I can’t tell you how many times over the past 10+ years I’ve had a discussion with other parents and church leaders about the struggle of discipling children through our current church programming models. The following is an excerpt from a Verge Network article by Ben Connelly called “How To Incorporate Kids into Your Missional Community” (full article here) that articulates this challenge well:
Focusing on the right things
The focus of a “kids ministry” shouldn’t actually be kids; it should be parents. Whether preschool or high school, the same principle applies: churches and leaders who put time, effort, money, resources, and intentionality into equipping parents instead of merely entertaining children accomplish two significant things:
- They help develop the whole-life spiritual maturity of the children
- They put parents back in the place the Bible places them.
Churches with Sunday-focused kids ministries spend 50-100 hours per year (of the 8,760 hours in any given year) with your kids. Minus vacations, sickness, and other reasons to miss, trained workers teach kids biblical concepts for an hour or two on Sundays. And even the most intentional churches might host a second age-specific gathering sometime during the week.
In those few hours, trained leaders must cram in entertainment, music, a snack, and often a Bible story that immediately transfers into a life lesson. “Discipleship and spiritual growth” become limited to a few hours a month, and generally limited to one “style”: in a group, with lots of energy, listening to a teacher teach a broad lesson.
What about the rest of the week?
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? 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.
The author makes the argument that we need to be spending more of our time training parents as the primary disciplers of children. I agree. Yet, look at the job description of just about any church children’s minister or youth minister and you will see just how little of their time is expected to be spent doing this kind of work. In fact, it is entirely possible (and I have seen this many times myself) where we end up with adolescents in this model that “know” more about the Bible than their parents do. Can we see how backwards this is if we really believe that the parents are the primary teachers and disciplers of their kids? I personally believe that when we talk about the issue of so many young people leaving the church after high school that it is related to this issue. Their spiritual training, their so-called discipleship is totally disconnected from their life at school and at home.
So what is the solution? I imagine that for many programmatic, attractional churches they might be tempted simply to hire more staff to teach more classes at the church building for parents. Personally, I don’t think that is the answer. The didactic teaching style has its place, but it is no substitute for discipleship in the everyday life. I don’t want to claim that missional communities are the answer, but I do believe that they are a step in a better direction because the focus is on reorienting our lives to be on mission in our home, work, school, family, neighborhood, life.