By Katie Nix
Remember, back in the day, when we use to have a ton of kids at church? I wish we could be more like the big church down the street that has a million teenagers in youth group. Sunday used to be church day, now it seems like all the families are at some sports game.
I’m guessing, if you are blessed to be part of 75 percent of United Methodist churches in the state who are small to mid-size churches, that you’ve heard these phrases before and perhaps even thought them yourself. It’s fair to say that culture has dealt our traditional children’s ministries a blow in the past 20 years, frustrating churches and disheartening volunteers who have poured their life into reaching the youngest disciples in the church.
But perhaps, instead of preparing funeral liturgies for our once thriving children’s ministry, this is an opportunity to see with new eyes how God’s Spirit is changing and transforming our churches. Yes, it may be the end to the way we’ve always done it, but that means it can also be the beginning to a
new chapter of God’s story for
Mark 10:14-16, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” I love this scripture because it is a promise that God will never give up on these young disciples. They are the heart of God’s new community. And maybe, just maybe, the changes in children and youth ministry are God’s way of helping to change the church. What if God was using this opportunity to reshape the way we see our relationships inside the church and our work within our communities?
If you look at the history of children’s and youth ministry programs, the ideas that we cherish today were all born out of a missional sense of reaching the community. Sunday School began in the industrial age as a chance for the church to help teach the working poor how to read on their only day not in the factory. The concept of “youth group” came out the 1970’s when the church realized that teenagers were absent from their pews. All of these programs were born out of an awareness of the needs of the community and a desire to reach children and youth where they were.
That’s exactly the call that researchers and think tanks for children’s and youth ministry today are calling for. Most books on this subject boil down to a few suggestions for churches.
Step 1: Take a deep breath and take advice from Queen Elsa to just “let it go.” Stop pouring resources into programs that are
dwindling in size and enthusiasm.
Step 2: Pray. Pray with your eyes open, understand your unique calling as a church and what you have to offer.
Step 3: Use your strengths.
Sounds simple enough, but we all know how well change is received in the church (I can hear you laughing right now). But the good news is that research is actually falling on the side of the small churches. You read that right. The findings show that youth who come from the smaller churches, not the big church down the street with the fancy youth program that gives away free bicycles, are the ones who are sticking with their faith through college and into young adulthood.
What makes their faith stick? Church communities who integrate children and youth into the life and worship of the whole church. While the children and youth programs serve a good purpose, it’s the opportunities that our young disciples have to participate in worship, have intergenerational relationships, and experience the family of God that helps them develop a faith that is strong
That’s why churches of any size can do great ministry with the next generation. You may only have a handful of dedicated kids. But every time you give them roles in worship (that are more than just coming up for the children’s message), every time you help organize intergenerational serving events, every time you let their voice be heard, it plants a seed. And we know all God needs is faith as small as a mustard seed, then God can do the rest of the hard work of growing mighty trees that will change the face of the church.
Author’s note: If you are looking to sink your teeth into this more, grab yourself a copy of Sticky Faith by Kara Powell and Chap Clark. It not only goes deeper into the research of the changes happening in next generation ministry, it is also full of ideas on how to create vibrant ministries without big numbers or a big budget.
Pastor Katie Nix is the lead pastor of Trinity UMC. In her previous life she was the Associate Pastor of Family Ministries and is currently finishing her doctorate in ministry in the area of family mission trips. Her three favorite loves are Jesus, her kids, and the St. Louis Cardinals (though not always in that order).