The Rules Are Changing
Do mousers play in your church nursery?
Is mompetition undermining efforts to build community through small groups?
How many weblebrities are in the fourth-grade Sunday school class?
Those words might be new to you, but they reflect real-world issues faced by those serving children and families.
As we gear up for another year of Christian education, volunteers and professional church staff members will communicate the same biblical truths that have been shared for centuries. But in 2011, the rules of engagement have changed. These shifts are so significant that we must deep-dive to pinpoint the implications for ministry. Listed below are three issues with related applications.
A rediscovery of the family was one positive outcome of the lengthy and painful recession. Shrinking budgets required parents to generate inexpensive entertainment options that were often home-based. Extras were stripped away as families drew a line between wants and needs. Both parents and children placed a higher value on togethering.
Embedded in the family resurgence, the next-gen dad, who had already started to emerge, began to prioritize and learn to enjoy relationships. For many men, the ultimate status symbol is now quality time with his kids. Although this is terrific, and many would say long overdue, dads now face a dilemma: they have few role models. Historically, dads followed a lockstep plan: go to school, get a job, start a family. The timing and order was clear. Because there isn’t a single role model today, dads are forging new and varied paths.
The recession also saw growth of the intergenerational family. One boomer turns 65 every eight seconds. The age wave alone implies that those over 65 are no longer invisible. Some observers define late adulthood as 65 to 80, with old age beginning at 80. Because these “silvers” are the best-educated and healthiest older generation in history, some predict that the term “senior citizen” will become extinct.
An increasing number of older people play a significant role in the lives of children. Cultural norms have shifted: according to the 2010 Census, 4.9 million children live in homes headed by a grandparent. For many children, the “first voice” in a child’s life is the parent, but the “second voice” is a grandparent.
The shape of the American family is changing in other ways, too. Earlier this year, Pew Research Center released data that 40 percent of Americans have at least one step-relative in their family (stepbrother, stepmother, etc.). The front cover of the March issue of Parenting magazine highlighted a feature article titled, “We Are the New Normal: Life as a Same-Sex Parent.” Those in family ministry face incredibly difficult challenges.
Ministry Application—Historically, dads have perched on the fringe of children and family ministry; they pop in briefly to chaperone lock-ins and mission trips, but otherwise, have stayed far away. However, the next-gen dad offers an opportunity for local congregations to make long-term connections.
You might begin simply. For example, don’t assume “dads know they are invited” to Sunday school rally day. On your website, show photos of dads who attended last year. Get dad out of his man cave by asking an “influencer” dad to text his guy friends. A text from another guy has legitimacy to a next-gen dad.
The intergenerational families that emerged during the recession are still with us. Being family-inclusive means a congregation must speak to the interests, not the age, of older people. Many of these people are willing and available to accept encore roles in children and family ministry. How are you engaging them?
KAGOY—an acronym for Kids Are Growing Older Younger—has been discussed and debated for almost 15 years.
KAGOY was the underlying concept of news stories earlier this year about the sexualization of young girls, when inappropriate summer swimwear hit store shelves. KAGOY also was debated when baby spas were first being introduced, and such spas are now an $11 billion a year business. Fashionista moms who cave in to KAGOY go so far overboard that their little divas wouldn’t even meet the church nursery dress code. But the real danger isn’t manicures for 4-year-olds. The problem is that this pseudo-sophistication can skew our expectations of children.
Just because a 3-year-old can click an app, does it mean he isn’t afraid of the dark.
If an 8-year-old wears mascara, does it mean she has a mature understanding of faith in Jesus Christ as her Savior?
Obviously, KAGOY has created a disconnect between what we casually observe and the child inside. Earlier is not always better in any of the five areas of development: social, emotional, physical, cognitive, or spiritual.
Ministry application—Parents with a Christian value system often feel helpless when facing KAGOY-influenced aspects of life. Congregations can offer a safe place to openly discuss real-time parenting. Moms and dads need to connect with peers. That’s why it’s not surprising that parents have rapidly and wholeheartedly embraced social networking: they crave authentic relationships. Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) gatherings, small group Bible studies, and other church-sponsored programs offer opportunities to build networks within a Christian framework. Moms who connect with each other against the outside influences are less likely to engage in mompetition—attempts by moms to validate themselves by tearing others down.
