A few years ago leaders of a church in Missouri began struggling with these issues. They looked at their program of puppets, drama, balloon sculpturing, Bible stories, whistles and horns and became dissatisfied with the spiritual fruit produced in the lives of their kids. On the surface they had as good a children's program as many other churches. But something left them empty as they considered the low level of spiritual prowess in the boys and girls passing through their doors after years of hard work and commitment.
So they made a drastic decision: They shut down their children's program for six months to fast and seek God for answers. Not surprisingly, they lost several families as a result. People became angry because they didn't understand the heart cry for Spirit-breathed answers that needed to come for the good of their offspring.
In the process, these leaders asked some tough questions. If a child had gone through their church programs for 18 years yet still wasn't a functioning soldier in the army of God, then what had they produced? If, after all that time, their kids could not hear the voice of God, didn't know what it was to be led by His Spirit, didn't know how to pray for the sick, didn't know how to walk in faith, didn't have a relevant devotional life, couldn't share their faith or couldn't take their places as prayer warriors and worshipers, then what were they capable of doing in the kingdom of God? What good was it if they knew how many stones David picked up to kill Goliath if they had no functional relationship with Jesus?
Portrait of Our Kids
Unfortunately, many pastors and church leaders are unaware that it is possible for kids under the age of 12 to be devoted disciples of Christ. Children are seldom taken seriously in spiritual matters beyond salvation until they reach their teen years. Sure, we (for the most part) do a great job of bringing them the message of salvation and baptizing them. But beyond that, we often fail miserably.
In my travels across the nation visiting countless charismatic-Pentecostal churches, I've noticed that less than a fourth of the kids consider themselves filled with the Holy Spirit. The general statistics are just as sobering. According to Barna Research Group, the average 13-year-old who has attended Sunday school for most of his life will tell you that he has never heard the voice of God nor felt His presence. Less than 10 percent of kids say they are absolutely committed to Christianity, and only two out of three leave our Sunday school programs born again. What's worse, more than half of them, after growing up in our children's ministries, feel they know everything they need to know about God and have no further reason for going to church. From here we fall prey to the well-publicized statistics that tell us as many as 70 percent of our teens and young adults leave the church and never return.
When these staggering numbers came out a few years ago, churches sat up and took notice. They immediately began making changes to their youth programs. The church world now takes youth ministry seriously, realizing that we have a limited window of time to capture the hearts and minds of our youth or lose them forever.
As a children's minister, however, I've watched amazed at the lack of understanding. The root of the problem is not what happens when these kids reach their teens, it's that we somehow have not fully captured their hearts while they are still children. They make decisions a long time before they reach high school that church is not for them.
Small children usually enjoy our programs packed with coloring pages, snacks and costumed characters. But by the time they're 10 to 12 years old, they can easily tire of being spoon-fed the same Bible stories again and again. It's no wonder they think they know everything there is to know about God and have no further reason to go to church. I grew up in the church, yet I clearly remember at age 12 thinking, If I hear the story of David and Goliath one more time, I'm going to scream! I knew I was capable of a meatier spiritual diet than what I was being fed, and so are kids today. But seldom do they get it.
Hooked on Hearing
Years ago the Catholics proudly proclaimed, "Give us a child till he is 7 years old and we will have him for life!" Later the communists promised the same thing. What did these groups know that we seem to be missing? First, they understood the spiritual hunger and capacity of even the smallest child. They also recognized the importance of satisfying that hunger in a way that would cement a child's relationship with Jesus Christ and result in a thriving, maturing Christian walk.
This is what happened in the Missouri church struggling with the fruit its Sunday school program was producing. After a long season of seeking God, the Holy Spirit led the church leaders to begin vigorously discipling their kids first and foremost to hear the voice of God for themselves. After all, we can't be led by the Spirit if we cannot hear His voice or even recognize it.
The children's ministry leaders began to deliberately and systematically teach kids about how God speaks and leads. In classes, children regularly "practiced" hearing from the Lord. For the first time in their lives, God became real to these kids. They began receiving prophetic words and pictures with great accuracy. They recognized what the presence of God felt like, and faith began to leap in their hearts. Suddenly prayer became a joy.
With an active prayer life, they now had a desire to become enthusiastic worshipers of their Lord and Savior. At the ages of 9, 10, 11 and 12 years old they had most definitely become active members in the body of Christ.
