Children are one of the greatest--and often overlooked--potential mission fields. Here's a look at the obstacles that prevent effective ministry to kids and what you can do to better reach the next generation with the gospel.
Having been raised in the 1960s and 1970s in what was then a small Pentecostal church in south Texas, I often experienced what was called a "testimony service." Individuals would stand to testify of God's goodness and provision or describe how the Lord had rescued them from a long life of alcoholism, drug abuse and the depths of sin. Tears would flow, and shouts of "Hallelujah!" and "Thank you, Jesus!" would fill the air.
If I'd had the courage to testify back then, my testimony could have been articulated in one short sentence: "I thank God that Jesus saved me when I was 6 and then filled me with His Holy Spirit when I was 10." Then I would have had to sit down. I had no sad tales to share about the pain or scars of sin. Few, if any, tears would have been shed. Few shouts of "Hallelujah" or "Thank you, Jesus" would have echoed in that small auditorium.
Though my brief testimony provokes little or no emotion from those listening, I believe I have the greatest testimony possible. Thank God for every person's story, but I believe the greatest testimony comes from someone who was born again at a young age--someone who didn't have to go through hell to get to heaven.
While pastors and church leaders agree that it would be best if every child had my type of testimony, few are providing America's children that opportunity. Few churches are actively invading our greatest mission field to prevent children from having a sordid, sad tale to share in future testimony services. While the church is focusing on the 10/40 window, it is neglecting the greatest mission field in our nation: the 5/13 window.
According to the Barna Research Group (BRG), the 5/13 window is the age group most prone to accept and act upon the salvation message. The research indicates that unless a person accepts Christ as Savior before the age of 14, the likelihood of ever doing so is slim.
The future of the church and our nation hinges on aggressiveness in reaching children with the gospel. The church can't afford to maintain its current modus operandi for reaching and teaching children.
Newspaper headlines repeatedly show that we are losing a generation. We are seeing Judges 2:10 unfold before our eyes: "When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel" (NKJV). Today's church must have relevant, cutting-edge ministry with children that will make inroads into their lives and impact their environments.
Ministries Today recently visited with Jim Wideman and Rod Baker, two prominent children's ministry leaders, to examine how their children's ministries are influencing their children, their churches and their communities. With a combined ministry experience of more than 40 years, Wideman and Baker were able to share keen insights for producing a relevant ministry to children.
Jim Wideman is the Christian Education Director at Church on the Move (COTM) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rod Baker is the Christian Education and Outreach Director at Victory Christian Center (VCC), also in Tulsa. Both leaders serve alongside their senior pastors, Willie George and Billy Joe Daugherty respectively, to impact both their city as well as the body of Christ at large.
CAPTURE THEIR ATTENTION
Every child's heart wants to know the heart of the heavenly Father. But for today's child to connect with God, the message has to be communicated in a way that will capture both his attention and his heart. The ministry can't look, feel or sound like the ministry of the past. Today's child demands a today ministry, one that is on the cutting edge.
"In order to be effective, cutting-edge ministries must be just as smart as the world in reaching a generation that the world is already reaching," Baker says. "The world's marketing is strategically aimed at today's children and youth. They are targeting our boys and girls."
The world has carefully crafted its message and delivery to capture the attention of a media-savvy, high-energy generation of children. Watch television with a child one weekday afternoon or Saturday morning and notice how the dialogue, character interaction and plot lines bring the targeted audience to their "altar call": a child's decision to continue watching the TV program and purchase the advertisers' products.
As times change, the world's marketing techniques change. And yet the church's ministry to children has largely remained unchanged. The church continues to present the old-time religion in an old-time way to culturally relevant children. The church is failing to use today's technology and creativity to connect today's children with the gospel.
"Peter Wagner says in [his book] Churchquake that every church is contemporary, but most are 'contemporary' to another culture or generation," Baker says. "The church and the children's ministry have to change to reach a changing world."
The message must never change. The gospel must continue to be the good news bringing salvation, healing, deliverance, hope and security. But the gospel's presentation must provide an avenue that will capture the attention of today's audience.
Cutting-edge children's ministry is characterized by a fresh and relevant approach. This means using multimedia; creative teaching styles; children-friendly classrooms that breathe freshness into the ministry; materials and resources that facilitate children hearing and remembering the gospel's truth; and pastors, teachers and children's workers who love children, know Christ, have the gift of teaching children and who work hard to stay equipped and in tune with the needs of children.
Relevant children's ministry must know today's children and define their needs. What do today's children face? What stimulates their attention? What draws them to or repels them from the gospel? These facts establish the foundation for the needed programs and ministries.
