By / May 17

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.   

By / May 7

Mother’s Day can be bittersweet for many. One in 10 couples struggle with infertility, and approximately 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages. For many women who long to have a child, Mother’s Day can serve as a difficult reminder of what they desire, but do not have. The potential pain of Mother’s Day extends further still — for women have chosen an adoption plan for their child, single women who desire to be married and have a family, or women who have had an abortion. And others might be grieving the loss of or navigating a difficult relationship with their mother.

Waiting

Personally, Mother’s Day can be filled with conflicting emotions. I was born with a somewhat rare medical condition that prevents me from bearing biological children. The loss of that dream feels especially poignant this time of year. But I also have a desire to honor my own mother and mother-in-law and celebrate the women in my life who are mothers. Romans 12:15 is often on my lips as I navigate these tensions and seek to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

My husband and I are in the process of an international adoption from India. This Mother’s Day, I feel the strange tension of pursuing motherhood but not yet stepping into the role of “mother.” I’m waiting for paperwork to be approved, for a social worker to deem us eligible to be parents, and to be matched with a child. But I know that waiting is not in vain. 

As an adoptee myself, I’m aware that my children’s stories will contain trauma. Even if our children are adopted young, there is trauma involved any time there’s a break in the natural family. The issue of adoption and child welfare is deeply important to me. I’ve spent time and energy navigating the complexities of these issues in order to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children. While we wait, we are reading books on trauma-informed parenting, listening to seminars, and gleaning wisdom from other adoptive parents so that we can love our children well. Our waiting is not in vain.

Watching 

We’re also watching the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in India with broken hearts. According to the BBC, “India has seen more than 300,000 new cases a day for nearly two weeks straight while deaths stand at 220,000. Experts say total Covid cases and deaths in India are likely to be much higher, citing lack of testing and patients dying at home without being seen by doctors.” The images and stories we’re witnessing have caused global alarm and attention. I can’t help but wonder how many children will be orphaned because of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths. 

Praying 

As we watch and wait, we do the best thing we know how to do: We pray. We lift up our future children in prayer almost daily. They might not be known to us, but they are known to our Father, and in that, we take great comfort. We pray for their safety and protection. We pray for their biological parents and the challenging circumstances that led them to making an adoption plan for their children. We pray for the leaders in India to make good and wise decisions for their citizens. We pray for the souls of our children, that they might come to know the Lord as their Savior at a young age.

In my waiting, I often echo the words of David, “O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” Waiting can often feel helpless, but Psalm 27:14 reminds us to “be strong, and let your heart take courage” as we “wait for the Lord.” I fix my eyes upon the Lord and ask him to fill me with his strength when I feel weak. 

If you find yourself in a season of waiting right now, allow me to remind you that you are never alone in your struggle. Psalm 38:9 reminds us that “all our longing is before God; our sighing is not hidden from Him.” The Lord promises never to leave or forsake his children. He promises to be good and to set his steadfast love upon us. When you feel overwhelmed and discouraged, on Mother’s Day or any time, press into the promises of the Lord. 

By / Apr 14

Jesus’s healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda was an impressive miracle, except in the religious leaders’ estimation. They were more concerned that Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, so they began attacking Jesus. In the middle of Jesus’s lengthy reply to these hard-hearted leaders, we read this: “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life” (John 5:39–40 CSB).

Our temptation is to read this with a “Yeah they got what they deserved!” mentality. While that’s understandable, we need to read these verses with humility instead. In the Savior’s words, we find a sobering warning to us as disciple-makers, especially those of us who are discipling kids. 

These religious leaders knew the Scriptures. They were the Bible trivia champions of their day. But what did that amount to? Death. All of their meticulous study of the Scriptures didn’t move them even a fraction of an inch from death toward life. In this passage, we see that there is much more than just knowing Scripture; we have to know Jesus through Scripture

We don’t want to follow in the religious leaders’ steps and train up kids who know the Bible but are still dead in their sins because they haven’t come to know the One the Bible is all about. Rather, we want to disciple kids who have learned about Jesus through the Bible, love him, and live for him. 

Learn, love, live: The foundation of the Shema

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find this three-part structure of discipleship woven into what many consider to be the seminal passage on discipling kids in the Bible—the passage known as the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4–9. 

Learn. Notice how the Shema begins:

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4 CSB).

The foundation of discipling kids is orthodoxy—having a right knowledge and belief about who God is. You cannot love whom you do not know, and you cannot live out what you do not know. So, in many ways, discipleship must begin with our targeting a child’s thinking—the head. We need to help kids understand God and his ways. We need to help kids engage their minds and think deeply about the gospel. But if discipleship ended here, it would be just a matter of information transfer; the religious leaders and even the demons would be excellent disciples (James 2:19).

Love. The Shema continues:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart (Deut. 6:5–6 CSB).

