To discover one of the most essential components of a healthy, thriving church, simply slip out of your Sunday morning service for a moment and take a peek in the nursery or the children's church. Children's ministry is a key gauge in determining a church's health. And the fact is, if you're not doing a regular checkup on the vitality of your children's ministry, you can be sure the parents and families who attend or visit your church are!
If your church is typical, probably one-quarter of the total attendance is made up of young people 12 years of age and under. But is one-quarter of your church's time, finances, resources and attention focused on ministering to kids? If not, here are some foundational principles to consider.
God Works Through Generations
The importance of children to the heart of God is clearly evidenced in the Scriptures. For starters, it just makes sense that God's sovereign plan for mankind cannot be contained or completed within the span of one generation. Consequently, God works through generations.
Dale Evrist pastors a thriving church in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. His church motto is that they are "called to neighbors, nations and generations." I like that thinking. Evrist understands that to reach our lost and broken world, we must not limit ministering life and health only to adult believers.
Pass on faith to the next generation. The church must be actively involved in the ongoing process of passing on our living faith to the next generation, to ensure that the young ones "get it"--that they experience the life of Christ and not merely observe it in us.
Read Genesis 18:19. In this verse we see God speaking with pride and hope about His servant Abraham. This passage clearly reveals that God is willing to impart His blessing and favor upon Abraham, in part because He knows Abraham will be faithful to impart the ways of God to his children.
Raise up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. From the beginning of time, it has always been central to God's call on us to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Psalm 33:11 says that one generation shall declare His works to the next.
God thinks generationally. When we sinned in the garden, what was God's response? The promise of a seed. When the children of Israel became ensnared in the clutches of the Egyptian empire, how did God rescue? By sending a baby down the Nile River.
How did our Redeemer come? As a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. The Scriptures are clear that passing on our living faith to the next generation is central to the work of the kingdom.
Don't just teach--pastor your children. Too often we get into an "education" mind-set with children's ministry. We refer to the children in our care as "students." Our places of ministry we call "classrooms," and those whom we entrust to minister to the kids we call "teachers." Is all this education wrong? Of course not. However, I think we settle for far too small a goal when we make instruction the end result we desire.
It's not what kids know that will keep them saved or empower them for a life of on-purpose ministry and service. It's Who they know. A young boy who knows he has been called by God and has experienced His presence will not easily make getting into a gang or getting a girl pregnant his highest ambition in life. Likewise, a young woman who knows the voice of her heavenly Father and has experienced His love will not easily settle for the approval of men and miss out on the high calling of becoming a "handmaiden of the Lord."
Too often we are content to teach our children the Ten Commandments and have them devote hours of time to memorizing Scripture, learning all about who God is and His ways. While this is not wrong, it clearly is not enough. The Scripture teaches that even the devil knows all about God.
We must help children encounter God in an ongoing, ever-expanding and life-changing way. Signs and wonders and the very presence of God--not mere Bible trivia head knowledge--must be what we seek in the life of each child.
Get a hold of God's vision for your children's ministry. Children's workers are typically the most overworked and burned-out bunch of folks you will encounter. I've taught children's ministry seminars across the country through the last several years and without exception, when I ask for a show of hands, there is always a significant percentage of people in the crowd who are on the brink of giving up.
I'm convinced that one of the reasons for this is that children's workers get into the trap of teaching lessons without an overarching sense of purpose or vision for what they are trying to accomplish in the lives of the children. That would be like you getting up in front of your congregation each Sunday to preach a sermon out of a book of sermons you picked up at your local Christian bookstore. What if you preached that sermon without a sense of the Holy Spirit's leading or any sort of direction from God for how to disciple and empower your congregation? How futile!
Insist that your Christian education director or children's pastor take time to seek the face of God and communicate with you on what they sense the Spirit is saying. Better yet, be involved with your children's ministry leadership in setting the vision and direction. What is the spiritual depth of the under-12 congregation? What does God want to impart to them in the coming year? I suggest that after prayer and fasting, you have an annual plan for what aspects of spiritual growth you want to see achieved in the lives of children at each age level.
Set measurable goals and make time quarterly to step back and see how you are doing. Evaluate your curriculum and programs to make sure they are actually helping you accomplish the things you sense God wants to see happening in the lives of the children. For example, recently I sensed that the Holy Spirit wanted us to work on helping the children in our church learn to recognize God's voice and how He speaks to us.
