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November 8, 2012

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…

Monica Selby is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and lives with her husband and three boys in Memphis, TN. Find her on Twitter and at

Related Tags: children, children's ministry, kids, parenting


Thank you, Monica, for the truth that you have boldly spoken in this blog! I share your concerns. I look forward to reading part two.

Hi, I like that you are questioning this topic. and I understand the first half or so, but then I get lost. I understand up to the point where you say it is not the church's job to teach kids how to act, but not after that. I am unclear on what you are saying... are you saying what we should be teaching them at church? sorry, not criticizing but I know there's something I am missing.

I, too, look forward to part 2. I have a long history of participating in/leading/dropping my kids off at Sunday School/VBS programs. And I've often been struck by the extent to which the catchy theme or the cute art is relied upon to make kids want to follow Christ.
I don't buy it.
As someone who has been called over and over again to work with children, it's clear to me that it's my job to tell the children (and anyone else who's listening) the story of God and His marvelous, thrilling, paradoxical plan as it has unfolded in history and in me.
I love a good craft project as much as anyone, but craft projects, coloring sheets, and even memory verses can get in the way of TELLING THE STORY.

That being said: I've recently met two different adult couples who were brought to faith through Vacation Bible School (or, as it's called here in the UK, Holiday Club). In both cases, they were at rock-bottom and let their kids go to VBS reluctantly -- but were relentlessly drawn in by the good news. It makes me laugh to think about it - they weren't the target audience at all, but a message intended for children changed their lives. There's deep wisdom in that. :-)

Interesting. I too am a bit confused at some of what you mean. Your subtitle is Why my kids may not visit your church. I would be interested to know what are the reasons you would not visit a children's ministry and why? You said "However, it’s not the church’s job to teach my—or any—children how to act. That responsibility falls to the parents." Could you explain that a little more in the next article?

I agree with only teaching character traits. As a kids ministry leader my responsibility is to bring my kids to Jesus, and show Jesus to my kids. It is so much more than stand alone character traits. However, I don't think there is anything wrong with creating an atmosphere. The problem comes when the focus is on the atmosphere rather than on God. But I believe that the atmosphere can be used to direct the focus to God. The message is sacred, the method is not.

There is nothing at all wrong with making church fun, as long as Jesus is at the center.

When will you be posting part 2? I look forward to reading.

Friends, Part 2 will be posted on November 12.

I think this needs a part 1.5 before part 2! Teaching character traits that are part of a Godly person is not the same as teaching children how to act. Although perhaps in a sense. First it is up to then the parent, who receives the class sheet, to take the next steps of what is being taught. Verses are not "mixed in" to make it legit. It is given to reinforce and teach the children that they are pleasing to God! That is not just because the teacher thinks it's a good idea but God says it is good. Lastly about the VBS budget. Each Church must allocate the appropriate budget taking much in consideration and proportional to the overall budget, not how much someone pays for groceries. Please be fair and objective with how you address these issues. Seems they are here out of proportion and somewhat judgemental.

I get the first part and then am confused with what your saying. I look for a 1.5 part before part two. The harvest is plentiful the workers are few.
I would encourage discipleship of the teachers or the children themselves.
How blessed are we that we can invest in the production of fruit and not just looking for the best fruit to eat from. A

I find your text disturbing on multiple levels.

Selecting one small piece of an entire lesson and making the assumption that no where is Jesus to be found is an unreliable critique. Much like taking a single verse of the Bible and reading into it anything you want, you have presupposed that in and through the other dynamics of the lesson that the knowing and sharing of Jesus is absent.

I echo the comment from Ron when he wrote that the "message is sacred - but the method is not." I have no doubt that Christ cares little about HOW we capture the attention of children - only that we spend valuable time doing it. Your criticism has made a mockery of the hard work of many volunteers.

You seem angry, almost bitter at times, like so many people who quit a church because it didn't give them exactly what THEY wanted.

Why not spend your energy with the local church and the children's pastor to help get parents on board. Help educate them as to the importance of their Biblical role in the raising up of godly children. Rally your friends to participate in children's ministry. Be a part of the solution rather than just an outsider.

I didn't read any bitterness into what Monica wrote, and if there is judgment, it is valuable. Perhaps Jesus was the center of the lesson plan, and not just "woven in" or an afterthought. However, if Jesus is not the center of the take-home page for the parents, how would the parents know that He was the center of the lesson? Monica is at least a "churched parent," one who understands the behind-the-scenes workings of a church. If our target audience is the unchurched family (which I would hope it is in every church!), how would that parent know from the handout that their child is learning more than a moral lesson also taught in Girl Guides and Boy Scouts? It's not "either-or:" you can have big, fancy decorations OR you can present the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe Monica's criticism is valid - along with the expensive decor, are we also providing for the practical needs of those who are in our target audience? Are we building genuine, personal, loving relationships with EACH child and his or her parent(s) that attends our programs?

Thought I'd share these Bible verses about children's ministry.. enjoy and be blessed!

But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: ... 1 John 2:1-29

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