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.