Evaluating the why, what, where, when, who and how of children’s faith formation isn’t optional; it’s essential. The spiritual well-being of this generation of children is at stake. With declining numbers of children embracing Christ (in the Western World), it’s incumbent on us to thoroughly examine and critically analyze the state of children’s ministry.
Healthy growing children’s ministries don’t just happen. Are you reimagining children’s faith formation? Are you dreaming about the future? Strategic thinking about children’s ministry is urgently required. To prime your thoughts, here are some considerations:
The impact of COVID-19 on children’s faith formation.
COVID-19 has profoundly affected children’s ministry. Like it or not, the pandemic highlighted the shortcomings in what we’re doing. As faith formation specialist John Roberto says, “The pandemic has demonstrated how fragile faith formation approaches and programming were and how dependent they were on fixed time programming in physical spaces at church facilities and in other locations.” We can’t ignore the obvious. “The pandemic has called into question how durable and resilient our current forms of ministry and faith formation really are.”
The faith formation of children during the pandemic, especially younger children, largely fell through the cracks. With the cancellation or suspension of pre-pandemic church programs, we expected parents to take the lead in their children’s faith formation. Most parents were neither inclined nor prepared for these roles and responsibilities. The pandemic exposed a tragic reality; “even in good Christian homes, parents struggled to disciple their children” (Canadian Children’s Ministry Report 2021).
Eyes on Jesus.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Jesus, who does the will of the Father (John 5:30, 6:38) in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:14, Acts 10:38), is all we need to rethink, refocus and rebuild children’s ministry. Yes, familiar resources have proven inadequate, and many pre-pandemic programs have been curtailed, but it isn’t a train wreck. God’s never caught off guard. He’s providing “streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19) and living water for us to drink (John 7:37-38).
Getting Children’s ministry back on track.
So with children’s ministry compromised by COVID-19, how do we get it back on track? How do we accept and live into the way things are? Here are three seminal considerations for reimagining children’s faith formation:
Children’s ministry strategies must become more orientated to equipping and encouraging children to experience faith as part of the rhythms of life. We should be less concerned with teaching values or principles and more concerned with sharing life in ways that help children imitate Jesus’ way of life. As columnist Jeff Clarke says, “Christian discipleship is a totally immersive process that naturally flows into all of life.”Children's ministry strategies must become more orientated to equipping and encouraging children to experience faith as part of the rhythms of life. Click To Tweet
To see children’s faith formation thrive, we must stop compartmentalizing life and living. Faith formation isn’t a once or twice a week activity. It can’t be packaged in a program, and it’s not a machine-like application of biblical doctrines. It’s equipping children to jump in boots and all to live like Jesus every day of every year until they meet Him face to face! This is a communal pursuit. Faith formation involves strengthening horizontal (with others) and vertical relationships (with Jesus).
Lifestyle faith formation doesn’t happen without direction or planning. A child’s faith formation (concerning a human example) is mainly contingent on her/his parent’s faith formation. To embrace Jesus with no holds barred, children need to see adults modelling a deep love for Jesus. While it’s helpful and necessary for children to interact and build relationships with people of all ages in the church, they especially need to see their parents living (in the power of the Holy Spirit) only all for Jesus.
The implications are apparent. We must better prepare parents to prioritize their relationships with Jesus. This is crucial. When parents live their lives fully for Jesus, they’re positioned to help their children become living embodiments of Jesus.
The bottom line is that children’s ministry leaders need to galvanize and coordinate efforts to strengthen family and intergenerational ministry in the years ahead (cf. Culture Not Curriculum: The Heart of Connecting Generations).Children's ministry leaders need to galvanize and coordinate efforts to strengthen family and intergenerational ministry in the years ahead Click To Tweet
Faith isn’t a side-line activity; it defines the very essence of who a person is in Christ. Faith formation is primarily about being, not doing. It’s a distinctiveness we embrace and grow into, an active participation and identification in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Because faith is a lifestyle, church programs fall short as a means to facilitate children’s faith formation. Equating faith formation with a program leaves children thinking they can opt-in or opt-out of it. Maybe this is why so many children stop attending church meetings when they become adults.
Is the aim of children’s ministry content or connection? To be program-centred is to misconstrue what following Jesus really entails. So in the future, we must enable children to experience faith formation, not as a program, but as someONE (Jesus) who they add to their lives. If we do this, there’ll be fewer instances of hemorrhaging faith.
The problem with programs is that programs end! Relationships with children and parents should thus become less about exchanging resources and more about sharing lives. The aim isn’t to get children to attend church programs. It’s helping them, and their parents, discover rhythms of faith that embody Jesus in their daily lives.Churches should become much more proficient at supplementing and supporting parents as the foremost nurturers of their children's faith formation. Click To Tweet
Church shouldn’t be going to a building to attend a program at a set time in the week. Our view of the church must change from being a service provider to being a partner in the nurturing of children’s faith. Continued reliance on Sunday School, mid-week clubs, and VBS will leave churches inadequately equipped for future ministry. Ideally, children’s faith formation should happen in the home 24/7. Practically, this means that churches should become much more proficient at supplementing and supporting parents as the foremost nurturers of their children’s faith formation.
Immerse children in Jesus.
Living for Jesus should flow from the inside out. To reimagine children’s faith formation adequately, we must steer children away from only applying principles to their lives. A belief based on principles is not the same as a lifestyle faith. Teaching children Christian values, morals or doctrines may link them externally with God, but it doesn’t connect them internally. To cultivate children’s faith formation internally, we must immerse them in Jesus’ Story until His Story naturally flows from the inside out, touching every aspect of their lives and the lives of those around them.To cultivate children's faith formation, we must help them center the totality of their lives in Jesus. Click To Tweet
In essence, to cultivate children’s faith formation, we must help them center the totality of their lives in Jesus. We do this by encouraging children to internally embrace Jesus’ life and message in ways that indicate His life and message is their life and message. Only when Jesus is at the core of a child’s existence can we genuinely say that faith formation has occurred.
Furthermore, as we reimagine children’s faith formation, we must engage with the Scriptures, review our theological premises, take a fresh look at the needs of children and parents, and scrap some of our church programs. We must also improve relational dynamics, champion lifestyle faith formation, strengthen family ministry, and explore new ministry paradigms.
Is it possible for us to do this? Can we immerse children in Jesus? Yes and no. In our own strength, we’re totally incapable of nurturing children’s faith formation. But when we lean hard into Jesus, trusting Him for wisdom and strength, He gives us the wherewithal to connect children to Him.
Researcher and teacher, Sarah Holmes, asks, “Is the Church able to reflect and change? Are our children’s ministry models ‘stuck’ and outdated?”
Holmes asks a timely question. Here are some more:
What would it look like to begin children’s ministry again? Can children become living embodiments of Jesus? Is a child’s faith formation private or communal? How can we improve existing discipleship strategies and approaches? Can offline faith formation interactions and gatherings be accomplished online? What does @ home discipleship look like? Is it time to prototype new methodologies for children’s faith formation? How can we create opportunities for multiple generations to interact and connect with each other? How can we get the Church to honestly think about what we’re doing and should be doing in children’s ministry?
© Scripture Union, 2022