Children are the church of tomorrow." I cringe every time I hear that cliche, either from the pulpit or the pew. It's been used to cajole people into working in the children's divisions, or spoken with pride after a cute kids' program. Often implied is the sincere hope that someday the children will take over the reins of church leadership and ministry.
In our church we've decided that if children aren't recognized as the church of today they may not be around to be the church of tomorrow. If we are not actively involving our children in ministry now, how can we expect them to be active in their youth or adult hood?
"Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it" can work negatively if in their formative years we've encouraged children only to be still and listen.
Good programs aren't enough
As a children's pastor for 16 years, I have done lots of creative programming for Sabbath School, Children's Church, and Vacation Bible Schools, all with the hope of inspiring children to give their lives to God now and keep that commitment into adult hood. Usually children are grateful for quality programming geared for them, and they readily respond to invitations to accept Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Their smiles and hugs are thanks enough.
The rub sometimes comes when, as they grow into their high school years, their commitment to Christ becomes overshadowed by peer pressure, entertainment, and simply the natural drives of normal adolescence. Many quit coming to church and are lost to our fellowship. Youth leaders and parents have been concerned about this, but many of them have come to see this as normal teenage behavior. They may say hopefully, "Maybe they'll come back when they have children of their own."
When one of my young members has been lost to the fellowship it has felt like all my efforts, energy, thoughts, and prayers have been wasted. I have asked myself how I could best prepare children for the difficult years ahead in their youth.
Expanding a new vision
Our church seemed to stumble upon a new idea for using kids in ministry. The pastoral staff wanted to make the church a friendlier place for members and visitors alike. One thing we decided was to have people stand at the entrance doors of our church to assist and greet people.
"That's a job the kids could do!" I said. Thus was born the "Doorkeepers," a ministry tailor-made for Primary and Junior kids. They readily signed up for their post and were faithfully on duty each week. As people approached the entrance, they were greeted by the child with a smile and a warm greeting. The children assisted the elderly, the mothers with babies, and people with potluck dishes or Sabbath School supplies. On rainy days, armed with large umbrellas supplied by the church and with the church's name imprinted, they met people outside, escorting them into the vestibule. This ministry was an instant success. Members and visitors alike appreciated it and regularly thanked the children for their service. More importantly, the kids felt they provided a useful service for their church. After five years, it's still a regular ministry here.
That was the seed that inspired a new way of doing children's ministry in our church: team ministry for kids. We don't have to wait until they're teenagers or older to begin ministry. Children can be active ministers now.
This idea, along with its accompanying philosophy, happily coincided with our church's efforts at the time to establish a new statement of mission and core values. Two values that surfaced had particular bearing upon children: (1) that every person in the church is being equipped by the Holy Spirit for ministry, and (2) that the best way to disciple people is to mentor them in spiritual growth and service. Our newly formed children's ministry team took the position that God doesn't wait for kids to grow up before He pours the Holy Spirit upon them. And what better way to grow faith in children than for them to rub shoulders in ministry with adults who love and value them?
Unlike many adults, children want to serve. They are looking for ways to put hands and feet on the faith they have received from their parents and teachers. What really turns them on is when they see God come through, even in the simplest ways.
Children doing ministry
Pete Hohmann, a children's pastor at the Mechanicsville Christian Center near Richmond, Virginia, has been equipping kids for eight years in outreach and missions. He tells of a time when his children experienced first-hand the faithfulness of God: "We were scheduled to do outreach at a drug rehabilitation center. Normally the kids would do an hour of singing with choreography, drama, and testimonies and then individually pray with the people who came to listen. An advance team was supposed to arrive an hour early at the ministry site with sound equipment so that all would be set up and ready when the kids arrived. Well, the kids arrived, but the van with the sound equipment was lost and was almost an hour late. To make matters worse, we had accidentally left the backup tapes and emergency boom box in the same van. What were we to do now? Minutes before the outreach was scheduled to begin, one of the children said, 'We need to pray.' Of their own initiative, they gathered in a cir cle and began to pray for the missing van. After several of the children prayed, one of the children ended the prayer time and said 'Amen.' At the exact moment the 'Amen' was sound ed, the van turned up the driveway of the rehabilitation center. The kids were so excited to see that God had come through for their ministry, they went crazy!" Pastor Hohmann knows from experience that children who discover ministry in their preteen years are much more likely to be active leaders in their adulthood than those who don't.
