(Editor’s Note: This is a two part article. Here is Part One.)
Kids Ministry: Equipping Parents
The focus of a kids ministry shouldn’t actually be kids. The focus of a kids ministry should be parents. Whether kids are in preschool or high school, the same principle applies. Churches and leaders who put time, effort, money, resources, and intentionality into equipping parents instead of putting on a show for children accomplish two significant things: they work toward developing the whole-life spiritual maturity of the children, and they put parents back in the place the Bible places them. Let me explain both concepts.
Developing a Child’s Whole Life
Generally, churches with Sunday-focused kids ministries spend 50-100 hours per year (of the 8,760 hours in the year) with kids. Minus vacations, sickness, and other reasons to miss, trained workers teach kids biblical concepts for an hour or two on Sundays, and very intentional churches might host a second age-specific gathering sometime during the week. In those few hours, trained leaders must cram in entertainment (crafts or games depending on kids’ ages), sometimes music, sometimes a snack, and according to nearly every curriculum we surveyed over 18 months, a Bible story that immediately transfers into a life lesson. “Discipleship and growth” become limited to a few hours a month, and generally become limited to one “style”: in a group, with lots of energy, listening to a teacher teach a broad lesson.
But what happens in the rest of a child’s week when the teacher isn’t there? Who hears about getting made fun of on the playground? Who’s there to encourage the student in the midst of a specific high school struggle? At minimum, if a child is in school until 4pm and goes to bed at 8pm, parents interact with their kids 1460 hours a year! Parents see the daily struggles. Parents have conversations in the car. Parents are asked the hard questions. Parents deal with the specifics, the scenarios, the struggles, the sins. Parents meet their child – every single day – where the real-life rubber hits the road.
Those are the moments where faith is tested and proven. Those are the instances where stories and concepts break down. Those are the times where reality is faced and decisions are made. Why wouldn’t we pour all effort into the people who are there in those moments? That’s the idea of developing a child’s whole-life – kid ministry leaders and missional community facilitators don’t see a kid’s whole-life, so they can’t develop a kid’s whole-life.
Putting Parents in Their Place
The fact that parents are with their kids more than church leaders isn’t a scary concept, and the fact that church leaders can’t develop a child’s whole-life isn’t a bad reality: it’s biblical! Throughout the Bible, God says that parents are the primary disciplers of their children. This concept is most clearly seen in Deuteronomy 6, as God gives one of the most well-known and beloved commands in the entire Hebrew scriptures:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:4-7
It’s generally understood that the first half of this command is the primary belief in Hebrew theology. It’s a big one: “God is one, and you must love him with your entire being.” The rest of the Bible shows how to do that, and indeed, the rest of Deuteronomy contains many of the 613 commandments that make up the Old Testament Law. But notice the second half of this passage: God doesn’t tell his people to farm spiritual instruction out to “experts.”
And he doesn’t command them to limit it to a few hours, in a controlled setting, like parents often do today. “YOU shall teach them diligently to your children…” Who should? “YOU! Any reader of this passage. Every parent is instructed to teach God’s Law to your children!” And the venue for this spiritual instruction is in the midst of everyday life and activity: when you sit, when you travel, when you go to bed, when you get up. In the midst of normal activity, a child’s whole-life spiritual development occurs.
Parents, this principle isn’t isolated in the OT; it’s echoed throughout the Bible: you are the primary disciple-maker of your children. Giving that responsibility to “the church” is to abdicate your biblical role. That’s a dangerous place to be.
Church leaders, when you focus on entertaining children instead of training their parents, you potentially prevent parents from fulfilling their biblical command, and you unintentionally limit children’s spiritual development. That’s a dangerous place to be.
Churches, Equip Parents to Train Their Children
The best kids ministry is the one that equips parents to disciple their children well. Train parents in the gospel and the Bible, resource them to overcome their fears and inadequacies, equip them to teach their kids in both objective and situational circumstances, then come alongside them as a family and support them in their biblical role. That’s a biblical, healthy kids ministry.
How’s this look practically? My church has tried different ideas for the past two years, but here’s some of what’s happening now, and what’s in development:
Our youngest kids follow the weekly rhythm of “parents – church gathering – missional communities” for objective biblical training: every week our kid ministry leader sends a Bible story, memory verse, and questions to parents. Parents read and discuss the stories, verses, and questions with their kids before Sunday, so that parents are the first to introduce biblical stories and concepts to their children. Then at church gathering, kids have the passages reiterated by kid ministry leaders, allowing them to see that other adults believe the same thing as their parents. In this way, the church comes alongside parents to support the material parents have taught their kids. Finally, the missional community comes alongside parents in reinforcing the same scriptures – with new questions and activities – as young kids have their own discussion in community meetings. Every concept is taught three times, and the church first resources parents to be the primary disciplers of these foundational truths, then comes alongside the parents to reinforce and support the teaching.