God’s intention is that the truth of who he is and the beauty of what he has done to restore our broken relationship with him should stir our affections for him and others. This is why Jesus pointed to the commands to love God (in Deuteronomy) and to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) as the two greatest commands in Scripture (Matt. 22:34–40). Love is the divinely appointed conduit that helps us to put what we know into practice.

As critical as love is in discipleship, it’s often neglected. The tendency is to move straight from learning to living. This robs kids of the opportunity to engage their feelings rightly. Orthodoxy should lead to orthopathy; right doctrine to rightly directed affections. Being moved deeply, that is, being filled with gratitude, love, and awe is the only reasonable response to what we learn. So, those who teach kids don’t just target right thinking, we also go after the heart. 

But if discipleship ended with the head and heart, it would be incomplete. Love is not love without action.

Live. The Shema concludes:

Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates (Deut. 6:7–9 CSB).

Whether or not these commands to bind and write the law are to be taken literally or metaphorically, the result is the same: obedience to God’s commands should mark his people such that they are easily recognized by others.1For more on whether these instructions were intended to be literal or metaphorical, see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 170–71; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1–21:9, Revised, vol. 6A, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994), 167–68. Knowing and loving God rightly will result in living rightly; this is called orthopraxy. Living on mission is not just extra credit for the spiritual elites; it is a requirement for all who believe, and it’s a test to determine whether a person has indeed learned and loved.

Required action is what Jesus had in mind when he explained what separates the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46. Jesus pointed to each group’s action or inaction as the reason they were judged as either saved or perishing. Jesus was not teaching a works-based salvation, but he was assuming a holistic discipleship process. His premise is that the righteous will do what they do because he knows them and has already transformed their heads and hearts It will be their natural and reasonable response to being in relationship with God. The inverse is just as true: it is unreasonable to contend that a person is a disciple of Jesus if he or she fails to live any differently. Our goal is not just to aim for the heads and hearts of those we are discipling, but also for their hands. 

Learn, love, and live: Putting discipleship into practice

How, then, do we put this learn-love-live discipleship triad into practice in our children’s ministries? Here are three tips to get you started:

  • Ensure your curriculum is balanced. Grab three different highlighters and a few sessions of your curriculum. Go through each, highlighting everything that focuses on learning in one color, loving in another color, and living in yet another. When you are done, if you notice a lack of one or more areas, consider how you can work with your teachers to include or expand those areas beyond what is in the leader guides. 
  • Ensure your ministry is balanced. Your impact on kids goes beyond your curriculum. Consider a similar exercise with your calendar and highlight your events according to what each one’s major win is or should be. Not only will this help you balance your ministry, but it will also help you as you plan each event—making sure each one is faithful to its purpose. 
  • Ensure your kids are balanced. We all have a bent toward either learning, loving, or living. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it should be encouraged. But at the same time, we want to make sure that each child (and leader, too) is growing holistically as a disciple. So that kid who is a learner by nature may need to be stretched to love and live more. That kid who is quick to live may need to be encouraged to slow down and learn at times. We don’t want to stifle natural growth, but neither do we want to encourage disproportionate growth. 

Learn, love, and live: An inseparable triad

Learn. Love. Live. Learning the gospel must result in a love for the God of the gospel and then living out the gospel in our context. Orthodoxy develops orthopathy which prompts orthopraxy. But once the process begins, each propels a person toward the other two as a person grows to become a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. In this way, all three work together in a beautiful and fruitful symbiotic relationship. None of the parts can be removed.

  • Learning and living without loving is legalism. We see this in Jesus’s description of the Pharisees in in Matthew 23:27–28. He said they were whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside.
  • Loving and living without learning is liberalism. We see this in many cults where people live passionately under their leaders’ errant guidance rather than under God’s inerrant truth.
  • Learning and loving without living is libertinism. We see this in church history in the monks, who withdrew from society to learn about God and love him in vacuum, without being salt and light in their communities. 

Learning, loving, and living are like the three legs of a stool. Remove any one, and it all topples over. But when all three work together, they provide a solid foundation. 

The newest cycle of Lifeway’s Gospel Project curriculum was revised with this Learn, Love, Live paradigm in mind. Learn more at gospelproject.com.

  • 1
    For more on whether these instructions were intended to be literal or metaphorical, see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 170–71; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1–21:9, Revised, vol. 6A, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994), 167–68.
By / Dec 17

Culturally, we have been conditioned to believe that the greatest threat to our children is the stranger. However, statistics do not support our fear of strangers when it comes to sexual abuse. We should be more concerned about the people we know. In order for a pedophile to successfully offend against a child, he or she must do so from a relational context. Within a relationship, the opportunities increase, and the misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to go undetected for longer periods of time. Sex offenders groom the intended victim and the adults1Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.” in the child’s life—parents, pastors, and other adults. Grooming is the process a perpetrator uses to build relationships of perceived trust with individuals and a community in order to sexually offend. 