Christian publishers, including Standard Publishing, faithfully follow a scope and sequence when researching and writing educational materials. You can be confident KAGOY has not skewed the carefully crafted curriculum used at your church. Ministry leaders need to make sure that locally generated programs and activities are likewise developmentally appropriate.
The microchip impacts children long before they enter the church nursery. After all, some parents delay naming their newborn until they confirm availability of a domain name. Recent research shows that most children are “media consumers” by their first birthday. The “swipe and go” action used on an iPad capitalizes on a young child’s natural inclination to “reach out and touch.” More than half of the top-selling apps on iTunes target toddlers and preschoolers. This fall, an increasing number of kindergartners will use iPads to boost classroom learning. Tech is in the air kids breathe.
How does this tech immersion change a child’s expectations of his Sunday school experience? Visualize this scenario: a 4-year-old watches 3-D cartoons on the minivan TV screen as dad drives to church. Will a Bible story presented on a flannelgraph engage that child?
Ministry application—Emerging technology offers opportunities for these digital natives and their families to hear the message of the gospel. Many church websites include Christ-centered content, activities, and links to Christian sites. A mouser (a preliterate child with keyboard skills), has a world of wholesome wonder available to him just by clicking on many sites.
Offering online resources positions a congregation in the role of trusted tech partner; a church site becomes a go-to source, even for children. That’s important, because Mom is no longer the sole gatekeeper to the family. Tech-savvy kids have triggered a realignment of the family dynamics.
Today, the youngest member of the family, not the oldest, has the tech knowledge, and knowledge is power. In a recent survey, almost one-third of parents reported that the apps on their phone were installed by their children. In many homes, when there’s a tech glitch, it’s the child, not the parent, who answers the call for “Help!” In previous generations, parents listened to their kids. Today, some parents rely on what their children say.
The tech shift has created a halo over choices in many aspects of everyday life. As a result, today’s “power kids” have caused a swing toward collaborative decision making. That has been reflected in discussions on Capitol Hill about widespread marketing to kids. This summer, many children cast the deciding vote on where the family vacationed; even a young child can determine where the family will pick up supper. We can assume Mom and Dad do not automatically determine whether or not to attend church. In what ways do your congregational communications (using both old and new media) reflect this shift toward family decision making?
Technology has redefined family time. A Norman Rockwell image of today’s family might show everyone in the same room, but emotionally apart: Mom using her iPad, Dad streaming a baseball game on his laptop, a girl fiddling with her cell phone, and a boy listening to his MP3 player while playing an online game and glancing up at the flat-screen TV. One family in one room with multiple screens. In what ways can your congregation help children and their parents break out of their cyber-cocoons?
A Final Word
Family life experts continually emphasize that you “can’t take the child out of the family.” Yet for too long, child and family ministries have chugged away on separate tracks. Today, each congregation must apply a strategic ministry plan that serves children within the family, regardless of how that family is configured.
The children we serve are growing up at a unique time in history. Fame circles the globe in less than 20 seconds, but web-
lebrity status disappears with a single click. U.S. passport applications no longer refer to mother and father, but parent one and parent two. The Berenstain Bears are a click away on an app.
Local congregations, which represent a legacy institution, are in direct competition for a family’s time. Parents are time-starved; many children are trapped in activity overload. Families do not migrate into church unless their needs are met.
Children might learn their ABC’s on a screen, but they still need to hear the story of Easter. Moms might be stressed to the limit, but they can be reminded your congregation offers support. Four-year-olds might use invented spelling to ask “Wuz4dinr?” on a smartphone, but they still need to know that Jesus loves them.
We might be clicking about all kinds of things, but children deserve more than a click-on, click-off image of Jesus. As leaders in children’s ministry, we are compelled to follow the age-old directive of the psalmist. For we have been called to “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:4). This is our kingdom work.
Mary Manz Simon holds a doctorate in early childhood education and is an award-winning author with more than 3 million books sold. She and her husband, Hank, have three children and two grandsons. Simon’s next book, March to the Manger, releases this fall from Standard Publishing. Her website is www.marymanzsimon.com.