start out as Pals and then become Pioneers as they get older because they're slowly becoming more white?
Clint: That’s definitely the implication. Whiteness = progress. Younger kids are Native American themed, older kids are Pioneer/colonizer themed. And this is reflected in the girls curriculum too. 3rd and 4th grade girls were called Chums, sub-divided into Maidens and Princesses. 5th and 6th grade girls were called Guards, sub-divided into Compass and Anchor. The whole thing just has a gross manifest destiny, doctrine of discovery, dominionism feel to it.
Jey: Manifest Destiny is disgusting, and we learned about it in the Abeka textbooks.
Clint: Well according to Abeka, it's a good thing.
Jey: Like the Abeka textbooks, where it talked about how the Trail of Tears was a good thing because it made people more Christian.
Clint: Yeah, well, it brought the Native Americans to Christ.
Jey: Yeah. Disgusting. Anyway, and so now we see again, teachings perpetuated here in Awana. Luckily, Awana did a rebrand.
Clint: I have a fucked up story that relates to this actually. So I was in Awana when the rebrand happened in 2002. We finished out that year because we already had the pre-rebrand books and everything, but when the time came to start the next year’s curriculum, my church announced that we were switching to Master Clubs, which don’t even get me started on that name. I remember when the pastor made the announcement as clear as day. The reason he gave was the androgyny of the characters in the re-branded curriculum. There wasn’t enough visual difference between the cartoon boy and girl characters, plus, Awana had removed the gendering of the curriculum, so boys and girls in the same grade all used the same book. But I have a suspicion that the loss of the Pioneer theme played a major role as well. People loved that shit. Country & Western culture is very big in Tennessee, unsurprisingly, and Evangelicals despise being told they shouldn’t say or do something appropriative. But I was furious that we were switching programs. I had worked for years to make all that progress in Awana and they just threw it away because a cartoon boy’s hair was too long. They just pulled the plug. Clean state. New uniforms, everyone starts over. It was bullshit.
Jey: You had all them Awana Bucks but they didn't give you currency conversion.
Clint: Yeah, the credits don’t transfer and no one could give me a conversion rate for Awana Bucks to Master Clubs Nickels. But anyway, to wrap up the history, Art Rorheim died in 2018 at the ripe old age of 99.
Jey: What killed him? Was it another Awana game?
Clint: Yeah he died inside the Awana circle actually.
Jey: His life really came full circle. That's what I’m saying.
Clint: No, I'm pretty sure he died of, like, old age.
Jey: Yeah, probably at 99.
Clint: But 9 years before he died, so he wouldn’t been 90, he made the trip to visit another famous Evangelical and you’ll never guess who it was…
Jey: Tim LaHaye?
Clint: So close - Ken Ham.
Jey: Ahhhh, they’re all connected!
Clint: He visited the Creation Museum. There’s even a picture on the Answers in Genesis website. Evangelical Christianity is just one big crossover episode.
Jey: Let's continue. Act 3. Awana 2.0. Tell me about their old rebrandy-brand.
Clint: After their first rebrand in 2002, Awana cruised along for several years. They grew, they made money, but the pandemic changed everything. Churches closed. Parents kept their kids home. And there was definitely nobody wrestling around in an Awana Circle. So they pivoted and re-branded yet again. The midweek curriculum itself mostly stayed the same but the Awana brand has an entirely new vibe - non-threatening, progressive, diverse-presenting, megachurch-y. They made a big push to raise capital through investors and donations and started launching new programs. In 2020, they released a Sunday school curriculum called Brite, B-R-I-T-E, bringing Awana to kids on Sunday mornings as well as Wednesday nights. Shortly thereafter, they released Talk About, a monthly subscription service that brings Awana into the home. The branding on Talk About is very Silicon Valley, clean lines. But it’s also incredibly nondescript. I never could figure out exactly what you’re paying for. It says that “every Thursday, you’ll get access to new content on the online portal and a weekly bundle will arrive in your inbox.” It goes on to say “Talk About is conversation based and tackles difficult topics.” They don’t elaborate on what they mean by “difficult topics,” but based on the rest of their messaging recently, I have a suspicion that it’s culture war motivated.
