A children's ministry can take diverse forms. In many settings, it's a traditional Sunday school department headed by a hardworking lay leader and a cadre of committed volunteers. Some children's ministries end up as pseudo-educational child care arrangements. Overall, the common denominators of most children's ministries are their structural components: curriculum, programs, facilities. Can a children's ministry exist—possibly even thrive—without these?
Unquestionably. At least six churches in the United States have permitted God to transform their ministry to kids into something dynamic and alive. Each of the churches profiled here views youngsters as a core element in their body. Astonishingly, not one pastor of the six mentioned curriculum, programs or a facility (though they certainly use these). Instead, for them it's all about God—and kids—in church.
Christ Triumphant Church
(Lee's Summit, Mo.)
"We don't want kids who look like us [spiritually]. We want to train up a generation that surpasses us," says pastor Alan Koch. That's part of what drives the children's ministry at Christ Triumphant Church, located on the outskirts of Kansas City, Mo. Koch believes children's ministry is central to his 300-member church. "It's a core value, a priority."
Led primarily by his wife and co-pastor, Carol, the children's ministry is, in Alan's words, "destroying paradigms of not having enough people, finances or other resources. It's also theological. All through the Bible, children are used mightily by the Lord. Look at Samuel, Josiah, Timothy and Mary." Alan says that though Christ Triumphant lacks a vast budget and robust roster of volunteers, through sheer desire to integrate children into the life of the church, it has happened.
Today there are children's teams for prayer, prophecy and evangelism, just as there are adult teams. As children, they can learn to know God, hear His voice and experience Him while still children, Carol Koch emphasizes. "They're able to begin to be mentored in their areas of ministry, just like adults."
Despite having no personal calling to children's ministry, Carol said she started theirs because no one else would do it: "I complained to the Lord that I didn't want to do it, but He told me to put into them what's in me. I agreed that I could do that. So whatever the Lord was teaching me that week, that's what I taught the children, on their level."
That means Christ Triumphant's young people don't just get taught foundational Bible truths, they're also urged to apply those truths in everyday life. And although the children have their own meetings on Sundays and Wednesdays, they also actively participate in Sunday worship service—dancing, carrying banners, serving as ushers, giving prophetic words if led and praying for healing alongside adults.
Recently during a prayer session for a church member battling Lou Gehrig's disease, adults were fervently praying for healing. Children began trickling into the meeting when their kids' session was over.
"Soon children were praying with the adults, catching the flow of what was going on," Alan relates. "There was a second wind of the Spirit that came in as the kids prayed fervently for healing for this man. It really encouraged the adults."
As the first wave of youngsters from the children's ministry moves into the youth group, Alan says the youth pastor is reaping the rewards of kids who have a passion for God, who know how to hear Him and who desire to worship. The effect of the children on the adults also has been noticeable, the Kochs explain.
"Families are growing spiritually healthy together with every member a vital part. The kids know that this isn't just their parents' church, it's their church too."
Marysville Free Methodist Church
When an entire generation of high school and college students left his church a few years ago, pastor Victor Rodriguez was forced to rethink what was happening with children in the suburban western Washington fellowship. His conclusion: The young people lacked personal spiritual formation. "If we're going to be militant, let's be militant in grounding them in their faith in both action and words," he recalls thinking.
Rodriguez realized at that juncture that the children needed to be more hands-on in their growth. "Kids aren't just like adults. Christianity isn't a mind meld, mainly putting stuff in. We can believe the right stuff and live the wrong way."
Renovating the children's department meant providing opportunities for kids to both express and experience their beliefs: express through church leadership roles and experience through service outside the church. Faith had to become practice.
A midweek energetic Kids Club emerged, drawing a high percentage of community children and offering those who attended the church regularly a way to use their spiritual gifts and abilities. The older elementary-age kids became junior leaders who started taking ownership of Kids Club—performing puppet skits, leading music, greeting newcomers and setting up weekly. This taste of involvement created a hunger for more, so this small squad of 8- to 11-year-olds gelled into a group named JoLT, the Junior Leadership Team. They began learning how to help in the nursery, usher on Sundays, operate the office machines and serve meals to families. They put on gloves and hard hats and gleaned litter off the main boulevard outside the church—a task typically performed by adult church members.
Today the ministry considers itself adjunctive to each child's home in terms of spiritual education. "The parent is the primary spiritual leader," states Kids Club director Shawna Gould. "We're creating a platform for the children to desire God more than anything else. Everything we do must help a child find purpose in Christ. Part of that is giving children the tools and opportunity to become involved in ministry themselves. So we continue exposing them to the areas of the church—outreach, teaching, music, serving—where their spiritual gifts are needed and useful."
The desire to serve and be useful to God has also propelled the children beyond church walls. Last summer a citywide outreach organized by an alliance of churches opened a new window for the young leaders. The JoLT team volunteered to minister to the city's kids via puppetry. The crew wrote its own puppet play, practiced independently, set up the stage on the outreach day and performed. "The community here rarely sees puppets," Gould says. "They were mesmerized."
