Providing separate ministries for children, teens, and young adults is how churches lean into knowledge of childhood development and adolescence. It’s how the body of Christ walks beside parents to teach kids to embrace and live out the gospel. It’s about meeting kids on their level, and sharing the gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
But children’s ministry doesn’t always live up to our ideals.
In Relational Children’s Ministry: Turning Kid-Influencers Into Disciple Makers, Awana’s Dan Lovaglia highlights some of the key issues with children’s ministry today.
Attendance is one of the simplest metrics for churches and ministries to measure. Dan says, generally speaking, “The church only tracks what can be counted from week to week: the people and the money.”
But does increased giving or better attendance really measure growth? I suppose that depends on what kind of growth matters.
“I learned this the hard way,” Dan says, “when I had to confront the keepers of our church database about someone who had moved away but had been entered as present for the prior six months. No one was intentionally padding the numbers. Everyone just assumed that the girl was still showing up every week with her single mom and sister. No one was really paying attention to her as a person—she was just another number and a name in a database.”
Not only were the numbers completely inaccurate, but if they were accurate, what would those numbers tell you—besides how many bodies were in the room?
The metrics that reveal the impact of your ministry aren’t always tangible.
“It’s relatively easy to measure attendance patterns, judge success by how teachers impart information, or determine fruitfulness by what kids say they are learning,” Dan says. “Or we can focus on the way children behave (or misbehave) and whether parents seem pleased. But these are not the best barometers of growth and fruitfulness in ministry. How can we tell if the seeds of trust, love, authenticity, and honesty are planted and growing?”
We know a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15–20), and we know the fruit we are looking for (Galatians 5:22–23).
My Young Life team recently encountered our own numbers problem: we’re reaching max capacity.
I don’t mean that we stuffed our club room with so many high school kids that we risked a fire code violation, because we’re so awesome and everybody wants to be at our thing. I mean that with the number of meaningful relationships we have, and the amount of hours we have to give our kids each week, we’re approaching the limit of what we can do as human disciple-makers.
We’d have to spend less time with the kids we’re already discipling in order to invest in new relationships.
The entire mission of Young Life is designed to set leaders up to develop long-term relationships with kids. Part of the process is filling the room with kids you’ve already started getting to know through outreach. But that’s just the beginning. Those kids are at the fringes of your influence, not the epicenter.
We use the model outlined in The Master Plan of Evangelism—a model demonstrated through the life and ministry of Jesus. After your inner circle of disciples reaches a certain point, you don’t have the capacity to keep actively working to increase the outer circle of kids you’re just getting to know. That’s where, hopefully, your disciples come in and help you develop new relationships through their own circles of influence.
As a team, we were caught between the realization that we were stretching ourselves too thin and a strange sense of guilt that we weren’t increasing our numbers “like a good team should.”
We’re still figuring out how to deal with that tension.
Numbers matter. Maybe not always in the ways we think. Maybe not always the numbers we choose to look at. But when we start treating children’s ministries like marketing campaigns, we need to recalibrate.
Dan says, “Children’s ministry leaders are crying out: We created outstanding programs. We taught great information. We saw good behavior. We showed up faithfully. We sent home support. We gave so much. What did we miss?”
All of those are valuable tools for discipleship, but doing those things well doesn’t mean you are discipling kids.
When someone asks why your ministry does things a certain way, the answer should never be, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” If that’s you, then as Dan says, “It’s probably time to step off the ministry treadmill.”
Everything you do and every choice you make should have a purpose. We have to be willing to look critically at what our ministry is doing, even if it’s easier to just keep going.
“I am increasingly aware of cracks in the spiritual foundation of my ministry, in my family, and in myself,” Dan says. But identifying them isn’t enough. “As much as I desire to walk in the truth and desire the same for others, that desire must be coupled with an intentional pursuit and not just wishful thinking.”
Over the six years I’ve been volunteering with Young Life, we’ve used a variety of models for what club is “supposed to look like.” Even from school to school and team to team you’ll find disagreement about what works best and why—because we’re all working with completely different groups of kids. Knowing your kids is the key to planning a program that impacts them. What’s worked well with some kids in the past may not work at all with a different group of kids.
