By Teresa D. Welch
It is no longer necessary to convince churches of the importance of children. Children’s ministries are front and center. Ministry resources are abundant. Attractive kids’ spaces are the norm. Church ministry staff now includes a children’s minister (or more than one).
Convincing people of the importance of children’s ministry is not an issue; rather the issue is whether or not our ministry to children is focused on what should be central.
Before a children’s ministry switches curricular materials again, changes programs due to demographics, or hires a consultant to create an attractive environment, first consider what God says about childhood and providing a way for children to meet Jesus.
GOD’S DESIGN: Children Reflect the Image of God
When you see a child, what first comes to mind? Probably depends on what the kid is doing, you would think. Children are unpredictable. A “quiet, thoughtful” child can turn almost instantly into a “holy terror.” But each child, regardless of activity, carries the image of God. From the beginning of creation, God created male and female in his own image (Genesis 1:27). God blessed them through the gift of children (Genesis 1:28), who too reflect the image of God (Genesis 9:6).
Our perception of children is often limited by their immature and inconsistent behaviors. But there is beauty in the simplicity by which children interact with the world. Children remind us what it means to love unconditionally, forgive freely, and hope beyond reason. Children teach us about honesty and joy, and demonstrate for us the struggle for patience and self-control. I wonder if it is in our best moments of childhood, more than any other time of life, that we come closest to reflecting God’s perfect image.
And since these children reflect the image of God, we not only have much to learn from them, but also much to teach them.
GOD’S INTENT: The Family Is Formational During Childhood
One of the earliest commands God gives the nation of Israel is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4-7: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.”
The primary role for parents is not to train their child to be an athlete, scholar, or musician. The primary role for parents is to pass their faith to their children (Ephesians 6:4; Deuteronomy 4:9; 11:18-21; Proverbs 22:6). Parents are to repeat the stories of God, recite Scripture, answer questions, and respond in teachable moments (Exodus 13:14-16; Deuteronomy 31:10-13; Joshua 8:35; Proverbs 1:8; 3:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:11, 12).
But parents don’t make this journey alone. The expectation is that the family of God will join in the religious education of children. In order for children to trust God, know the Law, keep the commands, remain faithful, and tell the next generation about the power and wonder of the Lord, they need a community of faith (Psalm 78:1-8; Joel 1:1-3).
Both my brothers and I have given our lives to serving in Christian ministry. Why? Because our home was a place of Christian formation. Our parents, a mathematics professor and a bank accountant, prioritized passing down their faith to us. But our parents also made certain we were surrounded by a larger family of faith. They partnered with Sunday school teachers, youth sponsors, ministers, and other followers of Christ in educating and encouraging us during our spiritual journey.
I have encountered many adults who feel ill-equipped to educate children in the knowledge of God. Therefore, our ministry to children must extend to the entire family. Parents need more than weekly handouts; they need training, encouragement, and mentors. As ministries grow, we must make every effort to connect volunteers who are educating children with their parents. Children’s ministry volunteers are more than people filling slots; they are partners in the gospel.
GOD’S STRATEGY: Every Moment Educates Children About God
The instructions in Deuteronomy 6 continue with a description of the methods used to teach children to “Love the Lord your God.” We can reimagine those commands to fit our current context:
“Tell the stories of God around your dinner table and sing songs to God as you drive to school; pray together each night and repeat the words of God as you get ready each morning. Wear bands on your wrists that remind you of God’s truth. Post Scripture throughout your bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms so your children are surrounded by the Word of God” (author’s paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Children are educated not just through programs and classes. Every moment of their lives is an opportunity to point them to God.
A child raised in a Hebrew home understood that the worship of the Lord God was the primary identity of her community, her family, and by inclusion, herself. Each week included a reminder as the family honored the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Throughout the year, a child participated alongside his family during festivals and rituals that reminded him of the stories of God. When the church began, children were included in the community that met in homes for teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42-47). Children joined their parents in the mission of the church (Acts 21:5).
Our homes and churches need to be places where children are surrounded by the words of God—spoken and sung, heard and seen. I have visited numerous children’s ministry spaces over the past 20 years, and the question I ponder as I walk through hallways and observe classrooms is: What is a child learning about God by being in this space?
Do our physical spaces point a child toward God or do they point to attractive graphics?
Do our classrooms emphasize the words of Christ or do they prioritize moral development?
Does our teaching focus on the stories of the Bible or is it clouded by funny skits?
Do our worship spaces provide a place for children to encounter God with the entire community of God?
It is good for children’s ministries to excel in every way possible, including understanding culture, in order to engage the mind and interests of a child. However, when concerns for attracting children (and by extension their parents) supersedes our desire to connect them with God, I am concerned we might be attracting them with, and therefore to, the wrong thing.
GOD’S PLAN: The Foundation of Faith Is Laid in Childhood
Jesus provided one of the clearest pictures of the importance of childhood when he gathered up a child and placed her in the middle of the disciples (Matthew 18:1-4). With this one act, Jesus taught that the humble, trusting faith of a child is what God desires from any who would believe in him.
For children raised by Christians or brought to a Christian community, the foundation for faith begins in infancy. Children are to be educated by pure spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2), which Hebrews describes as the elementary teachings of Christ (Hebrews 5:13–6:3). Timothy was educated from infancy by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5), which resulted in his conviction of the truth of the gospel (2 Timothy 3:14, 15). It is never too early to begin training a child in the Bible. Every Scripture, every story, lays another stone that provides the building blocks for faith.
Jesus tells a parable about two men: one wise, the other foolish. As the story goes, the wise man built his house upon the rock and when the storm rose, the house stood firm (Matthew 7:24, 25). If childhood is when the foundation for faith is laid—the question is: Are we installing rock or sand?
We should not underestimate the ability of children to learn and believe. We must give attention to the methodical teaching of the gospel. We must not underestimate the importance of the foundation upon which faith is built.
Matthew 18 records a familiar parable, but in a less familiar setting. Following Jesus’ lesson about the faith of a child, he gives a strong warning and describes the punishment for those who cause a child to stumble (18:5-9). It is in this context Jesus tells the story about a man who owned a hundred sheep (18:10-14). The sheep that goes missing is a child.
As my students will attest, I get indignant when I hear the statement: “Children are the future of the church.” Why indignant? Because they are not just the future of the church, they are the present as well! If we don’t remember that children are the church of the present and lead them now, they might not have faith in the future.
The parable of the lost sheep ends with Jesus’ statement, “In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). May that be a challenge to every children’s ministry. May that be what we place as primary importance.
Teresa D. Welch serves as professor of Christian education and ministry with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. She served churches in Ohio and Illinois as a children’s minister for 15 years.