However close you are to developing the "perfect" ministry for children in your church, it's smart to make sure that, as with any ministry, you've established it using proven, successful principles that bear fruit for a lifetime, not just for a single season.
So whether you are starting a children's ministry from the ground up or just looking to breathe some new life into your existing program, there are five key elements that I have found to be a must for sustainable, healthy ministry. These "building blocks" are essential, no matter what your style or approach, to making connections that are real and that will last the kids in your care a lifetime.
Even if you've taken a "family" approach that involves your kids participating in the adult worship service, I encourage you to include these as a part of your overall strategy. So let's take a look at how the elements of fun, relationship, energy, safety and helpfulness come together to make a ministry that is F-R-E-S-H.
Make It Fun-damental!
The first element of a FRESH ministry is fun! I've heard some say, "The trouble with kids today is they always want to be entertained." Although there may be some truth to that statement, and although our kids need much more than another video game to play or another movie to babysit them, let's not forget how Jesus came to people.
From Zacchaeus by the tree to Thomas with all his doubts, time and again we see our Lord meeting people exactly where they were. He never asked anybody to try to be something they were not before they could come to Him. He accepted them just as they were—with all their talents and quirks, likes and dislikes—yet in love propelled them toward change.
By nature, children like things that are fun. (In fact, we all do—but some of us, somewhere along the way, forgot how to have it and end up trying to stop others from having it too!) Because of that nature, having fun should be a fundamental part of every children's ministry. When we make ministry fun, we show:
that we respect the need of children to be who they are
that God is a fun god ("In Your presence is fullness of joy"—Ps. 16:11)
that serving Him is a joy (which makes others want to get involved).
By cultivating a fun environment, we engage the soul of the child, which opens the door for meaningful ministry and sets the stage for the next element.
A FRESH ministry is relational. As the saying goes, kids don't care what you know until they know you care. A fun environment alone does not shape a life, and neither does a program void of relationship. You can have a slick, top-notch kids program that rivals Nickelodeon, but if you aren't making a heart connection, that's all it is—good programming. We need to make sure we're making time and space for relational connections to be made—kid to kid, as well as leader to kid.
We see this clearly patterned in the leadership of Jesus and ultimately in the heart of our Father. It's not just about a process; it's about a relationship. The process may be useful and may even produce good results, but if there is no relationship, it won't last. Relationship empowers discipleship.
Don't Be Rude
A FRESH ministry is also energetic. Again, this has more to do with relating to children in the season of life they're in and honoring their needs. If we ask children to come be a part of our ministry but then expect them to sit still for an hour straight, it's not only disrespectful, it's rude!
When you invite guests into your home, you make preparations. You find out things that they like and try to make sure they enjoy their time with you. That's called simple hospitality, yet it's exactly what far too many churches have missed by a mile.
Hospitality is important in ministry because it says, "I care." It places the emphasis on others and makes them feel valued. The bottom line is that your ministry does have an energy level about it, whether exciting and inviting or dull and boring. The good news is that you have the choice (and the power) to make it one or the other.
Do No Harm
In the midst of having all this lively, energetic, relational fun, a FRESH ministry is also safe. We know we must put safety first, but do we? Think of it as the Hippocratic Oath of ministry: "Do no harm." Unfortunately, we've had way too many examples in recent history of ministries that have perhaps done more harm than good for the cause of Jesus Christ.
So what measures can you take to ensure that your ministry is a safe place for children?
First, have an application process for leaders and volunteers that asks tough questions and includes background checks. These are no longer optional; this type of screening is your first line of defense against predators. In addition, check with past ministry leaders who may have worked with a specific individual and ask them, "Do you know of any reason why I might not want this person working with my kids?" You have to be more concerned about protecting children than you are about making an adult feel uneasy.
Second, make sure the environment where the kids will spend their time is free of hazards. Keep toys and equipment clean and in good repair. Get someone from a day care or a school to do a walk-through for you. You might be shocked at the things you didn't even think of as a safety hazard.
Third, teach your leaders how to exercise good judgment through training that helps them always think "safety first." This involves creating a culture of leadership among your helpers, which starts with you, the children's pastor. Set the standard you want reached, because no matter how fun an activity may seem at the time, the fun stops when someone gets hurt.
Keep It Practical
Finally, a FRESH ministry is helpful. Another way of stating this is that it's relevant and overflowing with practical advice. Information is helpful if it's useful and relevant to your present circumstance. For example, although knowing the names of the 12 disciples is good, it's not really helpful when you are 9 years old and your parents are divorcing.
Obviously, it's nearly impossible to provide practical lessons that cater to each child's specific needs at specific times. Yet it's important to keep this goal of relevancy in mind as we prepare a program or lesson, or even in our moment-by-moment interaction with kids during gathering times.