"Unfortunately, many churches plan programs before examining the needs of the children," Wideman says. "The programs and styles of ministry that once effectively reached children need to be re-evaluated to see if they are reaching today's child."
Children's ministry is one of the most--if not the most--fruitful ministries in the body of Christ. So how can the ministry that (according to BRG's data) provides the greatest number of conversions, helps provide the child's foundation for a relationship with God, and plays a vital role in determining the future of both youth and adult ministries be considered a lesser ministry? How can the children be ignored or pushed into the background? Yet this happens all the time in churches across the country.
These aren't "just" kids. Children are spirit beings anxiously waiting for guidance so they might learn, as young Samuel, to say, "Speak Lord, Your servant is listening."
The church of tomorrow is found in today's kids. They will impact the world through:
Missions. The ones who will someday shake the nations of the world are now seated in your meetings, waiting to learn how to impact their schools and neighborhoods today.
Worship. The church's future worshipers are the children who are learning to be sensitive to the Lord's presence today.
Prayer. The future intercessors of the church are the kids who are developing an intimacy with God today.
Giving. The individuals who will finance the world harvest are the children who are learning the joy of giving their pennies, nickels and dimes to God today.
Ministry. The leadership of the church in ministering the gifts of the Spirit within the body is developing within children. They can be equipped and launched into ministry as children, working alongside adult teachers and mentors as they serve, pray, lay hands on the sick, worship and reach out evangelistically to other children.
These facts should cause leaders to realign their visions and priorities. The ground that produces the greatest harvest of souls should also draw the greatest amount of focus.
As Wideman explains: "Statistics show that 85 percent of those who accept Christ do so before the age of 18. And yet the church directs so much of its budget, ministry and outreach toward the least productive group, those over the age of 18. Any good fisherman goes where the fish are biting. At Church on the Move we have learned that the fish are biting in the children and youth ministries. That's where the greatest harvest is!"
HOW TO DEVELOP AN EFFECTIVE MINISTRY
A relevant children's ministry that impacts lives doesn't just happen. The following questions can help pastors and church leaders evaluate the current state of their own children's ministries and help to eliminate common obstacles that hinder effective ministry to kids:
1. How visible is your children's ministry? One of the greatest obstacles to a ministry that disciples children in the church and evangelizes outside the church is found in the ministry's lack of visibility. Often many people in the congregation don't even know the children's ministry exists. The only time they may hear anything about children's ministry is during an annual children's ministry emphasis Sunday, but then its labors and rewards are hidden for 51 more weeks. Consequently, the ministry constantly struggles to gather sufficient staff and resources.
"Many churches have developed an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality," Wideman explains. "They fail to realize that children are just as much a part of the congregation as the oldest adult.
"When you talk to a rancher and ask them how many head of cattle they have, they don't tell you that they have x number of bulls, x number of cows, x number of calves. It is all one herd. But when we talk about the church, we departmentalize and segregate and talk about the different age groups. It is all one church."
One person doesn't harvest a fruit-laden orchard. It takes a team. In order to have a team, the congregation has to be constantly exposed to the children's ministry and its vision and purpose.
2. Are you reaching children outside the church walls? The power of weekly, neighborhood children's cell groups is one way to do this. Throughout the week, Baker's teams minister to more than 4,000 children in the Tulsa area. Along with VCC volunteers, they conduct more than 140 weekly, neighborhood children's cell meetings, bring in more than 1,300 children in the bus ministry, minister in six elementary school kids clubs, visit homes, conduct Sidewalk Sunday School meetings and distribute food.
How does this happen? "Visibility creates an environment for success," Baker says. Pastor Billy Joe Daugherty keeps the ministry before his congregation. Each testimony cultivates excitement. The excitement breeds workers.
"Those workers harvest the fruit," Baker explains. "Then Pastor Daugherty shares again with the congregation about the harvest, and the cycle continues. In this environment, you can't help but have people sign up to be a part of a productive ministry. In this environment, it was easy for VCC's children's ministry to gather the funds to provide more than $3 million of food to needy Tulsans in 2000."
Cutting-edge children's ministry cannot be contained inside of a church building. This mentality limits the ministry's influence. It must touch the lives of children and families that will never visit the church.
Cutting-edge ministry must be holistic in its approach, touching spirit, soul and body. This might include weekly cell meetings, neighborhood Bible clubs, sports leagues and food programs. Each year, VCC passes out hundreds of coats to children during Tulsa's harsh winter. COTM has a program called H.U.G.S., which distributes hats, underwear, gloves and socks to children throughout Tulsa during the winter.
