It’s the classic small church dilemma. Kids won’t come to your church if you don’t have an organized and exciting program, but you cant’ have an organized, exciting program without kids/
As a friend and I bemoaned the lack of children in our mutual congregations, she told me the district superintendent of her Methodist area reassured the congregation, “It’s not you. It’s everywhere.” Children’s ministry programs in churches across our country are facing the challenge of puny attendance . Yet, I believe to the bottom of my toes that children’s ministry is important, that it’s the church’s responsibility to ground the youngest generation in the principles and content of the Bible. So what is a church to do?
A church has several options:
1. Shame the kids into coming. This is the old works mentality that so many young people resisted in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Churches made you feel guilty if you weren’t there every time the doors were open. We were actively taught that church attendance was more important than ball games, vacations or anything else. I still remember being chewed out by a church elder because I went on a rescheduled March of Dimes Walk-a-thon on a Sunday morning instead of going to church. I made it for Sunday School but I should have been there for church too.
We recoil at this approach, but now that I’m on the other side of the generation gap, I can appreciate my elder’s frustration. How do we get our kids – and their parents – to choose God above the activities of our culture? I look back and realize that kids in my generation were far better grounded in our knowledge of Bible content and our memorization of Scripture. I know my Bible as well as I do because I was there practically every Sunday. Is there a softer approach instead of the wagging finger?
2. Make it fun. This is the other extreme of the shame game. Many children’s ministry workers believe we need to compete with our media driven society in order to make children’s ministry attractive. Otherwise, we will appear boring and lost in the 20th century. So we provide fast paced DVD programs, environment driven VBS programs, sensational outings, exciting games, bible related snacks and not-too-heavy content.
As a curriculum writer, I love the games and activities. I know that not every child learns through print media. So many kids struggle with reading skills that expecting them to read from the Bible becomes a futile activity. Yet I see something happening I’ve mentioned in this blog before. So much of the available curriculum is watered down in favor of the fun approach. The material I’m currently using does little to teach bible content and the application is shallow at best. How am I going to teach my kids character skills and heart changes? We need to go beyond “Jesus loves you.” We need to teach kids to love Jesus in return and what it means to love Jesus. We need to help them hide the word of God in their hearts while their brains are supple and can easily retain information.
Yet how many youth workers have you heard complain that they only seem to get a big crowd when there is food or fun? We’ve created our own monster. Then, we experience what happened to our youth intern last Sunday. She spent hours putting together a cool outdoor activity. Only three kids came; and two of those left after an hour to go to a graduation party of someone the kids hardly knew. So . . . .
3. If they won’t come to you, go to them. This is the approach the Salvation Army has taken in their Sonday’sCool program. Instead of using the traditional Sunday School model, they provide programs in people’s homes, after school outreach in day care centers and supper clubs to tired families with working parents. Remember the old Backyard Bible Clubs? Why not go to a playground with a card table and sack of supplies under your arm and set up an instant children’s ministry hour? Okay, I know there’s all kinds of fear and trepidation. Should you ask the parents’ permission? Will people think you are a predator trying to entice the children? Don’t dismiss this idea just because of the drawbacks. Work through them and find solutions. Remember, our goal is to teach children about Jesus, not have a consistent number on our attendance board at the church building.
If you have a lot of children busy with other activities, go to those activities. Attend their softball games. Go to their school plays. Pray before you go and ask God to give you divine opportunities to slip in words about Him. Moreover . . .
4. Go where God is leading you and do what you can with what you have. This is a principle I’ve learned from Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God. We need to see where God is working and move in that direction. Yes, I think our church needs a thriving children’s ministry. Yes, I’m doing all I can to make it happen. But it’s not growing. So, each day I ask the Lord to direct me where He wants me to go, even if it doesn’t make sense to me, then I do what He calls me to do. Right now, God has called me to organize meals for a medically needy family once a week. I have no clue what heavenly value this obedience will have. But there are two teenagers in the house and only God knows the impact our church’s weekly meals will have on the memories of those two young people. Also . . .
5. Reach the parents. If the parents are convinced that church is where they need to be, the kids will be there. This is is the long term approach that might take years. You need to start by building friendships, being there for the parents when they have crises, holding bible studies or supper clubs in your home, taking time to talk over the fence, letting your light shine for Jesus and living in such a godly way that parents will want what you have. When they come, their children will come too. Finally . . .
5. Pray. Some of us plant, others water, but only God brings the growth. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the harvest fields. Ask the Lord to bring children into your life that you can influence for Him. And ask Him to give you courage to step in the direction He invites you to take no matter how uncomfortable or strange that direction might feel.
May the Lord add the little ones to His Kingdom!