A thorough understanding of grooming is foundational to understanding sexual abuse, formulating good policy and training, and protecting children from sexual abuse. When we are faced with the reality that the stranger is not the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse, the natural response is often fear and the feeling that we cannot trust anyone. The purpose of this article is not to create irrational fear, but rather to raise awareness and educate families and church leaders to be alert and aware. In order to become more aware, we must understand the prevalence and realities of child sexual abuse, as well as the grooming process a perpetrator uses in order to offend.

The Realities of Child Sexual Abuse

In the United States, about one in four girls and one in six boys will be the victim of sexual abuse during their childhood.2David Cantor et al., “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (The Association of American Universities, September 21, 2015). Of those children who are sexually abused during childhood, 91% are abused by someone that they know.3https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/childsexualabuse.html This might be a family member, family friend, teacher, coach, church leader, or neighbor. These individuals have access to the child in a relational context that allows them the ability to build a distorted sense of trust with the child and other adults. This misplaced trust allows the perpetrator to build a false rapport with the child and others in order to go undetected and garner more time with the child victim. 

Given that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone within the victim’s community, faith-based organizations4For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission. must be aware and on the lookout for signs of a sexual predator. However, oftentimes these organizations are not aware of and do not realize the danger in their midst until it is too late. There are several key reasons why faith-based, youth-serving organizations are prime targets for perpetrators of sexual abuse. 

First, organizations often have a false sense of security that “it cannot happen here” which serves to lower their guard and increases the risk for abuse. 

Second, our organizations need workers and volunteers in our youth and children’s ministries.

Third, faith-based communities are known for being trusting places—we welcome visitors and want to meet and accept people where they are in their spiritual journey. Because of our Christian beliefs, we are often too quick to give trust, and we feel guilty when we are suspicious. 

The mix of premature trust and desperate need for volunteers makes it easier for a perpetrator to gain access to the desired demographic. Trust also blinds an organization in the hiring and recruiting process of employees and volunteers; references and application information goes unchecked because someone “knows” them or the person worked at another church. In addition, community members may fear being seen as overreactive or troublemakers, and this keeps them from speaking up to report troublesome behavior.

The Grooming Process

In order to sexually offend, a perpetrator must gain trust and access to the child. The grooming process includes careful selection of a target, calculated trust-building with the child, gatekeepers, and organization, strategic isolation of the child, and testing of boundaries. 

The first step in the process is selecting the target. Perpetrators are looking for vulnerable targets on an individual, as well as a community level. In looking for a community in which to offend, organizations with low barriers to entry are preferred to ones that have a waiting period to volunteer or a more robust application process. An organization that is in desperate need to fill positions is attractive to perpetrators because the organization may overlook certain deficiencies in application and process in order to fill the position. 

Perpetrators also seek out children with vulnerabilities that the perpetrator can exploit. Perpetrators often insert themselves into family situations where life is very busy, in crisis, or lacks adult supervision.

The second phase of the grooming process is the trust-building phase. Trust building happens on multiple levels. In order to gain access to children, the perpetrator must gain the trust of the child, the organization, and the adult gatekeepers. Perpetrators may present as a volunteer who is always available, seems to go the extra mile, or is often seen as a “kid-magnet” or “pied piper.” Perpetrators are apt at seeing needs that they can fill in order to build trust. 

When it comes to the child, the perpetrator seeks to build a relationship focusing on the things that make the child feel special, older, appreciated, understood, desired, and loved. Over the course of the relationship, the perpetrator will begin to isolate the child. One-on-one encounters tend to increase during this time. This can make the child feel more “special” and “understood.”

As the one-on-one opportunities increase, the perpetrator will begin to push the boundaries in small ways. Each instance is calculated to gain information and see whether the child will let his or her guard down. It is also an experiment to see how aware or distracted the adults are in the child’s life. 

At some point, the perpetrator will begin to push sexual boundaries with the child. At first, the actions may seem very subtle, and the child may view it as accidental. But these advances are meant to test the child. They are meant to be stimulating and yet at the same time seem accidental, allowing the perpetrator to push further the next time. Depending on the age of the child, some perpetrators will use sexual innuendo and media with sexual content to test the waters. The advances may occur in person or virtually. 

The boundary pushing continues and the sexual advances become more overt when the perpetrator feels there is enough power in the relationship to silence and control the child. At the point the child realizes what is going on, he or she feels helpless to stop it, and the perpetrator will use the nature and extent of the sexual relationship to continue controlling the child. The child is trapped and fears that no one will believe him or her. Perpetrators are skilled in using secrecy, blame, guilt, physical violence, and shaming in order to keep the relationship going. 

As adults and organizations entrusted with the care and safety of children, we must be aware of the grooming process and take proactive steps to guard our children and organizations from predators. On many occasions as parents, gatekeepers, and organizations, we choose who has access to our children. We need to be aware of those choices and choose with an awareness of sexual predators and how they operate. Once we become aware and understand the risk, there are proactive steps that can lower the risk and keep children safe.

Proactive Steps to Lower the Risk of Sexual Abuse

For Parents:

  1. In developmentally appropriate ways, talk to children about their bodies. Teach them how to be assertive when they feel uncomfortable or weird. 
  2. Be that safe place where they can tell you anything.
  3. Vet the people and organizations in your child’s life. Ask about employee and volunteer screening and child abuse policy.
  4. Speak up when you feel uncomfortable or see or hear something that doesn’t feel right.

For Organizations:

  1. Create, implement, and follow child safety and abuse prevention policies which should include limiting one-on-one opportunities, screening of employees and volunteers, defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and reporting.
  2. Train your employees and volunteers and show them that the safety of children is a priority of your organization.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary one-on-one interactions.
  4. Make all activities of your organization observable and interruptible in order to lessen opportunities for abuse.
  5. Have an open-door policy and take the concerns of your community seriously.

Understanding grooming and putting into practice these proactive steps in your home or ministry will help protect those in your care. We do not need to be irrationally fearful, but rather we must understand the grooming process to increase awareness, be alert to predators, implement screening policies and best practices, and to courageously protect against real threats.

  • 1
    Oftentimes, the adults who are responsible for the care and best interest of the child are called “gatekeepers.”
  • 2
    David Cantor et al., “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct” (The Association of American Universities, September 21, 2015).
  • 3
    https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/childsexualabuse.html
  • 4
    For brevity, I will refer to faith-based organizations which includes churches, schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations with a faith-based mission.
By / Dec 3

Parenting is never easy. And in today’s culture, it is as difficult as ever. In this short book, Jared Kennedy presents a guide to help Christian parents navigate one of the most complex issues of our time: gender. With clarity and compassion, wisdom and grace, Jared offers basic explanations and step-by-step guidance for parents seeking to understand and address various issues related to gender and sexuality. The book reveals the heart of a shepherd and carefully applies the hope of the gospel to the many challenges related to these issues arising among children and young people today. 

By / Nov 10

November is National Adoption Month. An important aspect of child welfare is the policies that govern how we care for the nation’s and world’s most vulnerable. Child welfare is one of the ERLC’s top priorities, and we regularly work with like-minded partners, Capitol Hill, and the administration to ensure that every child has a safe, permanent, and loving family.

Below are some of the child welfare policies the ERLC has been working on.

Adoptee Citizenship Act

Prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the administrative steps required of families adopting internationally were unnecessarily burdensome. The process included applying for and moving through a lengthy naturalization process for their children, in addition to the lengthy and costly adoption process. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted automatic citizenship to all foreign-born children brought to the United States who had at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, that act only applied to adoptees under the age of 18 when the bill was enacted, leaving an entire population of adopted children without full U.S. citizenship.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act closes the loophole to provide immediate citizenship to these children already adopted by U.S. citizens yet left out of the previous bill. This bill solves the innumerable problems these adopted Americans have had to endure in attending college, accessing banking services, or starting their careers because of a lack of citizenship. This bill provides equity to these children because they should have every legal right of any other child of a U.S. citizen. 

One Pager: Adoptee Citizenship Act 

Explainer: Adoptee Citizenship Act

Fulton v. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services (CSS) has cared for children and families in need for over 200 years. Then in 2018, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer informed the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services that two of its private foster care agencies, including Catholic Social Services (CSS), would not work with same-sex couples as foster parents. The city investigated the allegation, which it considered a violation of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

When the agencies confirmed that, because of their religious views on marriage, they would not work with gay couples—although no gay couple had ever attempted to partner with CSS—the department ceased referring foster children to them and demanded they change their religious practices or close down their ministries. The Supreme Court has taken up this case, and oral arguments were held on Nov. 4. 

The outcome of the case will also reach thousands of faith-affirming foster and adoption agencies across the country. An unfavorable outcome for CSS may force other agencies into a similarly devastating choice to either compromise their deeply-held religious convictions or close down. Should CSS receive a decision from the Supreme Court clarifying their First Amendment protections, they can continue serving Philadelphia during its foster care crisis. Like the City of Brotherly Love, many states face foster family shortages. So, the closing down of faith-affirming foster care agencies is nonsensical and will leave many foster children without the loving homes they urgently need.

With the foster care system burdened by the number of children in need, the government should not hinder the ability of agencies like Catholic Social Services to serve its community simply because of their religious beliefs. When the court decides this case, it is our hope that it not only protects religious liberty but also protects the ability of faith-based groups to continue serving the children in Philadelphia who need safe and loving homes.

