By / Feb 16

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.

By / Sep 15

Children’s Ministry is difficult in a lot of ways. It’s not even working with kids that makes it so challenging. Instead, having enough people ready and able to serve is the most difficult part. I have often wondered if this is a unique problem to my local church context, but having talked with dozens of churches — big, small, rural, and urban — I’ve discovered that we all seem to struggle with the same difficulty: finding great volunteers! 

I’ll admit that I haven’t cracked the code, but I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned that not only help us staff our classrooms with able and trusted people but have also allowed our leaders to flourish and enjoy serving in ministry.

Not everyone can do children’s ministry 

It sounds strange to suggest it, but one way to get more volunteers, and the right ones, is to narrow your audience. What I really mean is that when you are talking to leaders or potential leaders, make sure they know you need skilled laborers. Highlighting the specific and unique qualities needed for service will empower volunteers to step into service with the confidence that they are gifted for the role. How would it make you feel if your boss walked into your office and said, “We just need more people doing your job, and literally anyone can do it!”? When we lower the bar by saying, “Anyone can serve in kids ministry,” we can unintentionally belittle the work of our current volunteers, alienate high capacity leaders, and inadvertently welcome the wrong or even unsafe volunteers.

Letting people know that you need specifically-skilled and intentionally-called leaders will allow them to see the beauty and necessity of their commitment to serve. It illuminates their responsibility in ministry and changes children’s ministry from childcare into soul care for kids. 

A lot Is at stake

I believe one of the greatest misconceptions church members have about children’s ministry is that it is primarily a place to drop children off and keep them occupied while the important work of discipleship and ministry happens with adults and youth. The reality is that our children (birth–age 11) are very much in need of hearing the gospel. We show and tell kids about Jesus so that their lives can be moved and shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit. Souls of any age who do not know Jesus are separated from his love. Therefore, kids need to hear the message of the cross (Rom. 10:14), too.  

I’ve discovered that when our people are presented with the reality that our children’s souls are at stake, God’s Spirit moves them to action. The higher the stakes, the greater the need. Children sometimes seem innocent, but apart from Jesus they are lost and in desperate need of the Savior. We need leaders who are willing to step into discipling roles to help kids see and experience Christ’s love, praise him for his goodness, and go on mission for his glory (Matt. 28:19-20). 

Get to know your volunteers

Getting to know your team seems obvious, but I confess that it was something I did poorly when I first started in children’s ministry. Outside of the gospel message itself, our volunteers are our greatest asset. The saints make ministry possible. So as you recruit, equip and serve your team. Serve alongside your volunteers, take time to delight in their service, and share in their lives. Write thank you notes to those who go above and beyond. Send get well cards to team members who call off due to sickness. Prepare a meal for someone who just had surgery and will be out for a few weeks. 

Small and seemingly insignificant acts deeply affect the hearts of our people. Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). When we find unique and kind ways to appreciate our people, we get the opportunity to live out that kingdom ethic. 

Knowing your team is especially important for the sake of protecting kids from abuse. An essential part of creating welcoming environments for children is taking safety seriously. After all, the only truly welcoming environment is one that ensures that only trustworthy people are on the team. 

One way to do this is through the Caring Well Challenge. The CWC helps equip churches to be safe for survivors of abuse and safe from abuse. A big part of this initiative is the encouragement to know every member of your team well. In addition to administering background checks, the following are several other steps churches can take to as a part of the screening process: written application, references check, internet check, and an interview. In addition to screening, recruitment should be limited to people who have attended your church for a set amount of time. And each volunteer should be intentionally trained on how to report when abuse or neglect is suspected. To learn more about each of these steps, and to help your church become safe for survivors and safe from abuse, see the free resources provided at CaringWell.com.

Elevate the moment

God is the best at celebrating. The Bible is full of feasting and celebrations for God’s work in and through the Israelites. There are harvest festivals, milestones, weddings, and more (Ex.12:14; 23:16; Deut.16:1,13; Pss. 20:5, 95:2). When new volunteers go through training, that’s a milestone. Celebrate it! When someone serves in a classroom for the first time, that’s a big moment. Celebrate with them. When someone shares the gospel with a child and they respond, that’s a miraculous thing that deserves celebration. When a leader has served for five years, that’s worth even a Baptist dancing about! 

