I Remember: AWANA

YouTube Preview Image

When I was in kindergarten, someone invited my family to attend an AWANA program at a local church. I participated in AWANA for the next twelve years, memorizing hundreds and hundreds of Bible verses. I could write about AWANA for pages and pages, but this is just one post, so I’ll try to hit some of the highlights.

AWANA stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed,” which, you guessed it, comes from the Bible: II Timothy 2:15 – “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The entire point and soul of the program is Bible memorization, which it begins at age three. Each week I memorized verses out of my workbook, and then recited them to my leader at the weekly meeting. She then signed off the sections I’d recited correctly, and I moved on to the next sections.

AWANA is also geared toward evangelism. Every year, one section of our workbooks required us to bring an unchurched friend to AWANA with us. The leaders were really hard core about this requirement – it had to be someone whose family did not regularly attend church. This proved to be a problem for my siblings and I. We didn’t have any unchurched friends. We explained and explained, but it seems like we got a hard time about that every year.

I remember one year when I was about ten one of the other kids invited a girl whose parents were actually atheists (as opposed to backslidden Christians). This girl enjoyed herself, so she came again. And again. And before a month was out she had prayed the sinner’s prayer and converted to Christianity. The leaders were overjoyed, and prayed that her whole family would come to Christ through her. I remember, even then, wondering just what her parents thought of all this.

This brings me to another point. AWANA was fun. We had uniform vests and workbooks just like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. We participated in quizzing where we competed against other AWANA clubs at other local churches to see who had memorized the most scripture. We won points for good behavior and got to “spend” them at an annual auction. We had snack time each week, and we also had game time in the church’s gym. We heard Bible stories, and while we took turns saying our verses those of us who weren’t busy with the leaders reciting sat around socializing – or getting in some last minute practice at those verses, of course! There was silly hair night and every year in late October there was the Harvest Fest, with costumes and games and candy in the gym. And at the end of the year there was an awards ceremony with ribbons and trophies for those who had completed their books.

I have to be honest: I loved AWANA. I was a very competitive person, and raced through my workbook each year, trying to beat everyone else in my age group. There are other reasons I loved it, of course. For one thing, it was one of the two times a week I could count on seeing my friends (the other being church, of course). I looked forward to AWANA with excitement each week because of this. For another thing, AWANA gave me the only participation in sports I had growing up – even if that was only twenty minutes of dodge ball in the gym. I was colossally bad at whatever we played, but I still loved it.

Ironically, AWANA gave me one of my only opportunities to socialize with “normal” people. Most of the kids there went to public school, had only one or two siblings, and were integrated into mainstream culture. The leaders were just ordinary fundamentalists or evangelicals, not into the more extreme Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy at all. I’m not sure how much I really benefited from this, though, because I didn’t associate with the public school kids. My homeschooled friends and I sat on one side of the room while the public schooled kids sat on the other. Not much passed in between, save perhaps horrified looks from my side of the room when the other side discussed things we considered too “worldly” and horrified looks from their side of the room when we completely missed cultural references (like the time I interjected into one of their conversations to ask just who in the world this Brittany Spears person they were talking about was).

One final point. In many ways, AWANA represents the fundamentalist fusion of God and country. Every week everyone started out in the gym, standing at attention, to sing the AWANA theme song (see the video above) and  pledge allegiance to the AWANA flag, the Christian flag, and the American flag. We also sang patriotic songs on occasion.

And so there you have it. AWANA. Did any of you attend AWANA? If so, what were your experiences?

A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
On Indiana
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Alex

    Wow! I’m surprised. I used to attend Awana. And even though I was a really devout Christian then, I absolutely hated it. I have a bad memory but the biggest things that stand out to me about AWANA are that I didn’t like it, and that at school, when I tried to invite someone from my class to it, the whole class laughed. No idea why. o.O

  • Melissa

    My church had awana when I was a kid, and I had fun. I think if you have good “kid people” leading it (aka: adults who like and respect children), then it will be fun and pretty innocuous.

    The fact that they focus on memorizing the bible, and not interpreting it, is in my mind a strength. Knowing what is in the bible is useful whether you believe it or not, and the act of memorizing is good for kid’s cognitive development. Fun and friends are good for all kids. And since they didn’t (at least at my church growing up) focus on interpretation, they did not get into much of the crazy stuff.

    The whole structure seems rooted in suburban 1950s culture, though. I wonder if it will be able to survive?

