In the first six months of operation, with no advertisement except by word of mouth, email, and a limited mailing to friends, we have 267 newly sponsored Adventist children in Seventh-day Adventist schools in India.”1 Thus begins the latest email message from my friend Dorothy. What is she thinking?
She continued, “These children will be the future leaders of our expanding work in India. We are trying to think of the future. . . . We need to somehow get 10,000 of our new member’s children into Seventh-day Adventist schools.”
So, maybe it’s retention of new members. If she can get their children into Adventist schools and give them an education, more adults will stay. Is that it? Does she know something that we don’t know?
George Barna also knows. He writes, “In my mind, children had always been part of a package deal. We want to reach adults with the gospel and then help them mature in their faith in Christ, so we have accepted the kids as a ‘throw-in.’ . . . Seeing children as the primary focus of ministry never occurred to me.”2
The 4/14 window
Just what did Barna discover in his study of ministry to children and adolescents? In a nutshell: To win and keep people for Christ, you must reach them and teach them while they are yet children. People who take Jesus as their Savior before they reach their teens are more likely to remain in the same Christian faith for the rest of their life.
Let’s look at some of the data uncovered by Barna’s recent research.3
Among the findings, (1) nine out of ten young people consider themselves to be Christians by age 13. (2) One’s spiritual condition by age 13 is a strong predictor of spiritual life as an adult. (3) The probability of people taking Jesus as their Savior is 32 percent for those between the ages of 5 and 12; 4 percent for those in the 13 to 17 year range; and 6 percent for those 19 or older. Therefore, chances are that if people do not accept Jesus before their teens, they are not likely to do so later. (4) The spiritual condition of adolescents and teenagers changes very little as they age. (5) More than 65 percent of 13-year-olds say they will not alter their core beliefs in the future.
Furthermore, (6) by age 9, most children have their spiritual moorings in place. A child’s moral development is determined and set by age 9. (7) Lifelong habits, values, beliefs, and attitudes are formed between the ages of 5 and 12 years. (8) Moral and spiritual development starts as early as age 2.
In summary, the important point to be made is this: If a church wishes to reach and keep people; if a church wants to impact lives; that church must invest in people while they are young, very young. The key time is between the ages of 4 and 14, a time some call “the 4/14 window.”
Ellen White sums it up in one sentence: “The lessons that the child learns during the first seven years of life have more to do with forming his character than all that it learns in future years.”4 She particularly stresses the importance of the first three years of life.5
What shall we do?
Begin at the beginning with beginners. Take a long, hard look at your Beginners (formerly Cradle Roll) Sabbath School. Is it active or passive? Are children really involved? Is learning taking place? Is the major emphasis on God’s love for children and Jesus as their Savior? Does the entire program teach concepts of grace, worship, community, and service?
The best teachers should be working with these children, and they should exhibit pleasure in doing so. Leaders and teachers of tiny tots should clearly love and enjoy children.
Then apply those same questions to all other children’s Sabbath School groups and other activities your church sponsors for children. What is my church doing to reach children? Are all the children in Sabbath School every week? What goes on beyond that one hour a week? How long has it been since those who care for children in my church have attended a children’s ministry or Sabbath School workshop? Are Adventurer and Pathfinder Clubs alive and well? Have those leaders been trained? How often do we have Children’s Church? How many of our children attend an Adventist school? What percentage of our budget is specifically for these needs?
In her book Shouting in the Temple, Lorna Jenkins says, “There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom. Children will not become citizens only when they grow up. They are citizens now, with rights and responsibilities. As parents and members of their spiritual family, our task is to help them learn the Kingdom lifestyle while they are children.”6
Jenkins expresses her goal as building strong intergenerational congregations where children take an active part in every aspect of church life. In part, the vision statement of her church says, “All the children of the church family should be integrated into the total life of the church, in outreach, discipleship, and service.”7
While traveling with Janet Rieger, former children’s ministries director for the Adventist church in the South Pacific, I was impressed with Janet’s vision. She frequently said to workers, “Children are not the future of the church—they are the ‘now.’ If you lead adults to Christ, you have them for half or maybe three-fourths of their life, but if you lead a young child to Jesus, you have that child’s whole life.”8
Jenkins says the senior pastor is the key leader in the church.9 He or she should not be caught up in the day-to-day operation of ministry to children but should ultimately be responsible for establishing and guarding the vision of his or her church for children, for providing the financial resources, for guiding those leaders chosen to guide the children of the church. The pastor’s role involves much more than preaching a once-a-year sermon about Christian education.
That sounds good, but how can a busy pastor stay on top of all that goes on for children in his or her church? In a situation where a senior pastor has an associate for children’s ministry, major responsibilities can be delegated to that person, who will report to the pastor. This does not remove responsibility from the senior pastor but offers assistance in specific functions. The senior pastor still needs to be involved with the children of the church.
Some pastors do not have the luxury of a pastoral staff and often find themselves spread too thinly. In such settings, the pastor may choose to designate an elder to monitor and work with those who lead children’s church-sponsored activities. That elder reports to the pastor and is an advocate for children’s ministry with the church board.
An important addition to the church officer group is a children’s ministry coordinator. Elected by the church during the officer-election process each year, that individual becomes a member of the church board. Among other things, duties involve chairing the children’s ministry committee, a group that includes all leaders of children’s activities.
How can you, the pastor, know that all is well with the children of your church? Ask yourself the following: How often do I meet with the Sabbath School Council? Have I visited the children’s Sabbath School divisions lately? Have I ever participated in teaching the lesson? How often do I tell a children’s story during the church service? Do I reach the children in my sermons? What message do I send them? When was the last time I attended a Pathfinder or Adventurer meeting to observe and to encourage the children and their leaders? Do I visit their staff meetings now and then? Do I regularly visit with the church-school staff to offer guidance and encouragement? What is my responsibility beyond school-board meetings? How often do I worship with the church school children? Have I listened to their concerns and prayed with any of them recently? Do I play with them during recess or eat lunch with them at noon? Does every child in my congregation have an opportunity for a Christian education? Can I call the children in my congregation by name? Do I talk with them, pray with them, laugh with them? When I visit their homes, are they included in the conversation and prayers? How do I involve children in the church service? Do they read the scripture, help with the offering, greet people at the door, or provide special music?
In short, are the children of my church a priority in my ministry?
So, what does Dorothy know?
Dorothy knows the worth of a child. She knows that she has a responsibility to lead children to Christ. She knows that children are the future of the church and that the future of the church is now. She knows that the strength of the church in India depends largely on what is done for, and with, its children today. She has the courage and determination to reach out to children of new members, to reach them and teach them to know and love Jesus as their friend and Savior. And she has the conviction that will carry her work for children forward today and tomorrow and in years to come.
What about you? What do you know?
1 Dorothy Watts, personal communication, December 6, 2005.
2 George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light Publishing, 2003), 11.
3 For a detailed discussion of the data, see Barna, 33–47.
4 Ellen G. White, Child Guidance (Review and Herald ® Publishing Association., Hagerstown, Md.: 1982), 193.
5 Ibid., 194.
6 Lorna Jenkins, Shouting in the Temple: A Radical Look at Children’s Ministry (Singapore: Touch Ministries International, 1999), 83.
7 Ibid., 92.
8 Janet Rieger, personal communication, December 2005.
9 Jenkins, 101.