It’s been awhile since I have posted on the Good Book Blog. Since I come back to post a few times a year, I want to begin with an area of ministry that is very dear to my heart – ministry with children. In many ways, I think the church in general has a very mixed view of ministry with children. On the one hand we recognize that children are a gift, and we value them highly. On the other hand, we may often feel that “real ministry” takes place with youth and adults. Perhaps it is that we more readily see the impact of our teaching with youth or adults, and in ministry with children it is harder to see significant changes. What we may miss out on is seeing the powerful foundational nature of ministry with children that sets life directions and patterns that “bloom” later in adulthood. I, for one, recognize the critical importance of ministry with children, and the impact it can have for a lifetime. In this blog, and the one that will follow, I’ll be talking about the kinds of ministry objectives we should be aiming for in ministry with children, and some models of ministry for those who serve the children in their congregations. 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).

Part I: Ministry Objectives for Those Who Serve Children

Before examining some promising educational models, there are five overarching objectives in ministry with children that need clarification. They relate to two fundamental questions:

  • What do children require from parents and churches in order to learn and mature?
  • What guidelines should a church follow as it develops effective ministries for children and their parents?

Both parents and churches must wrestle with similar questions as they tag-team together to serve youngsters under their God-given care. Consider this initial list of objectives as starting points for your personal reflection on ministry with children in your congregation:

  • Children need to experience the love of God. For children, the Christian faith is first experienced, and then their understanding grows. So kids must encounter Divine compassion embodied in adults they know. This life expression of love (both in the family and church) just makes sense to youngsters. Without it, our abstract descriptions of God’s love shown through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make no sense, or may be distorted in their understanding. How are children in your church experiencing the love of God through those who teach and lead your children’s ministries? How are they experiencing it through your ushers in worship, or greeters at the door?
  • Children need basic instruction in the faith. Ideally, curricula for kids should include foundational truths always set within age-appropriate structures and methods. Some topics include studies on the Trinity, human nature, salvation by faith in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, and the privileges and duties of God’s children. Parents and church workers both benefit from coordinating this instructional design. The challenge is to find good teaching materials that follow good educational design, and that don’t present the content in too abstract a form. This is a constant challenge, and it is important to continually review the materials being used in your programs, and resources you make available for parents to use at home. It is also important that children be given opportunities to respond to and personally appropriate this faith as their own. Where are children given the opportunity to ask questions about what they are learning? Where and when are they encouraged to respond to God in faith?
  • Children need to feel included. Normal childhood development requires a sense of belonging to valued groups. People never outgrow that human need. With belonging comes the related need to make personal contributions to that group and, thus, to derive personal identity as part of the group. Children require both quantity and quality experiences with their gathered community of faith, so that those exchanges may contribute to shaping their character fully. Are children in your church always segregated out so they won’t disrupt what the adults are doing? Where and how can children feel that they are part of your congregation, not just attending a children’s program?
  • Children need to experience gift development and service. Children need opportunities to develop their own God-given talents and gifts, using them to glorify God and to serve others. This significant objective largely expresses one strategy to attain the previous point: making personal contributions to valued groups. Are there church ministries where children are invited to help (possibly with their parents)? How are you intentionally helping children use their growing abilities in service for God? Are you settling for teaching and entertaining your children, or are you helping them grow into vital contributing members of your congregation? If they don’t feel they can contribute at your church, they will look elsewhere to feel needed.
  • Children need capable and empowered parents. Children need growing, maturing parents empowered to serve them. If children are to mature to their optimum, they require parents who have gone before them in their own adult journeys. A caregiver can never teach or nurture offspring beyond the maturity levels they have first attained. How is your church investing in building strong adult ministries, and helping parents grow in their understand and ability to offer faith nurturing experiences to their children outside of the church building? Where are you addressing these kinds of issues in your adult curriculum? Are parents settling for dropping their kids off at church for “professional ministry,” or do they see themselves as the spiritual guides and disciplers of their own children? Do they feel equipped for the task? If not, where can you begin to help them gain a vision for this and learn some basic aspects of guiding their children’s spiritual nurture?

If you have found this reflection helpful, consider sharing this blog with ministry leaders in your church and encourage them to discuss it, reflect together, and develop their own set of ministry objectives in light of your church’s ministry priorities. The more we are intentional in thinking this through, the more our children will benefit from what we provide for them. Next time I will blog about a model of ministry with children that balances four major elements:

Ministry to parents FOR children

Ministry together WITH children

Ministry by the church TO children

Ministry BY children for others