When building a children’s ministry at a church, there is so much to consider: Which curriculum should we use? How many volunteers do we need? How do we keep parents in the loop? And that’s before we run into stalled check-in computers, missing activity sheets, and floors that need to be vacuumed. In his newest book, Keeping Your Children’s Ministry on Mission, Jared Kennedy shares a four-fold approach for gospel-centered, missional children’s ministry. In the book, he helps leaders — who can easily get distracted with all tasks of children’s ministry — to keep their focus on the gospel. Below, Kennedy answers questions that will help you form a faithful ministry to children.
What are the four big ways that the gospel shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and how do these gospel goals translate into a strategy for children’s discipleship?
In children’s ministry, we’re sometimes tempted to let the trappings of serving with excellence keep us from seeing where the real glory is. I’ve experienced this temptation practically. I’ve let the missing activity sheet and empty Goldfish box stress me out. While it’s not a bad thing to want to welcome families to our church with open arms, there are times when my worry over doing ministry well has revealed a misplaced faith. The level of anxiety I feel reveals that I’m trusting my hard work or attractional programming instead of trusting in Christ.
Paul stands in stark contrast to the way we tend to operate. In his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul gives us his vision for courageous, gospel-centered ministry — the kind of ministry that finds strength even in the midst of weakness. I believe there are at least four ways the simple gospel message shapes our goals for children’s ministry, and we can see each of them present in Paul’s description of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 1:31–2:5.
First, the gospel seasons our hospitality with humility; we don’t come to children with lofty speech but with humble and full hearts, boasting only in the Lord.
Second, the gospel centers our teaching on Jesus Christ and him crucified. All else pales in comparison to the central place of this message.
Third, the gospel forms our discipleship; we’re intentional about training children, and we have confidence that the Spirit’s goal is to grow kids in conformity with Christ’s story.
Finally, the gospel fuels our mission so that the next generation’s faith does not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Some people today question whether or not having an age-graded children’s ministry is even needed. Why do you think it’s still important?
It’s true. Some church leaders have decided that children’s ministry programming is no longer necessary. Their desire is to empower parents as disciple-makers and also to help kids build relationships with people of all ages in the church. These are good and biblical desires, but there are downsides to eliminating children’s ministry from the church calendar. Kids trained from an early age might pull off sitting through a long sermon without rolling matchbox cars down the wooden pews, but will unchurched visitors and new believers be as successful?
Think about it. Why should we have young children sit all the way through a sermon they don’t understand? As we pursue ways to help children experience intergenerational church life, we also need ministry approaches that remember kids from unbelieving homes and that capitalize on the pedagogical advantage of age-directed lessons. Even within the Bible, there seem to be some parts — Song of Songs, for example — that should be taught publicly (2 Tim. 3:16–17) but seem to be reserved for adults and older teens, not for younger children (Song 8:4). Other parts of the Bible, such as Proverbs, are geared toward youth (Prov. 1:8; cf. Ps. 119:9–16)!
We have to keep our priorities in order. The church’s goal in discipling the next generation is not to train kids so they can sit quietly through church services. Our goal is for them to hear about the Savior and, by God’s grace, be changed by him.
In the book, you say that children’s ministry is like PBS Kids®. What do you mean?
Once I was addressing a seminary class about how to create kid-friendly and engaging children’s ministry games. One of the students objected, “That sounds like something you’d see on the children’s cable channel, Nickelodeon. Is this just keeping kids entertained?” It was a good question. After all, I think the game in question did involve slime.
Sometimes with kids’ activities there is an entertainment factor, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect on that student’s question, I’d say (and I did say in the book!) that children’s ministry activities aren’t like Nickelodeon; they’re more like PBS Kids. There’s a goal in mind with a children’s lesson that is larger than entertainment alone — one that is bigger than selling a product or a character. Like the interactive exhibits at a children’s museum or the skits on Sesame Street, children’s ministry is an experience, but it’s an experience with an educational and relational aim. Dave Ainsworth, one of the pastors at Citizens Church in San Francisco, puts it this way: “Children’s ministry done well leads kids to learn about Jesus through hands-on, real-life, engaging discovery.”
What does the biblical storyline teach us about kids? How should we view our children’s ministry in light of the big story of redemptive history?
We can summarize the gospel story as a fourfold movement: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And each part teaches us about children’s ministry.
First, we discover that God created children for himself. Kids are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Their lives are imbued with the glory of a universe that reflects God’s beauty; they’ve been endowed with imagination and an ability to think and know. A child’s life has value because he or she is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). Children’s ministries, as a result, should emphasize safety and child protection. We protect kids because they have dignity; they’re worth it. Moreover, as image-bearers, children are also made for worship. From childhood, every human is fashioned for giving praise, so we engage kids in singing and hand motions. We teach them from their earliest days that they are made to worship their Creator.
Second, our children are fallen and sinful. They inhabit a world marred by sin, abuse, suffering, and death; they feel its pain. You’ve probably seen that children’s program where the wooly mammoth, vampire, monsters, aliens, and an overgrown canary have all invaded a side street in Manhattan. In his brilliance, Jim Henson took some of our greatest fears and made them cute and educational. The child-friendly terrors that live together on Sesame Street should remind us of the hidden reality of childhood.
Children are glorious and beautiful gifts from God and yet within each child — behind the cuteness — there’s a fallen heart that’s twisted from the moment of conception. Even kids exchange delight in God’s glory for delight in the pleasures of the moment (Rom. 1:21; 3:23). There is a battle for affections going on in kids’ hearts, and our classroom management strategies must be aware of this reality. Yes, children need comfort, care, and a healing touch. But they also need honest correction, because it’s only when kids see the terror of their sin that they’ll see their need for redemption.
Third, redemption comes for children through Jesus. Remember, Jesus himself said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (Matt. 19:14 NLT). Jesus’s rebuke of his friends who would’ve kept kids at a distance should inspire us to include children in the life of our church communities. And his welcome of children should encourage us to call even the youngest children to faith.
Finally, in light of the coming consummation, our children are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. When we get to glory, the most enduring relational reality will be our relationship to the Savior (Matt. 22:30). To be embraced by God’s redemption is to be adopted as God’s child, gaining a new identity, which transcends every earthly status and relationship. Rob Plummer describes it this way: “If our children stand beside us in eternity, it will not be as our children but as our blood-redeemed brothers and sisters (Rev. 7:9–12).” But if our children are going to join us as brothers and sisters in glory, they must hear the gospel now.
Children need us to help them to look outside of themselves to the salvation Jesus offers. When we teach Christ-centered lessons and practice child evangelism, we’re helping each child see that Christ is his or her only hope.