Jey: Yeah, their Child Discipleship podcast touched on that a little bit.
Clint: It's like the HelloFresh of indoctrination. So their podcast, the Child Discipleship podcast, you listened to a good bit about that and I remember you saying something about Awana making some positive steps in the realm of instituting child protection policies within churches. What was the deal with that?
Jey: The host quoted that one in three girls is sexually abused before 18 and one in seven boys is sexually abused before 18 from the CDC and that the most common thing that brings churches into court is sexual abuse of a minor. And they mentioned the Southern Baptists having an abusive faith. They didn't say that there were 700 cases of the Southern Baptists covering up child abuse. But, you know, there's room for growth. They did say you can't belong in an unsafe environment. You won't further the church if you're exposed to people harming you. You're not going to believe in an unseen God that cares about you, which is fair. But then they paused it to just ask for gifts and donations and money, even though it's a volunteer-led organization. So it's just like, what? What are you doing? And one of the things that stuck out to me is they were like, “We got to get predators out of our like stuff because secular orgs are getting smarter. So predators go to the church where it's easier to get in.” And they were just focused on keeping predators out.
Clint: Implying that abusers are outsiders who infiltrate churches, when in reality, abusers are usually people who’ve been going to church there for 20 years, often even in leadership.
Jey: And a woman said, like anecdotally, how do you we teach children not to touch each other because it's a lot of child on child sexual abuse. And I'm like, no, there's a lot of youth leaders and stuff. It was a lot of deflection and it was a lot of anecdotal stuff. They said that you need to be very clear about defining what is a church sponsored event. So if you want to have a home barbecue, go ahead. But don't say it's church sponsored so that the church won't be liable if something happens there.
Clint: It’s so prevalent that they have to take measures to distance the church from the everyday lives of its parishioners.
Jey: Very gross.
Clint: I thought you were finally going to say something redeeming about them.
Jey: Yeah, well, I just wanted to let you know that they suck, even if they're trying to redeem themselves. But at least there is a focus on some group called ECAP and it's a program that helps churches with safety accreditations. At least they're starting these conversations. But the whole podcast was, “yeah, it's just a difficult conversation,” but they never really said what the conversation was. And I'm just goddamn it. Yeah, they were so close.
Clint: Maybe that’s one of the difficult topics they were referring to in their Talk About program. But you’re right, the fact that they're talking about it at all is a step in the right direction even if it’s clearly a little misguided at this point. Spinning off the podcast, Awana also now hosts a Child Discipleship Forum, which is planned to be an annual event. They have a bunch of Evangelical speakers over a couple of days. Pretty standard Christian conference deal but they released a promo for the 2022 Forum that is one of the most unhinged things I’ve ever seen. There’s an extremely dramatic voiceover. It’s just a guy doing like, Christian slam poetry. The visuals are all just kids on a megachurch stage in cool lighting. Sometimes they’ll have words projected on them like “future” or “courage.” It goes on forever. Just on and on, like a bad SNL skit. Every time you think it’s wrapping up the voiceover guy launches into another stanza. But anyway, I’ve got the script here so I’m going to read just a few quick lines so you don’t have to sit through the whole thing yourself. You’re welcome.
“Our kids are growing up in a digital Babylon. No longer do we fear what is out there, but now grapple with powers and principalities found within the palms of our hands, in the pockets of our children. Influence and influencers, access to excess, a loss of binary, basic and biblical.”
Jey: Oh man, they would hate that I'm a non-binary person that grew up in Awana.
Clint: They just had to slide that buzzword in there. It’s like a dog-whistle. It goes on-
“You've been called to raise up the greatest generation of disciples. A generation not afraid to stand in the face of public opinions. A generation that will pursue what is holy over what is popular. A generation that will love Jesus all their lives, even if it costs them everything.”
