George Barna explains why children should be your church’s No. 1 priority

Children's ministry is the Rodney Dangerfield of church life: It just don't get no respect.

The surveys we have conducted among senior pastors consistently reveal that only one out of every five considers their church's ministry to children to be one of its most important efforts. That does not mean that children are not deemed to be important or that the congregations ignore kids. But the primary focus of most churches—as evidenced by the programs, budgeting and staffing—is taking care of adults. Research indicates that many pastors deem children's ministry to be a necessary evil rather than one of the defining, foundational ministries of a church—something to endure rather than an outreach to prioritize, invest in and enjoy.

Having studied numerous dimensions of ministry in depth over the past quarter century, I have concluded that ministry to children is one of the most strategic and important activities of any church. Please allow me to offer some thoughts on why ministry to children deserves to be among your top priorities.

1. Time is of the essence.
In tracking the life-transformation process, we have learned that genuine spiritual and moral growth is most likely to occur among children, not adults. This does not mean adults are unimportant in the process; God has given them the crucial role of nurturing and caring for young people. Yet in many ways, it appears that the spiritual battle in people's lives is largely won or lost during their formative years, when God relies upon believers to shape the spirit of children while Satan seeks to destroy their moral foundations.

Emphasizing ministry to children is critical because of the nature of their personal development. Our research confirmed that the moral foundations of the typical person are developed by the age of 9; that the dominant faith commitments of a person are generally in place by age 13; and that a person's faith perspectives, habits and beliefs are also formed when he is young, normally solidified by the time he reaches his teen years.

2. Kids hold the key to the expanding church.
As a pastor, your heart is for the church—both local and global—to grow. The evangelistic gospel, at its core, is about outgrowth. What we must understand, however, is that children are central to that outcome.

Unchurched adults evaluate many aspects of church life when they contemplate connecting with a church, but one of the three most important aspects they study is how their children will be cared for. In addition, our studies consistently show that children are among the most aggressive and effective evangelistic agents in the Christian community. Once they connect with Christ, their enthusiasm knows no bounds, and they naturally share the good news with their peers and parents.

As we think about our legacy and the future of the church, remember that today's children are the church leaders of tomorrow. We discovered that among the adults presently in church leadership positions, more than four out of five had been very active in church life as a child.

3. Early lessons stick.
Perhaps the most startling revelation from our research is the dramatic impact of teaching biblical principles to people when they are young. We compared the theological perspectives of people from age 13 and above. The result was that the theological beliefs of young people were virtually identical to the beliefs of every other age group. In essence, what you believe when you are young changes little, if at all, once you reach the teen and adult years.

Stated differently, what you believe at age 13 is most likely what you will die believing. Whatever teaching and preaching you receive subsequent to age 13 primarily reinforces and clarifies rather than introduces or alters your religious beliefs.

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