These kids, whom I have known now for several years, are still on fire for God and are amazing in their devotion and commitment to their faith. Last summer they went on a missions trip to Monterrey, Mexico. They were guests in a church of 600 and began prophesying over the people. One 10-year-old girl, who does not even come from a Christian home, pointed to a man and said, "God showed me that you are thinking of leaving your wife, and He's saying don't do it because He's going to heal your marriage." The man confirmed that it was true.
A Global Movement
The exciting thing is that I see this happening all around the world. When children's leaders begin actively and deliberately discipling kids in the same areas of ministry they mentor adults, astonishing things happen. But first leaders have to break out of their preconceived ideas that children don't understand what they are doing in spiritual activities and are too young to take it seriously. I hear this frequently even with the issue of kids being filled with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. "They're too young! They can't understand what it's all about!"—to which I love asking, "And you do?" Nobody can understand and explain this experience. It's unexplainable!
Not long ago a friend from Tanzania called to tell me that revival had broken out in one of the local public schools because an 11-year-old boy had taught on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When he asked who wanted to be filled, the whole class raised their hands. They began shouting, crying, praying and speaking in tongues at the top of their lungs. Teachers ran in wondering what had happened. One teacher, a Catholic nun, decided the children were all demon-possessed and ran to get a priest to exorcise them. But after about an hour of praying, the children quieted down and were able to tell the wonderful story of their experiences with God.
Many times during worship services I lead children will receive words of knowledge that someone needs prayer for healing. Often they'll feel a pain or sensation in their own bodies.
I'll admit, the first time this happened to me, my reaction wasn't the greatest. While I was preaching a 10-year-old boy became annoyingly insistent that I call on him by nearly jumping out of his seat waving his hand. I reluctantly asked him what he wanted. He replied he had a pain in his back and he wanted prayer. I was about to tell him to wait until the end of the service when the Holy Spirit arrested me. "Elijah, did you have that pain when you came in this morning or did it start while I was preaching?" I asked. He said it was the latter. I quickly asked the other children if there was anyone there who had some kind of back pain right then.
Eight of 32 kids raised their hands! I called them forward and helped Elijah lay hands on each of the kids and pray. All but one testified that their pain immediately left when Elijah prayed for them. I asked, "How's your back pain now, Elijah?" "It's all gone!" he said and went back to his seat.
Partners in the Kingdom
Kids are hungry for God and for real experiences with Him. The psychics know it. Dozens of books teach New Agers how to develop the "natural spiritual tendencies" of their children. One school system in North Carolina even holds classes for "spiritually gifted" children as they would for the academically or musically gifted. They actively and aggressively train kids to heal through the use of crystals, to see into the spirit realm, to meditate and much more. Although Christians take the spirituality of kids seriously, an unfortunate number of them remain clueless to the spiritual potential of their own children.
God has more for our children than we could ever imagine. If we want real spiritual fruit in our children's lives, we must take the limits off them and realize their potential as spiritual powerhouses. If we want to keep our children as active members in the body of Christ throughout their adult years, we must engage them as our partners in the kingdom of God while they are still children.
4 Steps to Transforming Your Children's Ministry
1. Recognize that kids have far more spiritual potential than we realize. God has always used kids. In the great historical revivals of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, D.L. Moody, the French Huguenots and others, children played significant and powerful roles as active participants. They spoke in tongues, prophesied, healed the sick, preached, wept for their sins and even went to jail for being fanatics for their faith.
2. Deliberately train kids in things you are tempted to reserve strictly for adults. These include such things as learning to hear God's voice, being led by the Spirit, intercessory prayer, healing the sick, being filled with the Holy Spirit, praying in tongues and so much more. Remove the limits of what you think God can and cannot do through children.
3. Provide regular opportunities for kids to practice the things of the Spirit in your services. Our kids need a safe place to try out their spiritual "legs" while they attempt to walk in the Spirit. They need spiritual mentors who can watch over them and guide them if they get off track. If we as leaders are truly called to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, then we must take seriously the training of the little saints as well.
4. Understand that Bible stories are only part of kids' spiritual diet. We have a misguided notion that anyone under the age of 12 can only handle the "milk" of the Word, when even in the natural babies and infants stay on a milk-only diet for just six months to a year. Somehow in Christianity we have decided kids under 12 can't handle anything but basic Bible stories. Consequently they are seldom if ever given the real "meat" of the Word. Give them meat!