In my last post, I talked about the importance of our ministry with children and some ministry objectives we need to pursue. In this follow up blog I would like to talk about four aspects of children’s ministry that together help us accomplish our goals of helping children grow and mature as a part of the church, the people of God.
In my last blog I discussed five needs children have in their spiritual lives. Briefly, they were:
- Children need to experience the love of God
- Children need basic instruction in the faith.
- Children need to feel included in the church.
- Children need to experience gift development and service.
- Children need capable and empowered parents.
These are worthy goals, and it can be tempting to try to design one children’s program in the church to address them all. But if we take them each seriously, it will soon be clear that this is more than a matter of having a class or a club program for children. Instead, it requires thinking carefully about the full life of the church, as well as the church and family environment our children grow up in. It has implications for what we do for our children, with them, to them, and the opportunities we provide for them to be engaged in ministry themselves. I invite you to read and think with me about what this might look like. [What I share here is adapted and expanded from some material I wrote as part of Introducing Christian Education and Formation, by Ron Habermas, published by Zondervan (2008).]
Ministry to Parents FOR Children
If church leaders believe that parents play a critical role in the instruction and spiritual nurture of their children (and they do!), they would do well to invest heavily in equipping parents for their roles as family disciplers. This means that church leaders will strategically design the church’s adult education/formation efforts to address these specific aims:
Pursue Strong Adult Education-Formation: At a foundational level, churches need to take adult discipleship seriously, so that parents and other leaders know the faith, how to live it out, and how to explain it to others, including their children. Adult Bible studies (whether on Sunday morning or during the week) represent one dependable strategy for growing adult faith. Ministry involvement also shapes adult faith. Experience in serving others and reaching out to the community puts “shoe leather” to personal beliefs, encouraging greater reflection on those beliefs, which leads to more ownership of faith and integrity in living it out.
Propose Practical Parenting Classes: Many parents want to pass their faith on to their children, but they don’t know how. Churches that value the total needs of children will encourage training opportunities for parents themselves. These classes help parents understand basic issues of child development, the nature and nurture of faith, and insights for promoting faith at home. As God blesses these church classes, fruitful times of Bible study, prayer, and worship within the family will emerge.
Promote Useful Resources for the Home: It’s difficult for the average parent to keep up with the best available resources for instructing their children and nurturing their faith. Diversities in subject matter, personal interests, and age range further complicate this challenge. Churches that help parents in this effort offer their libraries as parenting resource centers. “Read-aloud” storybooks encourage parents to spend time and talk about God with young children. Books for older children encourage their own exploration of God’s work in the world. Games, music CDs, DVDs, and various activity books help caregivers share the wonderful story of God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ.
Plan Church and Parent Collaborations: Parents need the encouragement of others as they nurture their children’s faith. Church leaders can organize parents’ meetings, resource nights, and home strategies to help parents grow confident in their teachings. Advent and Lent are examples of special seasons of the year when churches can provide devotional materials and special activities for use at home. These materials help families experience meaningful celebrations during these “holy days.” For instance, Advent wreaths can be made at church, perhaps even as family projects. Then these wreaths can be taken home along with devotionals that include carols to sing, Scriptures to read, and family activities. Such collaborative efforts promote positive learning experiences between church and home. In fact, these seasonal activities may provide just the necessary affirmation of parents, so that non-seasonal learning experiences are also engaged.
Ministry Together WITH Children
As noted earlier, children want to be part of their church community so they can experience first-hand the reality of faith within the lives of others. Based upon that foundation, children can then be challenged to embrace others’ faith as their own. This firsthand experience also enhances children’s growing sense of identity, because kids learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. Here are a couple suggestions for churches to help children grow in meaningful, personal faith.
Permit children to participate in corporate worship celebrations: It can be a challenge to involve youngsters in corporate worship, but it’s worth the effort. Many churches find it beneficial to have young ones present at least up to the point of the sermon when leaders may then dismiss children for their own worship or Bible study. When children join corporate worship where God is praised, Scripture is read, and prayers are lifted to heaven, they see a total faith community living its life together. They begin to understand the nature of worship and are encouraged to participate. Because of the numerous variables involved, plans for such worship must be formed sensitively, and pastors and worship leaders must consider children’s various needs and abilities, along with ways of engaging them in worship. Instructional activity sheets, special stories just for children, and permitting children to help lead songs are a few methods that help children feel at home within the gathered church.