If our ministry is going to be vibrant and life-giving, we must be aware of the culture, trends, technology and issues that kids are facing and address these areas with helpful principles from the Word of God. We need to make sure that we aren't just giving them information to memorize, but principles they can live by.
For any outstanding children's ministry, the goal isn't to just hold their attention for an hour; we want to capture their hearts for a lifetime.
JULIE BEADER travels internationally encouraging, equipping and empowering churches to reach the next generation for Christ. For more than 20 years she served as a children's pastor, youth pastor and director of Christian education before launching Connect Ministries International connectedministry.com.
Finding just the right Word amid all the new Bibles released this year can be daunting.Here's help.
Picking out a Bible used to be relatively simple. You had your standard King James Version with a trio of color options: black, navy and burgundy. Today believers can walk into a local Christian bookstore and face a wall of Bibles in a myriad of selections—different translations, sizes, study notes, formats, target audiences, covers and editions. Choosing the right Word can easily become an overwhelming task.
This provides a particular problem for pastors, who need to be able to answer questions about the different variations of the Bible for their church members. Imagine a pastor who has never heard of The Message. You don't want to be caught unaware if a church member pulls out The Voice at your next Bible study and it sounds like he's reading a screenplay.
In addition, being able to make the right Bible recommendation for a specific person can turn an occasional Bible reader into a Word-lover. As last year's Reveal study from Willow Creek showed, regular Bible reading is the single most important factor affecting a Christian's spiritual maturity. Putting the right Bible in a believer's hands can truly make a difference.
To keep you updated, Ministry Today researched the latest Bibles to hit the market. This past fall and current winter season have been particularly good for anyone who likes their Bibles with study notes, as a large number of popular titles released study Bible editions for the first time. Add to that mix an entirely new translation just released and it's easy to see why leaders need all the help they can get when venturing into the maze of new Bibles available. Don't worry—consider this your map.
The Voice New Testament
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Cost: Paperback: $19.99, Fabric Cover: $34.99
The Voice is the first completely new Bible translation to release in several years. The idea behind this contemporary version was to translate the Scriptures as they were originally intended to sound, keeping intact the different writing styles of the authors and focusing on the literary beauty of Scripture while still retaining accuracy.
"I've been working with the Scriptures my whole life, and this is the first time a translation has really been consumer-oriented," said Thomas Nelson Vice President Frank Couch, who is currently overseeing the Old Testament translation of The Voice. "All of the others have been scholarly oriented. This is really for people in the church."
Working with renowned pastor Chris Seay and his Ecclesia Bible Society, Thomas Nelson brought together authors, musicians, poets and historians to work with the scholars in translating this new version. The result is a major departure from the typical English translation. Parts of the Gospels read like a screenplay, while books with different authors sound more distinct in a deliberate attempt to retain the perspective of each book's writer.
Younger audiences in the emergent crowd and those looking for a fresh take on the Scriptures will most likely be drawn to The Voice, as names such as Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet and Donald Miller are attached to the project. As with most translations of this nature, however, The Voice should probably be read alongside more literal works when doing in-depth study. Still, if you're looking for the next The Message, this might be it.
Parallel Study Bible
Cost: Ranges from $44.99 (hardcover) to $69.99, depending on binding
Although Eugene Peterson's The Message is extremely popular, many readers like to compare the paraphrase alongside a more literal translation. This has made Zondervan's NIV/Message Parallel Bible, where the two translations face each other on the same page, the best-selling parallel Bible in the country.
This month Zondervan releases—you guessed it—a new version with study notes, which provide extra meaning and context to each passage.
"It's targeted for really anyone who wants to read and understand the Bible in a new and fresh way," said Brian Scharp, vice president of marketing for Bibles at Zondervan. "If you're already familiar with the NIV, it's nice to see how The Message puts it."
It's also useful for pastors who want to encourage those interested in The Message—but not at the cost of a more accurate, scholarly and literal translation. With this parallel version, it's a win-win for everyone.
English Standard Version
Cost: Ranges from $49.99 (hardcover) to $239.99, depending on binding
Popularity of the English Standard Version (ESV) has been on the rise in recent years. Several prominent pastors, including John Piper, have endorsed it as a highly accurate translation that also reads well and is suitable for study or casual reading. Crossway launched the ESV Study Bible last October as the first major study version of this translation.
This version of the Bible features more than 20,000 study notes, more than 200 full-color maps, 50 articles and 40 full-color illustrations of major archeological sites, such as Herod's Temple or the ark of the covenant. In addition, the introductions to the books are extensive and clear.
