Recently my minister-husband and another local minister confessed to each other that the children's ministry in both their churches is "drying up." We continue to hear that our little church is not alone, that children's programs are receding both locally and nationally. Bob Russell, in a compelling article in the Florida Christian College's "Son Life" newsletter, blamed the declining numbers of students interested in the preaching ministry on "the secularization of society, the postmodern mindset that denigrates anything authoritative, the declining number of teens in Christian Service camps and the passive involvement of ministers in the lives of teens." If the trend of shriveling children's ministries continue, the absence of trained and dedicated young people will turn the shortage of preachers into a crisis situation.
We need to raise up a new generation of Christians. The Church has a New Testament mandate to carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally pass on the package of truth we call Christian doctrine. How can we, though, when our classrooms stand empty? I'd like to offer a few suggestions:
1. Start over. This is the tact the two ministers are taking in our community. Sometimes, you need to let go of dying programs and begin again. Our church assessed who we do have and, lo and behold, there are three three-year-olds in our church nursery! We need a class for them. God has been faithful by providing two teachers ready to teach that class. Our goal is to pour ourselves and our faith into these little ones as long as we have them and, hopefully, prayerfully, build our program up from this point.
2. Let go of conventional programming. I used to get so annoyed at people who had, what I called, a "50's mentality," those who believed the way to teach children is to sit them in little chairs, tell a bible story and have them complete a worksheet. These sweet, well-behaved children would come every week with both parents and would placidly listen to everything the teacher said. Those days are long gone.
But I recognize that I am stuck in the 80's, the era of exciting interactive bible stories with lots of activities. Like the 50's mentality, it has its strong points and worked for that generation. But, Christian education experts now recognize, we fell into the temptation of making everything fun and exciting as a means to draw the kids back the follow Sunday. Too often we sacrificed content because we were afraid we would drive the children away. We had to make every lesson more attractive and up-to-date than the last to keep them coming back. Today, no matter how exciting the programs are, how much cutting edge technology we use, no matter how many helium balloons you release in a balloon launch, the kids aren't there. Parents are overwhelmed with activities, so many kids bounce back and forth between two household homes, that church becomes an afterthought if there isn't anything else going on.
Children's ministry workers need to regroup and find new methods to reach the kids. We may even need to let go of the traditional Sunday morning Sunday School and Wednesday evening youth group hours and find new ways to reach the children. I don't have any ready answers. So much depends on your community and your church situation. But I do have one more strategy:
3. Reach out to the parents and grandparents. If the children won't come to the church, let's take the church to the children. Imagine this: let's challenge our core church members to each target a family in their community: a neighbor, friend or adult children. Church members would become involved in that family's life. Attend their ball games. Take cookies over to them. Invite them over for dinner. Remember the kids' birthdays. Offer to babysit the children. Be available in crisis situations. Live the Christian lifestyle vividly in front of that family. And, as the family opens up, start sharing the gospel message. Teach the kids. Read bible stories to them. Tell them you are praying for them. Model Jesus in front of them. Empower the parents to teach their children. According the Deuteronomy 6:6-9, that's the way we should impart Bible doctrine to our children anyway.
This approach will take time. It will take commitment. It won't look very compelling on your church attendance board. Ministers will have to revamp their approach to ground their members in church doctrine well enough so they can confidently go forth and share the gospel message with their neighbors, friends and extended family.
But isn't that what the Great Commission and 2 Timothy 2:2 is all about? In a day when personal communication is defined by Facebook and text messaging, people long for personal contact, someone to care about them. I believe the best way, the only way, to reach today's children is to become personally involved in their family's life so they can see Jesus in us, the hope of Heaven's glory.