There’s that persecution fantasy again!
Jey: I remember being obsessed after Columbine, they just had a huge push about teenage martyrs in the church and there are books by DC Talk and Voice of the Martyrs called Extreme Christianity, and it's devotionals about people getting needles shoved up under their fingernails to be tortured because they believe in Jesus. And like, all of the stuff about, you know, the Christian persecution narrative and there was like one book that I read that I learned about because his parents spoke at my church camp, and this person went on a mission trip and came back with the bubonic plague. And it was this book showing how devoted he was to Christ beca use of all his Xynga entries.
Clint: I literally forgot Xynga existed. Wow.
Jey: I was obsessed with that kid. I wanted to be just like him and die for Jesus really young. Didn't expect to make it to 28, I'll tell you that.
Clint: Because you weren’t destined to be martyred for Christ in a far away land.
Clint: To your point, the final line of this extended, overly long promo for the Child Discipleship Forum is, “You were made for this, to make disciples, child disciples for the fearless future of the church.”
Jey: Wow. Not for God, for the future of the church, which is again the point of this podcast. We're not disproving the Bible. We are literally talking about the problematic parts of the church that seem like a cult. And if you're telling me anything, it's that line right there, really fucking culty.
Clint: But perhaps even more alarming than this weird, culty language is the blatant ethnocentrism they’ve latched onto in recent years. And it is on full display in their recently released documentary called More.
Jey: I found that documentary to be very problematic because it consistently showed people all around the world, but then it would only show people in poverty in other countries, and then it would show little white kids in the U.S. And it's just like, again, this like very white supremacist, like they don't even realize that they're doing it. But it's just like, “These kids that are just forgotten that no one would care about.” It's a little icky. And by a little, I mean a lot icky.
Clint: The doc basically just showcases stories from kids involved in Awana around the world, but yeah, it consistently contrasts rich white kids in America with poor kids in other countries. At one point it cuts to India, a scary music track cues, then they show a statue of a Hindu god and say something about false gods and idols and darkness.
Clint: In other media, they directly talk about bringing Awana into more black churches, efforts to convert immigrants from Mexico, and regularly use the term “border crisis.” And while they may act like they’re a neutral, non-denominational, one-size-fits all program, they’re not. They aren’t just selling Christianity. They’re selling a pretty specific brand of white American Christianity.
Jey: White Christianity really is very white supremacy, and they want black people and brown people to come to the white church to make it less racist and more multicultural. They would never want to do the opposite. That frustrates me so much. When I lived in the cult for about one brief semester, my roommate was black and her discipler was white and from Louisiana, and they tried to get her to stop going to her black church during Black History Month. And she was pissed because she's like, “This is Black History Month. I'm not going to not go to a black church. It's still Christianity. But you just want me to come to your church because you think that you're the right way of Christianity.” And that's when this gets really fucking culty because it's “you're not believing the right way.”
Clint: Okay, but here’s the wildest part of all this, dude. Much like my church back in 2002, conservative Evangelical today are saying Awana has gone woke with its latest rebrand.
Jey: What? Awana is against people being in-between the gender binary still.
Clint: But they've had people like Rebecca McLaughlin and Sam Allberry speak at the Child Discipleship Forum.
Jey: Who are these people for people out of the loop.
Clint: Pretty niche celebrities I guess.
Jey: Sorry, I have no idea who these people are and honestly, I'm feeling better for it already.
Clint: Ok, to be clear upfront, these are not affirming Christians. These are both people who say that they have homosexual desires but still think it’s a sin. They actively say that people shouldn't engage in a “homosexual lifestyle.” Allberry said, “Same sex attraction is an affliction that one must live with for the rest of their life.”
Jey: Like, fuck off.