People who enjoy the ESV will definitely be interested in the new study edition. Not only does it feature an abundance of study materials, it's also attractive; the text, maps and illustrations are beautifully done.
Chronological Study Bible
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Cost: Hardcover: $44.99, Bonded Leather: $69.99
Speaking of attractive Bibles, you'll have a hard time finding a better looking one than the Chronological Study Bible. But that's not the main focus of this new release, which uses the New King James Version (NKJV) translation.
"What the Chronological Study Bible does is it puts the biblical narrative in order," Couch said. "So, for example, in the life of David, you have the Psalms accompanying David's narrative during the different parts of his life. And when you read about the kings and prophets, you read about them together instead of in different books."
Though other Bibles have used the chronological idea before, this is the first to feature study notes to give a historical and cultural background for each passage. The version also uses a new four-color technology that fills every page with multiple colors. Maps, photos, illustrations and pullout quotes all stand out beautifully on the page.
The Chronological Study Bible is a great tool for pastors (or any reader) looking to place a passage in its historical context. And as Couch stressed, it is designed to work alongside more traditional Bibles, not replace them
New Living Translation
Publisher: Tyndale House
Cost: Ranges from $39.99 (hardcover) to $79.99, depending on binding
One of the most popular translations, the New Living Translation (NLT) released its first study Bible last September after seven years of work from an extensive team of scholars and editors. Well worth the wait, the new edition includes nearly 26,000 study notes, more than 300 theme articles on theological subjects, visual aides such as maps and illustrations, personality profiles and timelines to help readers gain a deeper understanding of the Word.
Study notes for the Bible focus more on the historical and cultural background of the text instead of the meaning of the passages. In addition, Tyndale launched a fully searchable online version of the study Bible—available to those who have purchased the print version—as well as one for three major electronic Bible formats (WordSearch, PocketBible and Logos). Fans of the NLT will definitely be interested in this new source, which puts even more information and resources at the readers' fingertips to enhance studying the Word
NIV/TNIV New Testament (The NoteWorthy Collection)
The NoteWorthy Collection is a set of portable versions of the New Testament designed with lots of room for note-taking. Available in both the New International Version (NIV) and Today's New International Version (TNIV) translations, the NoteWorthy books feature durable hard covers, a tall, slim design and blank right-hand pages to allow space for notes. It also features an accordion-style storage area for loose notes and an elastic band to keep it shut.
This is the perfect Bible for those who like to take notes or write down ideas that come to them at any moment. It easily fits in a pocket.
Encounters With God Daily Bible
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Cost: Paperback: $19.99
The Blackaby boys (Henry, Richard, Thomas, Melvin and Norman) are back with a daily reading Bible that follows up on their successful book Encounters With God: Transforming Your Bible Study. Using the NKJV, this Bible is divided into 365 daily segments that feature passages from the Old Testament, Psalms, Proverbs and the New Testament.
In addition, the Blackaby family of Bible teachers provides thoughts at the end of each day's readings designed to draw readers into an experience with God. "One of the greatest needs we see in our culture is that connection with the transcendent," Couch said. "So for those who are seeking that deeper experience with God, that's who this is for.
Wesley Study Bible
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Although the writings of John Wesley—and specifically his explanatory notes on the Bible—have been around for more than 200 years and used in countless ways, the Wesley Study Bible marks the first time these works have been compiled with the New Revised Standard Version (which, fittingly enough, was developed exactly 20 years ago).
In an effort to enhance readers' personal study times, publisher Abingdon Press took a team approach: More than 50 leading scholars contributed to the Bible's study notes, most of which include references or excerpts from Welsey's writings. An equal number of pastors penned their motivational thoughts on how to live out the Scriptures.
In addition, more than 60 Wesley theologians added key-concept writings that allow readers to dive deeper into both overarching themes and specific topics found throughout the Scriptures.
The result of such teamwork is an applicable study edition that, though constructed around Wesley's timeless thoughts, allows a singular voice to be heard: God's.
NIV Study Bible, Premium Edition: Updated Edition
For those who want a Bible that will last a lifetime, you could do worse than the new updated, premium edition of the NIV Study Bible, the best-selling study Bible in the world. In 2008, Zondervan relaunched its entire line of NIV study Bibles and in an updated edition that included a revision to 25 percent of its study notes.
The premium edition relaunched with the new, high-quality, "Renaissance Fine Leather," two-inch margins on each page for notes and two ribbons.
"It's soft, yet it's thick and very durable," Scharp said. "For a lot of people, it could become their cherished study Bible for years."