Explainer: What you need to know about Fulton v. Philadelphia

Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act

Across the country, child welfare and child protection systems are overcrowded and under significant strain. It is in this context that some states and cities are working to close those child welfare providers who are seeking to operate in a manner consistent with their religious convictions. This leads to fewer families available for foster care and adoption. The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act would prohibit government discrimination against child welfare agencies on the basis of their beliefs, and ultimately protect children in the foster system and children waiting for adoption by ensuring that a wide range of child welfare providers are available to serve them. Although the legislation has yet to become law, the ERLC was pleased to see the Department of Health and Human Services issue a new regulation in November of 2019 requiring its grant programs to adhere to Supreme Court decisions and congressional laws, thus ensuring that religious freedom is not infringed upon by the federal government. 

This law would prohibit government discrimination against child welfare agencies on the basis of their religious beliefs. Thus, it would protect children in need as foster systems are overcrowded and under significant strain. 

Explainer: The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act

Ensuring Intercountry Adoption Remains a Viable Option

In 2019, only 2,971 children were welcomed into families through intercountry adoption. The reasons for this decline vary, from certain countries completely halting their intercountry programs to other countries placing more children in homes domestically. There’s also been a decline in stateside adoption agencies facilitating intercountry adoption, narrowing the options for prospective parents.

Many countries and cultures are becoming more open to domestic foster care and adoption. That is certainly good news, and ought to be encouraged. However, there are still millions of orphans worldwide who long to be raised in a family where they are known and loved instead of remaining a number in an impersonal institution. Intercountry adoption must remain a viable option for welcoming those children into homes, and we must do all we can to facilitate those adoptions. In some countries, especially developing nations, the only chance a child might have at growing up in a safe, loving, permanent home is intercountry. The ERLC is working with like-minded partners and the U.S. Department of State to ensure that intercountry adoption remains a viable option for families and vulnerable children around the world.

Read: Why Intercountry Adoption Must Remain a Viable Option

By / Oct 14

Last month, a favorite family park reopened in our West Seattle neighborhood. With much excitement, my wife and three kids arrived to play on the newly built playground. Getting into a new rhythm of playing while wearing masks was uncomfortable for my six-, five-, and three-year-old kids, but nevertheless, they were excited about the prospect of playing at the park again. 

After the kids played a bit, an unexpected topic of conversation emerged. My kids noticed all the protective wear other families had. Some families wore masks, others wore face shields, while still others removed their masks to take advantage of breathing in the open air. My first reaction was to tell my kids not to stare. But then I realized there was an opportunity in their curiosity. In fact, it was the perfect opportunity to teach them about the conscience. 

We’re all adjusting to new COVID-19 rhythms and protocols. Each of us has our own perception and interpretation of all the new policies and procedures. Kids do too. And if your kids are like mine, they aren’t afraid to ask why one family’s approach to mask-wearing, social distancing, etc., differs so much from the next. 

As these questions come, I believe it’s important now more than ever for parents to teach their children how to differentiate between biblical convictions and personal convictions. I believe it’s important for us to help our kids understand how God has designed the conscience. Here are three truths to get you started:  

First, our conscience is a gift from God. God has given humans the ability to identify and describe our internal thoughts—whether positive or negative—about ideas, actions, and situations. In Romans 2:15, Paul explains that the conscience is an intrinsic ability that is “written on every heart” of every human. 

So instead of defaulting to a preachy attitude about matters of conscience (“I know what other families should and shouldn’t do”), we should remember that the conscience is a precious gift—one that we should appreciate in ourselves and others, one that we should utilize with grace.

Second, our conscience is a guide. When a friend of mine began teaching her kids about the conscience, she described it as “a moral compass that guides people toward a heightened awareness of right and wrong.” It’s a guide given by God to help us navigate our daily choices. As we navigate each day’s circumstances and decisions, our conscience guides us through our decision-making process. 

We should teach our kids that if they feel guilt over a particular sin or a poor decision, they should listen to those feelings. Their conscience is guiding them toward repentance and reconciliation. If we learn to be aware of our conscience, we can sense whether thoughts and actions are swaying us away from the true north of God’s righteous standards.

Third, our conscience needs calibrating. One of the challenges of the conscience is that it has been affected by the fall. Our consciences are not perfect. They are good, but flawed and need constant calibration. On the one hand, the human conscience has positive moral tendencies; we gravitate toward justice, goodness, and truth. On the other hand, we can sear our consciences by giving into sin and deceit. And we can overly strengthen our conscience by sneering at and standing in judgment of others who make choices that differ from our own. 

Thankfully, we have God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to correct our consciences and keep us from these twin dangers of lawlessness and legalism. When we compare our lives to the Bible’s instructions, God will graciously awaken our conscience toward truth. You see, God is committed to our sanctification—to our transformation. He wants to make us more like Jesus, and correcting our conscience is one of the ways he does so.

Have you had a conversation with your kids about their conscience? As parents and church leaders, our motivation should be that of Paul’s instruction to Timothy. He wanted his son in the faith to live with “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). By teaching these basic principles about the conscience, we can help our children grow up with godly discernment about the world around them. 

By / Jun 26

What just happened?

This week, the Trump Administration issued an executive order aimed at improving America’s child welfare system by seeking to strengthen foster care and adoption programs. The order outlines three objectives: improving partnerships, improving resources, and improving oversight.

What does the order do?

Executive orders work in our system of government as administrative policy directives. This order seeks to bolster the current foster system through community action and education by increasing the resources available to children, families, and caregivers. It also seeks to increase transparency within and surrounding the current system in order to facilitate a stronger legal structure for children and their families, both biological and adoptive. 

The order directs the federal government to “protect the lives and well-being of young Americans and children” who may age out of the foster care system. While this program operates to find children “permanent homes,” sadly, close to 20,000 youth age out of care every year. By increasing the connection between non-profit institutions—including faith-based local groups—the administration is trying to reduce the number of young adults left without families.

The impetus behind this order is the belief that every child deserves a family, and states and communities have both a legal obligation, and the privilege, to care for our nation’s most vulnerable children. Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson said of the executive order, “These strong actions support vulnerable children and youth nationwide by advancing measures to reduce child abuse and neglect, encouraging family preservation, and strengthening adoption and other forms of permanency for America’s kids.”

Why is this important?

There are currently 437,283 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system and approximately one-fourth of those children are eligible for adoption. The efforts to improve the child welfare system, especially through partnerships with faith-based organizations and the promotion of trauma-informed resources for caregivers are positive steps in helping to create an even stronger child welfare system that serves children and families.

The executive order lays out why children experience prolonged waiting periods in foster care, and how the order seeks to address those issues:

Several factors have contributed to the number of children who wait in foster care for extended periods.  First, State and local child welfare agencies often do not have robust partnerships with private community organizations, including faith-based organizations.  Second, those who step up to be resource families for children in foster care — including kin, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents — may lack adequate support.  Third, too often the processes and systems meant to help children and families in crisis have instead created bureaucratic barriers that make it more difficult for these children and families to get the help they need.

The goal for reform is to find ways for more children to safely stay with their biological families while also providing greater opportunities for children in the foster care system to find forever adoptive families with less bureaucratic red tape. Providing needed services to vulnerable families helps the prevention of children from entering into foster care in the first place.

What does this mean for faith-based organizations?

The executive order specifically instructs Secretary Azar to work with faith-based organizations to provide additional resources and placement opportunities. This guidance makes it clear that faith-based organizations are eligible for partnerships, on an equal basis. Collaboration between public and private agencies is vital for caring for the diversity of needs of the children in the foster care systems, and faith-based providers play an important role in caring for our nation’s most vulnerable children.

How is the ERLC engaged in this issue?

Child welfare is a significant priority for the ERLC’s ministry and advocacy work in Washington, D.C. We believe that every child deserves a safe, permanent, and loving family, and are grateful for policies that help promote the dignity of children and families.

The ERLC has been actively engaged in advocating for a more robust partnership between faith-based organizations and public providers. Faith-based organizations are on the front lines of serving our nation’s most vulnerable children, and are often leading the way in foster parent recruitment and retention. Supporting a flourishing public-private partnership is an important step in supporting vulnerable children and families.

ERLC interns Carolina Lumetta and Seth Billingsley contributed to this article

By / Nov 8

What just happened?

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently published its flagship report, The State of the World’s Children 2019, examining the immense risks posed by malnutrition. According to the report, across the globe 1 in 3 children under the age of 5 is not getting the nutrition they need to grow well.

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to process the nutrients in the food that one does eat. According to UNICEF, the “triple burden of malnutrition” is undernutrition, hidden hunger, and overweight.

What is undernutrition?

Undernutrition is a lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough food or not eating enough food containing substances necessary for growth and health. In 2018, almost 200 million children under the age of 5 suffer from stunting or wasting because of undernutrition.

What is stunting?

Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and/or inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Children are defined as stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards median. Stunting can cause impaired growth and has adverse functional consequences on the child, especially if it occurs in the first 1,000 days from conception until the age of 2.

The effect of stunting can carry over throughout the child’s life and lead to poor cognition and educational performance, low adult wages, lost productivity, and when accompanied by excessive weight gain later in childhood, an increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases in adult life. Stunting is both a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty.

The number of stunted children has declined in all continents, except in Africa.

What is wasting?

