In his book, The American Church in Crisis, David Olson reveals that 77 percent of Americans do not have a consistent, life-giving connection with a local church. He further states that of the 23 percent who are considered “regular participants” in the life of a church, attendance has dropped dramatically — a regular participant is defined as a person who attends church at least three out of every eight Sundays.
This drop in church attendance creates dramatic challenges for churches that adhere to a traditional children’s discipleship model, with children’s classes during the weekend service as the primary mode of teaching children to follow Jesus.
So what is the alternative? How can we best care for the children in our churches? We believe there are four fundamental shifts that must take place among church leaders and the way they approach ministry to children.
1) Partner with Parents
The church must shift from a “the church can disciple your kids and parents can help” attitude to “parents can disciple their kids and the church can help.” The church’s primary responsibility needs to be partnering with parents.
Churches cannot just care for children an hour each week and hope that discipleship is happening in the home. Churches need to encourage parents and to empower them.
What if every church developed an integrated approach to assist parents in discipling their children from birth through high school graduation? Church would no longer be something you did on weekends, but an experience that continued throughout the week.
A purposeful children’s discipleship program will inform and equip parents and give them opportunities to lead their children spiritually both at church and at time. Provide parents with safe opportunities to learn and practice the discipling of their children so they can do it in their own homes.
When you make this shift, you will find that your church is more effective in impacting both children and parents.
2) Disciple children to follow Jesus--intentionally
The church must shift from a children’s ministry as a support ministry that provides child care while adults attend the worship service to children’s ministry that has a clear discipleship focus on training children to follow Jesus.
To really disciple children and help them to follow Jesus, the focus must be an end in itself—a worthy goal—and not as a means to attract and retain adults. Knowing that 85% of those who choose to follow Jesus do so between the ages of four and fourteen, we should have people lined up to serve in children’s ministry.
But this won’t happen unless children are highly valued within the church.
- Does your church budget reflect the value you place on children?
- Do you have representatives from your children’s ministry involved in major church leadership decisions?
- If you are a pastor or senior church leader, are you personally involved in pouring into the lives of the children in the church you serve?
- Are children integrated into everything you do as a church?
Until you can answer YES to these questions, you have not made this important shift.
3) Integrate children into the life of your church
The church must shift from an age-segregated fellowship to an age-integrated ministry. Look for appropriate opportunities that would allow children to fully participate in the life of the church.
We have attended prayer services that were kid friendly. They included highly creative ways for adults and little ones to pray together. Multiple prayer sessions were set up around the room so that adults and children could move from station to station to experience intimacy with God in a variety of multisensory ways. Some of the most profound and meaningful prayers we have heard have come from our children. And by the way, the adults love it!
At one prayer gathering, one station was run entirely by fourth graders. The children invited adults to join them in praying for their schools.
In another instance, children’s ministry leaders were brought onto the platform. Fourth- to eighth-grade students gathered around the leaders and prayed for them. It was profound to see the kids spiritually bless the adults!
Plan occasional age-integrated worship services:
- Teach and serve the Passover (Seder) meal in which adults and children participate
- Interview students about the struggles they face in school, and pray for the students
- Expose families to the developing world in the context of missions
When special offerings are taken—to plant a new church, to help the homeless, to fill baby bottles with change for the crisis pregnancy center—encourage children to participate right along with the adults. We’ve seen children empty their piggy banks to help those in need.
And kids are encouraged to earn the money they give, not to simply give what their parents have given to them.
To be a church that truly cares for children, we must shift our emphasis to equipping parents and caregivers to disciple the ones God has entrusted to them. Children must be a central part of everything we do as a church.
Integrating children into prayer times, service opportunities, and giving initiatives shows who we are as a church.
4) Encourage children to give back
The church must shift from children receiving to children giving. Children aren’t the church of tomorrow. Children are the church of today.
Children have gifts and insights that are needed in the body of Christ. Yes, they need teaching and training, and they need to be discipled. Learning to be a disciple takes more than just passively listening to others. It involves responding and doing. We learn by listening and acting.
In the developing world, it is common to see students who are growing up in a Compassion child development center serving their local churches. These young people play in the band, are worship leaders, teach in children’s classes, and are involved in a host of other serving opportunities. Having received, they share a common attitude of service to others.
This is the opposite of some children who receive handouts from their parents without ever being asked to sacrifice and help others. In fact, one of the greatest dangers that children in the developed world face as they grow into their adolescent years is a sense of entitlement.
The antidote to this entitlement mentality is being generous with their time, talents, and finances, and learning to give not just out of their abundance but in a way that could be considered a sacrifice.
Unless we afford children the opportunity to be involved, to give back, to actively participate in the life of the church and community, we will reap what we sow—a generation that expects to receive rather than to give and invest in the lives of others.
The local church is God’s chosen instrument of change for the world. Transforming the lives of children is the single most effective way to transform the life of the church. Children are not the church of tomorrow; they are the church of today.
Taken from Small Matters by Greg Nettle and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado. Copyright © 2016 by Greg Nettle and Compassion International, Inc. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
Greg Nettle serves as the President of Stadia Global Church Planting (a church planting organization committed to making sure that every child has a church) and is the co-author of One Of and Disciples Who Make Disciples. Greg has the opportunity to speak to vast numbers of people every year through conferences, his blog (www.gregnettle.com), teaching in large church settings and traveling throughout the world.
Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado is the President and CEO of Compassion International, a ministry working in partnership with churches around the world to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. Jimmy represented El Salvador (the country of his birth) in the decathlon competition at the 1988 Olympic Games, holds an MBA from Harvard, and served for 20 years as the President of the Willow Creek Association.
LEARN MORE about Compassion—
Does child sponsorship work?
In 2008, Dr. Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, along with two colleagues, conducted a study of Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program to determine its impact on the adult life outcomes of formerly sponsored children against those of children who were not part of the ministry’s programs. Review the research findings published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Political Economy, one of the most prestigious economics journals in the world.