If you’re worried your routine needs to change (or even if you’re sure it doesn’t), Dan’s got a recommendation:
“A day of solitude with the Lord could be the most strategic meeting you have as a children’s ministry leader.”
And anytime you’re thinking about making changes, use the human resources God has given you. Dan suggests you round up “a team of faithful leaders and parents (and kids too!) to check your ministry’s disciple-making pulse.”
Transitions in leadership are one of the biggest opportunities for kids to fall through the cracks. My first four years with Young Life, I led with middle school kids and coached sports at the school my team focused on. For three of those years, our pool of available leaders in the area required me to be a team leader, so I stayed at the middle school. Kids that I spent years developing relationships with got lost in the shuffle.
I felt like I was doing what was best for the ministry by leading a team of leaders, but I will never forget how that decision impacted those kids. One dad said his son felt that I’d “dissed him” and that I chose not to lead him through high school because I didn’t care enough about him.
It takes a lot of work to repair the damage of bad transitions, and too much of the time, those repairs never happen. I never had the opportunity to prove that kid wrong because in the transition I lost the trust of his dad, too. And since I fumbled the hand off, all I could do was pray that another leader from another ministry would fill that discipleship gap.
Bad transitions mean kids stop going to church. Or they stop wanting to go to church, which means they leave when they’re old enough.
I was one of the latter.
Growing up, my church went through three or four youth pastors as it struggled to find someone who fit. By the time we found a great disciple-maker, I was too frustrated to give him a chance, and I started going to a different church on my own—one where people knew me.
“The missing ingredient seems to be the sustaining power of lasting and loving relationships,” Dan says.
If the goal of your ministry is to produce disciples, long-term relationships are crucial.
In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman says:
“The relational element is so strong because relationship is central to disciple making—and as we’ve said, the dropout problem is, at its core, a disciple-making problem.”
Many of the kids who walk away from your ministry leave because they aren’t being discipled.
Transitions happen. Leaders move. College students graduate. People get new jobs. People have kids of their own. Your ministry needs to have a plan in place to make sure that kids can still be discipled.
When you fumble transitions, you lose kids. Period.
Children’s ministry isn’t a service your church provides for you. It’s not there to distract your kid while you listen to a sermon they don’t have the attention span for. It’s not a free kid-sitting service.
Children’s ministry is for kids, not adults.
“I have yet to talk with a children’s ministry leader,” Dan says, “Who isn’t bothered when parents treat their program as a babysitting service.”
That perception may be changing though.
“The belief that parents should be the primary spiritual influencers in their homes and children’s lives is on the rise, and with good reason.”
I’ve heard that rising belief sometimes offered as a reason why children’s ministry shouldn’t exist: parents should disciple their kids, not some ill-trained twenty-something. But children’s ministries are trying to hijack the role of parents (and on a side note, let’s not assume every kid involved in children’s ministry has that opportunity at home).
The community you’re spiritually fed from plays a complementary role in the spiritual growth of your child, and many ministries try to help establish parents as the primary spiritual leaders in a child’s life.
“In some cases this scripturally sound belief comes across as an accusatory attitude, pitting parents and churches against each other. In many cases, families and churches are just doing the best they can with the resources God has provided. Unfortunately, they have difficulty speaking the same language and seeing one another as allies rather than competitors.”
Today, church is often seen as an experience the staff provides and the congregation consumes.
Dan says, “For too many churches, the flywheel of children’s ministry unintentionally trades in ‘reach-teach-multiply’ discipleship for ‘come-eat-leave’ consumerism. Parents hand off their child before the church service, children get corralled into large and small groups for Bible-based teaching and activities, parents pick up their children after the church service. The cycle continues week after week, year after year.”
Sometimes parents aren’t the only ones treating children’s ministry like daycare.
If the emphasis is always on keeping kids from distracting adults during the service, not on providing kids with the same sort of community-based spiritual experience adults have every weekend, people think of it as a practical service for adults—not a meaningful experience for kids.
Dan is a direct result of a children’s ministry that refused to treat itself as simply a service for adults (even though that’s exactly why his mom brought him there).
“They saw what they did as more than childcare or teaching, more than moral instruction or entertainment,” Dan says. “They had a vision of me (and them) following Jesus for the rest of my life.”