Wasting is a reduction or loss of body weight in relation to height. It results from inadequate nutrition over a shorter period than occurs with stunting. Children are defined as wasting if their height-for-age is below minus two standard deviations from median weight for height of reference population.

Wasting can be lethal for children, particularly in its most severe forms. Most children suffering from wasting around the world live in Asia.

What constitutes overweight in children?

Overweight is defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Obesity is a severe form of being overweight. Depending on the age of the child, different methods to measure a body's healthy weight are available to determine whether they are overweight.

Overweight, long thought of as a condition of the wealthy, is now increasingly a condition of the poor, reflecting the greater availability of “cheap calories” from fatty and sugary foods in almost every country in the world. The number of overweight children has increased in every continent. Based on recent trends, the number of overweight under-5s will rise from 40 million children to 43 million by 2025.

Being overweight as a child can lead to a number of medical conditions, including gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and orthopedic complications, as well as the early onset of type 2 diabetes. Overweight can also lead to behavioral and emotional problems, including depression and stigmatization. Childhood obesity is also a strong predictor of adult obesity, which can have serious health and economic consequences.

What is hidden hunger?

Hidden hunger is a chronic lack of vitamins, minerals, or other macronutrients needed for proper development. Globally, at least 1 in 2 children under age 5 (about 340 million) suffers from hidden hunger. Hidden hunger can harm survival, growth, and development at every stage of life. Unfortunately, this condition is rarely noticed until it is too late to do anything to correct its effects.

What are the primary causes of malnutrition in children?

Malnutrition is caused mainly by the poor quality of children’s diets. According to UNICEF, 2 in 3 children are not fed the minimum recommended diverse diet for healthy growth and development.

For example, only 2 in 5 infants under 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed, and use of breastmilk substitutes is a growing concern. Sales of milk-based formula grew by 41% globally and by 72% in upper middle-income countries such as Brazil, China, and Turkey from 2008–2013. UNICEF estimates that breastfeeding could save the lives of 820,000 children annually worldwide.

Poor diets also drive malnutrition throughout early childhood. About 44% of children aged 6 to 23 months are not fed fruits or vegetables and 59% are not fed eggs, dairy, fish, or meat. Only 1 in 5 children aged 6 to 23 months from the poorest households and rural areas is fed the minimum recommended diverse diet for healthy growth and brain development.

Overall, millions of children are eating too little of what they need, and millions are eating too much of what they don’t need: poor diets are now the main risk factor for the global burden of disease, according to the report.

More broadly, the main driver of malnutrition is poverty. According to a 2016 UNICEF and World Bank Study, of the 385 million children living in extreme poverty around the world in 2013, half lived in sub-Saharan Africa and just over a third in South Asia. More than four out of five of these children lived in rural areas. Such children are more likely to be underfed and malnourished, get sick, not complete school, and fall back into poverty in the aftermath of drought, disease or economic instability. Poor children are also the least likely to have access to safe water and adequate sanitation, to receive preventative healthcare such as vaccinations, and when ill are less likely to get adequate medical care.

By / Jul 19

Born and raised in the “birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll,” Donna Gaines returned 25 years later armed with a background in education and a heart for the county that claims one of the highest rates of childhood poverty.

Gaines is a women’s ministry leader and wife to Southern Baptist Convention president and Bellevue Baptist Church pastor Steve Gaines, where they minister together in Cordova, Tenn. Although she spends much of her time traveling with her husband, discipling women, and spending time with her 10—soon to be 11—grandchildren, Gaines is also the founder and president of a literacy program that targets at-risk children.

Five years ago, Gaines launched ARISE2Read, a faith-based literacy program for second graders in the greater Memphis and Jackson areas. Since starting the program, ARISE2Read has mobilized 822 volunteers who tutor 853 students in 19 schools—including in Gaines’s very own Georgian Hills Elementary, where she attended growing up.

“Our goal is to tutor every second-grade child,” Gaines said in an interview. Their goal for the upcoming school year is an ambitious 30 area schools.

Several studies, including a popularly cited study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2011, correlate high school graduation rates with reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The Casey study showed that children living in poverty who are reading proficiently by the end of third grade have an 89 percent graduation rate, since in fourth grade students are no longer learning to read, they are reading to learn.

“If you’re not on grade level by then, that impacts everything,” Gaines said.

The program, which integrates with an already-established initiative called Team Read, has seen incredible success, with a 142 percent increase in the number of second graders who are scoring on grade level.

In their pilot school, Treadwell Elementary, the program also worked with the lowest functioning first graders in addition to all second graders. While only about a third of overall Shelby County third grade students read at grade level, Treadwell bragged a 78 percent of students reading at grade level, Gaines said.

Behind every great man

Many in Southern Baptist or evangelical circles are familiar with Pastor Steve Gaines, her husband. What many might not know is that Donna Gaines is the chairman of the board for the Pastors Wives’ Session of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. She’s also the author of four books, and blogs regularly.

