Set your spiritual goals first, then tailor your ministry programming to accomplish those goals.
The most effective children's ministry is done backward. In other words, as Steven Covey wrote in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind."
Recently I was meeting with a group of children's pastors. We were discussing various ways that we could make our Sunday morning preschool programs more effective. I asked what I thought was a reasonable question: "What are the primary ministry goals that you have for your preschool programs? What are the spiritual concepts you want 4-and 5-year-olds to be able to grasp?" Silence.
We eventually got into some meaningful discussion, but I was struck by the fact that--far too often--we make decisions about curriculum, program formats and classroom activities based on various criteria other than "Will this help me accomplish the ministry objectives I have for my kids?"
CLEVER VS. BETTER
It seems curriculum publishers are getting ever more sophisticated in "selling the sizzle" of their latest curriculum resource or program. This is not a sin. It's actually exciting to see publishers bringing new levels of innovation and creativity to their programs.
But what happens is that we often get sucked into making decisions about what we offer our children based more on the cleverness of the curriculum ad spin than by analyzing how it will help us achieve our ministry goals.
A program can have the coolest puppet character, the hottest room design, the most high-tech resource room this side of Disney Animation Studios, while the lessons, activities, skits, crafts and illustrated-sermon stories lack substance and the ability to impact the heart of a child.
The Bible has a phrase to describe this problem: "tinkling brass and crashing cymbals." Children's leaders are prone to being impressed with the latest high-tech gizmos. This problem may have its root in the fact that for years, publishers cranked out one tired, plain-vanilla style of curriculum after another. Children's ministers were starved for some creativity and excellence.
Now the pendulum has swung too far the other way. In their zeal to "compete" with the ever-shrinking attention spans of our kids, they are delivering more color, creativity and pizazz in their programs. This is a good thing. But the hype can often mask a basic shortcoming in the lesson content.
Have you ever pulled out an object lesson at the last minute, presented it to your kids only to ask yourself, Now what was the point I was trying to make? Too often we do something without really knowing the point of it or without asking ourselves the critical question: "Does this activity really help me accomplish a specific goal?"
SETTING SPIRITUAL GOALS
One reason we are reticent to set specific, measurable goals for what we want our children to learn is a mistaken notion that we shouldn't set measurable goals because we're dealing with spiritual things.
So we set out at the beginning of one quarter to work on this. I chose a curriculum that I felt would help me accomplish this goal, and I would review each week's lesson to see if and how I felt it should be modified to match the particular ministry objectives I had.
At the beginning of the quarter, I would ask during the kids' service how many felt they had "heard from God this week?" Very few hands went up--confirming in my own heart that we indeed had the right focus for our lessons. In addition to classroom activities, we made room in our service to allow the kids time to "practice" talking to God and listening to His answers.
I gave them ideas and examples (both biblical and contemporary) of the various ways that God speaks to us. By the end of the quarter, I had a significantly higher percentage of kids who would raise their hands to say that they heard God speak to them and could back it up with a specific example. I set a measurable goal and worked on it.
You can apply this principle throughout your children's ministry programs and at every age level. The result is that you can no longer just choose the curriculum your denomination recommends and blindly teach it week in and week out. You must pray and seek God's direction. What does He want to see developed in the hearts of your children?
Once you get a measure of direction, you can begin to meet with your workers and map out a strategy for how best to see your goals and objectives accomplished.
Are you called to work on the basics, giving kids a solid underpinning of evangelical doctrine so they know what they believe? Perhaps you should help them get a "kingdom perspective" from which they can better see the circumstances of their daily lives from the view of what's most important to God as opposed to what's in it for me.
Recently, I was asked to lead the children at our church in conducting a short program for our Christmas Eve service. Before picking songs to sing, my goal was to determine the central point I wanted our children to grasp through learning the program.
My focus was not on the performance but on what God wanted the children to receive from it. That is my role as a children's ministry leader: to partner with God and parents to help train their children in the way they should go.
But if I don't know the way, how can I train them in it? We wanted to help kids see how God's gift of Jesus to us is more than a one-time present that we celebrate at Christmastime. Rather, Jesus is a "gift that keeps on giving."
So we wrote a short Christmas program that focused on communicating that Jesus is God's ultimate gift of love to mankind. Then we developed a series of lessons in which we could take class time both to rehearse the program and to reinforce the message of the program through our teaching and activities.
We even created a weekly take-home challenge that encouraged the kids to put into practice some aspect of what they were learning in class. We began with the end in mind and then calibrated our programs to accomplish the goals that I believe God had given us.
As you begin the new year, take some time to seek God's direction for what ministry goals and objectives He wants to see developed in the lives of your kids. Be prepared to come up with a written set of ministry objectives for each classroom or age group of children you oversee. Then evaluate your curriculum programs and see if they are well targeted to help you accomplish those goals.
You may want to try some new programs or change up what you are doing to more closely calibrate to the things you believe the Holy Spirit wants to see accomplished in your kids' lives. If you need advice or help in knowing what programs are available, feel free to call our office. We have a team of curriculum "ministry consultants" who are very familiar with all the programs we offer as well as what's published by other companies.
Let this year be the year that the children take a prominent role in seeing the ministry of your church make an impact on the community around them and the world!