Mossy Oak Compact Bible
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Of course, what would a Bible release season be without a niche-audience release. For those who either love the outdoors or have a large number of hunting enthusiasts among their congregations, the Mossy Oak Compact Bible comes with the NKJV text and features a durable softcover binding that also happens to be camouflage. Small enough to fit in any tent, this Bible is tailor-made for those who feel guilty about going hunting on Sunday mornings.
Not Necessarily New ... But Still Worth Checking Out
Apologetics Study Bible
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Cost: Ranges from $39.99 (hardcover) to $89.99, depending on binding
In an era when any worldview is accepted, the Apologetics Study Bible is an invaluable tool for pastors, leaders and believers passionate about either defending their faith or exploring why Christians believe what they do. With more than 100 articles from many of the best-known apologists in the world today (e.g., Ravi Zacharias, Gary Habermas, Lee Strobel), this version comes in the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation and includes, among other things, dozens of study notes and profiles of various defenders of the faith throughout history.
Standard Full Color Bible
Publisher: Standard Publishing
Cost: Ranges from $49.99 (hardcover) to $59.99, depending on binding
When opened, does your Bible practically glow in the dark from all the passages you've highlighted with a neon marker? Some readers of the Word are more, well, "active than others with their note-taking. If you're among that crowd, the Standard Full Color Bible is right up your alley. From Genesis to Revelation, every verse is color-coded and categorized into 12 different themes such as Faith, Family, Outreach, History and God. The result is a topically driven version of the Bible that's a useful tool for preaching, teaching, group study or personal meditation.
The Word of Promise New Testament (MP3)
Inspired by ... The Bible Experience (MP3)
Publishers: Thomas Nelson and Zondervan
Cost: The Word of Promise: $34.99;
Inspired by ... The Bible Experience: $69.99
As audio dramatizations of the Bible, The Word of Promise and Inspired by ... The Bible Experience are now available in MP3 format, making these extremely popular products more accessible to those with MP3 players such as iPods. As an added feature, Zondervan's version includes the full text of the Bible, allowing listeners to follow along with the audio by scrolling through the text on their iPod window. Meanwhile, Thomas Nelson created an ancillary product, 40 Days With the Word of Promise DVD and participant guide to help small groups and churches work through the entire New Testament in 40 days.
Archeological Study Bible
Cost: Ranges from $44.99 (hardcover) to $109.99, depending on binding
Bible scholars worldwide will tell you context is everything. To dig deeper in understanding God's Word, it's crucial to consider the historical contexts in which its books were originally written. The Archeological Study Bible does just that with virtually every page, offering readers an illustrated walk through biblical times, cultures and scenarios. Hundreds of full-color photographs and study notes in multiple categories (historical, archeological, expository, etc.) help to bring the people and places in every passage to vivid life. A great resource for new and mature believers alike.
The truth about apostles, authority and the kingdom of God
Not long ago an international apostolic movement held its regional summit in an American city. The main speaker was one of this movement's leading figures and had chosen to speak on the topic of honor. Within minutes of beginning his address, he began boasting about his numerous cars, multimillion-dollar home and 40 ministries that tithed to him. He exhorted those assembled that if they were true apostolic fathers, they should receive similar honor from their sons and daughters. He then proceeded to talk to them about their clothes: Suits off the rack were fine for preaching in a normal meeting, but ministering at a leader's conference demanded tailor-made.
It's sad enough that anyone representing Jesus would be so foolish and misled. Yet even more troubling is that no one had enough integrity to stand up and confront him. Sadly, incidents like this have become so commonplace in recent years that it's exposed our current misunderstanding of true leadership in God's kingdom. Do we see apostles as the top of the leadership pyramid? More churches around the world are using phrases such as "coming into apostolic alignment" and "coming into divine order" while believing that such hierarchical order is the kingdom of God. But is it?
Of Kings, Priests and Prophets
"In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." " —Judges 21:25
This verse is typically interpreted in the context of a problem to be solved. We lack order and therefore need some form of authority to keep us in alignment. In reality, these are just two statements. It was true that there was no king in Israel; it was also true that everyone was doing whatever he pleased.
Scripture makes it obvious that God didn't want to solve the problem by appointing a king. When Israel demanded a king, 1 Samuel 8:7 shows His response to Samuel: "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them."
How did God rule over His people? He had the priests to teach them the law and the prophets to confront them when they did not keep it. God desired obedience through free conviction rather than any form of coercion. He was willing to accept the possibility of chaos rather than accept the "order" enforced by a king. God didn't want a mediator between Himself and His people.
Submission to a man, even a "man of God," does not place you in a theocracy. At best, it places you in a benevolent dictatorship.
God's desire was a theocracy for which priest and prophet were to provide the foundation. He never intended to make any man a king over His people!