3. Do you have enough financial support for children's ministry? Another obstacle concerns finances. It is an established fact that children can't generate the necessary money to finance the ministry.
Curriculum costs. Eye-appealing rooms cost. Puppets, costumes and other ministry props cost. Evangelism costs. Bus or van insurance costs. Outside activities cost. And the children's coin offerings fall far short of the budget.
"Pastor Willie has established that COTM will [go] out of its way to go after people who can't pay us back," Wideman says. "If anyone is going to pay us back, it is going to be God. Jesus taught in Matthew 10 that if you take care of the needs of a child, He would pay you back. This is how COTM has grown from a congregation of 120 people in 1987 to a church that ministers to more than 10,000 people each weekend.
"We now touch the lives of more than 5,000 children. We have put our money where our mouth is, and God continues to pay us back. Pastor Willie states that COTM is a church that kids built."
A lot of pastors, however, say they want a cutting-edge children's ministry, but their actions don't back it up. Says Baker: "Money talks. If you want a world-class children's ministry, put money into it."
4. Have you dedicated and created the right facilities for children? A third obstacle is facilities. Families looking for a church home are "shopping" for a church that places an emphasis on their children. Yet in many churches, nursery facilities are difficult to locate. The nursery might include old, stained carpets, broken swings, dilapidated toys and drab-colored walls. Upon finding the children's classrooms, parents discover rooms with brown carpets and beige walls that shout, "I'm a room for adults!"
"No one gets excited about sitting in a beige room," Wideman says. "I don't know who ever said that God's favorite color is beige. We are making our churches 'multipurpose,' which is a code word for 'adult decorations.'
"No church can do everything. At COTM we have decided that God has called us to reach kids. We focus on that, and do it to the best of our ability."
Create an atmosphere that is inviting to children. Decorate different rooms with different themes. Rooms could be decorated to look like a town set in the Old West, a jungle, a game show studio or a racecar pit. Use bright colors and fabrics that shout out that the room was created with children in mind. Visit other churches to glean ideas and then adapt them to your facilities.
5. Is your vision too limited? A fifth obstacle is small-mindedness. Many churches or ministries excuse themselves from many challenges because they aren't a large megachurch. Many have the idea that only a big church can make inroads into a city, culture or age group.
Remember, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The only way to win a city is one neighborhood at a time, one school at a time, and so on. Everyone has to begin somewhere. The key is to just get a plan and then get started.
If we want to reach this generation, we must see that changes in how we do things are inevitable. "If we continue to do what we've always done, we will always have what we've always had," Wideman says.
A plan to develop a relevant and effective children's ministry should involve the following nine components:
Vision. Establish the vision. The key to the city and the harvest is to reach and teach the children.
Visibility. Keep the vision before the congregation. Just as children aren't an afterthought of God, neither can they be an afterthought of the church. The congregation must be reminded of the vision's importance, costs and rewards.
Ministry team. Solicit a ministry team who will love on and pastor the children. Leaders who can help empower children to bring revival to schools and neighborhoods are waiting to jump aboard a ministry that has the pastor's heart and support.
Equipping. Train and empower the children's ministry team. Invest in your workers on a regular basis. Provide leadership materials. Provide an opportunity to attend an annual conference to sharpen their ministry skills.
"The best ideas that I've ever had are the ones that I didn't think of," Wideman says. Expose your ministry team to other children's ministries, so they can learn from their successes and failures.
Resources. Provide your children's ministry with the right tools and resources. Just as young David needed the right tool to kill Goliath, your children's ministry needs the proper ministry tools to effectively impact children's lives. Recognize that you might not start with everything that the team desires and needs. Constantly assess what is needed, and add to it as soon and as frequently as possible.
Environment and facilities. Create an environment that draws children. A person's first impression is a lasting impression. The decor of a room serves either as a magnet or a repellent.
Support. Allow on-the-job training. Workers will make mistakes. The only way to learn is by doing a job. Lovingly nurture workers as you coach them along the way. Have the inexperienced work alongside the experienced. Reinforce the positives that you see and gently admonish to correct weaknesses.
Love your children. Know and love on the kids. Those involved with children need to have the pulse of the kids to whom they are ministering.
Baker says that the ministry can't be evasive; it must be invasive. "You have to get out of the church building and into their world to find out what they are doing," he explains. "You have to see what is getting a hold of the kids. The reason that the world has a hold of them is because the church isn't doing anything to get a hold of them."
"The staff should attend events which are important to the children," Wideman adds. "Become more than just a Sunday and Wednesday part of their lives."