Provide intergenerational learning and fellowship: When children are included in intergenerational experiences, they increasingly perceive themselves as part of the church. Such experiences include fellowship dinners, church picnics, family-cluster gatherings, intergenerational Sunday school classes, prayer, or group events at Christmas or sunrise Easter services. Children who experience opportunities that include people of all ages are prompted to ask more pertinent questions, to see diverse role models outside their families, and to witness multiple sides of church life. When they are given the chance to actively participate in these events, the impact can be even greater. My own church used to organize December evenings for church members—children and adults together—to go caroling in the community around the church building. We shared songs, cookies, and candy with our neighbors, invited them to join us for Christmas eve services, and then gathered back at the church for hot chocolate and Christmas cookies. These simple activities bring children together with people of other ages as participants in the Body of Christ. These early experiences within an intergenerational community can provide a powerful instructional design for a lifetime.
Ministry by the Church TO Children
As a community of believers called to share life together, it’s appropriate for churches to provide special ministries that nurture their children. Children benefit most from services and ministries that attend to their particular abilities and needs. These ministries should supplement what parents provide at home, as well as offer outreach to children without Christian parents.
Prepare effective educational ministries: The biggest investment most churches make is in providing kids with diverse and relevant forms of instruction. The evangelical church has a long and strong history of offering Sunday school classes, vacation Bible schools, released time classes, and various kids’ club programs during the week. We do this because we believe in the importance of individual children personally coming to know the Christian faith story and personally knowing God through Scripture. We believe in the importance of children being introduced to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, so that they can respond in faith as God works in their lives. Most of our churches are investing heavily in this area, and we just need to evaluate these ministries to be sure we are achieving our goals with the children we serve. What are your children learning in your church’s ministries? How are they being formed in their faith?
Propose a children’s worship ministry: Earlier I encouraged churches to include children in their corporate worship, at least up to the point of the sermon. In some cases, churches may also want to provide specific times and places exclusively for children’s worship, which allow kids to more fully praise their Maker according to their abilities. This is not a children’s worship that excludes children from corporate church worship. Rather, it is a “both/and” ministry, which complements corporate church worship. One great advantage of these distinct worship times is that many more children can actively participate, compared to corporate worship times. Specifically, more children can join in prayer, learning from Scripture, songs of praise, and the sacraments and liturgy. Many publishers of Christian curricula offer resources to aid in the planning of children’s worship.
Ministry BY Children to Others
One mistake we sometimes make is thinking of children only as recipients of ministry, not as those who can minister. However, many active adult church members recall that their own involvement in ministry began when they were young, and it has been part of their lives ever since. Two suggestions that advance this fourth aspect include:
Plug children into regular church ministries: Children can participate in the church’s mission projects, like raising funds for World Vision or putting together Samaritan’s Purse gift boxes for other children. They can join “work days” with adults, like doing yard work in homes in the community. Or kids can simply visit homebound church members with other adults. Children should be included wherever possible to experience and understand the meaning of compassionate service. Youngsters need to see how God has personally gifted them and how He can use them to serve others. Again, these tasks align themselves with children’s need for “belonging” and “identity” as they personally contribute within the faith community. They need to see that they are a part of the church now, not someday in the future.
Personalize ministries for children to do themselves: Children also can be encouraged to have their own ministries in the church and community, such as reading stories and putting on puppet shows for younger children, singing as a choir in worship services, praying for church ministries, and visiting nursing homes. As important as it is to include children in the general ministry efforts of the church, helping kids take responsibility for planning and carrying out their own ministries encourages the growth of their leadership skills, a sense of responsibility, empowerment, and ownership of their personal ministries. All this takes careful planning and coordination, and leadership eager to see children gain a vision for how God wants to use them in ministry to others.
Four aspects—ministry through parents, ministry with the whole church, ministries to children, and children ministering to others—encourage our children to learn and mature in the Body of Christ. Our kids are enabled to understand the Christian faith story, to see the reality of faith in the lives of those around them, to respond to the Gospel, to participate in and contribute to the church and wider community, and to grow in their relationships with God. In short, our children become who they were created to be—God’s children, growing toward Christlikeness. May our children and our children’s children grow to know and to love God in part because we have deliberately and prayerfully engaged in a full and diverse range of effective ministry for them, with them, to them, and allowed them to learn to serve as well.