Our vision statement is to help the children know the reality of God's presence in their lives, recognize His purpose for their lives and experience His power operating through their lives. Part of knowing God's presence is learning to discern when He speaks to us. So for a number of weeks we devoted part of our children's church time to talking about the ways God speaks to us, inviting other adults to come in and share testimonies of recent events where God spoke to them. Most importantly, we took time to practice being quiet, waiting for God to speak, as well as talking to God in prayer.
As a result, by a show of hands at the end of the quarter, there were more kids who could recount a time that week when they felt God was speaking to them than before we started to work on this. One young girl, after one of our "quiet times," came up to me with a wide-eyed look of excitement and exclaimed, "I felt God hug me!"
Find ways to help children experience God. In 1 John 1:1-4 Paul talks about sharing with others the thing of God that he has beheld with his eyes and touched with his own hands. In other words, Paul challenges us to not merely pass along good Christian theory, but practical, touchable experience with God.
How much more effective would our ministry time with kids be if, rather than teaching them about the tabernacle of David, they experienced God's presence in a profound and life-changing way. Next week, rather than giving a fun, five-point lesson on the power of prayer, give kids the opportunity to actually pray and hear God's voice for themselves.
If our words only impact a child's head and never touch his heart, we've missed it. Too much emphasis on information will keep kids from experiencing impartation. But impartation is what will lead to transformation of their lives from the ordinary to extraordinary living. Here are four simple steps to consider when evaluating what you teach and do with your children:
1. Give kids the Word of God. Make sure they know what's in the Bible and what's not. Let them know that the Word is true, every word of it, and that it can be trusted.
2. Don't focus merely on the lesson, but be sure you focus on the point of the lesson. For example, the lesson may be "Saul anoints David as King." However, memorizing that fact and knowing that it really happened is only step one.
Step two says that you seek the Holy Spirit's guidance to discern what He wants the kids to get out of that portion of Scripture. What is the overriding principle or "life-word" that you want the kids to grasp? In the Sunday school material we publish, we call this the "power point" of the lesson. Make sure the children's ministry workers (and pastors) are all focused on helping children grasp the point of the lesson, rather than simply reciting the lesson itself.
3. Make the point of the lesson relevant to the child's world today. It's not enough to know that God chose David to be a king. Kids need to know that God is still choosing kids today and calling them to be leaders and kings in their generation.
4. Help the children personalize the point of the lesson. Not only does God still call young people today as He called young David, but each child needs to grasp that "God is calling me!" This is that "ah-ha" moment when the light bulb goes on and the message becomes life to the child.
A Church Modeling
Healthy Children's Ministry
One of the greatest challenges you face with children's workers is helping them step out of the classroom mentality, where they think their ministry begins and ends with the class time. Remember, you are not recruiting teachers but children's ministry workers: pastors who will, as Jeanne Mayo, one of the greatest youth pastors of all time says, "be Jesus with skin on" for those kids. How do you do that?
Well for starters, model it yourself. You know that your role as a shepherd extends far beyond giving a great sermon a couple times on Sunday. Take time to impart that same kind of thinking into your children's workers. Make it easy for them to connect with kids and their parents outside of the classroom setting.
For example, create a database of all the children in your church. Once a quarter, or perhaps every other month, print out mailing labels and affix them onto pre-paid post cards. Then pass the cards out to your children's workers. Ask each one to write a brief handwritten note of encouragement to each child.
A typical Sunday school worker might have somewhere between four to 10 postcards to write and mail. No big deal. However, imagine the encouragement the child feels when he or she gets a personal note from their Sunday school teacher.
The important thing is that you are training your volunteer workers to think beyond the classroom and into the home. Bill Wilson, founder of Metro Ministries, reaches almost 20,000 children each week in the inner city of Brooklyn, New York, and surrounding areas. There are churches across the world that are reaching children through the principles Wilson teaches. How did this incredible ministry come about? In one word: visitation.
That's right, the secret of Wilson's incredible success is that everyone on his staff, paid and volunteer alike, are expected to go out into the neighborhoods each week and call on the kids that come to his Yogi Bear Sunday school program. Will all your children's ministry workers go out and do personal in-home visits? Not likely. But you can begin to train them to think beyond the classroom, to find ways to connect with kids outside the Sunday school hour and build relationships that can impact a child for eternity.
