By Dave Milam
In a society in moral decline, it’s critical for churches to have the most effective tools to disciple the next generation. We also live in an age of shrinking church budgets, ever-expanding demands, and fierce competition. So, whether you are a parent or a children’s ministry worker, the following seven trends will help you navigate the challenge of serving the American church in a post-Christian world.
1. ADVANCED SECURITY PROTOCOLS
Imagine time-traveling to 1953. On a stroll down the main street you might see locals sipping Coca-Cola on the corner and children actually playing outside. The phrase “children’s ministry security” didn’t exist back then. And if it had, churchgoers might have assumed you were talking about that cross-armed deacon who served as the Sunday school teachers’ bodyguard—proudly protecting them from undisciplined children carrying slingshots in their back pockets and speaking out of turn.
The Barney Fife era of church security has given way to the high-tech sophistication of James Bond. Handshakes have been replaced by regular and routine background checks of every volunteer. One-way nursery viewing mirrors have been replaced by cameras in every classroom—with parents stalking their children on video monitors in the lobby.
Long corridors of classrooms have been replaced with a “single point of entry” into the children’s environment.
This TSA philosophy of one central secure checkpoint (minus long lines, government agents, and full-body scans) has become the preferred method for checking-in kids across the country. It is one of the fastest-growing trends these days. And though there are still multiple avenues of exit for children, should there be an emergency, this single checkpoint creates an added layer of protection against child predators and active shooters.
Back in 1953, who’d have thought we’d one day be talking about this?
In an emergency, your children’s ministry may need the ability to quickly lock down and secure its environment until help arrives. And with a single point of entry, it can quickly barricade itself against intruders to protect children and workers. Churches with multiple points of entry may struggle to do this quickly and effectively.
Security of children at church is paramount these days.
2. SIMPLE, CLEAN THEMING
The evolution of environmental design in children’s ministry is stunning: emerging from a one-room Sunday school of the 1780s to a long corridor of classrooms in the 1950s; rooms that housed flannelgraphs of the 1970s and puppet stages in the 1980s gave way to a static, theme-park design in the 1990s.
The 2000s saw an all-out attempt to lure young families to church, with the children’s ministry environments adopting completely immersive, theme-driven designs. Entire church wings were transformed into Ranger World, Kids Town, Space Odyssey, or Noah’s Ark.
It’s been a gradual transition of late, but we’re starting to see a shift in the overall philosophy of design.
Think about it. A child’s attention span changes faster than a NASCAR pit crew can swap out tires. Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert your kids’ wing into Walt Disney World may create a buzz for a year or two, but it won’t be long until volunteers start to dread wearing those ranger costumes every Sunday morning. Since budgets are tight, your church is likely to be stuck with an expensive, worn-out design until the next capital campaign rolls around.
These days, it’s critical to choose an environmental look with a long shelf life and a high level of flexibility.
In coming years, you’ll notice children’s spaces in churches beginning to look more like an interactive kids’ museum or children’s hospital. They’ll start to have a sophisticated, clean, flexible look as opposed to the highly dimensional, static theming of the ’90s. In fact, you’ll even notice the increased use of simple, readable fonts instead of playful typefaces like comic sans (which, for the record, should never ever be used . . . ever . . . under any circumstances).
Recently, Christ’s Church in Mason, Ohio, moved toward a more sophisticated look with their updated children’s space. The environment is fresh, flexible, and timeless with clean san serif boldness paired with whimsical and playful graphics.
3. INTERACTIVE, ANALOG-BASED EXPERIENCES
Do you remember the seesaw? For generations, young children tormented each other on this sacred playground apparatus. In its glory days, the seesaw typically paired two people who trusted one another. But today, the seesaw is virtually extinct, probably removed by hordes of raging PTA moms with fists raised, chanting, “protect the tailbone; ban the seesaw.”
I suppose a 5-foot free fall might have been a bad idea.
These days, young children have migrated from outdoor play to the glowing sirens of technology. Screen time is at an all-time high for kids. And although technology and media have offered creative ways to engage learners in the past, churches are beginning to employ high levels of kinesthetic learning and hands-on imaginative play that beckon them away from screens. In some ways, the days of flannelgraph are back.
