Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, doesn't like to use time outs. He famously avoids calling game-breaks, even when his team is losing momentum. He wants his players to resolve their problems on the court—without becoming too dependent upon the man on the bench.
Some of the most effective churches we have researched have found that working with parents is a lot like coaching—striking the right balance between supporting parents while also ensuring that parents take responsibility for their own families. A coach teaches how, but lets others carry out the task. Effective churches provide input and resources, but they also make it clear that the real job is that of the parents. In a phrase, effective ministry to families means coaching parents to minister to their own households.
This is not novel. But it is rare. Many churches unknowingly create cultures of dependence for parents, not helping them learn to work out problems, seek God as a family or teach their children at home. In addition to being overwhelmed with other aspects of parenting, many parents actually admit that they don't know how to help their children grow spiritually. When they discover a church that offers passionate, polished assistance, parents come to believe they don't need to do much else.
They experience good church programs. The curriculum seems professional. Every week their church manages to pack kids in, and send them home with fancy crafts and a Bible verse in mind.
However, effective ministry is not an issue of excellent execution. It is an issue of setting high standards for effectiveness. Is your church really making a difference in children's lives? Does it equip proactive, God-honoring parents? In the process of offering well-run programs, churches have not raised the bar high enough for parents. Instead of dependence on God, many Christian families have become codependent with the Sunday morning drop-off. Don't believe me?
Among a litany of other data I could describe, think about this startling statistic: in an average month, less than one out of every 10 churched families worship together outside of a church service. That means that nine out of 10 churchgoing families do not pray (other than mealtimes), study the Bible together at home or work as a family to serve people in their communities. Despite attending church services and taking their children to church programs, most parents never seem to get the idea that they should be the primary disciplers of their kids! It is a sobering reality: Christian parents are simply not being equipped and motivated to minister to their children.
And families are the incubators of human spirituality. A person's spiritual beliefs are already deeply formed by the time they are pre-teens. Of course, there are many individuals who go through life-changing experiences in which their beliefs are altered, or instances in which a concentrated body of religious teaching changes one or more core beliefs. However, most people's minds are made up, and they believe they know what they need to know spiritually by age 13. Furthermore, moral perspectives and foundations are largely in place by age 9. After their first decade, most people simply refine their views as they age without a wholesale change in those leanings.
Also, a person's response to the meaning and personal value of Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection is usually determined before a person reaches 18. In fact, a majority of Americans makes a lasting determination about the personal significance of Christ's death and resurrection by age 12.
The maturation process is far from complete as an adolescent, but the basic substance of a person's faith and spirituality is already crystallized at a young age. Ministry to children and families is not just one significant part of your church's work; it might be the most important. You have the chance to prepare the church's leaders of tomorrow. You get an opportunity to make an irrevocable impact on young lives—a breadth of influence that is unduplicated at any other stage of human development.
The outcome of this early shaping is hard to miss. More than four-fifths of adults in congregational ministry today—pastors, church staff and lay leaders—were actively involved in a church for an extended period prior to age 13. This means that most of the individuals who will become the church's leaders two decades from now are under the influence of the families in your congregation.
So, what should you do? First, you must consciously adopt a symbiotic partnership between parents and the church. Neither the parents nor the church can do it alone. You must find a capable champion to help elevate this partnership. And then mobilize, motivate, resource and direct parents to play their God-given roles.
Second, effective children's ministry does not happen by accident. The most effective churches employ a long-term, multi-pronged strategy that they tirelessly execute to facilitate the spiritual growth of children.
Third, identify ways to "coach" parents. Remember that not everyone finds the same benefit out of tools you may suggest. For instance, a large chunk of the adult population is not comfortable with reading. They do not read for pleasure on any topic, let alone parenting. So, you'll have to find ways of engaging people with the types of resources that work for them.
Fourth, allocate the funds to reflect your focus on children. In a typical Protestant church, more than four out of every 10 people ministered to during the week are children, yet seven out of every eight ministry dollars are spent on adults. Still, don't measure success merely by the size of your budget. Many churches spend lavishly on the children's effort, but with little to show for it in terms of transforming children. You can't "buy" a great children's ministry, though you can under-fund one.
Fifth, the most important resource, we believe, is prayer. We discovered an amazing amount of prayer for children and parents was evident at the churches with the most effective ministries to children. Within these congregations, the commitment of adults to the spiritual wholeness of the children was woven through the operations and heartbeat of the church—even if it meant sacrificing some of the emphasis on adult ministry.
Your church may be at the cutting- edge of children's ministry. Or it may need a complete makeover. Whatever the case, I hope you will pause to contemplate your church's efforts with young lives. The Lakers' coach, Phil Jackson, may not like time outs, but every church needs breaks in the action to consider how to build and keep momentum. After all, this is no basketball game. It's "just" the shaping of the next generation of the church.
David Kinnaman is vice president and strategic leader of The Barna Group Ltd. in Ventura, California. For more on children's ministry, check out George Barna's best-selling book Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions.