Book Review

What matters most in a children’s ministry

A look at “Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission” by Jared Kennedy

May 17, 2022

With 58% of parents choosing their current church based on the children’s ministry, there is a lot of pressure on churches to get it right. But what does it mean to get it right? Do churches need to have a children’s wing on par with the local indoor adventure park? Or a talented graphic designer cranking out stunning graphics for musical worship? Or an album-producing worship band? In this age of perpetual entertainment and distraction, the answers can be hard to recognize.

Keeping Jesus as the main focus

Jared Kennedy, a 15-plus year veteran of children’s ministry and managing editor of Gospel-Centered Family, has written a book that redirects the church’s attention back to the right answer. With Jesus Christ being the Alpha and the Omega, the ultimate, his relevance and needed prominence in children’s ministry has not diminished one bit. And in Kennedy’s new book, Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission: Practical Strategies for Discipling the Next Generation, he explains how a children’s ministry focused on Jesus and the gospel can be truly successful in a world packed with challenges unique to our time.

Kennedy explains the gospel as a “fourfold movement” of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, which reveals much about what children should be taught during their formative years. The fall, the moment Adam and Eve sinned and plunged mankind into eternal precariousness, is quite timely in light of today’s children being given freedoms while they possess very few guiding principles and receive little external guidance. Kennedy emphasizes, “[children] need to be faced with the reality of their brokenness.” He follows with the apt statement by Charles Spurgeon, “Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. . . show him his sin.”

In part two of his book, Kennedy presents the key to a welcoming environment for a children’s ministry. He explains the countercultural status Jesus gave children when he said whoever would enter his kingdom must become like a child. This startling statement presents children as a role model for humility, which is the key to “stooping” to serve God’s heritage just as Jesus stooped to wash the apostles’ feet as well as other numerous acts including the ultimate moment of service on the cross. The children’s minister argues and explains that humility is the key to creating a good environment.

One of the strengths of the book is Kennedy’s thoroughness in contrasting differing approaches to teaching a lesson on any given Sunday. His elucidation is on display in part three where he writes about the three ways to teach a Bible story: the example lesson, the God-centered (theologically-driven) lesson, and the gospel-centered lesson. After explaining the details of the various lesson types, he shares why the gospel-centered approach is the one he advocates: “[this] approach . . . moves beyond theological knowledge to grace-motivated, personal change.” 

Kennedy is most helpful when he tells the reader how to put this approach into practice so students are taught who the original audience was, God’s actions in the story, how the story points to Christ’s actions and/or roles, and the affect Christ’s work in his actions and/or roles can have on one’s heart. He devotes an entire chapter to teaching the reader the story of Nebuchadnezzar using this approach. In addition to his lesson about how to teach a lesson, Kennedy discusses how to engage children who learn in varied ways. Learning for children is auditory, experiential, and sensory, and he addresses how to reach all avenues. 

Just as a light is not to be hid under a bushel, the children’s ministry should not only impact the children’s and the family’s hearts, but also their hands. “ . . .  faith should move kids and families to be ambassadors for Christ who love their neighbors and take the good news to the world,” Kennedy writes near the end of the book. He states there are two realities that families may need to realize and then rectify that may be preventing them from serving their community. He explains a singular focus on either creation and fall or on redemption and consummation can keep us separated from our communities. The former can cause a family to become “isolated to [its] own . . . needs” while the latter can produce an “overly spiritual view of discipleship.” 

Addressing major issues children face today

A proper book on children’s ministry would not be complete nor meaningfully helpful if it did not address the major issues being faced by churches and/or parents currently. The first significant issue addressed is social media and its negative impact upon young people, which has been well documented in the press and by researchers. Kennedy quotes Danah Boyd, sociotechnical research for Microsoft, who says teens desire acceptance and social media provides a barometer regarding a child’s “social standing.”

In the world of digital popularity contests, Kennedy puts forth “a three-stage framework” for equipping children about who God is, who they are, and the relationship between them and God. The foundation for the framework is catechesis, which is an organized manner in which truths of God are taught and learned through a question and answer system. The Q & A format pairs perfectly with children’s natural curiosity as Kennedy points out. Catechesis dates back to the time of the Israelites receiving God’s law. For instance, God instructed the Hebrew parents as to what answer to give their children when they asked about his laws or the Passover. This serves as a knowledge anchor for children during times of turbulent anxiety about one’s worth.

Kennedy also takes a scalpel to the superficiality of social media by explaining that the Bible’s narrative about mankind transcends superficial experiences with redemptive love. Secondly, its story “shows kids a Savior who stood starkly against a superficial culture.” And the Bible’s story explains the world’s brokenness expressed in religious pluralism and sexual confusion with ancient instances that are eerily similar to our own time. This helps children see that their world is not unique, and God has wisdom to help them navigate it.

The second major issue addressed is child safety. Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nasser are vivid, tragic reminders that predators exist in the most unlikely of places, and the church must do all it can to protect the children entrusted to them by their parents. Before providing practical ways to protect children, Kennedy shares the pitfalls that lead to child predators unknowingly being permitted to be around children and have the opportunity to abuse. One of biggest dangers is our conception of a sexual predator. People have in their minds a certain picture of a person who is shady, socially awkward, and not that successful. But Nasser and Sandusky, along with many others before them, reveal predators can be presumed role models or people in authority who are charged to protect. And rather than protect, they abuse their position and exploit children. 

Many churches have failed to report incidents of abuse because the church leaders believed they should handle the matter in-house. In a helpful manner, Kennedy dismisses this misguided thinking by explaining the critical roles of the legal authorities and the church leadership. And he provides a step-by-step process to creating a child protection plan. He draws on the wisdom of numerous experts who have written about the subject, plus he lists several organizations who can assist in creating a quality policy to ensure a safe environment.

I would venture a guess that many of the parents in the set of 58% who are basing their selection of a church on the children’s ministry are looking for a church whose children’s ministry excites and entertains the senses of their children. For many, these expectations are a result of the current trend of mixing education with entertainment and the never-ending quest for the cool factor. In his book, Jared Kennedy, in honest prose, presents new paths based on old ways that will provide an opportunity for God’s love to be experienced by children, for the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection to be proclaimed in every lesson, and for children to have their souls met with transformative truth.   

Tim Scheiderer

Tim Scheiderer (M.Div, Southern Seminary) is a freelance writer living in metro Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter. His other writings can be found at TPScheiderer.com. He is also a founding board member of The Augustine Center, a Christian Study Center at Georgetown University. 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