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.