Clint: And Rebecca McLaughlin said that she would have married a woman instead of a man if it weren’t for her religious convictions. So these two are viewed in some circles as somewhat progressive Christians, acknowledging, at least, the existence of gay people even if they still contend that it's wrong. But the most conservative of Evangelicals don’t see it this way. To them, homosexuality is a sin to repent of and nothing else. It’s a deviance. If you repent and get right with the lord, it’ll go away. Of course, Awana itself is also not an affirming organization, as is explicitly spelled out in their statement of faith. It says, “We believe God created humans, male and female, designed men and women to be biologically distinct, equal in worth and made to complement each other.” There’s that complementarianism sneaking in.
Jey: Oh, my god. Complementarianism. Everyone needs to go read #ChurchToo by Emily Joy Alison. She talks about complementarianism and how it's bullshit.
Clint: It goes on to say, “God establishes the immutable sex of each individual and calls everyone to righteously express their sexuality according to the guidelines in the Bible. God designed intimacy as a gift to be enjoyed by one biological man and one biological woman within the covenant of marriage.”
Jey: Oh, God. Wait, hold on, hold on - the next part. “God instituted monogamous marriage to be exclusively between one genetic male and one genetic female.”
Clint: Had to throw the word genetic in there because apparently Evangelicals like science now.
Jey: We don't even understand genes fully yet. There are a lot of intersex human individuals. And also if you're going to talk about genetics and biology, then why the fuck do you not believe in biology when it comes to Young Earth Creationism versus evolution? Why am I still seeing road signs that say “In the beginning, God created. - Genesis 1:1” with a cross out of Darwin.
Clint: Here's a fun fact for you - there are as many, if not more, intersex people than natural redheads. And yet, conservatives acknowledge the existence of one and not the other. But all that's to say, the new Awana may be using modern aesthetics and high end production, but if you actually listen to what they’re saying, it’s the same old conservative bullshit.
Clint: Alright Jey, it’s time to mix it up a bit. Are you ready for an official Awana Bible quiz?
Jey: I'm so ready. Bible quiz.
Clint: For the uninitiated, Awana and other other organizations host quiz bowls for Bible trivia all around the country and they can be highly competitive.
Jey: Yeah. And you have like, a little buzzer. I did it. I went to Dallas.
Clint: I participated in one as well, but it was run by the NACS, not Awana. I love trivia in general but my team sucked so we didn’t do very well.
Jey: Yeah. Our team, like, trained for months. It was like a high pressure situation.
Clint: Well, we're going to find out if you've retained any of that very important information right now.
Jey: Oh, hell yeah.
Clint: These are questions taken from the T&T Bible quiz. That’s Truth and Training AKA third through fifth graders.
Game Show music
Clint: Hello and welcome to Are You Smarter Than an Evangelical 5th Grader? I’m your host, Dames Jobson and today’s competitor is Jey Austen. OK, Jey, we’re going to start with an easy one. What does Awana mean?
Jey: Approved workmen are not ashamed.
Clint: Excellent. One point for you. How many books are in the Old Testament?
Jey: 39, Clint.
Clint: That’s Dames Jobson to you, but yes, 39 is correct. How many are in the New Testament? This should be easy math if you know the total number.
Jey: Okay, so there's 66 books of the Bible, but we're not getting that confused with 666. So 66 -39, 25. No, 27.
Clint: Yes, 27. I'm going to give it to you.
Jey: Hell, yeah.
Clint: Next question. In what language was the New Testament written?
Jey: Jesus spoke Arabic.
Clint: He actually spoke Aramaic and also didn't write the Bible.
Jey: Okay, so the Old Testament was Hebrew. The New Testament was Greek. Final answer.
Clint: Correct! You’re on a roll but we're going to start getting to the hard stuff here. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul lists four reasons why the Bible is important. What are they?
Jey: For teaching, training, correcting and…righteousness.
Clint: So close!
Jey: I was so bad at this verse growing up.
Clint: You did better than I even thought you would so I’m gonna give it to you. It is teaching, correction, reproof and training in righteousness.
