Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Children's Ministry

The following is written by a good buddy of mine, Ed Pagh. His insight into pastoring the whole flock, and the whole family, is an inspiration to a rookie pastor like me. It is posted with his permission.

As you read, you will understand why his unofficial moniker is "Well-Said Ed."

Thanks Ed.

Children’s Ministry Principles for Lead Pastors
by Ed Pagh

Very few senior/lead pastors have Children's Ministry experience. What's even more interesting, if we're to be completely candid, is that many pastors are scared of Children's Ministry and would rather have a root canal than speak at a kids' service or teach a class of 2nd and 3rd graders. So we find volunteers, hire professionals, and coerce people into serving in the trenches where few pastors dare to tread. Or maybe we just feel as though Children's Ministry is not what we're paid to concern ourselves with. Our job as a senior/lead pastor is to lead adults, and if I as a leader can ensure that the kids who attend on Sundays and mid-week are safe and have fun, then the parents are happy and we can focus our time and effort on church business and ministry. News Flash: in a healthy church children should comprise from 18-25% of your weekly attendance. Does it not strike anyone else as odd that a leader would be so uninformed and personally uninvolved in the lives and spiritual formation of nearly one-quarter of those they lead? Does a good shepherd ignore the lambs and focus only on the rams and ewes?

It is true that many senior/lead pastors do have student ministries experience, but ministry to children is very different from ministry to teens. Yes, both groups are minors, attend school, and have parental authority in their lives, but there are many huge dissimilarities. Unlike teens, children are typically mental sponges and open to teaching, relationally trusting, intellectually cognitive thinkers and processors, and socially inclusive. They want to learn, want to please, and want to experience God. There are always exceptions to these developmental generalities, but the point is that past experience as a youth pastor does not automatically translate as experience with and knowledge of Children's Ministry.

What follows are seven key Children's Ministry principles for senior/lead pastors that will hopefully serve to create value and purpose for Children's Ministry in today's church. In an effort to keep this as brief as possible, what is presented are the core concepts, many of which need to be unpacked and expanded upon in more detail. Think of what follows as the executive summary of a much larger discussion.

Principle #1
Children are the church of today; the church of tomorrow’s leaders.

Often times children are thought of, even if only subconsciously, as the church of tomorrow. I can see why. They are not adults so they cannot participate and contribute like adults. They cannot think abstractly, cannot teach, are not independent, and are unskilled, so their contributions are limited. But does the fact that children are limited in the ways they can be involved in church life mean that they are not or should not be an active part of church life to the fullest extent possible?  Sequestered to classes or Children's Church, kids never hear their pastor's voice, so they do not develop a relationship with him or her. They never get to observe full worship, watch their parents model worship, or even serve alongside their parents.

This limited thinking on our part as pastors may cause us to inadvertently fall into one of two traps. The first trap is to defer children's involvement until they are in their late twenties or married. Until then, Children's Ministry is a de facto child care during church. But I believe when Jesus said to allow the children to come and spend time with him that he meant children should have equal access to him and be included not excluded, incorporated not isolated. Thus, Children’s Ministry is not childcare while the adults do “real” ministry. Rather, it is a way to include and incorporate children into the life of the church and should be designed as such. The second trap is to use children as a tool "grow the church" (i.e. to get to the parents). I hear this a lot. If you want your church to grow (more adults), have a great Children's Ministry. While this may be an effective short-term strategy, I believe we need to have a great Children's Ministry for the long-term sake of the kids and our future. The moms and dads that attend as a result are a bonus, not the goal.

Although the level of children's involvement is limited to the level of their development, children have much to contribute to church life. Consider ways to include them as much as possible in church life: worship, serving, teaching, sharing, helping, etc. Also, think long-term. Prepare/teach children for college, not for Jr. High. Find ways to connect Children's Ministry with church life and family life, as well as forging a partnership with the parents to nurture spiritual formation in children. And without question, provide sufficient resources to accomplish the goal.

Principle #2
Children are the largest marginalized (peripheral) and powerless group
in our church and we should serve them as such.

Have you ever considered children in this light? Think about it. Children cannot serve themselves. They cannot fund themselves. They cannot lead themselves. They are dependent on adults for virtually everything. This makes them dependent and powerless, which puts them on the margins of society as a whole. This doesn't mean we don't value children. We do. But socially we value them less than adults and more than the family pet. Consider, for example, where children often sit at a large Thanksgiving family meal...at the children's table. Yes, there are parents whose lives seem to revolve around their kids, but by and large adults value adults more than children.

In the gospels we find that Jesus spends much of his time ministering to the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick, women, and others who, in his day, were powerless and dependent and living on the margins of society. We, the church, are called to care for and minister to, like Jesus, those on the margins in our culture. So we develop compassion and benevolence ministries like food closets and helping with the homeless, the widow, and the orphan. But we don't ever list serving our church kids with this group. Why not? They are just as powerless and dependent. I contend that as a marginalized, powerless people group, children represent those in the margins of society who are also powerless and dependent. Wait a minute, you say, children have their parents to care for them. Sure, but not during church they don't, and that's the point. As churches have become more life-stage based in approach, children have been pushed farther and farther to the margins, so much so that in many churches today they are considered a disruption and distraction in the adult worship service. How do we change this attitude? We serve the children. In fact, I believe that if we can learn to serve children, we can learn to serve anyone. It's time to re-value our children, to excise the idea of childcare, and to serve and love children as a way to learn to serve and love our neighbor.