With a background in education—Gaines studied at Union University in Jackson for her undergraduate degree and completed her Master’s of Education at Texas Woman’s University—Gaines has long been aware of her love for education and underprivileged children. Early in her career, before going into full-time ministry, Gaines worked as an Educational Diagnostician in Texas.

“From when I was in college, I thought I would do something for needy children,” Gaines said. “God can plant a dream in you in college and bring it to fruition. It’s so fulfilling. Everything God has put into my life at this point has prepared me for this.”

With that special awareness, Gaines immediately recognized the need for an organization that actively linked local churches with their schools, using literacy as the most efficient tool for improving the wellbeing of their neighbors.

About a decade ago, Bellevue Baptist Church’s inner city mission projects sparked a regular tutoring program at one of the less privileged area schools. Around the same time, the Shelby and Memphis school systems merged, Gaines said.

“There was a lot of fear in the county of what that would mean,” she said. “And I had a moment in my quiet time where I felt God telling me, ‘this is your city, these are your children. What are you going to do about it?’”

So she called up the Memphis school system about using her resources – her connections with local churches – and aiding with a volunteer program, an idea which collided with the school’s goals to integrate the faith-based community.

Not just any literacy program

Program leaders at ARISE2Read are not only interested in the intellectual and mental well-being of the students they tutor. The name of the organization stands for “A Renewal In Student Education and Evangelism,” which separates it from other literacy programs by linking faith-based organizations (mostly evangelical area churches) with local schools.

Volunteers are not allowed to explicitly evangelize during their weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions, but more spiritually-oriented clubs afterward are optional. Each volunteer sees two students for 30 minutes each during the week, for a total of one hour of volunteering.

“You may not be able to say the name of Christ, but you are Christ [in your actions],” Gaines says to her volunteers, encouraging them to use private prayer over the student or the school in their ministry. The program is split unapologetically into two arms – a spiritual ministry arm and a community-driven one.

“It’s important that these children grow academically, but it’s equally important to show up every week and grow in that relationship. They’re excited, in their corner, literally speaking words of life. We’re seeing these children blossom,” Gaines said.

They haven’t promoted their program at all, but it’s spread rapidly via word-of-mouth, due to its simplicity (tutoring in elementary-level reading), low-level of commitment (one hour a week) and attractiveness to the school system (helping an already existing program that requires little maintenance). Recently, several local businesses adopted a school, in addition to the 20 local churches that are on board in Memphis alone.

One church body led a family to Christ through their involvement in the school. Another has helped a single mother of seven children over the past year in ways that range from getting clothes at Christmas to finding them solid housing.

“We helped her move in on December 22 with a wreath, fully furnished apartment and a Christmas Tree,” Gaines said. “Once people get involved, these children are no longer numbers.”

For Gaines, it’s more than just the academic statistics.

“I can’t not do this. I think it’s a justice issue. How can we not do anything?” she said. “Look at the resources we have! We can’t ignore that.”

Helping, not hurting

And volunteers are not ignoring those around them. The program doesn’t just serve the students, though they do that well and in a way that looks out for the whole student. It also is aware of  the teachers and staff at the schools where they volunteer.

“We’ve seen teachers’ morale increase,” Gaines said. Remembering the struggles of inner-city teachers is one of the many aspects of the program.

Shelby County School System Director of Family Partnerships and School Support Cynthia Alexander Mitchell started working with Gaines and ARISE2Read three years ago. Even with 100,000 students in the school system, and many different organizations offering to contribute help, Alexander Mitchell values the partnership of Gaines’s program, she said.

“When I was first getting into the role, I had several groups wanting to help, but ARISE2Read had the purest motive,” she said. “They stepped in and just helped support us. People often help if it benefits them. They just helped.”

While faith-based institutions and organizations being involved in schools is increasingly controversial, Mitchell sees the value local churches getting to know their communities – students who are inside or outside of the church.

“They help with our academics, but also with the self-esteem of the student,” she said.

The volunteers take a holistic approach in supporting their students, at a very pivotal age for many of them, Alexander Mitchell said.

Even with the church-and-state balance, Alexander Mitchell understands the value of the program’s after-hours Good News Clubs, more spiritually-focused times after school that parents and students can opt into, finding a “delicate way to support the faith foundation” of the students.

“Our most stable and faithful volunteers come from faith-based institutions,” Alexander Mitchell said, adding that she would recommend similar programs to other counties. “The tutoring relationship is not only beneficial for the children but also the volunteer. The [volunteers] are consistently returning to the schools where they’ve committed to. They’re a stabilizing force.”

Her advice to other churches: “the key is to have great, solid relationships with the school. The community has to see this as a support, and not another thing to monitor.”