Aim lower, think smaller!
The Bible often refers to the pastors’ congregation as children of God—even as little children.1 Jesus said, “ ‘You must let little children come to me, and you must never stop them. The kingdom of Heaven belongs to little children like these!’ ” (Matt. 19:15, Phillips).
Could it be that the success of the pastors’ ministry is directly related to how they treat the children in their churches? If so, it is imperative for pastors to understand their children.
Children come in a variety of personalities and passions. Johnny is an active and boisterous boy and a talented song leader. Pedro seems eager to learn but gets in the way of others. Keiko uses swear words but feels sorry afterward. Noemi loves Vacation Bible School and wants to follow Jesus. Sven has an inquisitive nature and asks lots of questions. We have them all in our children’s programs.
Unfortunately, today’s children face many challenges. Some struggle with bad habits and strong peer pressure. Others suffer with low self-worth and helplessness brought upon them by divorce, child abuse, and disasters. Still others are neglected or orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the most recent world crisis, many children have been displaced and have become refugees. Is there any hope for our children? Can children find peace and security?
Yes, children can find peace in Jesus Christ. Children can be transformed through submitting to Christ, acknowledging Christ as Lord of their lives. But what do children today think of when they hear the term Lord? Most likely it is The Lord of the Rings or Lord Voldemort, the archenemy of Harry Potter. Such characters have given our children a false concept of the Lord of life.
Children need to know that Jesus is our Protector and Guide. He bought us with His own blood and wants us to have eternal life and live with Him in heaven. We need to help children recognize God’s command in 1 Peter 3:15, “But respect Christ as the holy Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have” (NCV). We want our children to acknowledge Jesus as the One who oversees every aspect of their lives—at school, play, dealing with friends, money, and time, to name a few. But what can the church do to make that happen? What can pastors do to ensure that children in their churches are nurtured to become disciples of Jesus, and that they will make Him the Lord of their lives?
God speaks very clearly about the need to teach our children about Him. Deuteronomy 6 verses 6 and 7 reads: “ ‘And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand’ ” (NKJV).
Ellen G. White comments that "when Jesus told the disciples not to forbid the children to come to Him, He was speaking to His followers in all ages—to officers of the church, to ministers, helpers, and all Christians. Jesus is drawing the children, and He bids us, Suffer them to come; as if He would say, They will come if you do not hinder them.”2
Again, Ellen White strongly admonishes, “Those who love God should feel deeply interested in the children and youth. To them God can reveal His truth and salvation. Jesus calls the little ones that believe on Him the lambs of His flock. He has a special love for and interest in the children. . . . The most precious offering that the children can give to Jesus, is the freshness of their childhood.”3
With such an important mandate, how can we afford not to put children as priority in our churches? How can we not invest our money and time in providing excellent teachers, plenty of resources, and ample space for children?
Research on faith development
Research strongly supports the importance of developing faith in children at an early age, for that would be the age when their minds are most susceptible to the gospel. George Barna’s research discovered that the probability of someone accepting Jesus as his or her Savior was 32 percent for those between ages 5 and 12; four percent for those between ages 13 and 18; and six percent for young people 19 years of age or older. “In other words, if people do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chance of their doing so at all is slim.”4
Barna further stated: “It is during those [pre-teen] years that people develop their frames of reference for the remainder of their life.”5 He later stated, “The early impressions we make go a long way toward shaping a person’s worldview, relationships, dreams, expectations, and core reality.”6 The 4–14 Window initiative, pioneered by Luis Bush, has been proclaiming the importance of evangelizing children in the age range of 4 to 14. He believes that ministry to children becomes an optimal time to shape the church’s rising leadership.7
A case in point is the experience said to have been shared by Dwight L. Moody. The late evangelist was once asked how the night’s meeting had gone. “We had two and a half conversions,” he replied. “One person said, ‘I suppose you mean two adults and one child?’ ‘No,’ Mr. Moody replied. ‘I mean two children and one adult. . . . The adult has only half of his life left.’ ”8
What valuable insight to propel us to look seriously at evangelizing children! In fact, Barna’s survey of pastors, church staff, and lay leaders indicated that four out of five leaders said they participated in church children’s programs for a number of years before they turned 13.9 Yes, I believe what we do with children at church is the most important ministry thrust that we will ever undertake. Why? Because research indicates that the moral, spiritual, and relational foundations of people’s lives are determined, primarily, by the age of 13. After that point it can be very difficult to change those ideas.