That theocracy shipwrecked upon the reality of the old heart, which could not keep God's ways. That is why both Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Ezekiel (36:25-27) prophesied about the covenant of the new heart upon which God would write His law, in which God would place His Spirit and by which God would cause us to walk in His ways.
The good news encompassing the kingdom of God is that you can know the direct, personal rule of the King in both your individual life and in corporate life. It is the good news of grace that your heart can be forgiven and clean to desire the ways of God, hear the intimate direction of His voice and receive the power of the Spirit to walk with Him.
Removing Our Original Authority
" "But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant." " —Matthew 23:8-11
Those words are in the context of Jesus pronouncing "Woe!" to the religious establishment regarding their lust for power, position and title. But the underlying point isn't so much the destruction caused by the lust for power as the reality that when we rule over others, we are taking a place that God has reserved solely for Himself.
Keep in mind, Jesus never gave any person authority over another person. He gave us authority over sickness and demons and asked us to rule ourselves by dying to ourselves. Those who do so will have functional leadership through example and by invitation, but they will always know themselves as servants.
Restoration movements frequently come and go in which the main emphasis is the authority of leaders over God's people and where the mark of "spirituality" becomes submission. Granted, some good things happen in those movements. But whether we call ourselves apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers or popes, cardinals, bishops and priests, it makes no difference. We're building a religious system based upon man, and we're taking away the authority of the King. The fruit of this is always a cult of leadership privilege and materialism sprinkled with moral failure.
Divine order, understood as the "right" arrangement of leaders in hierarchy, always produces death. This is simply the pride of man in action. Too often we believe that if we simply create the right order then we'll be able to yield the life of God. The truth is, it's the authentic church—not a chain of command—that produces the life of God. There's a big difference!
A Kingdom Built for Friends
Jesus' very life provides a perfect example of this fundamental difference. His "leadership model," if you will, as described in John 15:13-15, is crystal clear: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you."
The One who legitimately could claim all position and title did not do so. He looked into the eyes of men who would soon betray Him and called them His friends. He absolutely and for all time destroyed any possibility of any hierarchy ever representing His kingdom. Skyward-reaching pyramids are for dead people. Yet before the living throne of God is a sea of glass—a mass of flatness in which we all, as brothers and sisters, stand before the One who calls us friend.
You cannot be friends in a hierarchy. Those on the same level are always competitors. Relationships above or below always involve power and control.
Yet the New Testament was written to friends. That is why it has almost 60 "one another" verses that contain 30 "one another" commands, including one about "submitting to one another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:21). It's why there are only six verses that ask for recognition of functional leadership—and each of those is in the context of the "one another" reality. First Peter 5:5 ("Be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility") is normative.
When we grasp the depths to which God desires to establish this kingdom based on friendship and" authentic" submission, then the words and example of Jesus as narrated in John 16:7 become even more startling: "Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you."
The disciples could not imagine anything worse than Jesus going away. Jesus, the greatest leader who ever walked on earth, was telling them it was better for them if He went away! And we think " we" are important, indispensable even? Jesus knew it would be better for His disciples to have the inward leading of the Holy Spirit than even His flesh and blood leadership. He was willing to trust all upon the ability of the Holy Spirit to lead people into the truth. Given this, how can we who claim to be followers of Jesus, ever dare to build leadership cults?
As already shown in John 15, Jesus indicated that with friendship comes some basic responsibilities ... and that is where the problem arises for most believers. Often people want freedom, but not the responsibilities of freedom that come with it. We would rather have a king tell us what to do. (Simultaneously, there are always those among us who want to be king and refuse to call this codependent arrangement the kingdom of God.)
God's kingdom, however, is established among His people. And the authority of that kingdom is distributed through each member of the body as we accept the responsibilities of freedom and ...
1) Seek the King for ourselves. That means you become a self-feeder. You let His grace lead your life. As Dallas Willard says in "The Divine Conspiracy", "You either live by grace or addiction."
2) Fulfill the "one another" commands with a few. If you cannot be the church with your spouse and speak the truth with two or three, your public worship is a show.
3) Disciple our own children. If you cannot disciple your own kids, how can you disciple the nations? If you do not have relational integrity with your own children, with whom will you have it?
4) Multiply our relationship with the King through making disciples. The basic command of the King is to make disciples. This is not about events or programs. Disciples are made by a relational process based in the transparency and humility of doing the "one another" stuff together.
5) Speak the truth to one another so that we might grow up. Accountability in the kingdom is not hierarchical. It is primarily to God and then horizontally to one another.
"And He Gave Some to Be Apostles ..."
Up to this point, we've addressed the nature and "divine order" of God's kingdom. And although you may believe we've abandoned our starting point of questioning the pre-eminence given to apostles in today's churches, we haven't. In fact, everything we have covered factors into the role of a true apostle.
