A Challenge to Children’s Ministry, Part 1
Why my kids may not visit your church
On a recent visit to a new church, my oldest son brought home one of those sheets with Bible verses and talking points. I looked it over as we drove and read aloud the big, bold print.
“You can be trusted when you choose the right words.”
“What does that even mean?” my husband asked, risking a puzzled look away from the road.
I laughed, and we more or less dismissed the whole thing.
Only not really—because this is what my child learned at church. It’s not that the message was untrue, exactly, only that we failed to see what it had to do with Christ.
As my children move from nursery to grade school kids’ ministry, my husband and I grow increasingly wary of what they learn at church. This is prime time for impressing upon them the love of Christ, yet many of the messages they hear are, at best, unclear and, at worst, moralistic, legalistic warnings about displeasing Jesus.
I spent two summers as a children’s ministry intern, before I had kids. After those experiences, I understand what a difficult job the directors of children’s ministries often have. It’s a feat to balance volunteer needs, curriculum choices, often unexpected numbers, and large events like Vacation Bible School. However, now, as a parent, I also understand how much impact these ministries can have on our kids. An incorrect or incomplete theology may be more damaging than encounters with blatant sin, confusing our children about who God is and what he’s done.
There are two facets of kids’ ministry that I especially question. Are we doing these things in ways that give glory to Christ and teach our children about his true nature?
Recently I took this same son to a Vacation Bible School at a nearby church. Walking in for the first time, we were overwhelmed by the enormous balloons shaped into hot-air balloons, a cardboard airplane as large as our living room, and clouds swinging from the ceiling. Add in the pounding music from the sanctuary, and my three children went into immediate sensory overload.
I’m not against decorations. I’ve twisted my share of craft paper vines, and there’s nothing more magical for kids (or adults) than a mundane space transformed into another world. However, as we maneuvered around the large sanctuary, I wondered what kind of message it all sent to my kids. How exactly did all this portray Jesus to the children in the room? Does Jesus equal bright colors, thousands of dollars in consumable goods, and a pounding bass beat? Do kids now believe they are entitled to this display of wealth?
Vacation Bible School, at least here in the South, is also one of a church’s biggest outreaches. As I herded my boys around, I imagined a struggling mother dropping off her own children. What does it say about our faith and our God when our decorations cost as much as six months of groceries?
The decoration budget is not the biggest stumbling block in children’s ministries, though. I wish it were.
The aforementioned take-home sheet turned out to be part of a series the kids were doing about being trustworthy. They talked each week about a character trait that causes us to be trusted, making sure to toss in a little Bible verse to make it legit.
However, it’s not the church’s job to teach my—or any—children how to act. That responsibility falls to the parents.
I get it; when we love Jesus, we obey him, and in church we need to learn what obedience entails. I’m not arguing that point, but I do have this very important question to ask: How do we know these children love Jesus?
If we can reasonably assume—through personal relationship and conversation—that each child is not only old enough to understand the gospel, but is actively seeking Christ, then by all means, teach away. This is called discipleship, and when employed properly, it’s not a list of rules. While we can teach what obedience looks like, true discipleship of our kids will always point them back to the one who knew no sin.
But let’s be reasonable. This situation is just not the norm for most churches. When we preach proper behavior, all but divorced from the indwelling of Holy Spirit, we aren’t discipling. Rather, we’re placing a heavy yoke on the young shoulders of soon-to-be rebels.
I can already hear the outrage of my sweet grandmother: “But a lot of these kids don’t get proper home training!”
True enough, but as the daughter of non-churchgoers, I can assure you of this: the fastest way to guarantee that a child will not come back to church is to send that child home with the message that their parents are doing it wrong.
Our kids—and the kids we encounter in our churches—deserve better than this. In answer to the debate about who would be greatest in heaven, Jesus called to himself a little child. He exhorted his disciples to humble themselves like children and to accept the humble in their midst. Then he said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, ESV)
Children’s ministry is too important for leaders to be flippant or rash in their decisions. These hearts are precious to Jesus, and they deserve true calls to repentance and faith, followed by true discipleship.
More to come next week…