Why kids ministry decisions are still important during the pandemic

October 22, 2020

My church finally opened its doors in July after five months of closure, requiring ticket reservations, masks, and social distancing to enter the service. It was comforting to see the familiar eyes of our weekly door greeters and grab an elbow bump from the welcoming crew, but things felt strange—and not just because of the muffled voices and archipelago seating. Something was missing: my kids. 

Facing tough decisions

My very active 4- and 2-year-old wouldn’t last five minutes with a grab bag of crayons, paper, and snacks in the service before floor rolling or ninja jumping down the aisle. With kids ministry classes still on hold and COVID on the rise, our family opted to remain home in the early days of the church’s reopening. Just this week, kids classes re-opened. Our family will return more regularly now. And we’re joining thousands of other churchgoing families across the country making choices on how to proceed with our kids, as churches piecemeal their way to a new normal in a COVID-19 world. 

The choice about how to proceed with children’s discipleship is far from benign. A National Association of Evangelicals poll finds that 63% of people became Christians before the age of 14, and Barna found that after parents, guidance for spiritual formation falls on church leadership. Childhood is a critical time for shaping faith for a lifetime, so prioritizing our youngest citizens is perhaps the most important aspect of ministry—right now and always. 

But the ongoing risks of COVID persist in keeping hundreds of thousands of children out of church. Some parents are eager for children’s ministry to return, but others are fearful for the health of their children in classroom-like settings typically viewed as germ factories. Children under two already have eight to 10 colds per year on average, and their elder counterparts don’t fare much better. So potential COVID-laced classrooms are hardly appealing. As we get deeper into the fall and winter, health concerns may rise to unprecedented heights.

“It’s not just church that we aren’t going to—it’s any place with large crowds,” said Megan Phelan, a mom of two in Havertown, Pennsylvania. “I’m just not comfortable exposing my kids to that many people, not to mention they put their hands and mouths on everything.”

Families are looking out for themselves, but also seeking guidance from church leadership on when returning their children to church is safe and acceptable. Those who attended church regularly pre-pandemic are more likely to return, but a concern arises about families who were already infrequent attenders and children who relied on grandparents or friends that may now be staying home. Churches are keeping these folks top of mind. 

Stressed out church staffers, many who have worked tirelessly in the past months to power effective online outreach, are making tough decisions on procedures and protocols that will help families feel comfortable coming back to the building. Guiding markers are few, since the last time churches were ordered closed was during the flu pandemic of 1918, when such closures contributed to significantly lower rates of death in places where it was enforced. As such, hot spots like New York City and Los Angeles may require longer shutdown periods with in-person children’s ministry on the backburner until general reopening. Less affected areas are primarily the ones walking the line right now.

Making different decisions

While seven in 10 Protestant churches have reopened nationwide, the question of how and when to resume children’s ministry classes safely is perhaps the biggest, secondary question—and no two churches are identical in their plans. According to July 2020 Lifeway research, more than 50% of Protestant pastors hadn’t  decided when to start in-person student ministry again. Now that we are several months into the fall school year, , anxiety about how those interactions will affect outside communities remain. 

“My big concern is the kids going back to school and bringing COVID to the church,” said Billy Bruns, pastor of Fairfield Weslyan Church in Ohio. “As a church, it will be a flexible and slow reintroduction to kids ministry when the volunteers are comfortable to reconvene.” 

Most are blindly moving forward in various stages, listening to the comfort level of their community and enforcing precautions like temperature checks, social distancing, mask requirements, and health surveys. There seems to be an additional level of safety consideration for student ministry and nursery classes across the board. 

Whether churches are conducting children’s ministry or not, the majority of Americans aren’t showing up to services yet, anyway. According to Pew, only 12% of the country attended in-person services in July. While I was unable to find updated research on this statistic, presumably, that number has increased as many states have since loosened gathering restrictions. Fear fuels some of that absence, especially for families who attend larger churches or those with older populations. 

Childhood is a critical time for shaping faith for a lifetime, so prioritizing our youngest citizens is perhaps the most important aspect of ministry—right now and always.