Jey: Wow. I had no idea I remembered that. That just came from the subconscious. Wow.
Clint: When I included this one, I thought, “There's no way they’re going to get this.”
Jey: I told you I was an Awana- I went to the Bible quiz, bro!
Clint: One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these are going to feel like trick questions because they’re based directly on the Awana books. All of the answers can be found there and they make a lot of shit up so be prepared for that.
Jey: It's fine.
Clint: How do we know that God is always fair?
Jey: Because the Bible says so?
Clint: Yes, because the Bible says so!
Jey: It's not really what they said.
Clint: Word for word, it says, “The Bible tells us that he is.”
Clint: Okay, here's an easy one. What is the punishment for sin?
Jey: The wages of sin is death.
Jey: Not hell.
Clint: Yeah, interestingly, the Bible doesn’t have much to say about hell despite the amount of time Evangelicals spend talking about it. Next question - how many people sin?
Jey: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Clint: Boom! This one's a bit speculative - where is Jesus today?
Jey: In heaven because he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Clint: I’m sorry, the answer we’re looking for is - He is in heaven making a home for me.
Jey: Oh, because we're the bride of Christ. We’re the body of Christ, but we're also his bride, and eventually we are all going to be consumed into a mass female and he's going to have sex with us.
Clint: Like ol’ Dr. Julie said, “The gospel can be reduced to five words - god wants to marry us.” We're going to go through some definitions now, but you need to be aware that Awana makes up their own definitions for all of these words.
Jey: Yeah, but I trained for Awana Bible quizzes. I had no idea I remembered this stuff and I am repulsed and terrified. This was not me looking at your answers. I did not prepare for this.
Clint: You’ve only missed one so far so you’re doing great. According to Awana, define “salvation.”
Jey: You are saved by grace through faith, but not by good works. It's a verse, It is a verse.
Clint: That is a verse but not the answer we seek. The correct answer is freedom forever from the punishment of sin. The question is literally “define the word salvation” and the answer is “freedom forever from the punishment of sin.” This one really got me. Define “teaching.”
Jey: Uhhhh…Training, correcting, and rebuking?
Clint: I’m sorry, the correct answer is “What God says in his word.”
Clint: Imagine being at one of these quiz bowls. Teams of kids with buzzers, moderator at the front, and the moderator, in dead seriousness, looks at a kid and says, “Define teaching.” And the answer they’re looking for is “what God says in his word.”
Jey: Wow, that's not teaching. No, teaching would be like the act of helping someone learn.
Clint: Not on Planet Awana. Define “heart.”
Jey: It's where the soul is. It's the- The heart is our spirit something.
Clint: I'm going to give you a half point for that one. The correct answer is “the real you on the inside.”
Jey: The real you on the inside.
Clint: Define “word.”
Jey: Uh, it is the Holy Spirit, is the word.
Clint: The answer is “the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Clint: Yeah the answer to “define ‘word’” is “the Lord Jesus Christ.” We're going to dip into a little Ken Ham action here. What happens when the Bible talks about history?
Jey: It is literal and the Word of God.
Clint: It is always exactly right.
Jey: Oh, mmhm. One of the Awana songs on their “This is Awana” playlist was talking about the perfect book and it talks about it's the perfect book and God wrote it.
Clint: The Bible literally has authors listed within the text, often incorrectly, but still, I don’t know how Biblical literalists can say that god wrote it. OK, next question - who has never, ever made a mistake.
Jey: Jesus, God.
Jey: God doesn't make mistakes, but God makes trans people and trans people want to become themselves. So maybe y’all should stop shitting on trans people and thinking that trans people are mistakes.
Clint: Who does God tell you to respect, pay attention to and honor?
Jey: Your parents.
Clint: Older people in your family, but the judges say we’ll accept “your parents.” How do you show your love for God? This feels subjective but it's not.
Jey: By learning the word.
Clint: By obeying your mom and dad.
Clint: Now for our final question - the first Truth & Training book is titled Ultimate Adventure.