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I had something similar to that called Missionettes

  • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

    excuse me, a CHRISTIAN FLAG?

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

      Yep, a Christian flag. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_flag The truly righteous would pledge allegiance to it along with the American flag before Sunday school every week.

      • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

        I’m not sure why I’m so shocked, but it just seems bizarre to me.

  • http://www.subparker.com Neal

    My church didn’t adopt an AWANA program until I was in high school, and they only offered it for pre-youth-group children. However, I felt a disconnect with the members of my youth group (due to homeschooling) so I chose to be an AWANA leader, rather than participating in youth activities. I spent my Sunday nights for four years in high school teaching “Cubbies” (3- and 4-year olds). I remember the uproar around 1999-2000 when the program quit using the King James bible, and because my first group of kids was the same age as my youngest brother, I got to know his friends. They are all seniors in high school now, and I’m Facebook friends with a lot of them… meaning that they see my frequent atheistic or pro-LGBT posts.

    Another opportunity that afforded me was one of my first creative “acting/comedy” duties. The mascot of the Cubbie Bears program was a bear named Cubbie, along with his friends Luv E. Lamb and Ernie Elephant. I acted as a puppeteer for these characters in the little morality skits for all the children, and adopted a bizarre (and really bad) Steve Irwin-inspired Australian accent. They are interesting memories, looking back.

    I am curious, though, based on what I’ve read on your blog in other posts. How did the age-segregated nature of AWANA fit with your family’s belief in “family worship”?

  • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

    My two older children went to AWANA. I’m not sure how much they retain of it.

    My pedophile uncle was a Sparks leader for a few years. My husband and I hit the ROOF when we found out about that. The church was horrified and my family was deeply embarassed. But I hope we managed to protect some of the kids.

  • JeseC

    I am now going to have that stupid AWANA song stuck in my head all day.

    I hate you now.

    • http://www.subparker.com Neal

      I had it stuck in my head, I thought, after reading this. But then I realized it was just my university’s fight song.

  • charlesbartley

    For the most part, I liked AWANA at the time. Now that I am an atheist, I am maybe not glad, but I don’t regret knowing the Bible as well as I do because of it. I went through Sparkies, Pals and Pioneers.

    The games were more fun than PE was at school. I had forgotten the AWANA song, and the Christian Flag pledge. I liked memorizing things, and I have always liked singing. One of the things that I miss the most as an adult atheist is the lack of regular singing with other people in a shared “spiritual” experience. I think that singing together is valuable and I wish I could find a suitable substitute. Community choirs don’t do the same thing for me. The closest I have found to that experience is Contra Dancing. The live music and the community dancing bring that same feeling of being part of a greater whole.

    I did have some embarrassment about AWANA as a kid in Public schools. I don’t really remember bring your un-churched friends to AWANA days, but I do remember days when we were supposed to wear our little uniforms (with the indian head neck-tie clip) to school. I hated that. I knew that AWANA seems to be a “christianized” boy scouts, and even then I felt that most “christianized” things were sillier, more embarrassing, and lesser quality than what they are imitating. I remember thinking that AWANA would have been better standing on its own trying to be its own thing.

    I was saddened by my embarrassment. I thought that it meant that I wasn’t that good of a Christian. So I then went overboard in trying to prove my Christian street creed by reading my bible at school, praying over my meals, etc.

    Now, as a 40 year old adult, the thing that strikes me the most about AWANA is how successfully it indoctrinated me into such a narrow understanding of Christianity. Every verse or verse fragment that you memorized was in a section in the book that included several verses on the same topic. “Assurance of Salvation” is one that I remember strongly. I can almost remember the verses in that section 30 years later. I am sure if someone started quoting them to me (in KJV) that I would be able to quote along.

    At the time, these verses seemed to say “here is this consistent message from God, given through multiple authors, over millennia that he wants you to understand.” Now I see how they were really an example of how in a significantly large text on a single topic, you can cherry pick quotes to say anything that you want. AWANA never gave you context for the verses they had you memorize. I am an avid reader and have read the Bible many times. Each time I read it, I would find AWANA verses in contexts that changed their meanings from what AWANA had taught me. Especially egregious were times when they would have you memorize a verse and a part of the next verse as one section. “John X:YY-ZZa.” I found that more often than not that the “part b” of the verse changed the meaning of what you had memorized. I recognized this pattern as a kid, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that I realized that it was AWANA deliberately lying to me through omission.

