The Multi-national Children’s Ministry Report (2021) has identified that “there needs to be clearer communication, greater clarity and a stronger sense of purpose amongst all who are involved in children’s faith formation to best serve children in the seasons ahead.” Stated succinctly – it’s time for parents, pastors, teachers and others to develop a new plan for children’s ministry.
So why do we need a new plan for children’s ministry? What’s wrong with what we’re doing? Why do the Multi-national Children’s Ministry Report researchers say, “a significant paradigm shift is needed across the global Christian Church regarding the prevailing ethos and framework of children’s faith formation”? Because they’ve identified ten attitudes or practices in children’s ministry that are deeply flawed:
1. Children’s ministry isn’t prioritized as highly as adult ministry.
There’s a deep need for more significant consideration and inclusion of children’s ministry at senior levels of church leadership.
2. Families, churches and schools aren’t collaborating in children’s faith formation.
There’s general confusion among parents, pastors and teachers about the roles and responsibilities in the discipleship of children.
3. Content or program-driven approaches predominate over relational approaches.
We require a shift from a more task-focused ministry to a more people-focused ministry.
4. Resources and tools aren’t flexible.
Ongoing reliance on Sunday School and VBS curriculums leaves most churches inadequately equipped for ministry outside the box.
5. Parents aren’t taking the lead role in their children’s faith formation.
There’s a reluctance among most Christian parents to actively or intentionally teach their children how to love and live for Jesus.
6. Parents feel ill-equipped to nurture their children’s faith.
Raising the profile of family ministry hasn’t trickled through to the operational level of church life.
7. Training and equipping parents to be the primary disciple-makers is rare.
Pastors and teachers aren’t adequately helping parents develop the skills they require to facilitate the spiritual formation of their children.
8. Intergenerational connections are limited.
Most adult and children’s ministries operate independently, and this separation indicates, in part, that adults don’t see or value children as full members of the faith community.
9. Children aren’t actively involved in ministry.
Children’s ministry is more reactionary and responsive to children’s needs than actively engaging children in serving/ministering to others.
10. Written strategies for children’s ministry are mainly non-existent.
There are misperceptions and ambiguity about what a strategy is and how to formulate it.
What are the next steps?
In the words of Winnie the Pooh, “Oh, bother!” now what do we do? So how do we address the dysfunctionality in children’s ministry? What should the future trajectory of children’s faith formation be? In response to the ten problems mentioned above, here are ten suggestions for developing a new plan for children’s ministry:
1. Train all pastors in children’s ministry.
We should give our best where it counts the most. Pitifully, the average church, according to the 4/14 Movement, focuses only 3% of its resources on children’s ministry. That’s because senior levels of church leadership prioritize what they value. To start raising the value of children’s ministry we, therefore, need every Bible college and seminary to make one or more courses in children’s ministry mandatory for all students. Studies should include a practical focus on facilitating intergenerational ministry, equipping parents as disciple-makers, and assisting children in their faith formation.
2. Foster partnerships.
We must view churches as companions in children’s faith development rather than service providers. Instead of being confined to distinct children’s activities, faith formation would be more effective if carried out collaboratively across different sectors of the child’s life, including home, church and school. Churches, in turn, should intensify their efforts to support, equip and empower Christian parents. Most importantly, we need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of parents, pastors and teachers.
3. Be less transactional and more relational.
Faith formation thrives when children and adults experience life together. We should prioritize nurturing formal and informal relationships with families over the running of programs or activities. Parents are more than mere conduits to pass on church provisions and resources to the child. Moving forward we need to function on a network model. To shift from a program-driven approach to a person-prioritized approach, the emphasis must move from classes and courses to faith maturing goals at each stage of a child’s life.
4. Redesign resources and tools to be more transferable.
Syllabuses designed for the classroom don’t work well online, and lessons structured for the church or school don’t fit seamlessly into the rhythms of the home. Content and process matter. Approaches to children’s faith formation shouldn’t be dependent on fixed-time programming in physical settings or facilities. There should be a more flexible mix of methods and media. In a shifting world that’s changing every day, resources and tools should be less rigid and more adaptable for online and in-person use in different environments.
5. Champion parents as children’s primary faith nurturers.
Children’s faith formation will blossom when we help parents become living embodiments of Jesus. Many of us know it takes a village to raise a child (African proverb). Do we know it takes a church to raise a parent? Suppose parents are going to embrace and become great disciple-makers. To make it happen, the leaders of local churches and mission agencies must champion parents by equipping and encouraging them to disciple their children.
6. Cultivate the parent’s confidence.
Parents need more than resources; they need ongoing support. Parents should never feel isolated or alone. Churches need to consult with parents and be more accessible to parents looking for advice or assistance. Parents want to be valued and heard. So there’s a need for a deeper level of dialogue to change the existing mindsets of parents feeling ill-equipped.
7. Provide practical training for parents.
If you invite children to attend Sunday School or mid-week clubs, you affect their faith development for that day. If you teach parents how to nurture their children’s faith formation, you influence children’s faith development every day. Practical training for parents must be integral to a new plan for children’s ministry. For without training, parents will not know how to impress the Scriptures on their children 24/7 as part of the daily rhythms of life (Deuteronomy 6:7).
8. Encourage the development of intergenerational connections.
We must pay more attention to facilitating the growth in the faith interactions of children across different generations. To make this happen we must develop a more holistic approach to faith formation – one that blends together what faith formation specialist John Roberto distinguishes as “intergenerational faith formation, family faith formation, and life stage faith formation.” Raising the profile of grandparents could be a game-changer in strengthening children’s intergenerational connections. We must harness, equip and release grandparents to take a dynamic and deliberate role in the spiritual nurture of their children (the parents) and grandchildren (or quasi grandchildren).
9. Involve children in ministry.
Faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). We compromise children’s faith formation with academic models of ministry geared to biblical instruction divorced from acts of service. More attention must be given to the cultural context of the child in her/his church and community. Children should be active, not passive participants, in the journey of faith. As much as their capacity and giftedness fit, children should be fully involved in the church’s mission. It’s also incumbent on us to help children engage fully in conversational theology and meaning-making.
10 Teach stakeholders how to develop a strategy.
The formation of written strategies for future children’s ministry is of paramount importance. In many instances, the provision of ministry activities is the perceived strategy. But activities are not synonymous with strategy. Because it’s usually church leaders and not children’s workers who envision ministry trajectories, strategies for children’s ministry should be developed as part of the broader church strategy. If we don’t have strategic plans, children’s ministry will remain mired in mediocrity, with neither churches nor parents excelling in the faith formation of children.
The evidence clearly indicates that our world has been significantly disrupted by C-19 in lasting ways. There’s no going back to what we did before. If we’re going to thrive in the future, we’ll have to develop new paradigms for children’s faith formation. New approaches require creativity and the willingness to take risks. In essence, children’s ministry must do more than pivot – it must innovate.
So let’s get on with it! As we develop new plans for children’s ministry, it will involve more advanced thinking and input than suggested in this article. However, if you start by acting on these ten suggestions, you’ll be taking a big step in the right direction.
© Scripture Union, 2021