Jey: Oh, I remember. Yeah.
Clint: So what is the “ultimate adventure?”
Jey: Learning the word and going on God's missions.
Clint: Very close, I’m going to give you another half point to round it off. The answer is “knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.”
Jey: Damn, I feel like I did really good in the beginning of this.
Clint: You did great all the way around. 11/16 points! Congratulations!
Jey: Yeah. Because if you go through the Awana program, you know more Bible than the seminary students.
Clint: I honestly can't believe you did so well. I thought you were going to know fewer than 25% of these.
Jey: Did I not repeat over and over and over that I wanted to be the best Christian.
Clint: You did and you've proven that on our show tonight.
Jey: Out of the church years later and I still know this shit. So that's how you know Awana child indoctrination works.
Clint: I guess it does. I was leaning toward it being bullshit, but you've made it clear that it is effective.
Jey: It really is. I hate this. I did not study. I didn't even read your show notes like I was supposed to beforehand, so I really didn't. This was not cheating.
Clint: That's why I just went ahead and put the questions in the show notes because I knew you wouldn’t read them anyway.
Jey: My bad.
Clint: OK, let’s wrap this up. Final thoughts on Awana. How do you feel about the idea that Awana turns faith into capital? It’s very American in that way. But I’m not talking about the enormous revenue Awana generates. I’m talking more about how it incentivizes children to be zealots for tangible and social rewards.
Jey: Yeah, it's all performative. Like, just because you can quote more Bible verses than someone else doesn't make you a better Christian. Even in the first Bible verses they make you learn, it's like you can't get to God with works by being a good person. It's just believing.
Clint: Faith, not works, but also do these works to prove yourself.
Jey: Yeah, exactly.
Clint: Look, I try not to be a theological stick in the mud, but I really feel like the whole concept of Awana is in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus.
Jey: Why do you say that? Because I feel like it's not because Jesus as a kid when he was 12 or 13, was always like schooling the Pharisees and Sadducees and stuff when he went to Temple and I wanted to be that person. So I literally did school my youth leaders once I got into youth group and they were like, “How do you know all of these weird-” I'm sorry, I'm getting off track.
Clint: Just because you were an insufferable child doesn’t mean Jesus thought incentivizing kids with Awana Bucks is a good idea. Awana, of course, ardently defends this incentive program. CEO Matt Markins said, “When kids take the time to devote focused energy to memorize verses, we want to acknowledge them. Biblically speaking, God is into incentives. An incentive is something that encourages us and motivates us. After all, did not David say, “The lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness?” (2 Samuel 22:21) Was not Paul exhilarated at the prospect of receiving his crown at the end of his race? (2 Timothy 4:8)”
But in my opinion, Matt is completely disregarding the teaching of Jesus here, which is a pretty common occurrence for Evangelicals. They love Paul, hate Jesus. Let’s turn to Matthew 6:1. Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Verse 2b, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Same chapter, verses 5 & 6, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
But at Awana, kids are pressured to publicly offer their testimonies, forced to recite Bible verses from memory, and given tangible, visual rewards for doing so. I just don’t know how you square that with what Jesus taught. And Awana leaders frequently make a big point to say, “Now kids, you shouldn’t be this just for the rewards. Those are just a bonus for doing the right thing.” But in reality, if rewards weren’t necessary, they wouldn’t be such an integral part of the program. If there weren’t rewards and games, kids would not attend Awana and the people running it know that.
Jey: That was my last Awana brain cell. I really need to talk to my therapist about this because I did not realize I knew all that shit. Still, I am deeply uncomfortable, but glad that it is all there in my memory because it makes it easier to do this podcast.