It’s easy to get caught up in the business of doing ministry. I can easily forget to recognize incredible moments, transitions, milestones, and most importantly, God’s work through his people. Let’s not miss out on the opportunity to celebrate. Children’s ministry isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be incredibly fun and full of celebration. 

You hit where you aim

Why do we often miss the mark on what we are trying to accomplish? Systems, processes, training, and goals are very much a part of thriving in any arena. When recruiting children’s ministry volunteers, adopting some organizational rhythms will help to keep you on track and ensure that the people you’re recruiting don’t fall through the cracks. 

Set recruiting goals, and let your team know what you’re aiming for. It’s important to be able to articulate exactly how many people you need, what age groups, service times, or events that have the greatest need, and why it is so important for people to join in the work. Setting recruiting goals will give you two gifts:

  1. Direction. You’ll know better how to align your daily work with your ministry’s needs (and God’s desires for it).
  2. Accountability. You’ll know when you are hitting the mark and when you’re not. You’ll know when you’ve reached your goal so that you can celebrate! 

A ministry that is healthy will often attract healthy and vital leaders. The more you are able to show your congregation the skills needed to serve, the urgency of children’s discipleship, and the reality that they’ll be cared for and celebrated when they volunteer, the more they’ll be willing to jump in and serve. Then, once someone commits, celebrate the moment with them and say, “Welcome to the team! Let’s invest in the next generation.”

By / Jul 7

I long wrestled with dissatisfaction around the schedule for each of our children’s ministry classrooms. Don’t get me wrong. My Type A personality loved the down-to-the-minute schedules handed to each lead teacher, and I felt a sense of success when things ran on time. Grasping to the slightest amount of order in a classroom of 3-year-olds felt like a win on a Sunday.

But my heart began to stir for our children and team members to make their way through an order of service that carried deep, theological purpose. I began to dream of making the moments we had with our children more aligned with the service their parents attended. From that desire was born our Paradox Kids classroom liturgy. 

Let me explain the basics of this classroom liturgy, and then I’ll walk you through how we train the volunteers at Paradox Church to use it. The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” The order of service we repeat as adults on Sunday morning is our work of service rendered unto God. And simply put, liturgy is the rhythms and patterns we rehearse every week as we gather for worship with God’s people. Even our youngest children can be invited to participate in liturgy rather than sitting back to observe or be entertained. The work we invite them to participate in — individual pieces of our classroom liturgy serve as habits and practices that shape their hearts to love and know Jesus.

We keep our children’s liturgy simple so that children will know the glory and grace of Jesus throughout our classroom time and their lives: we invite children in, preach the gospel, give room for response, and then send our littles out on mission. The five liturgical movements of the classroom liturgy are as follows:

  • God Gathers His People
  • We Pray to God for Help
  • We Listen to God’s Word
  • We Respond to God
  • God Sends Us on Mission

This language gives our team members a vision to lead in the classroom, not merely serve as babysitters. By identifying the flow of our classroom environments with the flow of a worship service — God initiating and people responding — every volunteer can see how they fit into the work God is doing in our children’s hearts. 

Here is how it works. We have a poster on the classroom wall with the schedule/liturgy. Classroom time is broken down by minutes so that volunteers and children know what is coming next. Here is how each section of the schedule works. 

God gathers his people

God loves to be with his people.Throughout the Scriptures we see God pursuing his people. He gathered his people to the tabernacle and later to the Temple. He established festivals and sacrifices that called his people together to meet with him. Now God’s church gathers on Sundays because God dwells with and among us.

We remind our children’s ministry team members that it is God who brings families each Sunday. We greet them with kind eyes, soft smiles, and welcome children into the classrooms warmly as Jesus gathered children around him — saying each child’s name and getting on their level. As kids enter the classroom, they gather with their peers over a puzzle or coloring sheet, and we follow the Spirit in reminding kids about how God longs to dwell with his gathered children.

We pray to God for help

If you’re familiar with The New City Catechism, you may know that one of the questions is, “What is prayer?” The answer to the question is, “Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God.” This language communicates to kids that we can trust God. What a beautiful habit for our children to be taught. When they have a need, when they are suffering, when they are grateful, when they find joy outside of God, they can come and pour out their hearts to their Good Father.

I want every child in our ministry to stand in awe of God and his power and his might. I want them to tell stories of the God who is so close that he hears our every prayer, so mighty that he can part the Red Sea. We don’t shut down children’s prayer requests, knowing that what might seem silly to an adult is precious to Jesus. We train our teachers not to hinder the children in their classrooms by making prayer eloquent or fancy or by merely dictating the content of their requests. But rather to believe that God hears both our silly requests and our suffering requests. It is the pouring out of our hearts that matters.

We listen to God’s Word

The third movement in our classroom liturgy is the most central. When we gather as a congregation, we read the scriptures and hear them taught through the sermon. In the case of children’s ministry, the teacher’s “congregation” is made up of young children who were created by God to know and love his Word.

As Haylee Bowden, our current Paradox Kids Director, and I worked on training materials for the team, she wrote these words about this part of our liturgy: 

“Each week as you lead our kids to listen to God’s word, you are not leading them to listen to a historical story or learn helpful life lessons. You are leading them to commune with the God who made them, loves them, and desires to be in relationship with them. When we believe that God’s Word is true, alive, and that it changes us, we can freely lead children to listen to God’s Word. We don’t have to carry the weighty responsibility of changing kids’ hearts. We get to rely on the true, alive, and transforming Word of God to do that. May that truth free us to delight in leading our kids to simply, yet profoundly, listen to the words of our Maker.”

We respond to God

As we — both adults and kids — listen to God’s Word, it changes us. It evokes a response in us. Have you thought about how you respond when God’s Word is read or taught to you? We stand in awe of God, or we’re convicted by his Word and we respond by repenting, bursting forth in song, or rejoicing as we take communion. What if in the flow of our classroom schedules, we made room for a response from our children?

To help kids learn the classroom liturgy, consider making cards to hand out when children enter the classroom. Cards can have icons so that even non-readers can follow along with the schedule. This can help children who struggle with transitions to know what comes next.

Giving kids an opportunity to respond involves more than doing a craft or pulling out a bag of blocks to entertain kids during the last minutes of class — though those activities could be a part of the response time that reinforces the teaching. 

The goal of the response is for children to wrestle with the truths they have heard. When we confront the reality that we are sinners who need the grace that only Jesus can provide, this reality chips away at hardened and dead hearts so that we are led to burst forth in joy. So most often during the response movement, we invite kids to sing and confess their sins. 

God sends us on Mission 

Our classroom liturgy concludes with an emphasis on how God sends his people on mission. Our children are called to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13, 14). Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19). Children can learn about the importance of God’s mission even as God is calling them to salvation!

As class time is wrapping up, we prompt kids to hold out their hands and receive the blessing of God’s Word read over them. (The Great Commission is a good place to start!) Some of our teachers have put to memory a phrase like: “God is with you all week, and we can’t wait to see you again next week!” 

We train our team to see this as a powerful spiritual moment, and we give them a vision for being faithful teachers up to the last minute of class time. The spoken blessing and “sending” lets a parent hear at pick-up time how we see their child as valuable and important in God’s kingdom.

This classroom liturgy is what we use to train our team members. We pray that its simplicity and richness will sow a love for Christ’s church in our littlest people that will bear fruit for decades to come. We also believe that the children’s liturgy trains our team members’ hearts. It shows each teacher how they can model to children their dependence on God through prayer, listening, and singing to God in grateful worship.

May the children in your classrooms be transformed by the Word of God. May God pour out his love for his people in a way that forms our children in the gospel and gives them a firm foundation for a lifetime of faithfulness. Amen.