If you are like most people, you probably can't remember much of anything you were taught in Sunday school. But I'd bet you could remember a teacher or a significant adult influence that helped shape your destiny. Discipleship is more caught than taught--so invest in building up and training your team.
Pastoral Involvement is Essential
Invest time and training in your children's ministry team. Most pastors I know are very picky about who they let on the platform on Sunday morning, even to do such mundane things as go over announcements. Before someone can stand up in front of the congregation as a praise leader, Scripture reader, altar worker, and so on, they have to be pretty thoroughly checked out.
Yet when it comes to recruiting Sunday school workers (or worse yet, nursery workers), we are content to find warm bodies to fill the slots. Remember, we are looking for people with a pastor's heart to shepherd the young flock of God. The typical stereotype is to look for a spinsterly older woman who probably retired from the public school system. I say, let's go after people with passionate hearts who love to worship, who are on-fire for God and who are winning their neighbors to Christ!
If you are not going to be able to directly pastor the children (because you are so tied up with ministering to the adults), then be sure to find people with hearts on-fire for God to represent Christ to your kids. Kids thrive off of energy and in an instant can smell out a fake, someone who's just going through the motions.
Set high standards for the people you want to have ministering to your kids. But don't merely set those standards and walk away expecting your children's education director to magically recruit all the help he or she needs. You need to take personal responsibility to help build the pastoral staff of volunteers who will work with the children. Consider starting a midweek Bible study or home group that you lead, just for children's church and nursery workers.
Be personally involved with training children's workers. Show your workers honor by awarding them plaques for years of service, regularly talk about the children's ministry and share testimonies with the entire congregation of how the Lord is blessing in the various ministries you offer for kids.
Strive for excellence in your programs and presentation. Often we place a high priority on the most visible aspects of our church ministry, such as the worship music, the sermon, the grounds and facilities. Do you expect excellence in those areas, but are willing to put up with mediocrity in your Sunday school ministry or preschool ministry? Maybe you don't see what goes on in those areas week after week, but the children and parents do!
Do an Excellence Audit
Why not do an "excellence audit" of your children's ministry programs? Here is a checklist of 10 things to look for. See how your church scores:
1. Make the rooms look awesome and age-appropriate. Are the rooms where you hold services colorful and decorated with age-appropriate visuals at eye level? Remember, kids today are multisensory and respond best to learning that involves all the senses--sight, sound, hearing, touch and even smell.
Adults like banners hanging in the sanctuary. What do the kids see when they arrive? Make sure children never arrive to a boring beige or quiet classroom. Have music playing, and draw kids in with eye-popping color and interactive activities.
2. Make your programs exciting. Use prizes, contests, games, dramas, music (either recorded or recruit people who play instruments), food, and so on, to capture the attention of kids. Lecture alone won't cut it. Jesus said we are to be fishers of men. Make sure you use the right bait when trying to win kids. Make coming to church a fun experience and a place kids want to bring their friends.
3. Use age-appropriate language. Kids in the preschool and early elementary ages think concretely and do not grasp the spiritual concepts that can be effective with older kids and adults. When you say "God told me" something, what you probably mean is that while you were talking to God, a thought came into your mind to do something you believe He wanted you to do.
Listen to how your workers talk to the kids. Ask yourself: Are they excited? Do they bore you? Do they speak to children in ways they can understand? Are nursery workers praying over the babies or merely changing diapers? Slip out of the adult service and do a "walking tour" of your children's ministry. It may be an eye-opening experience.
4. Variety is the spice of life. Keep kids interested and involved by bringing a high degree of creativity and variety into your programs. For example, you might have a memory verse each week. But one week it might be presented as a drama, the next week as a word scramble relay race, the next week with a puppet show, the next week as a rap. You get the idea. Train workers to be enthusiastic, to come prepared and have tons of energy when ministering with kids.
5. Be faithful and organized. Do your ministry workers arrive before the class begins? There's nothing that unnerves a parent more than to show up to church in time to drop off their child, only to find the classroom unattended.
Do the workers have a schedule and know when they are expected to teach? Are parents given proper notice of upcoming events? Do the children have name tags? Do the parents know what are the check-in procedures and discipline procedures?
