In the fall of 2007, I started a graduate program at Bethel Seminary. While I eventually finished my master’s degree at another seminary, I am so thankful for my year and a half with the faculty at Bethel and the students of Cohort K!

I recently came across this document as I was cleaning out my digital files at Hayward Wesleyan Church. Not much has changed in what I think about children and family ministry! I might add some things, but by and large, this is still true for me:

What is the rationale for children and family ministries?

To be a community of people who recognize and value the spiritual nurturing and faith development of its children and youth as vital to the ongoing rebuilding of God’s kingdom through his people.

We want to introduce children to God and his son Jesus and nurture children to follow and live the ways of Jesus, ultimately to be a transforming presence in the world. This introduction and nurturing happen best through the creative and communal transmission of biblical stories and faith experiences, relationships with children and parents (families), adults, children and other families being in relationship with one another, and other children, serving and living out the ways of Jesus, and making wise choices as a follower of Jesus in this world.

Children are a heritage that we are called as parents and the community of faith to develop and nurture. We are to pass down to those who will outlive us what it means to live as the model humanity for the world. Ministry with children means they are the church of today as well as tomorrow. We believe that children can know God and his promises and his character right now. They bring an innocence and a purity of faith and imagination that open their young hearts toward God as well as touch the heart strings of adults and remind them that faith in God is simple and intuitive. We practice specific ministry with children and youth because we believe the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these and we have a responsibility to pass on the heritage and the traditions of the faith.

What are the biblical and theological foundations of children’s and family ministries?

The people of God continue to develop and shape the world through its children. Procreation, as simple as it sounds, is God’s encouragement to us as his people to continue to create life in his image1 and grow up those young lives to love God and love others2. In ancient times, children were seen as a sign of blessing from God. A woman who was barren or childless had the stigma of the disapproval of God on her life3. It is interesting that God often chose to intervene supernaturally in barren women to further his divine rescue of humanity.

Furthermore, pursuant to the Law of Moses4, the people of God—Israel—were commanded in the Shema5 to teach and pass along the law and the oral stories of what God had done to establish a special people and also relive6 the lengths God went to rescue his people from slavery and fashion them into the intended model humanity for the world. Children were to be included in yearly rituals and traditions that retold the stories. The sights and smells of the sacrifices and offerings as well as the various monuments throughout the land of Israel were designed in part to help children ask what these traditions mean7.

Jesus shook up the first century subjugation of children. Children had an extremely low status and not much value in the first century. In a teaching setting, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation for an illustration of what the kingdom is like8 as well as a warning of what would happen if anyone caused a child to stumble9. In effect, Jesus made children very important via these illustrations, but he was also reminding the failing people of God what they were missing in showing the world what God is like by forgetting to embrace the simplicity and innocence of being like a child.

Any purveyor of Scripture would obviously attribute children in general to be of extreme value and importance to the people of faith. Likewise, our Western contemporary culture highly values children largely due to this Judeo-Christian ethic. Current culture builds on the slab of the previous laid foundation of biblical and theological tradition.

What is the goal of children and family ministry?

Children and family ministry are a piece of the faith community’s mission to bring the kingdom heart and rescue plan of God in front of children through stories, relationships, playfulness, service, and worship. This unique ministry also helps initiate and develop a love for God, faith, belief in Jesus, a kingdom ethic and heart for following Jesus, and living a life in step with the Holy Spirit.

Stories awaken our imagination. They actively inform our mind and heart of an ideal world where character, integrity, faith, wisdom, sacrifice, pain, and joy are embraced and lived. Biblical stories provide a mode of communicating the message of God through an imaginative-storied world that we get to invite children and their families into in order to live in this contemporary world the way God wants us to live.

Relationships drive the way we connect with one another. Being in relationship is modeled by the Holy Trinity. The way to be truly human in God’s ideal world is to be in authentic relationships amidst a loving and sacrificial community. Connecting people in relationships should be an over-arching goal in children and family ministry. No one is an island unto themselves. All of us are shaped and molded by those we are in relationship with whether it is intentional or not10.

Playfulness touches the heart of children. When we allow children to play and have fun, we are touching a deep part of what it means for them to be human. God wants his people to enjoy life, be filled with joy, and marvel at the world he created for us. Allowing children to play draws unique connections and fosters many conversations about what God is doing in this world around them.

When a child gets to practice the values of the kingdom of God, learning is cemented. What a child does with his or her hands, body, and language, whether it is work or a huge sacrifice on their part a child is 90-percent more likely to retain that ethic11. More is caught than taught. What a child sees adults (or even teenagers) doing, more than what is said, that is what the child remembers. As a ministry we get to help children make the connection with what is taught through the Bible and faith stories of our community and what that looks like lived out in the world. When children serve, do things, be the hands and feet of Jesus to others, God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven12.