By / May 27

A few weeks ago, a pastor friend who supervises children’s ministry staff at his church reached out to me and asked, “If you were coaching a children’s ministry leader on event planning and communication, what tips would you give them?” My friend’s question is a great one. After all, children’s ministers have a lot of people with whom they need to communicate. 

When planning for events or ministry initiatives, it’s important to be on the same page with other church staff. On at least a weekly basis, it’s necessary to have regular communication about the service schedule and weekly teaching plan with your volunteers. And speaking of volunteers, it’s essential to have a clearly communicated assimilation process — application, background check, interview, and training — for those who desire to begin serving in the ministry for the first time. Oh, and I haven’t begun to talk about the need to communicate with parents, to promote events through regular announcements, and to think intentionally about how your ministry might use social media as an equipping resource.

Many children’s ministers stepped into their ministry roles with backgrounds in education — even Christian education — but fewer of us had training in event planning and administration when we began. We might know how to interpret the Bible and teach the next generation, but we have a lot to learn about managing a ministry. 

With these realities in mind, I forwarded my friend’s question to several organized ministry leaders that I know. Here are their encouragements:

First, begin your communication about events or ministry initiatives as early as possible. 

Sandra Peoples, who is a disability consultant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and a women’s and disability ministry leader at Heights Baptist in Alvin, Texas, told me, “At our church, anything that’s going on the calendar needs to be requested at least two months in advance. It gets discussed and approved at staff meetings. Then, we begin the planning process.” 

I love Sandra’s idea of a two-month planning minimum, but for larger, church-wide events like vacation Bible school or a community harvest festival — or with any communication of events in a very large church — the communication will need to start even earlier. In his article, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth,” Dr. Timothy Keller makes clear that an increasing redundancy of communication is even more necessary as a church grows. Keller writes, “Without multiple forms and repeated messages, people will feel left out and complain, ‘I wasn’t told about it.’ You know you’ve crossed into a higher size category when . . . informal communication networks (pulpit announcements, newsletter notices, and word of mouth) are insufficient to reach everyone.” Once that is the case more lead time is necessary to communicate effectively; fluency is the goal. As Heather Thompson, communications director at Paradox Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, told me, “When you are tired of saying it, that may be just the beginning of people starting to get it.”

Second, as you plan the event, use a checklist. 

If you’ve purchased a vacation Bible school director’s guide or any sort of event planning kit from a Christian publisher, you’ve likely discovered that those kits contain planning timelines or checklists that begin up to a year in advance. Peoples told me that an event planning checklist her church uses includes details like “room setup, registration, graphic design, turning on the AC, and getting keys to whoever needs them.” But the checklists also cover matters of communication. 

In fact, director’s guides and resource kits may even include sample email communication for volunteers and parents or promotional materials such as videos, posters, mailers, and graphics for the church bulletin or social media. One of the great things about these kits is that they not only give you these resources for communication, they also tell you exactly when in the planning process to use them.

When planning an event without any sort of pre-set guide or kit, I’ve often taken a planning checklist that I’ve used before (for an event like child dedication, for example), and then I’ve adapted it as a template for the new event. I just make any necessary adjustments (e.g., enough recruiting lead time for events that require more volunteers) and then follow the checklist step-by-step.

Third, be consistent with your regular communication. 

Consistency with the channels you use to communicate will help the parents in your church and the volunteers who serve in your ministry know where to find the information they need. If, for instance, you’re consistent with sending out the children’s ministry schedule and curriculum via email each Tuesday morning, teachers will learn to look for it on that day in their Inbox. It can be possible to use too many communication platforms, narrowing your communication to one landing page on your website and the most used social media platforms can make your communication more clear.

Jared Crabtree serves as pastor of Families at Redeemer Fellowship Midtown in Kansas City, Missouri. He told me that his team works to have a presence on Facebook and Instagram that follows a regular schedule — ”typically a video with one of our staff or leaders teaching hand motions for the lesson memory verse on Mondays and something like an activity or resource for families on Wednesday or Thursday as well as regular volunteer highlights.” 