When Jesus established Himself as the victorious King of His kingdom, it redefined apostleship. Today those of us who desire to be citizens of His kingdom need to acquire a New Testament understanding of what an apostle is. The idea of a spiritual chief executive officer at the top of the religious food chain is simply wrong.
We know the word " apostle" means "sent one," but many may not realize that Paul's use of the term is in the Greco-Roman business context regarding slaves. In the day in which Paul wrote, there was a fixed hierarchy among slaves from business directors down to those who did manual chores. The most expendable slave, and thus the least honored, was the "sent one." Why? Travel was often dangerous, so those sent on errands near or far were those whose loss would "matter" the least. They were the most nonessential with the least status. (For further discussion of the cultural meaning behind the term "apostle", go to www.ministrytodaymag.com/apostles
Putting "apostle" on your business card then would be like putting "dishwasher" on your card now. Clearly, it carried a different connotation than what we've made the term into today. Yet in the opening verse of his letter to the Romans, Paul identifies himself first as a "bondservant" or "slave" of Jesus Christ, and then one who has been "called to be an apostle." (First Corinthians 4:8-10 and 2 Corinthians 2:4-10 read properly in this light.)
In John 13, Jesus modeled what the "lowest" household slave would do. He instructed His disciples that this was their paradigm. Christ was free to serve because He knew "that the father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God" (v. 3). His disciples were to emulate this pattern, secure in their friendship with the One who sent Jesus. They were to display their lack for nothing by becoming the "least of these." On the contrary, our need for position and honor is a testimony to our inward poverty.
Our examples are not Saul, David and Solomon. Our examples are Jesus and Paul. Jesus set the standard and gave us the paradigm for His kingdom, in which we call Him King and friend. Paul followed this not by becoming the top religious administrator who went around collecting churches, holding conferences and taking offerings. His calling as apostle wasn't the glamorized ideal many of us carry in our minds.
Paul was simply the first to venture into new territory to found a group of disciples, take the promised persecution in their place and, after these disciples were established, leave them to the Holy Spirit. He didn't stay to play king. And he certainly left no record of teaching his sons about the importance of tailor-made suits.
STEPHEN W. HILL and his wife, Marilyn, began their journey as Jesus People, sitting on the floor talking with people about Jesus. After a 30-year journey through every expression of charismatic experience and ministry, they're back to sitting on the floor talking with people about Jesus. For more information, visit harvest-now.org.
The American household doesn't look like it used to. How are churches reshaping to fit today's fast, furious and fragmented families.
For the last year it's been the mantra of almost every facet of American life, from politics to the economy. Yet of all the changes affecting churches over the last decade, possibly none has been greater than that of the basic shape of the American family. As the structure and values of the family shift, so do churches' worship styles, giving, volunteer involvement and approach to age-specific ministries—most notably, children's ministry.
This isn't an overnight change, of course. Sociologists and culture watchers say changes in the family have been taking place over the last 30 to 40 years. Specifically the move of women from the home to the workplace for both full-time and part-time employment has most altered the family landscape. A 2004 study by Herbert Klein titled "The Changing American Family" found that only 36 percent of mothers with children under age 6 were not working outside the home. Meanwhile, multiple studies and surveys show that couples are marrying later in life and having children at an older age. The result? The average family now has fewer children than in generations past.
Another change impacting local churches is the wide societal acceptance of cohabitation and divorce. As unmarried people live together in continually increasing numbers, more children are born out of wedlock. In 2006, the latest year for which data has been compiled nationally, 38.5 percent of children born were to unmarried parents. This fact and the high divorce rate have created an unprecedented number of single-parent families, most often headed by the mother. An overwhelming 70 percent of African-American babies are born into single-parent families; among the Hispanic population, it's around 50 percent._
Yet these statistics don't jibe with what the majority of Americans say are their "family values." According to a national poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 71 percent of Americans believe "God's plan for marriage is one man and one woman, for life." Though similar, albeit smaller, polls indicate a lower percentage, even the lowest among them can't explain the moral chasm between our ideals about family and the reality.
What, then, does reality look like for the average American family? Fast, furious and fragmented. The faster pace of living among 21st-century families has impacted churches enormously. Churches' schedules, financial decisions and entire ministries are now shaped according to on-the-go families.
Behind their frantic pace is an ever-changing technology weaved into the daily family routine. Studies show that media use—cell phones, Internet, digital games, television, e-mail—soaks up more than nine-and-a-half hours of the average family member's day. (That doesn't include time spent multitasking with such media.) The multiplicity of activities in which parents involve their children, from music lessons to sports to community projects, eats into more of a family's time. And finally is the consumerism mentality, which is itself consuming Americans. If we aren't shopping for new goods, we're online researching them or finding someone to repair our broken ones.