It is strange to note that Christians seem to be the only ones who believe they should wait to influence children’s minds. Advertisers do not wait. They get to work right away to capture those minds and shape their decisions. Look at how McDonalds has impacted children around the world in choosing fast foods over healthy foods. Do not press the “pause” button any longer. We need to take active steps to put children as priority on our agenda!
Present church activities
On the whole, churches are interested in the spiritual development of children. We do see many churches operating Sabbath and Sunday Schools for children; providing Bible study guides for them; nominating teachers and leaders to instruct children each week; and running special programs during the year such as Vacation Bible School, children’s camps, health expos, Adventurers, Pathfinders, and others. Maybe once or twice a year one or two sermons regarding the importance of children are preached
Yet in many other churches I have visited and provided teacher training, children are not a high ministry priority. Children’s leaders must “beg” for more funds even to buy supplies for their programs. In some churches, there are no funds to purchase Bible lessons for the children, or there is no space or room for children to gather. In fact, the Barna group took a random national sample of senior pastors leading Protestant churches. When asked to identify their church’s top ministry priorities for the current year, only 24 percent mentioned ministry to children.10 Are we giving mixed messages?
We live in a different world now. Today’s technology shows that savvy children are bombarded from all sides with the most ungodly influences. Parents, with their very busy lives, are not aware of what they are up against. Many church leaders’ views of children’s ministry remain rather antiquated, with little understanding of how critical it is to be intentional in developing a child’s biblical worldview from his or her earliest years of life. George Barna’s research attempts to sound the alarm for all parents, pastors, leaders, and teachers: if we do not take this seriously, we are very likely to raise a generation of kids who do not know God.
Now that the alarm has sounded, there is a call for action. We find it calling us to invest more in children and invest more in children’s ministry. Now is the time the church leadership needs a strategy to help transform the lives of children. We need to invest our resources, be it curriculum, finances, or personnel, to educate and inspire children to accept Jesus and nurture them into a loving, serving, relationship with Him. We cannot afford to look through a narrow glass and leave children out in the periphery of church life. They need to be part of our faith community.
Gary Hopkins, a renowned Christian researcher on youth and at-risk behaviors, says that the entire faith community should be a vital agent in the spiritual growth of youth.11 It takes a church to build and nurture faith in young people. It takes the faith community to show children and young people that the church cares about them. If church members take time to know the children and teens personally, eat and play with them, pray for and with them when they have difficulty, encourage them when they are discouraged, forgive them when they err, and support and counsel them, they are less likely to be involved in at-risk behaviors and more likely to stay with the church and with God. Yes, we are called to partner with parents in helping our children grow closer to Jesus.
The church that reaches children has a better chance of reaching its adults. Often children bring their parents and grandparents to church programs. They may attend our Vacation Bible School or a Bible camp, and they love it so much that they will invite their friends and parents too. I strongly believe that having a solid children’s ministry can impact church growth. In fact, recent research supports this trend. Children’s Ministry magazine survey The May/June 2016 issue of Children’s Ministry magazine reported their recent research on the importance of children’s ministry on church growth. It surveyed 586 churches and families who attend those churches regarding the role children’s ministry plays in their church experience. Participants represent areas all over the United States, but the large majority comes from suburban areas (55 percent), followed by rural areas (24 percent) and urban areas (21 percent). Numerous denominations were represented in the study. The survey yielded several findings, but three are highlighted here.12
Finding 1: Children’s ministry becomes a major conduit for getting families involved in ministry. The survey shows that 76 percent of families stated that children’s ministry plays a key role in their church. Children’s ministry not only gets kids involved in church but also greatly influences the parents to get involved in ministry too. As many as 65 percent of parents say they are regularly involved in the ministry as volunteers who help monthly or weekly.