Are all the children's ministry workers screened? Is it easy for parents to find the classrooms? Are there greeters stationed on Sunday morning to escort new families to the right meeting area?
6. Provide lots of opportunity for kids to do ministry. Do your programs involve ministry "lab work"? When I was in college, I took courses such as biology that involved both a lecture format (usually in a room with hundreds of students) and lab work. I could take diligent notes to learn all about the anatomy of a cat, but get me in a lab with the opportunity to actually dissect a cat and see the internal organs--that's when the real learning happened.
Are you involving your kids in prayer walks, giving them opportunities to present a dramatization of the gospel to others, using them on the worship team, asking them to help with the offering and hanging their praise banners in the fellowship hall?
7. Make your ministry with kids visible. Do you have family worship services in which children and adults can worship together? Are children encouraged to show up on church work days?
Don't marginalize your ministry with kids by seldom talking about it or promoting it. How much space in the church bulletin or weekly newsletter is devoted to sharing what goes on in ministry with kids? Encourage children to share testimonies before adults of how God is moving in their services and in their lives.
8. Have a clear vision and ministry plan. As mentioned earlier, it is essential that your senior leadership have a clear vision for what you want the children in your congregation to be in the Lord and measurable goals to be sure your programs and plans are on track and effective in fulfilling the stated vision.
Just as important to having a vision and plan is making sure that everyone on your children's ministry team knows that plan. Provide regular training for them, at least quarterly, but monthly is better. Do the parents know the vision and buy into it?
9. Partner with the parents. In Proverbs 22:6 the Word tells us to "train up our children in the way they should go." That verse, while quoted all the time in children's ministry, was not written to Sunday school teachers, but to parents.
God does not call us to raise up our children to be good citizens or to be financially successful. No, what He calls us to do is to partner with Him to discern the way they are intended to go and set them on that path. While this awesome responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of mom and dad, the fact is that moms and dads are looking for help.
Your church has an incredible opportunity to support and train parents through the programs offered. However, those programs are not intended to replace or supplant the parents' primary calling to raise their sons and daughters to serve the Lord.
10. Expect God to do great things in and through your kids. David Walters has been ministering to children through powerful services for years. Long ago he shared with me the phrase that "there is no baby Holy Spirit." The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells not only in you, but can also inhabit your 5-year-old.
Are you expecting the miraculous to happen on Sunday morning in your children's ministry? If not, why not? Too often our services are packed so tight with activity that we fail to make room for the Holy Spirit to show up. Develop an attitude of expectation for what God will do in and through your kids. Impart that expectation in your children's ministry workers. Children can be trained to not just understand, but also to experience the fruit and gifts of the Spirit.
In Matthew 21:15-17 we see Jesus making His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was the children who were crying, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (NKJV). They clearly had the spiritual discernment to know what was going on. Yet it was the religious leaders, the ones who were supposed to be spiritually discerning, who became indignant. Engender in the hearts of your leaders and parents the expectation that God can and will do mighty things through the children.
Having a vibrant children's ministry is clearly one of the most strategic and effective tools to impacting your community and seeing church growth. A study was recounted in Ministries Today a few years ago that asked nonchurchgoing families why they didn't attend a church. The answer was essentially that they perceived the church as being irrelevant, answering questions that nobody was asking. When asked what issues were important to them, these nonchurched families responded by saying, "We need help with our children."
Parents in our culture are scared, unsure of themselves and looking for help. Many times they recognize their own bankruptcy when it comes to having a set of spiritual values. Yet they have a very real and gnawing sense that it is somehow important to impart a set of values to their children. They are looking for help. If your church will step up to the plate and offer excellent and highly visible programs for kids, people will come.
Highly visible programs you might consider include starting a "Sidewalk Sunday school," a term coined by Bill Wilson, where you take your children's church programs out to the neighborhood. CharismaLife publishes curriculum and video training to show you how to do this.
Hold citywide Easter egg hunts. Sponsor an All Saints' Day carnival as a Halloween alternative. Start a preschool program for working moms or a mom's morning out program. Offer parent training classes and publicize it in the local paper.
The point is that your ministry to and through children can be an effective key to church growth in addition to making sure that the next generation is being discipled to the purpose and plan of God in their lives. *
Dave Welday is vice president of product development for Strang Communications Company. He serves in the children's ministry of his church in the Orlando, Florida, area.