I love that the Redeemer team is intentional about celebrating volunteers, because, as Thompson told me, “Regular communication should not just revolve around announcements, promotions, or policies. Great communication is an ‘encouragement channel’ that celebrates what you value; it’s consistently communicating your vision and values for your team and the people you serve.”

Sandra Peoples highlighted another reason for a consistent communications schedule or planning checklist. It minimizes decision-making. “You don’t have to think of everything every time,” she said. “Make one decision that you can apply over and over when possible. I do this in dozens of ways. I have assigned days for posts on social media and a schedule for what I want to share; I also wear the same shirt every Monday, and we always have the same meals on the weekends.” 

I get it. We have Taco Tuesdays and Tuscan Thursdays (pizza or spaghetti) every week at the Kennedy house! As Peoples told me, “It may feel restricting for creative types at first, but then they realize how much brain space they have for the things that really matter when they put the rest on auto-pilot.” Planning in advance when you’re going to post on social media gives you the opportunity to be more deliberate about what you say and the tone with which you say it. It also gives you the time to have a well-rounded plan that addresses each of your target audiences — parents, children, and team members. Planning ahead gives you the opportunity to be prayerful, deliberate, and intentional.

Finally, make event planning and communication a team project. 

Rachel Mills and Alix Carruth, who serve with Crabtree at Redeemer Fellowship, run one of the best children’s ministry Instagram accounts I’ve seen. To help with consistency, they’ve put together a shared spreadsheet that maps their regular social media posts, and they use Slack, a team communication app, to share ideas for headlines. Carruth told me, “We alternate days of posting on Facebook and Instagram, but we meet every two weeks to plan for two weeks in advance so that we can be two weeks ahead.” 

Working together makes Mills and Carruth’s work lighter. Teamwork makes the dream work! It provides built-in accountability, too. Whether you’re leading a children’s ministry as a volunteer, serving as the only staff member, or part of a larger team, it’s important that you find others in your church who can help you bear the communication load.

All leaders communicate, and as Proverbs 25:11 (NKJV) says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” If you are a children’s ministry leader, you have a unique communication burden due to the numerous communication channels you have to manage — with fellow church staff, volunteers, parents, and the congregation as a whole. It’s one that can be carried with God’s help. By prayerfully planning ahead, using a checklist, being consistent, and working with a team, you can communicate in a way that’s gentle, intentional, and effective. 

By / Apr 8

A year ago, as we headed into weeks and months of pandemic lockdown, children’s ministry leaders were in survival mode, scrambling for ideas on how to equip their teams to minister to children from a distance. As we saw the end of pandemic restrictions on the horizon, many lifted their gaze and began to explore reopening plans. Now those same ministry leaders are in the midst of implementing those plans, teaching volunteers new sanitizing protocols and welcoming families back into teaching environments with new social distancing requirements.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about children’s ministry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that most children’s ministers spend more time each week thinking about getting ready for Sunday than they do thinking about the philosophy and methodology that has shaped the way they do ministry. Children’s ministers work in the ministry but on a week-to-week basis, most don’t give as much thought to what it would look like to work on the ministry

Children’s ministry as an academic discipline

That’s where a book like Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (Zondervan, 2020) can be a big help. The book is edited by Mimi L. Larson, children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church-North America, and Robert J. Keeley, professor of education at Calvin College. It grew out of presentations made at the 2018 Children’s Spirituality Summit, an ecumenical gathering of children’s ministry scholars and practitioners hosted by the Society for Children’s Spirituality at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The book includes chapters from a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners that includes Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, Kevin E. Lawson, professor of Educational Studies at Biola University, Adam Harwood, professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Karen F. Williams, a book publishing and education consultant based in Nashville, and Henry Zonio, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and others. These authors and more explore children’s ministry as an academic discipline. While the book is aimed at ministry practitioners, it invites them into deeper reflection on what might be described in an academic seminar as the issues and theory that shapes our practice of children’s discipleship.