Finding 2: A healthy children’s ministry attracts families to your church. In today’s postmodern society, where many do not believe in God, reaching children is one of the most effective ways to make contact with unchurched families. Inviting children to your Vacation Bible School, sports day, or children’s camp opens doors for meeting their parents and family members.
Pamela Hudson, volunteer coordinator at Christ Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, says, “We have a lot of parents who say they chose our church for what it has to offer their kids. . . . God uses children’s ministry to minister to the whole family; a quality kids’ experience will help the church grow.” The research shows that 62 percent of the families said children’s ministry programs are “very important” when considering which church to attend.
I have witnessed this happening at the Messy Church program in the TransEuropean region of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This program is an outreach program to reach unchurched families. Families are invited to bring their children to the Messy Church where they make crafts, sing songs, listen to a Bible story, eat together, and socialize. This program has been operating in England, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Norway, and other countries in this region. The results have been heartwarming. In speaking with some families, they have indicated that they are now attending church, and some have been baptized.
Finding 3: Parents say children’s ministry makes a positive impact in their child’s life. One can see that parents recognize that children’s activities, programs, and events impact their children’s day-to-day lives. As many as 46 percent said they frequently participate in the children’s ministry activities and their children look forward to attending programs and ministry events. Another 42 percent said that children’s ministry has become a central component in their family discussions, planning, and activities.
Listen to these parents’ comments: “It gives my kids the tools to deal with real life from a Christian perspective,” “It educates my kids on the tenets and beliefs of the Christian faith,” and “It gives my kids exposure to positive Christian role models through the volunteers and staff.” They all underscore the benefit of children’s ministry in helping children to develop a personal, growing faith.
On my travels to many children’s programs around the world church, I have met children and teens whose lives have been changed when they met Jesus at these programs. Mateo of Brazil conducted Bible studies for his neighbors and brought them to Jesus. Five-year-old Graciela from Cuba loved her Bible stories so much that she introduced her kindergarten teacher to Jesus. Little John Cox joined the “Little Trumpets Preacher’s Club” and has preached at a children’s evangelistic meeting in the Philippines. Children’s ministry programs undoubtedly have impacted the lives of children in many ways.
Such research draws our attention to refocus on the importance of having children’s ministry in our churches. We cannot afford to relegate children and teens to the back rooms or to make them last on our priority list of funding and support. The time has come for pastors, elders, leaders, parents, and the entire church to get serious about prioritizing ministry to children in their churches. Provide them with resources, excellent teachers, good budgets, opportunities for involvement, and protection. Involve them in worship. Involve them in the life of the church. Involve them in leadership roles in the church. We need a paradigm shift. Let’s aim lower, think smaller!
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1. For example, 1 John 2:1, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not” (KJV).
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 517.
3 Ellen G. White, Reflecting Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2009), 373.
4 George Barna, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2003), 34.
5 George Barna, “Evangelism is Most Effective Among Kids,” accessed April 11, 2017, www.barna.com /research/evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids/.
7 Luis Bush, Raising Up a New Generation from the 4–14 Window to Transform the World, accessed March 29, 2017, www.m414.org/m414files/4 -14Window-en.pdf.
8 Quoted in James Merritt, In a World of . . . Friends, Foes & Fools: Fathers Can Teach Their Kids to Know the Difference (Camarillo, CA: Xulon Press, 2008), 194.
9 George Barna, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions, quoted in John W. Kennedy, “The 4-14 Window: New Push on Child Evangelism Targets the Crucial Early Years,” Christianity Today, July 1, 2004, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/july/37.53.html
11 Gary L. Hopkins and Joyce W. Hopp, It Takes a Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2002). 12 Children’s Ministry magazine(May/June 2016).