Principle #3
When we capture a child’s imagination we can capture their hearts.

Jesus was a master at capturing the imaginations and hearts of his audience. How? He taught in parables and metaphors, many times drawing from the rich supply of his teaching environment: animals, birds, flowers, people, etc. But parables and metaphors require abstract thinking, which makes them interesting for adults, but difficult for kids who tend to be concrete thinkers. Children, though, do have vivid imaginations that stimulate learning. Creative and imaginative play is their way of learning and practicing social behaviors, responsibility, relationships, etc. This is why toys, crafts, and other hands on stimuli are important for learning and development. Children's Church and Sunday School usually do not have a supply of Bible-based toys with which to teach and play, but we can create an environment through decor, paint, furniture, and staging that can stimulate the imaginative and learning centers of their brain. Visit any children's museum or learning center and you will find colorful, tactile, and inspiring environments. When we do this in our churches, we open the door to the child's imaginative learning, which is a gateway to their head and heart through which we share the love of Jesus and the gospel story. We should be willing to invest sufficient resources to make Children's Ministry spaces beautiful and engaging learning environments.

Principle #4
Adults can tolerate children’s environments better than
children can tolerate adult environments.

The interior designs of most churches are not kid-friendly environments. Instead they are bare, white, sterile rooms with a minimum of color and decor. The thinking behind these bland environments is usually functional in nature. To get the most out of our facilities, our rooms are multi-use, multipurpose. Since many groups, departments, events, and age groups share the space, we leave our rooms plain and drab, decorating only when the women's ministries closet is graciously opened. Children do not tolerate drab well. They get bored with it. White-walled rooms are antithetical to learning for kids. As a result, I believe we should cater to the children when it comes to room decor. Strike a balance, if need be, but adults can tolerate colorful walls, murals, even high-end tactile set design for the sake of kids better than kids can tolerate dull white walls.

Principle #5
The purpose of Children's Ministry is to prepare children, not protect children.

Hang on. Don't think this means that safety is not important. It is. Safety (physical, emotional, relational, spiritual) in Children’s Ministry is paramount and should be incorporated into everything that is done: environment, activities, leaders, check-in/out, peers, etc. However, safety is not the primary goal of Children’s ministry; rather it is a primary responsibility as we minister to our children. There is a difference. Let's place the emphasis on discipleship while simultaneously being safe and secure. Children's Ministry is not the babysitter. They have a God-given mission to reach and teach children for Christ.

Principle #6
Adults find they are called to Children's Ministry
after they become involved, not before.

I have met very few adults who have told me they felt called to serve children before they ever tried serving children. Almost every called, committed Children's Ministry worker I've known has been coerced, begged, or bribed into serving children, then fell in love and felt called to continue to serve children. In part this is because Children's Ministry is, for the most part, invisible to the adults except for the few minutes a parent is picking up or dropping off a child. This is also partly because adults do not understand what it means to serve in Children's Ministry. Many of them have the misconception that serving children is like playground duty during a lunchtime recess or refereeing a soccer game of 6 year old girls. Lead pastors need to be aware that simply asking people to serve where they feel called will likely not produce many children's workers. The lead pastor can do three things to publically help with Children’s Ministry: 1) connect serving children as a gateway to other serving ministries, 2) help adults see the connected value of Children’s Ministry with the life of the church, and 3) have a personal passion and enthusiasm (value) for Children's Ministry. The attitude and perspective of the lead pastor towards Children's Ministry will set the tone for how the rest of the adults in the church will perceive Children's Ministry. The kids cannot advocate for themselves, and you as the lead pastor are the most influential voice in the church.

One long-term effective way of grooming adults to love and serve children is to implement a way for youth to serve children. This is a ministry in itself which will need supervision, support, resources, etc., but over the long run can raise up adults who appreciate the importance and need for an effective and well-resourced ministry to children.

Principle #7
The primary children’s pastors in your church are the parents.

Even if we have the best Children's Ministry environment, workers, curriculum, etc., the reality is that we only get to spend two hours a week with the kids. In reality, we get less time because of sports events, sickness, vacations, adult attendance rhythms, etc. Our influence in the spiritual formation of the children that attend our churches is minimal. It's the parents who are the primary people responsible for the spiritual formation of their children. This is why when the nation of Israel is told to love God with their whole being, the very next command connected to this idea is to pass this love of God along to their children as they experience life together. Therefore, the more our parents transform into Christlikeness, the more effectively children will be discipled.

Part of an effective Children's Ministry will have a parenting component. This can take many forms and be approached in many ways: classes, involvement, preaching, outings, events, etc. The key is to help parents both understand and embrace their own spiritual growth for the sake of their children. Tensions between parents and children are generally not resolved by fixing the child or new discipline techniques, but by the parents taking responsibility to transform and mature spiritually.

One last note: As pastors we are concerned that people attend worship on Sundays, and rightly so. But this presents a challenge for churches with only one service. If we can't release parents and others from worship to serve our children, we have a conflict of values that needs resolved. Why is it that we think that Sunday morning is the only time our sheep get a shot at the trough? I propose we release people into ministry and let people serve and miss hearing the sermon on Sunday (perhaps on a rotation basis?). Then we need to get creative and take advantage of social media, bible studies, small groups, and other ways to help people grow in the Word. Truth be told, most people grow more when serving and teaching than just passively listening to even the best of sermons.

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