Rodriguez says the youth attrition rate is reversing. "We see our teens who have graduated, instead of leaving the church, are staying to be involved in leadership. This is in direct proportion to JoLT ... because we're trying to equip them for ministry. We're saying, 'You can do ministry at your level.' The disciples asked Jesus for more faith. Jesus told them to just use what you have. That's something kids can understand."
Rock of Ages Church
St. Robert, MO.
A visitor entering a worship or prayer service at Rock of Ages Church in St. Robert, Mo., might be taken aback. The anticipated worship, praise and sermon would be unexpectedly punctuated by children worshiping with abandon, standing at the altar with hands raised and praying out loud for a spoken need. But for Tim O'Brien, who pastors the church of about 100 members, "It's nothing out of the ordinary."
"Kids are a part of church life just like everybody else," O'Brien affirms. "They should be doing everything [adults are] doing." That philosophy has been the compass for Rock of Ages since 1996, when the entire church sought change in its children's area. Four months of prayer and fasting led the congregation to the conclusion that "we wanted kids and youth to be experiencing God in the sanctuary with us—all together." Soon after, it became clear that children's ministry would be at the core of the church.
"We're looking to make disciples of Jesus Christ now, disciples who are doing supernatural works today," O'Brien explains. "Kids aren't the church of tomorrow but of today. We respect and expect—respect them as the spiritual beings they are, who have the Holy Spirit, not the junior Holy Spirit." O'Brien says children in his church, when treated with respect for their spiritual potential, rise to the occasion and live out their faith in supernatural ways: through laying on of hands for healing, evangelizing, speaking words of knowledge and praying deeply.
The one goal of children's ministry at Rock of Ages, according to O'Brien, is integration. He doesn't see his congregation putting kids on display, nor treating their manner of worship and spiritual behavior as anything unusual. "It's just the expression of who they are in Christ."
While the children break out into their own age-level groups partway through the Sunday worship service and during Wednesday night teaching sessions, they always are welcomed back into adult gatherings. Many children voluntarily attend weekly "adult" prayer meetings on Monday. One thing it seems that children at Rock of Ages don't abide is entertainment.
"Today's kids are entertainment-driven," O'Brien contends. "There's nothing wrong with puppet shows, but now our kids won't tolerate too much entertainment." He says that once the young people were taught the language of the Spirit, they quickly picked it up and began living in it.
Integrating children into the church fabric has resulted in changes throughout the body. Adults have been inspired to deepen their own prayer and worship. Some parents who had been on the fringes have been drawn in by their children's example. In fact, a few adults have come to salvation in Christ as a result of the children's experience of God.
At times, tension has also surfaced. "We've had people say, 'You're emphasizing kids too much; what about the adults?' " However, educating congregants about the church philosophy has apparently resolved the issue. O'Brien says no one has left the church over it. And to this point it seems everyone at Rock of Ages seems to understand one thing: If you're a kid, going to church isn't just another child-care opportunity.
First Christian Church
Huntington Beach, Calif.
We live in a culture where children dominate," muses Bruce Templeton, senior pastor at First Christian Church in Huntington Beach, Calif. "If a child isn't happy with their soccer team, their parent is going to move them to another team. If the child is not happy with their school, they move to a new school. It's a child-centered culture. We've made our children's ministry good intentionally, because if the kids like being here, we're ultimately going to get the parents."
At this suburban church, children's ministry focuses on connecting children to Christ, the adults who lead them and each other. "We want to make sure kids come to a safe place to learn about Jesus and to develop their full potential in Him, to accomplish His purposes in their lives at an early age," states Templeton. The "safe" aspect is highly relevant, says children's ministry pastor Kurt Goble, because if kids don't like the environment or the people, "they're not coming back. Parents cater to the comfort level and emotional needs of their kids, so it's important to make the children feel safe."
Although having fun is an obvious and needed component of children's activities, Goble says there's always more going on at a deeper level. "I asked our third to fifth graders what they want to know about spiritual things and heard them asking deep questions. When I teach to those deeper topics, which most adults think are over kids' heads, the kids really appreciate it and connect with it."
For instance, last year Goble discovered that one of his favorite programs wasn't working. He experimented with a replacement and began teaching a weekly theology class for upper elementary-age children. "The first night we talked about what theology means, what an atheist and an agnostic are," he says. "Those would seem like college-level philosophy ideas, but it's amazing because the kids are really into it. I don't think preteen kids are accustomed to adults taking them so seriously. It makes in impact when we do."
Templeton and Goble both point to the church's emphasis in recent years of "seeing the church grow because of children's ministry. We're getting kids in the door and getting families in the door as a result. We have new kids come with a friend. They like it, and after a few weeks we see the parents coming."