Clint: Ok just a couple more quick points before you go to an emergency therapy session. Awana has always tried to present itself as a sort of neutral Christian affiliated program, that they’re just teaching Bible verses and getting kids into churches, that Awana can work in any denomination. But they actually have hardline stances on some very specific doctrines. They believe in baptism, but not for infants. They believe in inerrant scripture and plenary verbal inspiration. This goes back to what you were saying about the “Perfect Book” song. Plenary verbal means they believe god dictated the Bible word for word, that the humans who actually wrote the Bible had absolutely no say in the content. Paul himself contradicts this belief but that’s a whole can of worms. They believe in the inherent moral corruption of humanity. They are anti-LGBTQAI+. They believe in eternal, conscious punishment for the unsaved. They believe in the physical resurrection of dead Christians during the end times.
These are not universally held Christian beliefs. In fact, most of these are relatively recent, fundamentalist, Evangelical inventions. Awana is not a neutral Christian program that just teaches kids about Jesus. It’s a specific brand of white American Evangelical Christianity and they push these ideas on kids both subtly and overtly. OK, final point/question - does Awana live up to the claims it makes? They claim kids get saved because of Awana. But kids are actually just being pressured to conform at Awana, not autonomously coming to believe in a higher power. Their other big claim is that they have proven success in Bible memorization. As we saw in our Awana Quiz Bowl earlier, that appears to be true, but I don’t think it proves anything. Satan quotes scripture, right? Abusers quote scripture. Anybody can quote scripture.
Jey: Any time I see stuff about the queer people, like talking back to the clobber passages, the six passages that are anti-gay, the number one Christian response that I see is, “So? Satan can quote scripture too, like, why should I listen to you?” And it's just so frustrating because you can't even meet these people on their level because they just don't believe you.
Clint: The other problem is that verses are presently almost entirely without context. The Awana books are just a series of one-off verses that kids are supposed to memorize and recite. They aren’t providing socio-historical context. They aren’t digging into textual criticism or theology. And look, I know these topics aren’t necessarily appropriate for a 4 year old, but equipping kids to rattle off combative verses whenever they're challenged by someone is dangerous because they’re most likely misrepresenting the intent of those verses. We see this happen every day with the clobber passages you mentioned. Awana is not about understanding the Bible, it's about being able to quote Scripture as a defense mechanism and a conversion tool. They’re just making an army of little Ray Comforts.
Jey: And I know that we're talking about Awana mainly in this episode. But again, Awana is one of the more progressive organizations compared to like, Pioneer Club or the Christian Service Brigade.
Clint: But the thing that's more insidious about Awana is how far reaching they are with all of these new programs and the way they present themselves as very hip and modern. The other orgs like Masters Clubs or the Pioneers may be more conservative, but they’re small. They’re just hosting midweek Bible clubs at a relatively small number of churches. And they certainly don’t have monthly subscription services.
Jey: Yeah. And the other thing is like, you and I grew up in completely different states, but we both went to Awana and we both share similar memories.
Clint: Sure. I mean, it's in every state in America. But anyway, that’s it. We’re done. I’m never memorizing another Bible verse. I swear to god.
Jey: Thank you so much for listening. We really appreciate it. Welcome to season two. We’re going to have a lot more content for you guys. We’ve got our Twitter, Discord, Patreon.
Clint: We’re also very active on Instagram if you’d like to connect with us there. Howgaythouart.com is our website and merch is available starting today!
Jey: Yeah, go get your How Gay Thou Art hoodies and beanies.
Clint: There's some really cool stuff on there all designed by us. Well, the cool stuff was designed by Jey. The very basic stuff was designed by me.
Jey: Yeah, I deleted most of it, but some of it's there.
Clint: We'll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode about Christian magazines for kids and teens. We’ll be looking at things like Breo, Breakaway, Clubhouse, Clubhouse Jr.
Jey: And if you have any memories about these at all, please write in because I'm really trying to hunt down this one particular article about how D&D makes you kill your family and I can't find it.
Clint: If you have a box of old Focus on the Family magazines in your parents attic, go dig them out and look for this article because we need it.
Jey: Yeah, Please, please. Anyway, thank you so much. Have a great week, gaybies.