Older kids experience whole-life spiritual development alongside the rest of the church: with kid-specific mentions in sermons and encouragement from small groups, kids first grade and older walk through scripture and regularly hear the gospel and biblical truth address real-life issues, everyday problems, sin struggles, and prayer concerns, alongside the rest of the church family. Many families continue to use the parent and small group resources mentioned above in various settings and discussions as their kids grow through their elementary years.
Quarterlies: In our church’s decentralized model of “communities on mission,” we see great benefit in regularly bringing families and kids together based on age. Rather than a programmed, weekly event which is the focus of that age’s ministry, these “quarterlies” are more focused on our “family identity” – we’re simply connecting as a unified church, and meeting other families by age. For kids, these events are starting points for relationships and intentionality; for parents, there’s training, discussion, or the beginning of their own relationships and intentionality. The relationships then overflow into everyday life as families live as “THE family” of God together.
Classes and discipleship plans: In addition to the weekly rhythm above, we are beginning to pour resources into equipping parents well, in intentional areas of need. However this looks in your setting, on top of objective Bible knowledge, parents need to be trained in everyday things like…
Living their biblical role as a parent in today’s culture
Speaking the gospel on their kids’ level
Gospel-centered discipline, which plays out differently by age
Answering needs and situations with the gospel
How and when to talk to their kids about tough issues well (like faith, sex, puberty, school, college, driving, and many more)
Dealing with tough parenting decisions well (sin, schedule, schooling, budget, saving for college, etc.)
We’re compiling resources to intentionally train parents on these issues and more, or to eventually develop resources in areas where resources are lacking. We’re also developing a resource to help parents think intentionally through their child’s spiritual development. This “discipleship plan” simply asks parents to take time at least once a year, to consider different areas of their child’s life, faith, patterns, identities – and ask how they hope to see their child grow the following year. Our leaders and the parents’ missional community then comes alongside to help in the child’s discipleship.
God’s Instruction Regarding Kids
My church hasn’t developed and carried out these principles of kids ministry simply because they’re “different” or “cool” – and we certainly don’t do kids ministry like we do because it’s easy! Instead, every idea we have regarding kids in the family of God is found deeply rooted in the picture of God’s family seen in the Bible. All we do is carry out the same principles, as closely as possible, in today’s context.
A Summary of Children in the Family of God
Here are four principles we see in the Bible, with a few verses (among others) in which the principle is seen clearly. All verses ESV; italics added throughout:
1. Parents are the primary disciplers of their children
Deuteronomy 6:4-7: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Proverbs 1:8-9: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.”
Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (echoed in Colossians 3:21)
2. Children are specifically addressed, and are found in the gatherings of God’s people, throughout the Bible
Deuteronomy 31:12-13: “Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”
Nehemiah 8:1-2: “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month…”
Psalm 78:4, speaking of the Law: “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done…”
1 John 2:13: “I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father.”
3. Jesus valued children, even – or especially! – when they were distracting/unwanted
Mark 10:13-16: “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them…”
Matthew 18:2-7, 10: “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!’ …See that you do not despise one of these little ones.”
John 6:8-9, as Jesus prepared to feed the 5000: “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
4. There are things about God’s kingdom that only children can teach us
Matthew 11:16-17, 25: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn’…At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children…”
Matthew 18:2-4: “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…”
Matthew 21:16: “…and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”
Mark 10:15: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
What do these passage lead to?
When we add to these principles the “family” imagery that runs throughout the Bible – especially the New Testament (it’s in nearly every book), and when we add the fact that, for the first 1900+ years of church, there was no separate “kids ministry,” we get the principles our church follows, as we try to raise kids in the family of God:
1. We believe that children, as young as is logical, should be included in the normative activity of the church family
2. We believe that as often as possible, families should worship together
3. We believe in setting high expectations for our children
4. We believe in equipping parents and the church to minister well to children
Thanks for learning with us how, by following the examples of scripture and history, all believers can try to raise kids in the family of God.
Ben Connelly lives in Fort Worth, TX, with his wife and daughter (with another on the way this fall). He started The City Church in 2010 and lives on mission by teaching public speaking at TCU. Ben sits on the board of a few city-focused organizations, trains occasionally across the country, and writes at benconnelly.net. Twitter: @connellyben