These elements of contemporary family life are yielding unfavorable results. Despite the numerous activities, families are actually spending less time together—and what time families do spend together is largely dedicated to children's activities. Many social scientists agree that today children aren't just an important part of the family—the family agenda revolves around the children. Consequently, children are growing up internalizing values their families exhibit only through their daily habits.
Add all these elements together and you have a set of values that David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, identified as "secular individualism" in a 2008 report on the family: "This value set, which already predominates in the northern European nations, consists of the gradual abandonment of religious attendance and beliefs, a strong leaning toward 'expressive' values that are preoccupied with personal autonomy and self-fulfillment ... and a tolerance of diverse lifestyles."
The Time Factor
The average family's activities, values, focus, time and pace have all changed drastically. Is it any wonder, then, that churches are struggling to keep up with the Joneses?
One issue most pastors agree is the biggest factor in trying to minister to families is how busy people are. Chris Thatcher, pastor of connection and small groups at Cedar Mill Bible Church in Portland, Ore., says this has brought about fragmentation.
"This family fragmentation has been manifested in sports programs and different activities that run seven days a week," he says. "There used to be a break on weekends, but not anymore."
Thatcher believes this plays out in the church as relationships suffer. "People find less time for meaningful relationships centered around things of Christ and the church. Relationship tends to be crowded out."
As parents and children are caught up into more activities, families have started to consider weekends as hallowed times. "It's all a family can do to get to a church service; any involvement is a stretch," Thatcher says.
Across town, Glen Woods, children's pastor at Portland Open Bible Church, concurs. "I've noticed this gradual change as more and more families have less margin. The more children they have, the less margin the family has because of the different activities the kids are in. At home, families have less time together." Woods says he's seen some parents react with a backlash: "They've intuitively recognized the problem and decided to pull back from activities ... including activities at church."
Lance Cummins, worship pastor at NewSpring Church in Wichita, Kan., says his church is in the process of coming to terms with this dynamic. "We believe that families can afford to give [the church] only an hour, maybe two, a week." As a result, NewSpring has pared down its ministry, focusing solely on the weekend. "We've dropped all our other programs and focus just on the weekend, where we've gone to a 'worship one, serve one' model."
NewSprings' emphasis is now on asking parents to worship at one weekend service and then volunteer in another one. The church began offering a Saturday night worship service, identical to its Sunday services, to give congregants one more option as they try to fit church into their crammed schedules.
Streamlining processes and simplifying the schedule is also a method adopted at Cedar Mill, where Thatcher says the pastoral staff is still working out how to minister to the new family model. Part of the change process has been the realization that their former ministry style was actually accommodating family fragmentation, not addressing it. "We decided we need unity and simplicity," Thatcher says. "We don't want to complicate people's lives."
Simplicity is a theme surfacing among countless churches nationwide that are trying to adapt to family needs. Cedar Mill is "trying to do more with less," Thatcher explains. "Everything we do programmatically affects the whole family. We're very cognizant of how much we're asking people to do."
In his role as small groups pastor, Thatcher aims to make involvement as easy as possible. This has translated into providing training for ministry volunteers that's both reproducible and accessible in different venues to accommodate people's varied schedules. A "group life center" in the church lobby, for example, offers information on the latest options, and follow-up is essential. "For those new to the church who wish to join a ministry team, they go through one person who assesses their readiness and walks them through options instead of making [potential volunteers] fish for contacts themselves."
Time—or the lack of it—has certainly changed how churches minister to families. Yet just as dramatic a shift is the way churches must communicate to the average family that's constantly on the go. The children's pastor at Cedar Mill, for example, used to be able to put out a flier about an event a month in advance, and people would participate.
"Now communication three to six months out is crucial," Thatcher says. "If you have more than one or two kids in school, the long lead time is essential because school activities are a competing factor."
At Portland Open Bible Church, lightening the schedule has meant cutting back on committee meetings that Woods says contribute to families' lack of margin. "Instead, we want to live life, to experience actual community."
Thinking through the reality of how families live and worship has pushed the church to acknowledge some hard realities, while also taking innovative steps to deal with these.
"One-third of our families are single-parent homes," Woods cites as an example. "We've had to focus a lot on mentoring parents, especially single parents. The bottom line is that the practical impact we can have on these children with just an hour or two a week is minimal. Let's face it; the odds are against making a lasting impact. The people best postured to do it are the parents."
As a result, Woods strives to build communication channels with parents, seeking open discussion with moms and dads. "When various parents take the opportunity to speak openly to me, I work at not getting defensive. It's opened up a great avenue for ministry."