Children’s Spirituality begins with foundational matters, exploring the philosophical emphases, theological assumptions, and cultural history that shape contemporary children’s ministry curriculum and programming (chapters 1–4). Next, the book explores the environments that shape a child’s faith—church culture and programming, the changing shape of today’s families, and the experience of trauma and grief (chapters 5–8). The book’s final sections explore various methods for children’s ministry. An emphasis is placed on telling Bible stories (chapters 9–11) but the book also addresses the shape of contemporary curriculum (chapters 12–13), spiritual direction with children (chapter 14), and the importance of play (chapter 15).

Among the book’s highlights were Lawson and Harwood’s chapter that outlined the similarities and differences in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologies of children (chapter 2); Karen Williams’s very practical chapter on cultivating children’s ministry environments that foster racial diversity (chapter 3); Erik Carter’s taxonomy of approaches that churches take to welcoming children with special needs (chapter 4); and Zonio’s sociological study of racial representation in the images and language used in published children’s ministry curriculum (chapter 13). If you are a family pastor or children’s minister, each of these chapters is worth your time and careful consideration.

Ministry to, for, and with children

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality represent a diversity of perspectives from a broad range of Christian traditions. As I read, my desire was to engage the book with openness and thoughtfulness about the assumptions I bring to children’s ministry as a committed Baptist.

The book’s first chapter, written by Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, helped me to put my theological and cultural assumptions into a historical perspective. May sees American children’s ministry as developing in three phases (24–35):

The conservative evangelical movement in America began with a theologically sound emphasis on the Bible as the authority for discipleship (2 Tim. 3:16–17). May points out that as a result of our confidence in the Bible, many evangelical churches from 1940–1965 gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies and viewed children as sponges or empty vessels into which the teacher—the authority in the classroom—was responsible to impart knowledge. She calls this ministry to children.

With the advent of children’s television and the widespread acceptance of developmental theory, children’s ministries from 1965–1990 become more student-centered. The attractional children’s ministry models of this era saw children as participants, explorers, or even consumers, and the teachers were given the role of engaging children in active learning. “Sometimes the learning was so active,” May lamented, “that the teacher would feel it was a three-ring circus” (27). She calls this ministry for children.

The newest models of children’s ministry—and the ones that are most prominently highlighted in Children’s Spirituality—are process-centered and emphasize spiritual formation as a journey (Gal. 4:19). The new models are rooted in the contemplative theological stream and highlight new findings in neurobiology that have challenged many people’s developmental assumptions about when learning begins (26). May calls this ministry with children.

Some benefits of a process-centered approach

May’s three-phase overview demonstrates how children’s ministry scholarship as a whole has swung from what I might describe as a Classical education model across the bow to something that looks more and more like a Montessori-style model of Christian education—one that emphasizes imagination and wonder, asking open-ended questions about Bible stories, allowing kids to discover their own readings or interpretations of the text, giving children more choices, and learning through play. 

We now know that learning happens before birth and that all children have a sense of awe from a very early age; they are aware of spiritual things. With this knowledge, many children’s ministry scholars (and a growing number of practitioners) have begun to view teachers as co-learners with children; they’re embracing a reciprocal learning relationship with children and even finding ways to empower children to lead. “This rather revolutionary thought recognizes that children can indeed teach adults something, including and perhaps especially spiritual insights, if the adults only have ears to hear and eyes to see” (27–28). 

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality have helped me to see at least three helpful correctives that a process-centered approach offers:

  1. A process-centered approach finds freedom to engage the Bible’s more difficult stories without having all the answers. Often evangelical children’s ministries have used Bible stories merely as a way to teach moral lessons to children. With this approach, Bible people are seen either as heroes or villains, and it’s no wonder that many stories (like the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) or details in stories (like Noah’s drunken nakedness after the flood) are left out of children’s ministry curriculum.