    Even more insidious were the “inoculating” verses: verses that they had you memorize in order to have you remember them when your beliefs were challenged. “Of course they will mock you, Jesus himself said that you would be mocked for following him, here are multiple verses for you to remember so you can just blow off their mockery.” What they didn’t let you be exposed to was the idea that maybe somethings get mocked, not because of the devil, not because of the world being different from you, but because they were just plain stupid and wrong. These verses inoculated me for far too long of a time against even considering that.

    As a young adult confronting truly hard times for the first time in my life, I found out that the system that these verses taught just doesn’t work. God won’t be faithful and just, you won’t have the strength to deal with what life throws at you, the earth wasn’t created in the last 6K-10K years, Gays weren’t hedonistic perverted people, and things just don’t work in the 1-size-fits-all way that AWANA tried to tell me that it did. I am glad that I escaped.

  • Stephanie

    I did AWANA growing up at my family’s Southern Baptist church. I enjoyed it, for the most part–I was a really quick kid and I loved learning–but I think I preferred Bible Study Fellowship, where the emphasis was more on discussion and analysis than on memorization. At any rate, I attended both once a week throughout elementary school.
    I remember when I was about 8 becoming incredibly uncomfortable with AWANA. You see, they began asking us to share our testimonies. I felt like a bit of a failure–at 8 years old, most kids my age were becoming or had already become Christians. (That is, they had been ‘born again’.) Despite my great intellectual appetite, I always struggled in the spiritual/emotional arena and did not yet feel comfortable approaching the issue of salvation. As I got older and AWANA got more and more evangelical, my stomach twisted up more and more. I told my mom I wanted to quit when I was 8 or 9, and my mom acquiesced without any trouble. We still were involved in numerous activities at church (BSF in addition to worship, sunday school and children’s choirs) and she was careful not to keep me too busy.
    I remember the auctions and missionary drives, though–and especially the Grand Prix! I won first prize for design one year for painting my little wooden truck as the AWANA-mobile, covered in Bible verses and AWANA decorations.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    My Baptist church did something similar called “Girls in Action” (GAs), a program for 1st through 6th graders. The boys had their own, separate program. Looking back, it’s weird that they separated the sexes so young. But it was similar to AWANAs in that we pledged to Bible, the Christian flag, and sang the Girls in Action song, which was all about evangelizing.

    We also got points for bringing non-churched friends. I remember coaching a cousin to say, “Just say you don’t attend church every Sunday.” Haha! It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t exactly a complete truth.

    I also ROCKED at Bible memorization, and I always had the most stickers by my name for verses memorized and completed missions activities. Yup, this definitely appealed to my competitive spirit.

  • shuying

    Hail Awana, on the march for youth!
    Hail Awana, holding forth the truth!

    Stuck in my head now too. Aaaack.

    I went to Awana for a year when I was in 5th grade. I was first invited by a classmate who turns out was Baptist (I wonder if she thought my family weren’t “real” Christians– traditionally, Baptists and Church of Christers hate each other and are out for blood), and I thought it was so great I went with her for a year. I really thought it was fun.

    Awana was also my first introduction to non-Church of Christ Christians. Even though I really enjoyed it, all of my memories of it have this feeling of “weirdness,” like “Oh yes, Awana was great, but I was there in that pagan church with all the heathens.” Everybody felt so foreign to me. It is nice, though, to have one more link with the broader Christian world. It sucks to be clueless not only about mainstream American culture but also mainstream conservative Christian culture.

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com from two to one

    Although I grew up Catholic, I — as evangelicals would say — came to Christ at Awana when I was 14 years old. It was the first time I had been around non-Catholic Christians in my life, and I found their worship and community to be compelling. I did not grow up with it, but was heavily involved in the summer camp throughout high school and then served as a counselor during the early years of college. I also met my husband at Awana summer camp in college. While my husband and I strongly disagree with many of the teachings — especially those that treats all non-conservative Christians as heretics or not “really” saved — Awana still holds a very special place in our hearts.

  • Holly

    I had never heard of AWANA until today but I love the girl on the right side of the bottom picture. She looks likes she has a full sleave tattoo and it is cracking me up.

  • Cranapple

    Ugh, I remember hating AWANA… I think it seemed like a lamer version of my regular church youth group; complete with sappy songs, dorky uniforms, and homework, lol. I’m not sure why I attended, I think perhaps my parents wanted my younger sister to go, but didn’t think it was fair to make her attend while it was optional for me.
    YOU! On the march!