And that vision continues to multiply today as Dan develops leaders into disciple-makers.
So you care about kids and you want to help them understand the Bible, Jesus, and what it means to follow him. How do you decide what to teach?
“Anyone who works with children and desires to develop an appropriate learning experience understands the tensions associated with packaged curriculum,” Dan says. “Some resources provide too much information; others give too little. Some curriculum companies create full-service programs; others only supply individual products that must be reconfigured or supplemented.”
The challenge isn’t finding something to teach (unless you’re scrambling to jot down ideas five minutes before you start). The challenge is finding the right something for the kids you’re teaching.
“The best resources available rarely show up ready to use off the shelf,” Dan says. “Sadly, children’s ministry leaders can get caught up in blaming the curriculum for not being ‘pre-customized’ or contextualized to each unique ministry context.”
Curriculum provides you with teaching tools and a frame of reference. It’s not a replacement for your knowledge of your kids’ lives, needs, and capabilities. It’s not a replacement for you—the teacher, the leader, the disciple maker.
“To move past this and embrace a vision for lifelong discipleship, children’s ministry leaders must step away from looking for perfect plug-and-play content solutions.”
If the curriculum you have isn’t quite what you’re looking for, take what works and drop what doesn’t. Splice lessons together and tweak messages until they fit your needs and the relationships you have with kids.
The burden of discipleship doesn’t rest on the perfect textbook.
One of the dangers my Young Life team is dancing around right now is burnout. Some of our leaders have been volunteering for over ten years. Some of us are leading groups of seniors. Add to that a series of major life transitions, and ministry can start to feel draining.
So how do you fight burnout?
Dan says the answer is meaningful work.
“Children’s ministries frequently burn out volunteers by not placing them in meaningful roles with clear commitments,” he says. “The need to fill open positions sometimes trumps pre-qualifications like spiritual gifting, desire, and experience. Or a gifted leader signs on the dotted line, but the ministry does not provide opportunities for him or her to get spiritually recharged along the way. The best children’s ministries pay attention to the fact that the question is not if their leaders will tire, but how they will try to prevent exhaustion and what will they do when it inevitably sets in.”
Like transitions, ministry burnout is inevitable. So what are you doing to make sure your leaders rest? To help them recover from emotional, mental, and spiritual stress?
When you lead a team of kid-influencers, it’s important to keep up with their lives and help them make sure they’re taking time to rest. If the answer to “How are you?” is always, “Busy,” it might be time for a mental-health check.
“If your calendar is completely full,” Dan says, “It’s difficult to walk well with God and others.”
It’s hard to feel comfortable with waste when you work in ministry. When your budget is tight, every purchase has a purpose.
“Because our children’s ministry had a scarce budget,” Dan says, “I told my leadership team our spending policy was to utilize and expend all current resources. I challenged them to repurpose whatever we could find in cabinets, drawers, closets, totes, and bathtubs!”
And yes, Dan found plenty of valuable supplies in the bathtubs. Years of curriculum was piled up in there.
Being forced to improvise helped Dan’s team discover something important about budgets:
“We believed great environments for kids required big budgets. But good experiences aren’t always improved via financial means. Like too much salt in soup or paying for a large drink when refills are free, at some point spending more money does not make your ministry better. The pain point of scarce budgets can be misleading. Instead of running at a healthy pace with God’s presence and provision, children’s ministries end up hobbling around holding up ‘The grass is greener over there’ signs.”
Providing the best possible experience for kids doesn’t mean you have to build your own Disney Land.
“There is a myth,” Dan says, “That ministries need to be on par with the Magic Kingdom and led by Mickey Mouse or children will stay away. Yes, there will be kids who, expecting something epic, get turned off by church because of silly crafts and poorly presented Bible lessons. On the other hand, the presence of caring adults and teenagers who invest time, eye contact, a listening ear, and genuine love will lead to relational connections that can have an eternal reward. Don’t forget: kids are drawn to Christ by Christ.”
Awana is letting you read the first six chapters of Relational Children’s Ministry for free until May 6. Dan is leading a guided reading plan, so you can follow along with hundreds of other volunteers, leaders, and pastors. See why meaningful relationships are the key to discipleship, and learn the practical ways you can foster those relationships.
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