After an elderly community member scolded her for letting her young children get too close to them on the sidewalk recently, Julie Harrison became hyper-aware of not accidentally endangering or scaring vulnerable individuals. “Our church is predominantly older,” said Harrison, who has opted not to return to her small church in Rockville, Maryland. “I know how much it means to [the older members] to go in person, and I don’t want to give them any reason not to feel comfortable in church.”

Harrison added that older people are also not as technologically savvy and may not enjoy online broadcasts. She said her family will not return until there is a vaccine available and schools are operating in-person. Until then, they will continue watching the livestream of another church they enjoy online. 

For larger churches, the concerns about safety are especially valid. The children’s area at a typical megachurch is a test tube of germs—families clustered along the hallway and volunteers exchanging babies between services. Rounds of toddlers and grade schoolers revolve through classrooms as breathless volunteers attempt to keep track of name tags, sign out sheets, and correct parental matches. Add a dose of COVID to the mayhem and it could be disastrous, especially for churches under a media microscope. 

Speaking with ministry leaders making these decisions, cleanliness and safety are the top priority for both the church at large and the children’s areas, as staff develop strict rules for hourly sanitation, contact-free check in, individual packaging for crayons and snacks, and socially-distanced mats for older kids. “All of our toys are sanitized between services,” said Meagan Lingenhoel, a worship leader at the 300-member Bible Chapel in Washington, Pennsylvania. “If a toy is in a child’s mouth, it’s taken out of rotation and different toy bins are used for first and second service.”

Heavy sanitation practices are paired with creative avenues for member comfort with touching. One church bought colored, silicone bracelets for kids to indicate their contact comfort levels: green for huggers, yellow for fist or elbow bumpers, and red for hand wavers. Another requires pre-registration and offers individual bags of goodies to children as they enter limited-size classrooms for the service. 

All available hands appear to be on deck at the churches I spoke with. Prior to COVID, church membership nationwide had been decreasing for years, so ministry teams want to ensure people know they are safe and welcome back to the pews. While online attendance soared at the genesis of the pandemic, even many practicing Christians eventually stopped attending virtually. For those who did not attend church regularly pre-pandemic, 17% say they have watched a service virtually. For children, the numbers would naturally be lower because virtual options can be difficult to implement effectively, requiring parental diligence in playing them. It makes getting children back into a physical church building that much more important for their spiritual growth. 

Location makes a big difference in how decisions are made. In South Dakota, churches never closed and most remain open and are functioning as they always have. But decision makers nationwide have come to varied conclusions, depending on location, size, government regulations, and congregational temperament. 

“We never stopped kids’ classes,” said Chris Minor, pastor of the 80-member Oakfield Baptist Church in Rockford, Michigan, who has been preaching from a makeshift platform in the parking lot since March. “We prerecord our children’s church service—and pass out handouts to with the lesson—so the kids can watch on tablets or phones during the service.” 

Despite larger health concerns, many parents are eager to get back to church but are choosing not to go because kids ministry classes are not yet in place. Many with younger children feel they would merely be quieting babies and chasing toddlers, rather than listening to the sermon and engaging with fellow church members. For that reason, they are staying home even though they would prefer to attend in person. 

Non-churchgoers may wonder why the religious are so committed to keeping doors open or offering intense online productions as a replacement for embodied gatherings. Or for children, why would they go to the trouble of setting up Zoom calls for easily distracted second-graders and organizing packets for toddlers apt to merely scribble on a photocopied Jesus before their purple crayon is discarded on the kitchen floor? Ministry staff recognize the eternal value of faith-based guidance in childhood and the way churches can offer support when there is a need for trustworthy adults beyond parents and family. 

Before the pandemic, my pastor liked to remind our congregation that the most important people in our church aren’t listening to the sermon, but upstairs in their classrooms. They are not an afterthought. Children’s ministry leaders know that decisions for Christ are most often made in childhood, and often, inside the church building. This is why the planning and purpose behind kids ministry decisions are priority for churches everywhere, and why parents are carefully weighing how they can safely return or soundly provide church-based learning from a distance. Ultimately, the weight of salvation may rest with these choices.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer. Her first book, Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness was released by Thomas Nelson in 2018. She lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with her husband and two children. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24