By Teresa Welch
Just 25 years ago, children’s ministry was commonly described as childcare with Bible stories and Goldfish crackers. Children were either kept away from the sanctuary or were made to sit quietly with parents during the sermon. Churches were waiting for children to grow up before investing in them fully.
Today, thankfully, children’s ministry is a spiritual greenhouse rather than a spiritual waiting room. Children are front and center and actively learning. Each child is given attention and spiritual nourishment to grow into a disciple of Christ.
Why this change?
It began when churches realized that building a firm foundation of faith begins in childhood.
Building the Foundation and Framework of Faith
From birth to age 13, children quickly develop both cognitively and spiritually. These years are when you learn the most. The framework upon which we understand ourselves, relationships, the world, and God is formed by the time we become teenagers. Childhood is the church’s best opportunity to help create a lifelong disciple.
Parents and churches need only follow the command God gave the Israelites: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. . . . Impress [these commandments] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Develop a vocabulary of faith within your children (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
Children’s ministry plants seeds that develop roots; it’s where you see the firstfruits of faith. Do you want children to grow up to believe in God, to be bold in their faith and share the gospel with others? Children’s ministry is where those skills are taught.
The positive change of the last 25 years is because, in part, churches began hiring professionals trained like other ministry staff. Rather than relying on good, well-meaning moms whose children were growing up in the church and therefore felt obligated to be involved, churches have hired individuals with a mix of training in biblical interpretation, childhood development, spiritual formation, and administrative leadership.
Training for children’s ministry leaders and volunteers has expanded. Christian colleges now offer children’s ministry as a major. Conferences, workshops, and age-appropriate books and videos are readily available to train volunteers how to teach children about God. A quarter-century ago, lessons taught by volunteers often focused more on behaviorism than faith. A Bible story was taught and then children were told how to act as a “good girl” or “good boy.” Today, those who teach children understand how to connect a Bible story to a child’s life, giving them a vocabulary of faith. That vocabulary isn’t just words. God’s story is part of the vocabulary.
Before going further, I will issue this caution, however. That churches now hire graduates with bachelor’s degrees in children’s ministry shouldn’t signal that only programs led by professionals can effectively and appropriately teach a child. That’s an overcorrection. Children’s ministry should incorporate parents and other mentors; leaders should train and resource them because the church extends way beyond four walls. Children’s programming doesn’t just happen between 9 a.m. and noon on Sunday or for 90 minutes on Wednesday night. It happens all during the week when parents live out Deuteronomy 6 by having faith conversations and leading in the discipleship of their children. (See “Family Ministry: Re-engaging Parents to Be the Primary Influencers of Their Children,” by Becky Drish.)
Programming for Cultural Shifts to Make the Most of the Opportunities
As we have already touched on, 25 years ago, most churches followed a fairly set pattern. On Sunday morning children would gather for an hour of Sunday school in a small classroom with a teacher using some printed curriculum. During the worship hour, children would go with mom and dad to “big church” and then be dismissed to children’s church before the sermon . . . or would remain in the sanctuary for the senior minister’s sermon. Beyond that, churches might offer an evening “youth group” on Sunday nights or midweek.
That was the case in 1994, the year I walked into a church building as a children’s minister for the first time. At all but the largest churches, children’s ministry was just emerging as a subset of student ministry. Before then, the majority of churches had a youth minister responsible for children from birth through high school. Programming was designated to volunteers. Since then, the church has given more focused attention to raising up young disciples from infancy.
When I was starting out, I could count on consistent attendance on Sunday and Wednesday. But these days, “regular attendees” might come to church only twice a month. Gone are the days of perfect attendance awards. Participation is inconsistent, at best. This more sporadic attendance impacts programs and plans for children’s ministry. Teachers have to review material more frequently. Special events must be scheduled well in advance; even so, getting an event on a family calendar doesn’t always guarantee attendance. So, church must make the most of every opportunity that a child is present.
To capitalize on weekly programming opportunities, churches have transitioned from a single age-group of children with one teacher in a small room for an hour—where a teacher is expected to do all of the elements in a curriculum—to a large group/small group model.
The large group space is dedicated to interactive teaching of the story and theme for the week. There, children participate in age-appropriate worship complete with songs using hand motions, prayers, offering, and the Lord’s Supper. Children’s ministry teams are able to capitalize on the most gifted teachers, musicians, and other leaders to lead during large-group sessions.
The small-group time that follows ideally allows for a leader to meet with a group of six to eight children every week for intentional, relational discipleship as they review the story and connect it to the child’s life and experiences.
But the small-group model can be limited by the availability and/or development of volunteers.
Raising Volunteer Commitment and Opportunities
Gone are the days of a dedicated volunteer teaching the same group of kids every week for an entire year—let alone year after year. This model of long-serving volunteers has been replaced by one that allows for any volunteer to be plugged in at any time.
The commitment of volunteers reflects overall church attendance trends. Therefore, churches have created systems in which someone can serve once a month, month on/month off, or even less frequently to accommodate sporadic church attendance.
But I wonder if there might be a second issue.
Volunteers are treated as individuals who won’t commit to week-in, week-out service. Churches have lowered the commitment level to the point that volunteers don’t feel obligated to commit when it seems as if anyone can do what they have been asked to do. Rather than seeing individuals for their giftedness and calling them to a level of excellence, we ask them to fill spots that require minimum effort. In an attempt to make it simple for people to volunteer, we’ve made it almost too simple.
We have raised the level of excellence in production of programs and in other areas. But with the rise of excellence, we’ve had a corresponding decrease of excellence in volunteers who commit to being part of that. We’ve become overly reliant on the excellence that ministry staff can control, and we have lowered our expectations to the lowest common denominator as it relates to volunteers.
I encourage children’s ministers to raise the level of expectation for volunteer commitment. Come alongside people and provide the needed tools; partner with them so they can grow in their volunteer leadership opportunities. Don’t make it too easy. Give them a challenge to rise up to and they will meet it.
The first step in raising the bar for volunteers is raising the bar for yourself. Be vigilant when it comes to who you’re asking to volunteer, and don’t cut corners when it comes to doing background research.
The world is an ugly place. That’s more apparent than it was 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. News of the brokenness of the world is unavoidable and unrelenting: sexual-abuse scandals in churches, shooters in schools, and other predators intent on harming children. There is so much for which we must prepare.
Children’s ministry must continue to change to account for those dangers.
Every church, no matter how small, should conduct background checks of every person who has access to a child. All personnel and volunteers need training in recognizing the signs of child abuse and the mandated reporting of it. Every church needs to have a plan and process for safety issues, including children’s check-in, guardian pick-up, and evacuation and lockdown procedures.
Why do all that?
A church building should be the safest of all places for children. We must strive to eliminate all opportunities for harm—from both external and internal threats. Security measures are necessities. When there are no safeguards, it puts children—and the reputation of the kingdom—at risk.
Continuously Improving Children’s Ministry
When I look back 25 years, I see quite a few changes, many of them for the good. They have been created as an outflow of age-intentional ministry that is leading toward powerful discipleship with young people. Amen! Unfortunate culture shifts have led to some changes, but we must react responsibly.
The change that continues to excite me is the attention and intention given to discipling children. Kids are part of the church now, not just 10 years from now. They deserve our attention, excellence, time, money, and resources. Children’s ministry shows us the possibility of what the kingdom could look like on earth. As Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).
Teresa D. Welch serves as the program director for the Children’s Ministry major and vice president of institutional research and effectiveness at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. She continues to volunteer weekly in children’s ministry as a large-group teacher and kids worship leader at Carterville Christian Church.