Creating relational play environments is a major trend in children’s ministry. Group games, Lego walls, and interactive magnet boards are becoming more popular, and none of these require an endless supply of batteries. Traditional indoor play structures have lost some of their sparkle, and churches are looking to create unique group-play experiences for their guests.
Environments such as the Phase Family Center in Atlanta are leading the way. This early learning environment, which opened over the summer, boasts a small-town vibe with high levels of analog, imaginative, relational play. Children can build their own sushi roll, stock grocery shelves with a magnetic, farm-fresh inventory, sort mail in an interactive postcard chute, and weigh ingredients with an analog scale in a smoothie shop.
4. LARGE-GROUP/SMALL-GROUP LAYOUT
For nearly 200 years, churches embraced the Sunday school classroom as the best way to train the next generation. After all, it worked for grandpa. Until the 1980s, church learning environments mirrored the public school, with a center hall dividing a sea of classrooms. Each room was equipped with a chalkboard and overhead projector—classroom learning at its best.
But with the dawning of megachurches, stage-driven environments became the most effective way to manage colossal crowds of kiddos each Sunday. The seeker-sensitive model became all the rage, and many churches began to emulate this mega-philosophy to help accommodate growing attendance. As a result, small teaching environments nearly vanished.
These days churches are adopting a balanced large-group/small-group strategy as the most effective model to disciple and teach children. In fact, many churches are even remodeling their facilities to accommodate this philosophy.
5. IDENTIFIABLE FAMILY ENTRANCES
Imagine you are a single mother with three kids—one still in a stroller—arriving at a church for the first time. Could you guess which entrance is closest to the kids’ check-in?
You must first navigate the parking lot, and then the church building. If you must also navigate a maze inside the building to locate the kids’ check-in, then obviously you entered by the wrong door . . . and the church has some work to do.
A growing number of churches are creating identifiable family entrances because they believe the guest experience begins in the parking lot. It’s not enough to curate a slick children’s environment inside the walls of your building if first-time guests must endure an annoying guessing game.
6. SPECIAL NEEDS MINISTRY
There’s a growing trend of churches offering sensory environments and targeting assistance for the families of special-needs children. That’s an important change, because the need has never been clearer.
“Children with autism are almost twice as likely to never attend church or other religious services,” according to a study by Andrew Whitehead at Clemson University. In addition, children with developmental delays, attention deficit disorder, or anxiety are also missing from the pews.
The National Center for Educational Statistics reports nearly 7 million public school students (about 14 percent) receive special education services. And among such students, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities.
The special-needs community is missing from the church because the church is not equipped to minister effectively. Thankfully, we’re starting to see improvements in that regard.
7. OUTDOOR INTERACTIVE ENVIRONMENTS
Have you noticed that large, traditional, enclosed malls are struggling? Many are even closing, which is kind of sad.
In their heyday, enclosed malls pioneered a new shopping experience; but in 2020, they are a relic of a world that no longer exists. Designed to be a town within a town, indoor malls turned their backs on the local community.
Do you see any similarities in the modern megachurch building?
Times have changed in America. Modern retail now has an outward, community-facing presence. Outdoor shopping malls are linking with a community’s cultural centers, civic buildings, municipal parks, and restaurant clusters. Even though the weather can sometimes be dreadful, such areas continue to grow in popularity.
As society and its retail shopping sector have changed, so must churches. They can’t remain indoors and inward-focused anymore. In the coming years, you’ll begin to see more churches become more outwardly focused by creating community amenities on undeveloped acreage. Churches will purposefully begin “anchoring to the community” by building parks, playgrounds, splash pads, and inviting outdoor environments for children and their parents.
The stakes are high. But even in this age of shrinking church budgets, ever-expanding demands, and fierce competition, these seven trends in children’s ministry space can help ministry leaders make the most of their investment in the next generation. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll be doing puppets again too.
Dave Milam serves as vice president of strategic design with Visioneering Studios, which provides services to churches that have architectural, construction, renovation, and real estate development needs. In his role, Dave comes alongside church leaders to breathe life and creativity into their ministry space, taking them from where they are to where they want to be. Dave and his wife, Anne, have four children and live in Keller, Texas.