Ironically, large churches with more resources available to them are not usually good at empowering children for ministry. Small churches have done the best at including children if for no other reason than they don't have enough adults to do every thing. Jobs like taking up the offering, ushering, folding and handing out bulletins, and helping their parents clean the church have helped young people feel that this is their church and that they are contributing in their own way to its upkeep.
It's been two years now since our Children's Ministry Team consciously moved away from entertaining our children with good programs toward the goal of mentoring kids for service, leadership, and outreach. We recognized that this would necessitate finding adults who love children and enlisting them to work with a few kids in joint ministry, that is, team ministry. Since we couldn't ask others to do what we hadn't tried ourselves, adult team members started the first teams. We chose to launch a puppet team and had 16 children join us. No one told us that puppets was the hardest ministry to do.
Everyone loves puppets and we use them often in Children's Church and outreach. But the greatest benefit has been seen in the kids on the team, who now demonstrate a greater commitment to their faith and each other than ever before. They are progressively taking on more responsibility and leadership, just as we hoped they would.
Because of this and because pup pets are popular, we soon had more applicants than we could handle asking to join the team. Space constraints and leadership issues did not allow for more to be a part of the puppet team. So we started another ministry, STIX, which uses dowel rods to creatively choreograph Christian songs. It is very inspirational to our audiences, often bringing tears to the eyes of those who are ministered to by the children. But it's the kids on the team who get the greatest blessing.
Expanding the ministry teams
Teams demand quite a commitment. They meet every week for an hour to practice. However, before every practice, a half hour is allotted for worship, sharing prayer requests, and answers to prayer, and team building activities. This really sets the mood for cooperation and caring among team members. Minimum age limits for being on a given team are set according to the ministry requirements. We have also discovered that parents are the most valuable sup port. They often serve as assistants both at practice and at programs. They help with team socials and transportation. Teams very quickly become a family affair.
As the ministry team approach for kids began to snowball, financial sup port from the general membership of our church began to grow. People were increasingly eager to assist in a ministry or to help start a new one when they saw that something significant was being done for the children. We even attracted new members who wanted to see something for their children. And, of course, we had a growing list of kids who wanted to join the two ministry teams.
So in the second year of our adventure, we started five additional kids' ministries (see sidebar: "Children's Ministry Teams at Kettering" on previous page). We had a sign-up in September for the upcoming school year (teams take the summer off) for the kids and for adults who want to lead or assist in a particular team.
If we don't have an adult leader, we don't have the ministry, even if we advertised it at the sign-up. Some may think it necessary to have leaders ready to go before a ministry is announced, but we have found that in our congregation God sends the leaders when we share the vision. After all, we don't want to rob the blessing for the kids of praying for an adult volunteer to lead the ministry they want to join.
Developing other ministries
Last year, we had ten children sign up for a clown ministry, but we didn't have a leader, even after talking it up among some likely "clownish" adult candidates for several months! Finally, I had to write the children asking them to pray that God would send a leader. Within the month we had both a leader and an assistant who were excited about the team. We are also currently equipping them by sending them to workshops related to this ministry.
One new ministry we launched recently is PETZ, where children take puppies and kittens from a local animal shelter to visit patients in nursing homes. This simple ministry can be done by younger kids, especially since their parents are required to go with them. It's an outreach that can be done by the whole family. We had 35 children come to the orientation, twice what we expected. The children were divided up into smaller groups of four or five, and they take turns carrying the pet to the patients. The seniors look forward to their visits and enjoy both the pets and the kids.
Our waiting list for some ministries continues to grow. Not wanting those kids to be left out while they wait for openings on a team, we started a once-a-month training event, called KIT (Kids in Training) that will give them a sampling of some ministry skills. Parents are encouraged to come take the workshops with their children.
Our goal is to have kids be in charge of things during children's events. We would like our kids to run sound equipment, create PowerPoint presentations, advertise with posters and artwork, pray for both those who minister and those being ministered to. And so the vision expands.
This coming fall we are gearing up for Children's Ministry Clubs. The clubs differ from teams in that they meet only once a month for acquiring a particular skill that can be used in particular ministries. But clubs could grow into teams, depending upon the interest. Right now our club list is Sound, Graphics, Art and Drawing, Practical Helps, Drama, Mime, and Intercessory Prayer. But the list could grow even longer before we actually introduce these ministries.
Looking into the faces and hearts of our children, the church of tomorrow really is here today.