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.
Whose Mission Is This Anyway?
Certainly one of the challenges your church faces is to help parents raise their children to connect with God and possess a biblical worldview so that they understand, interpret and respond to the world in ways that reflect biblical principles and advance the kingdom of God. It's difficult to do all that, however, in the one or two hours a week that a church has with the typical child. And yet few parents feel up to the task of raising spiritual champions. Only one out of every five parents believes they are doing a good job at helping their kids in moral and spiritual development.
A profile of their children verifies this: By age 18, just one out of three knows Christ as his savior, while only 2 percent of teens regularly attending a Christian church have a biblical worldview. To their credit, most parents are willing to partner with their church in the process and even look to the church to take the lead in mapping the route to spiritual maturity for their children.
The all-too-common scenario of parents dropping off their kids at church so the religious professionals can do their magic reflects the fact that most parents have no clue how to raise a spiritual champion. Their Plan B is to rely upon a local church to do it for them. The sooner we help parents recognize that this job is primarily their responsibility, and that the local church exists to encourage and assist them in the process, the better off the church and society will be.
One of the best ways churches can help parents is by establishing reasonable developmental standards for parents to shoot for—outcomes that few of them achieved as youngsters and may not have reached even as adults!
Consider the minimal degree of spiritual training currently taking place in the homes of churched families. Fewer than one out of every 10 prays together during a typical month, other than at mealtimes. The same percentage reads or studies the Bible together during the month, other than when they're on the church grounds. And less than 5 percent ever worship God together, apart from church services.
Clearly, spiritual development is not high on the agenda of most churched families, but the church can help to change that by training and supporting parents for the task.
How to Leave a Mark
There is a tendency among pastors and church staff to think that the local church is responsible for the spiritual growth of children. That's only partially correct. In the best of situations, child development is a partnership, led by the parents, in which the community of faith provides support.
Experience—and research—shows that in the contemporary American context, the steady, purposeful assistance of the local church is critical in that partnership. Parents are typically willing but uninformed and ill skilled to raise spiritual champions. Knowing how to prepare and redirect parents, while maintaining the interest and enthusiasm of children, takes real wisdom and creativity.
In the end, if your church is interested in changing the world for Christ, your best chance of leaving its mark is by ministering to children. They are, in essence, your primary mission field. And as harsh as this may sound, they are often the only segment within the church body where measurable transformation occurs.
By the way, if you sometimes wonder why ministry to adults is so difficult, perhaps it is because most of them did not receive adequate spiritual training during their childhood. They may have had positive church experiences but lacked biblically inspired spiritual formation experiences. They may have had parents who religiously brought them to church but failed to make their homes a church. And they may have developed a belief in Christ but not a deep relationship with Him. You can change all of that for the emerging generations by aggressively investing in the lives of children.
George Barna is chairman of The Barna Group, in Ventura, Calif. He has written 39 books, including Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions (Regal Books) and Revolutionary Parenting (Tyndale House). He leads a small church and lives with his wife and three daughters in Southern California.
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