Goble also sees children individually blooming in their own spiritual journeys. At a beach trip last year, an elementary student asked Goble to baptize her. Her friend, a first-time visitor, asked what baptism meant—to which the girl promptly gave her a step-by-step explanation of the gospel. "She didn't even think about it," Goble says. "She was just telling her friend all about Jesus."
Involving the children in service is also significant, as Templeton points to the large number of fifth graders that volunteered to work at the preschool VBS last summer and thrived in the opportunity. "We've seen lots of our students, nurtured over the years, now utilizing their serving skills in the church and the community. I'm seeing what every pastor would love to see in their children's ministry: children becoming disciples of Jesus."
The City of Refuge Christian Fellowship
It always bothered pastor Bruce Gunkle that kids were pushed into a backroom at church. He calculated the ratio of time children spent learning about God versus time being exposed to the world through school, peers and the media. "I knew not enough was being put into our kids [spiritually]," he says. "So we started teaching them at a higher level, and they were very receptive."
The transformation began about four years ago. Today children at The City of Refuge in San Antonio are no longer confined to backrooms. Instead, kids ages 3 and older are fully involved with adults in worship, moving in the Spirit, speaking words of knowledge, interceding and prophesying.
Sylvia Crutchfield works directly with the children, teaching "truths like the difference between body, soul and spirit. They understand that God, being Spirit, talks to our spirits. After our teaching time, we're in worship. The children practice hearing God and prophesying. We correct them and teach them as they experience God. And they're praying. I've seen them get into such deep prayer that even though adult worship is over the children still are praying. They're not back there just waiting for adult church to be over."
Although the children spend part of the Sunday service in a separate area in their own worship, they are often incorporated into the prayer time with the adults. "When adults prophesy, we let the children say what the Lord is saying to them too," Gunkle says.
At The City of Refuge, it's accepted that children will use their spiritual gifts the same way the adults do. "The same Holy Spirit that's in adults is in the children," Gunkle states.
He points to examples of families in which children spoke to their parents about what they saw occurring in the spiritual realm. "In one family who was having financial difficulty, their 4-year-old had a dream, which her father understood to be related to the financial issues they were battling."
After being taught how to pray in the Spirit, the children's urge to pray has become so strong that the tide of their involvement is moving well outside the church walls. Gunkle relates that young people are boldly and confidently evangelizing their friends and classmates, even talking to teachers about Jesus and salvation.
Gunkle and Crutchfield both consider their guidance of the church's children as a long-term investment for both their local community and the entire city.
"We're ministering to the future of this church, to future marriages, bosses, Christian businesses. These future church leaders are growing into their roles while still in their youth," Gunkle says. In fact, the church youngsters, along with those of several other churches, get together once a quarter to pray for San Antonio, for America and even for political elections. "These children are dancing before the Lord, weeping and prophesying for our country. We're beginning to link arms with other churches in this city, and we see the city of San Antonio being impacted. That's part of our desire—that all the children of San Antonio can move in God's spirit."
If a pastor could initiate a single change in a congregation's spiritual life, having a more profound devotion to prayer would at least be in the top five. So when pastor Brian Spitzer sees children in his church praying more often and more fervently, he realizes that his children's ministry goal of biblical transformation is in fact taking place.
"One of the biggest areas where we sense change in our children [as a result of our ministry] is in the quality of the children's prayer lives and what they're praying for," Spitzer says. "As they share their prayer requests, pray and come back later to share how God is answering their prayers, God is becoming a very real component in their lives. He's not just a big God they can't relate to, but He's someone who knows and provides for their needs."
Spitzer has worked with the children's ministry at Grandview Church for much of his 18-year tenure at the church, which numbers about 400 people. About four years ago the children's ministry entered a period of transformation—one that Spitzer attributes partly to him hearing a life-changing statement. "I heard that when a child places his faith in Christ and a new birth takes place, he has not been given a junior version of the Holy Spirit. That concept just changes your thinking about how children should be involved in the church," he says.
Out of the children's ministry makeover emerged a realization that relationship is the critical element in training up kids who live their faith.
"It's about interacting with the Bible and with godly leaders, rather than just knowledge gathering," Spitzer explains. "Our children's ministry is about building the bond of relationship between kids and the adults working with them."
He argues that the common measuring stick of children's ministry—how many workbooks have been finished, how many verses have been memorized—is sterile compared to really knowing God.
To help kids in that process, teachers in the children's programs are expected to live out an authentic daily faith that the young people can observe. Spitzer urges children's workers to make the lessons they teach come alive in their own lives. "Lessons are important, but what matters is that the kids see that [following Christ] works," he believes.
Spitzer acknowledges that Grandview hasn't "arrived" when it comes to making children an integral part of the church; it's sometimes a struggle. But kids are gradually being involved more in Sunday worship, mission outreaches, service opportunities and leadership. They're also being incorporated into serving with the worship team on Sunday mornings, which Spitzer envisions will eventually result in young people leading worship.
"We know we should do more of this kind of thing," he says. "We're not great at it yet, but as adults get the vision, we're all able to challenge the children to be what God intends them to be."
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.