I love it when my oldest son, all of four, sits with me during the “worship portion” of our church service. He doesn’t sit through it very well. He’ll color. He’ll wander off to stare out the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I’m with them through the day, and we’re all about short attention span theater. But you know what? He makes my worship. We’ll chat about what’s going on. I’ll color (even when he’s not with us, I write during church. I find that I pay attention better when I do). I’ll go with him to the window and we’ll talk about the beauty of God’s creation. My wife is not as fond of us disrupting everyone while we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m of two minds on this issue: I love the chaos of (the idea of) kids being in the gathering with us, but I also love the peace of kids being off in their own area so that I can learn in peace. This was my mindset as we wrestled with an article written by a friend who describes himself as an amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic. His article summarized a book by Ivy Beckwith called Postmodern Children’s Ministry.

This is one of the most important discussions that any new church can have. It’s important that the whole community is on the same page in order to make any fundamental paradigm shift work. You see, most of us grew up in the crafts, snacks, and games model of children’s ministry and while we were entertained, we didn’t find it terribly impactful. The question has to begin with what the purpose of children’s ministry is supposed to be.

* If our purpose is to provide glorified “babysitting” for children while the adults do the “real” work of worship, then we will simply seek to keep the children occupied, whatever it takes.
* If our purpose is to entertain children because we assume that they are unable to grasp or appreciate transcendent spiritual realities, then we will seek to incorporate the snazziest programs possible in order to ensure the kids have fun.
* If our purpose is to use children’s ministry as a marketing tool for prospective parents, then our focus will be on creating the most attractive program.
* However, if our purpose is the spiritual formation of children, then we will proceed in a completely different direction. The significant question will not be, “Do we have the best program?” or “Is our program fun and exciting?” but “What does it mean for a community of faith to take seriously its responsibility to spiritually nurture its children and families?”

It takes a village to raise a child. There is wisdom in this African proverb, wisdom that shouldn’t be rejected just because Hillary Clinton once co-opted it. People are in our kids lives. As parents, ours is the dominant voice, but rarely is it the sole voice. The reason that we gather together as a church is to engage in spiritual formation, in order to be a blessing to the world. If we believe that this is something best done in the context of community, then this should apply to our children also. There needs to be a different mentality, one that begins from the nursery on up.

“The child develops more trust than mistrust when the child has trustworthy, consistent caregivers and lives in a trustworthy, consistent environment… if these things are not present in the infant’s environment, then the ability to have trusting, loving relationships with others can be severely disabled”.

Often the work that happens in the church nursery is seen as little more than baby-sitting. No wonder it’s hard to find committed volunteers! The caregivers in our church nurseries need to know that they are doing much more than helping parents. They need to understand that by loving, holding, feeding, and changing these babies, they are putting bricks in the foundation of trust these children will need in order to know and love God.

Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. We ask kids, kids as young as five years old, to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in terms of their spiritual walk. Decisions which lead to uncertainty if not rejection by their college years. Do some kids understand this, sure; so some grow into their decision, certainly. But I also recognize that I have a three and a four year old, two boys who seek my approval. I can get them to “accept Jesus” and parrot a prayer. They’ll love the attention of everyone celebrating their choice (or want the attention if they see their friend receive it) and their baptism would be a significant event. But if their decision is not their own, then their conviction will turn to doubt or will fade with age.

“I believe the time has come for churches to reconsider the overt evangelizing of children. The approaches typically used have little to no bearing on what’s actually happening in a child’s heart and mind. For the most part these tactics are manipulative, playing on the child’s emotions and desire to be accepted and loved. A faith community should never be involved in manipulating the soul of a child”. Overall, an imbalanced focus on conversion rather than transformation has the capacity to short-circuit the entire process of spiritual formation. Evangelism is not simply about one decision; it is about inheriting and embodying a way of life.

“Family is everything to a child. Family is the first place a child forms and experiences relationships. It is a child’s first experience of community. Family is where a child learns language and motor skills and where she develops her first view and understanding of the world. Family is the first place a child experiences love, intimacy, forgiveness, and physical care. Conversely, family can also be the place where a child experiences her first emotional violence, neglect, indifference, and physical hurt”. For this reason, “family is the most important arena for a child’s spiritual development and soul care” … “Instead of building children’s ministries on more and more programming, the church needs to see families as the axis of their children’s ministries. The first priority of children’s ministry ought to be supporting parents in their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children”

And lastly, children need to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What we are trying to figure out is how to immerse kids in the constant community of the faith, trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the worship, and how to encourage the inter-generational mixing that best informs the truest aspects of community. The discipline of sitting through a meeting is good to learn. The lesson of respecting the people upfront and the people around them and listening is good to learn.

Churches often fail to recognize that “children need to be involved in processes that communicate belonging. An affective relationship with people in the faith community other than their parents and relatives is an important piece of their spiritual nurture. Children must feel they belong in their faith community as much as the a
dults do”

The child sees adults who struggle, who trust God, who make mistakes and are forgiven, who work for mercy and justice, who model kingdom values. This modeling is powerful teaching for children – more powerful for faith development than listening to a hundred Bible stories or watching a month’s worth of VeggieTales videos. Children will remember the people of the faith community and their lives more than any Bible facts they learned at a church program.

This model is especially powerful when it is manifested by someone who actively participates in children’s ministry. “What a shame that the adults in our churches can’t see the importance of connecting with the children in the community! The friendships children form with those who lead them in religious education are among the most influential relationships they will have in the community”

Here’s the thing, everyone sounds like we’re on the same page about trying to let kids be more of a part of the Sunday morning gathering. The fact that we were already on the same page should make me happy, yet I only get suspicious; like maybe we’ve overlooked something. What that means or what it may look like, we aren’t exactly sure. Though this all sounds good in theory, the problem may come in the future. Right now, we’re a few dozen families deep. As new parents with kids and teens join, they may be expecting kids programs. What we’re talking about sounds like a fairly tall order, or at least more work on the part of parents. Breaking up the church into homogenous groups is the easier route. Too often, we don’t want to put in the effort to having our kids learn to participate in worship (that’s why we bring them to Sunday School and what we expect the Sunday School teachers to teach them). We make them sit through six hours or school and programs, but we don’t make the same effort for a 30 to 45 minute sermon. Maybe we don’t value times of worship, but valuing worship won’t happen on its own and needs to be instilled in kids (as well as some adults).

The bottom line is that everyone is involved, everyone participates, even if they don’t understand every element of what is going on. Heck, adults don’t understand every element of what’s going on half the time.

Oddly enough, everyone ignored my ideas on how to calm kids down enough to sit through a gathering by having them engage in serious spiritual formation-cum-Christian pacifier through the sacramental wine: “Alright kids, extra Jesus juice today.”