What hinders a strategic approach to children’s ministry? This important question was initially raised at The Future of the Church? Rethinking the Framework of Ministry Summit (January 2022) and is the subject of ongoing discussions in different forums and groups.
So what are we learning?
We’ve identified four major hurdles we need to overcome:
There’s a deeply embedded institutional resistance to change. Even though many children’s ministry practitioners and stakeholders want a strategic approach to children’s ministry, they feel powerless to make it happen.Even though many children's ministry practitioners and stakeholders want a strategic approach to children's ministry, they feel powerless to make it happen. Click To Tweet
The scale of this problem is poignantly captured in these comments:
“My pastor is too busy with adults to make children’s ministry a priority. How do we get through to senior leaders to help them evaluate and look more openly at how things could be?”
“I think the biggest barriers in Children’s ministry are institutional and clerical. Many Children’s ministers are not considered equal in ministry, and although they have vision and experience, they spend their time being stymied by the institution and clergy.”
“It’s so frustrating that the ‘non-child’ component of the church put up so many barriers against children, from whom they could learn so much.”
“If pastors don’t receive adequate training in children’s ministry, then how can they affect any sort of strategic change with a good enough understanding of what they are enabling or implementing?”
“There is so much that needs to change in church culture, and power dynamics limits children’s ministers considerably.”
“Church leadership don’t see children as a ministry priority. There is no buy-in from the priest in charge, clergy egos are a problem, and it is disheartening when senior leaders block or do not value children’s ministry.”
These realities, while they are tragedies, are not dead ends. The way to overcome institutional barriers is to lead up.
“To get clergy on board,” as a veteran practitioner said, “institutional change is needed from the bottom up.”
Leading up, sometimes called leading from the middle, is influencing the people above you. It’s working hard to inform and involve senior church/denominational leadership. As American leadership specialist John Maxwell says, “You build this influence with your character, your actions, and your willingness to add value to others.”
If children’s ministry practitioners don’t advocate for children’s ministry, who will? To lead the leaders, we must tactically communicate through one-on-one interactions.
We should also ask:
Are we willing to influence the people above us?
And how can we rise together in a unified way to bring about change?
Some children’s ministry practitioners wonder if strategic planning is biblical. They ask questions like, “Shouldn’t we be Spirit-led?” Or they point out that Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” Matthew 6:34. But as American Presbyterian theologian R. C. Sproul observed, “Christ told his disciples not to be anxious about tomorrow, but he never said not to consider tomorrow.”
Critical thinking and planning for the future are scripturally sound (Proverbs 24:3-4, Luke 14:28-33). There are many biblical examples of God providing clear directions for planning or accomplishing future goals.
God doesn’t confine Himself to the here and now, and neither should we (Isaiah 43:19). He has perfect strategic foresight. He knows the future – has it all planned out (Jeremiah 29:10). So we should envision it too (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). But not with our understanding – we need God’s wisdom (James 1:5). We must build tomorrow’s strategies on the foundation of God’s Word.We must build tomorrow's strategies on the foundation of God's Word. Click To Tweet
The Indian church planter, Zac Poonan reminds us, “It’s foolish to move into the future on our own when God is waiting to guide us.” Jesus must be the author of our future (Proverbs 16:1-3). To plan strategically, we must prayerfully seek God’s guidance and perspective. Ask God for the wisdom to know what to let go of, and what to keep holding on to. In the process, we should be open to possibly doing something unusual or unconventional (e.g. Gideon and Jonah). As German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely counsels – “claim the future and don’t abandon it to the enemy.”
There are substantial inadequacies in our children’s ministry practices and approaches. Astute practitioners identify some of the problems in these comments and observations:
“We are caught up with program-driven approaches. How can we move forward from this?”
“We need to discuss and understand the principles behind the development of resources, i.e. what do we want the principles to do, and why?”
“What resources are out there that offer more than the kind of narrow curriculum that is used in many churches?”
“I am appalled at the lack of hospitality we show to children in church – so often we don’t provide anything, we don’t listen to them or make space for them to speak, we don’t involve them in worship except in as much as what we decide for them.”
“Ministry to families must become an integral part of the church, and we must honour parents in their faith formation roles with children.”
“The whole church must embrace the vision of family support and empowerment.”
“Scrap separation. Go intergenerational! Put more effort into intergenerational connections and relationships.”
“There’s a lack of volunteers.”To deal with substantial inadequacies in children's ministry practices and approaches we need to ramp up ministry training. Click To Tweet
To surmount these barriers, we need to ramp up formal, informal and non-formal ministry training, adopt more relational approaches, and strengthen intergenerational connections. We must also prioritize family ministry, include children and parents in the process and practice of ministry, and cultivate mindsets that are open to how things could be. And concerning volunteers, as one practitioner suggested, “We need to get better at identifying people’s gifts, and not just getting people to fill gaps.”
Catherine Booth, the co-founder of the Salvation Army, said, “There is no improving the future without disturbing the present.”
Sometimes, the greatest hindrance to a strategic approach to children’s ministry is the barriers we erect in our minds. Are you welded to what you know? Most religious people tend to love the past more than the present or the future (the irony is that God is always “making everything new” Revelation 21:5).Sometimes, the greatest hindrance to a strategic approach to children's ministry is the barriers we erect in our minds. Click To Tweet
When we’re “stuck in the past,” hold onto “old concepts,” lock into “sub-conscious beliefs” and “traditional models,” we hinder a strategic approach to children’s ministry. The longer we’ve been doing children’s ministry, the more this is true.
There are three explanations.
First, we get comfortable with what, why, and how we do ministry. Second, we tend to be sentimental and don’t like change. And third, we’re more inclined to play it safe.
As a British children’s minister said, “I think a lot of people find change very threatening. I don’t know if this is true, but I do wonder if some people see the church as their one secure place in a very uncertain world.”
To overcome the barriers in our minds, we must do three things.
First, we must renew our thinking (Romans 12:2). Failure to analyze and review our traditional models and programs is the beginning of the end. As I said in another post, “Letting go of what you know and what you’ve mastered may be the biggest barrier you need to surmount.”
Second, we must embrace change. Holding onto the past doesn’t give children’s ministry much of a future. Yes, change is risky, but not changing is even riskier! If we don’t change, we sentence children’s ministry to stagnation or decline.
Third, we must become more flexible and resilient. We must ask, “Why are we saying no to change? What are we holding onto? And what are the alternatives?”
Not sure where or how to start? A disillusioned stakeholder said we should “sack the clergy (and professional church workers) and let the strategy evolve!” I doubt that’s the way to go. What we need is more togetherness and trust, not less. We also need to closely examine all aspects of children’s ministry from different perspectives.
The scarcity of critical reflection impedes the future growth of children’s ministry (cf. Sarah Holmes, Is the Church able to reflect and change?) In David’s army, the men of Issachar contributed not as brave warriors but by bringing knowledge and insight. Even though they were only 200 men out of a total force of 336,000, they’re remembered because they “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” 1 Chronicles 12:32.A trademark of children's ministry should be thinking faith. Click To Tweet
A trademark of children’s ministry should be thinking faith. We can’t wing it! Children deserve more than our guesses or speculations. So let’s prayerfully and biblically analyze what we’re doing, gather reliable data, intentionally collaborate (Proverbs 15:22, Proverbs 20:18), share stories, listen and learn, mobilize church leaders, and develop Spirit-directed tactics and approaches for future ministry.
Don’t be backward in coming forward!
“Someone needs to take the first step. Why not you?”
© Scripture Union, 2022