By Janice Haywood
During the past 20 years, childhood ministry has received unprecedented attention from churches desiring to reach families with young children. Many churches have been adding staff to design and manage these ministries. Because the demand for childhood ministers is far greater than the trained ministers available for this age group, many staff members often arise from the laity with passion and commitment; however, usually with little preparation for guiding a successful ministry.
These volunteers often function more as program managers or activity directors with little understanding of what they are trying to accomplish with children other than to keep them happy and coming back. The reason for the importance of the ministry to a church affects the approach it takes. To some churches it is important to have a quali ty ministry mainly to attract the parents to other church ministries.
Other churches value the importance of the ministry itself as crucial in the faith formation of the children in its ministry. These two extremes on an attitude continuum influence how a church evaluates its childhood ministry success.
Success myths of childhood ministry
Success Myth 1: If large numbers of children are attending an activity, then it must be effective. Numbers do not always insure that the children are experiencing anything of value in their relationship with God. The activity may draw children without adding value to their faith formation.
For churches whose primary motivation is to attract parents, providing entertaining programs that attract large numbers of children indicates success. These programs often offer prizes, rewards and entertainment to keep the children coming in increasing numbers.
Large numbers of children alone do not indicate success if the main objective is to contribute to the faith foundation of children. Many church leaders have never considered how they might evaluate the impact they are having on the faith of the children or their parents even though they have an abundance of children in attendance. A church that plans to impact the faith of children will want to reach as many children as possible, but with an intentional, engaging approach to a substantive ministry. Each aspect of the ministry must be led by passionate, committed leaders who invite internal motivation rather than external rewards.
Success Myth 2: If the church has a wide variety of programming for children, then it must be effective. Instead of determining what the church has the resources and passion to do well, some ministers get caught up in doing everything that is suggested or touted in the latest brochure, ministerial gathering or parent recommendation. A childhood ministry that has a few substantive, engaging programs rather than many struggling, half-hearted efforts is stronger and more effective in impacting the faith of children.
After church leaders envision what their preschool and grade-school children need to know and experience in their faith journey, then they choose the programs or ministries that will help them achieve their objectives. What may be helpful and effective for what one church wishes to achieve would not be appropriate for another.
For some churches hands-on mission experiences, Bible skills, after-school tutoring and worship education would be the focus of programming. For other churches it might be Bible knowledge, music knowledge and worship leadership, preschool weekday programs and evangelism. These priorities need to be aligned with the church’s overall vision.
Success Myth 3: If children are having fun, then it must be effective. As I listen in the hallways after church events, I hear nearly every parent ask their children, “Did you have fun?” Why has fun become the measure of success at church? Perhaps fun is easier to pull off than purposeful, just as fast food is easier to serve than a nutritious meal.
Not everything that is fun contributes to a child’s faith formation, but I contend that everything that is done at church should do just that and be engaging and inviting too. Children involved in purposeful learning and worshiping alongside caring, faithful adults can develop a level of faith that can deepen into their teen and adult years. Fun is all about us, but church should be about an enduring connection with the living God — even for children.
Success Myth 4: If there are many opportunities for a child to be at church, then it must be effective. In an effort to accommodate parents’ busy schedules and program preferences, some churches are offering activities at multiple times. Some homeschooling parents sometimes expect the church to provide activities for their children during the day. The sheer number of activities provided can sacrifice quality and adequate teacher/pupil ratios for safety, as well as burn out a leadership base.
While a church must consider the schedules and preferences of families, not everyone can be accommodated at their convenience, nor should leaders expect children to be at all of the church activities. A church that offers a few excellent options and allows parents and children to choose their level of participation may find that they are more effective.
Success Myth 5: If the church teaches my favorite content, then it is effective. Some parents and church leaders have a “pet” church content preference. It might be choral music, competitive Bible memorization, Christian drama, children’s church or any other passion. Some churches even duplicate activities already provided in the community such as recreation or weekday programs that fail to be ministries of the church even though they take place at the church building. A church that has not determined its priorities and goals for the faith formation of its children may find that it becomes fragmented, stretched and unfocused as it tries to accommodate everyone’s favorite activity or program.
Managing childhood ministry priorities
When a church decides that the preschool and grade-school children’s ministry will be an integral part of the faith nurturing mission of the church, they will allocate budget, building space, and human resources to provide an excellent childhood ministry. All of these resources will be distributed according to the ministry priorities.
Because relationships are so vital in the faith formation of children, attention must be given to those leading the ministry — both paid and volunteer. The minister, coordinator, or pastor for children must be empowered and equipped to design a ministry with a team of people that has a vision for the purpose and direction of the ministry. This is more than a statement or a slogan but a plan for what the children should know and experience at each level of their faith development. This team will guide the ministry using the plan they have designed.
The considerable volunteer base needed for a significant ministry must be invited to join a mission, not lead a program. Because relationships are an influential key to an enduring faith, a ministry with children must have consistent, caring and equipped leaders that connect with the children and their parents. Few of us remember what memorable teachers in our lives taught us but we embrace for many years the warmth of their relationship with God and us.
The recent trend of rotating either children’s teachers/leaders or the children themselves weekly or monthly accommodates the needs of time-strapped adults, not the needs of children. Few adults would tolerate rotating preachers in their pulpits each Sunday, but think nothing of assigning a different adult to teach children each week.
Purpose and inspiration
A team of consistent, committed leadership requires considerable time and energy on the part of the minister and/or assistants. Enlistment with purpose and inspiration as well as nurturing, training and encouraging a children’s leadership team must be a priority in developing a children’s ministry that connects them with teachers who reflect the character of God.
Safety and security of children while they are at church must be a top priority of an effective ministry today. Written safety and hygiene policies, security systems, screened leadership and safe buildings are becoming mandatory for parents in today’s world.
Childhood ministry is moving from the exclusive domain of ministry to children to a comprehensive ministry with children and families. Ministry with parents has been a long-neglected aspect of childhood ministry. Parents often avoid their faith nurturing responsibilities because they feel inadequate and abdicate their responsibility to the “experts” at church. With instruction and encouragement from childhood ministries many parents are discovering the joy, satisfaction and effectiveness of sharing faith experiences with their children in the midst of their family life.
Childhood ministry is maturing and becoming more than a lecture to a captive audience sitting around a table or even a string of entertaining activities for childcare. It is becoming a purposeful journey with children, parents, and a faith community weaving enduring connections to God and each other.
Janice Haywood is a childhood ministry specialist based in Cary, NC, and adjunct professor at Campbell University Divinity School, Buies Creek, NC. [janicehaywood.com]