Encouragement. Show your children's ministry team love and support. Highly value and esteem them. Give standing ovations to your nursery ministry team. Honor your children's workers with special banquets, frequent thank-you cards, gift certificates to local restaurants, or perhaps even provide baby-sitting so the teachers and their spouse can just have an "us" night.
The future of the church is sitting in your congregation and playing in the surrounding neighborhoods. The key to that future is in your hands. While every piece of the equation may not be readily seen, the beginning, necessary pieces have been placed in your congregation by God to launch a ministry that will impact your city.
Get the Facts About Today's Children
**In the United States, 21 percent of the population is under age 15. (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2000, table 1336)
**One-third of all American households contain at least one child under the age of 18. (Boiling Point by George Barna and Mark Hatch, Regal Books)
**About 30 percent of American children live in single-parent homes. ("Self [out of] Control" by Cal Thomas, World, June 2, 2001)
**Approximately one-third of children born in the 1990s were born to unmarried moms, compared with 2.8 percent in 1940. ("Unmarried With Children" by Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert, Newsweek, May 28, 2001)
**The years prior to age 12 are when a majority of children make their decision as to whether or not they will follow Christ. (Barna Research Online, November 15, 1999)
Resources for Building a Great Kid's MInistry
Kids on the Move
Plus other children's ministry training and discipleship products:
Willie George Ministries
NEIGHBORHOOD KID'S CLUB PROGRAMS
Rod Baker Ministries
Kids Club 20:20
Children's Ministry Magazine
One Way Street
Puppets, skits, books, music and costumes
Puppets, taped puppet skits
Children's Ministers' Leadership Club
Puppet Trax and other music for kids
Jim Wideman Ministries
Let Us Teach Kids
Children's Ministry Today
The Children's Ministry Network
International Network of Children's Ministry
Group Publishing's Children's Ministry.com
Strang Communication's CharismaLife Web Site
It takes passionate vision and careful planning to develop a ministry that effectively impacts kids.
Keep the following recommendations in mind as you prepare to launch or evaluate your children's ministry:
**Vision. The greatest resource of any children's pastor is the senior pastor.
The senior pastor must communicate the vision of the entire church, and that includes the children's church. The vision must reflect the heart of the pastor, and people must be able to grab hold of it. The senior pastor must implement the vision of children's ministry to the children's pastor.
**Plan. Planning is a process. It must include the how, when, who, where and what in order to accomplish your goals. The senior pastor must spend quality time with the children's pastor to impart his plan. Target your plans so that you hit your objective. Who is being impacted?
**Implementation. The senior pastor must make sure that implementation of the process goes into action. He needs to monitor and follow up on the plans to ensure the process is being carried out according to plans.
**Evaluate. Is anything happening because we did something? Are they within the objectives? Follow-up is the key to seeing that goals are accomplished.
**Do. Value your children's pastor; spend quality time with him or her; create an atmosphere for success via proper facilities, budget and resources; communicate the value of children to the congregation; develop a strategic plan in line with your vision.
**Don't. Overlook the fact that adults come to your church to see what you have to offer their children; neglect the fact that more than half the children in the United States come from single-parent homes; disregard the fact that the more children you have, the stronger your church will be in the future; fail to recognize that one of the greatest resources for your children's program is your children's pastor.
By implementing the evaluation strategies above, we have seen success at Victory Christian Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We have grown from 1,200 kids to more than 4,000 weekly in only four years by receiving the vision from the senior pastor and empowering people through team-building strategies.
Most children's pastors don't realize that the greatest resources they have available to them are people. By empowering people, children's pastors empower the vision of the senior pastors to use the gifts God has given them to cause increase in the entire church.
One way we have empowered the children of our church is through ministries of helps such as ushering, greeting, praise and worship, altar ministry and prayer. We prepare children to use their gifts for the ministry God has called them to. We are developing disciples for the church of today.
Children also have the opportunity to participate in short-term missions trips to Third World countries. By exposing them to the world vision, we're producing a stronger church for today.
We reach out to the children of our community through a three-pronged approach: (1) children's cell groups; (2) bus ministry; and (3) Sidewalk Sunday School ministries. This approach allows us the possibility to minister the gospel to children outside the four walls of the church three times per week, which in turn helps us develop a strong discipleship program in the neighborhoods of our community.
Another way we have been effective in meeting the needs of children and families in our community is through our food bank. Volunteers are able to directly meet the needs because of the relationships they have cultivated through the three-pronged approach. This has promoted a positive influence throughout our community toward our church, and families who may not have normally come to the church have visited as a result.
The greatest resource of any community is the children of that community. By providing a place of empowerment and security, our children are being trained to proclaim the gospel in their neighborhoods and to the world.