    Even with a more God- or gospel-centered approach that emphasizes God’s actions for his people in history, our desire to find one main teaching point can keep us from sitting in the mystery of why a story’s events unfolded as they did. Why did God choose a man like Samson as a judge (Judges 13–16) or give us that awful story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? In his chapter on sharing hard stories with children, Robert J. Keeley writes, “Much of the Bible is mysterious. . .  I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small” (172).
  2. A process-centered approach doesn’t merely tell children what to think; it cultivates their affections and higher-level thinking skills. At the beginning of her chapter, Mimi L. Larson wrote, “I believe the church desires children to learn and be spiritually formed as a result of instruction, but are we engaging in methods that will actually increase their learning in formation?” (187). Behind this question was a research project where Larson used Bloom’s taxonomy for evaluating educational learning objectives to study 39 randomly selected lessons in five popular, evangelical, mostly nondenominational children’s curricula.

    Larson came away from this study with a conviction that children’s ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and curriculum writers may be good at telling children what they should believe and how to apply God’s Word—teaching lessons with clear main points and incentivizing the memorization of Bible verses and doctrinal truths. But they are less skilled at cultivating a child’s affections or in training kids to think at a higher level—about how to analyze and study God’s Word for instance, or to think through ethical situations from a biblical frame, or to produce a creative and affective faith response.

    Larson calls for greater intentionality in both our curriculum development and in the way we cultivate reflective classroom environments: “By encouraging children to think and discover biblical understandings under the guidance of a skilled teacher and mature believer, the child is learning how to think biblically and not just specifically what to think” (197).
  3. A process-centered approach encourages active engagement with children while they play. Shirley K. Morgenthaler is distinguished professor of Curriculum, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University, Chicago. In her chapter on sacred play, she writes, “Within Christian education, we feel a tension to ground a child in the gospel, to explain and teach the foundations of faith from a young age. We also know that play impacts both the life of the mind and the life of the body . . . Can play also be a form of spiritual development?” (228).

    Morgenthaler encourages children’s ministers to create spaces where children can act out Bible stories and rhythms of worship—perhaps a little church with pews and a pulpit in the corner of a classroom, or a nativity scene with Bible costumes during Advent and Christmas. She sees these environments as centers for self-discovery but highlights the need for wise teachers to provide guidance.

    If play is a part of a child’s spiritual formation, it must be more than a time-filler or recreational activity. “This is not the time to be holding a cup of coffee and ‘watching the children,’” she writes (238). Rather the teacher must be fully engaged and discerning about when to allow kids the opportunity to exercise their creativity and when to step in and ask guiding questions.

Embracing a process without losing the gospel

If there’s a danger in a process-oriented approach, it’s that in focusing on the process, ministers might begin to deemphasize the importance of the gospel message. As Baptists, we might worry that when teachers pursue a role as co-learners with children, they may be attempted to also abandon their own authority as the teacher—or forsake the reality that the Christian faith has a defined content that must be passed along from generation to generation (Psa. 78:5–8; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2:2; Jude 1:3). 

Conservative evangelicals will want to emphasize that while it can be helpful for children to make their own choices and struggle to discover the meaning of Bible passages, kids are also both sinful and immature. One role of a Christian teacher is to bring correction when a child strays onto the wrong path—not only in behavior but also in thinking. We must be gentle with children but also unafraid to confront them with the reality of their brokenness. As Charles Spurgeon once warned: 

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. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.1Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.

Spurgeon makes clear that an essential way of cultivating affection in children for the gospel is to show them their need for it. At times as I was reading, I wished that perspective was more front and center in Children’s Spirituality

But with our love of the truth, we also must demonstrate to the next generation that we have the heart to walk alongside them—and even learn from them—as they discover the beauty and goodness of the Bible’s message. To that end, I found this book to be a great help.

One prayer I have for the churches and leaders who are welcoming children again after COVID-19 is that they’ll take time in this season to slow down and think deeply about the theology and methodology that drives their ministry—that they won’t just work in but work on their children’s ministry. Maybe Children’s Spirituality will help you to that end. As with the children we’re leading, growth for us as ministers isn’t always cultivated in the activity but in the process of both doing the work and taking the time to reflect and wonder. 

Jared Kennedy and the team of leaders at Gospel-Centered Family offer both one-on-one and cohort coaching opportunities for children’s and family ministry leaders. Find out more at gospelcenteredfamily.com/coaching 

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    Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.