Woods has also learned to interpret complaints as expressions of need. In fact, one recent complaint resulted in a new class for toddlers through 2-year-olds, which answered a felt need of many parents.
Woods and his volunteer workers are also passionate about assisting children with special medical, emotional and social needs—and not just at church. They dialogue with parents during the week, discussing what each child is doing at school and at home.
"These parents need to see that the church is working for their child, that ministering to the child is a two-way street," Woods says.
New Family Blends and Backgrounds
Increasing numbers of blended families present their own set of needs and concerns for churches, all of which affect church life. Because most children in these situations alternate periods between custodial parents, children's ministries often struggle to find classroom curriculum that can be grasped piecemeal, regardless of how often children are able to attend.
"We know we're going to have certain kids here only every other weekend," Cummins mentions as a practical example NewSpring has faced. "[So] we've learned not to ask the question, 'Where were you last week?'"
Other churches are dealing with cohesion issues beyond blended families. At Rosewood Christian Reformed Church in Bellflower, Calif., the formerly Dutch-American congregation has morphed into an ethnically diverse population where many parents bring their children to a midweek kids program and may attend a weeknight Bible study, but they often don't come on Sundays. As a result, family ministries pastor Bonny Mulder-Behnia says the church has moved intentionally toward community outreach.
"We have to teach and nurture the children with the knowledge that this [midweek program] may be the only hour during the week when they receive any biblical teaching or Christian values," she says.
Since many families don't come to Sunday services, Rosewood reaches out to them through a series of events, such as Kids' Carnival Day at Easter, community pancake breakfasts and Summer Family Nights, where a free meal, VBS-type programming for children and classes for parents are offered.
"While we never assume that parents will have time or desire to nurture the faith of their children at home, we are always trying to find ways to help build families and get them involved in some capacity," Mulder-Behnia says. Her church addresses the busyness issue by holding short-term and one-time events such as church education for adults in five- or six-week sessions in lieu of longer programs.
As Cummins points out, parents desire to be spiritual teachers for their kids but often don't know how. "Families have been impacted by the 'expert culture,'" he explains. "They think only experts can do things well, not parents. They don't feel qualified to teach their children spiritual truth."
In response, teaching pastors affirm parents' roles as spiritual mentors, and the church offers simple guides—including a DVD—for parents to use with their kids to walk through together what the kids learned in the children's ministry that weekend.
Innovation for Unity's Sake
Though distributing a church-created DVD is routine at many churches now, it's an indication of how far churches have come in using technology to minister effectively. The children's ministry at Portland Open Bible Church, for example, has incorporated communication via blogs, cell phones and iPods to connect more with families whose children attend its programs. According to Woods, these tech tools offer parents encouragement as spiritual nurturers and put information for spiritual training into their hands. Such media also help make resources available so parents can make the choice to utilize what their children are learning at church. Woods found that launching a children's ministry blog, with regular postings of photos of the kids at church has started a buzz. "Everyone loves to see photos of their kids, and the blog is another point of connection that gives us the opportunity to initiate a faith conversation."
Whether it's through blogs or simple phone calls, the key for most churches is using new ways to connect people within the congregation. For years, churches have catered their services to different worship styles, age groups and individual preferences. Yet lately many churches are discovering that intergenerational worship can be a connective point that reduces fragmentation and draws families back into relationships with one another.
Cedar Mill Bible Church started an intergenerational service where all the members worship together. Thatcher said his own spiritual experience was strengthened when, instead of his young son being in the children's program elsewhere on the campus, they celebrated communion together for the first time. "I was thrilled, and it was a tangible example of supporting intergenerational unity," he said. "We're going to keep doing that—anything and everything we can to support unity as it relates to families."
The key, as every minister discovers at some point along the journey, is to stay true to the vision God has given a church—especially through the reconfigurations. Rosewood recently experienced this, as its community-focused vision enveloping the diversity of cultures around them resulted in some middle-class Anglo families opting out. Mulder-Behnia says while this has hurt the church financially, they've chosen to celebrate the ministry that God has given them and the fruit they are reaping.
"It's extremely hard to stay focused, and really easy to justify adding new things," adds Cummins. "There are so many good programs out there. The key for us is to stay laser-focused on the few things we do well, and do them well."
It's that focus that will allow churches to stem the tide against family fragmentation and instead unify those in their communities. Because although the family unit may not look the same as it did a generation ago, it remains the core element of our society—and, as such, the most fertile ground for church ministry.
Homeschool mom and freelance writer KAREN SCHMIDT has worked with kids since she was an Awana leader in high school. She feels totally blessed to be part of a remarkable, small Baptist church in northwestern Washington.