Sometimes as a Pastor I encounter families who are looking for a congregation with a “good children’s ministry”. Does my congregation (or any other for that matter) have a “good” children’s ministry? Well, it depends on the lenses you use. To be honest, there are usually no more than 10-15 children (primary school age and below) at our Sunday Worship Services, so if numbers are the main thing, then the answer is “no”. If parents are looking for a dynamic age-specific program using cutting-edge technologies and with a live kids worship band, then the answer is “no”. If parents are looking for a separate “children’s church” experience, then the answer is “no”. But if one is prepared to view ministry to and with children through a different set of lenses, then perhaps a different judgment might apply.
- Alternative Lens #1: Children’s ministry does not consist of only the programs a congregation offers for children, but is the sum of all its collective interactions with children in the name of Jesus. When an adult or a young person extends welcome, friendship and care to children before, after or during Sunday worship, that is children’s ministry. When a child experiences a non-parent adult as a living model of faith in a cross-generational midweek small group, that is children’s ministry. When a Pastor extends a personal blessing to each and every child at the Communion table, that is children’s ministry.
- Alternative Lens #2: The most significant ministry to children a congregation can engage in is ministry to their parents. Parents, as an enormous amount of research will attest, are the most significant “faith shapers” in the lives of children. When parents are equipped and supported to share their faith with their children, and the parents are themselves growing in faith, then a great deal of children’s ministry will be taking place in “non gathered” ways. Bedrooms, mealtables, cars and parks become places of ministry to children. Even if a congregation had no Sunday children’s program, but was investing in supporting faith-at-home, it would still have a very significant children’s ministry.
- Alternative Lens #3: Aside from ministry to parents, congregations enable children’s ministry when they intentionally nurture persons of all ages and stages as disciples of Jesus Christ. The ground-breaking USA Exemplary Youth Ministry Study (see the book The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry) highlighted the significance of the overall spiritual health of the congregation in ministry to those in the first third of life, apart from any age-specific programming. Healthy, vibrant spiritually mature communities of faith reproduce themselves as people of all ages “do” faith together. Intentional, strategic efforts to develop the faith lives of adults are an important building block for children’s ministry, particularly where these encourage adults to take more seriously their role as spiritual role models, mentors and elders for children.
- Alternative Lens #4: Authentic and respectful inclusion of children into the worship life of the congregation is an extremely significant component of a congregation’s ministry to them and with them. Because faith is more “caught than taught” and the gathered worship of the congregation is it’s primary faith practice, it is vital that children are encouraged, assisted and enabled to take their place alongside persons of other generations as fellow worshipers. Children, youth and adults alike are formed as worshipers by worshiping. Excluding children from the primary gathered activity of the church, or constructing worship that does not acknowledge their presence and their capacities to give and receive, diminishes both them and the wider faith community. While children may not fully understand everything that is said and done in worship services (do adults?), they take in, appropriate and apply much more than adults realise. They can also contribute in more ways than adults often realise and appreciate. It is my personal observation that sustained involvement and inclusion of children in worship into their youth produces greater maturity of faith than exclusion of children into separate “children’s church” activities.
- Alternative Lens #5: Cross-generational activities, both formal and informal, structured and relaxed, enable ministry to children by creating space for relationships to flourish across generations. The Sticky Faith research emphasises how important is for children of the church to know and be known by five or more non-parent Christian adults who are invested in their growth and wellbeing. Cross-age fellowship gatherings, cross-generational learning events and cross-generational service and mission activities can be fertile soil for the Holy Spirit to work in the “space between” people of different ages and stages. Mentoring, buddy or adoptive grandparenting initiatives can also be very effective means of tending the faith journeys of children. Such approaches may not look like modern, cutting edge children’s ministry programs, but my sense is that they will certainly be no less fruitful from the longer-term perspective of faith formation through and beyond the first third of life.
So, does my congregation have a “good” children’s ministry? Once again, it is matter of perception. It certainly is by no means all we might hope it to be. But perhaps what we are aiming for is somewhat different too. Our goal, in my view, is to not be merely a church with a children’s ministry, but to be a church of children’s ministry.