Children are naturally filled with wonder, awe and curiosity. Without instruction, children seek to discover how the world works through cause and effect, their five senses, and constant observation and experimentation. When we talk about God, out of all the ages, children know exactly what that means. He is the one who made everything, a child would say. Their natural wonder and awe cause them to worship magnificently. As a ministry we are called to come along side that unique, innate quality of children and continue to foster worship of God. Worship with children could look like age-specific experiences as well as corporate multi-generational worship.

What are the unique challenges of children and family ministries?

Children and family ministries is a gigantic undertaking. It is easy to grasp when you think of age divisions like nursery, preschool and elementary. However, when you think of the vast developmental differences and changes that are taking place between a 6-month old and the 2-year old toddler in the nursery area or in the elementary age range of Kindergarten through grade five, ministry with children gets a lot more complex. Furthermore, taking into account that along with each child comes a family system which includes two parents (or possibly four in the case of divorced families), grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends, ministry with children and their families has become entirely multifaceted.

Ministry with children and their families in a church community setting is typically staffed with volunteers each with their own family history and background. These volunteers have to be trained and brought together under a corporate vision and goal for raising up children to be current and future Jesus people.

Our fast changing culture seems like a constant challenge in children and family ministry. Television programming, new toys and interactive devices, technological innovations and advances, and the creation of more and more activities to keep children busy and engaged, shape children in significant way for better or worse.

Children seem to have more and more special needs. Whether those needs are psychological, mental, physical, behavioral, relational or more related to their personal or family history, each child deserves to be reached and known. The flexibility a church’s children’s ministry needs to have to reach these varying needs continue to test and push the boundaries of ministry management and resourcing.

The way things are in a specific community also provide positive or negative challenges to reaching children and their families for Jesus. Communities exhibit unique characteristics like: suburban, rural or urban; affluent, middle-class, poor, or many varying combinations of all three; differing ethnicity and cultural values; a sense of community or lack thereof; differing religious affiliations and involvements; and a variety of athletic and other activity options or slim to none. Understanding the unique nature of the particular community that surrounds one’s attempts to minister will allow tremendous informed impact for the kingdom of God.

What is the role of the children and family minister?

The children and family minister should be modeling his or her life as a believer in Jesus and enacting the values of the kingdom in his or her personal and familial life in the faith community and beyond.

The minister should also be one who embodies a vision and a passion for ministry with children and families. This person should be known as an advocate for the faith formation of children. The minister should be an empowering force for raising the continued awareness of the spiritual development of the children and their families in their midst. Leadership is required to sustain this continual empowering and advocating.

Equipping and training should be an integral part of the role of the children and family minister. Most families in today’s world do not naturally and intentionally develop spirituality in their children. It seems like the church has become the center for spiritual instruction, interaction and learning for children. While it is easy to consolidate instruction into one locale and under one ministry heading, faith formation in the hearts of children and their families has to happen in and out of the church. Children are around their families exponentially more than they are around the church. To just focus on making the children’s ministry at the church the best hour of a child’s week, however noble that effort might be, assumes that that is all children need in their spiritual journey and development. Radical reinvention and intervention needs to happen in training and equipping families to spiritually nurture and disciple their children. It is necessary for the minister to train and equip the church’s volunteers and staff in their efforts at discipling children while in their care, but not to the neglect of equipping and training families. The church and its children’s minister should be a well researched and vast resource for families and the church’s children’s ministry efforts.

What is the relationship between church and home in the spiritual formation of children?

Family is central to a child’s world. Hours and hours are spent together in this most natural and organic of relationships. The biggest shape-r and influence-r in children’s lives are their parents. The best of parents hope to provide structure, discipline, expectations, good moral values, food, a safe and warm environment, love and affection, support and encouragement, and the chance to propel them to eventually be independent, responsible people in the world. Children owe a lot to their family, although they don’t realize it until they have their own children.

The faith community that surrounds the child and the family is also of vital importance for shaping and influencing the spiritual formation of children. Hopefully the whole family is involved in this enterprise, however, there are some children without spiritually involved parents who will need to be adopted and nurtured by the faith community. This powerful combination of familial spiritual nurturing and communal, inter-family faith forming intentionality will significantly impact the spiritual care of children.

Families should expect the church’s involvement in their lives as well as the lives of their children. Conversely, the church should expect families and their children’s involvement in the lives of other children and families in a corporate, communal setting. This relationship should be synergistic in nature, each serving the other for the ultimate benefit of the spiritual formation of their children.

What is the role of church-based volunteers in children and family ministry?

Those volunteers with a heart for children and their faith formation should use their gifts in children’s ministry to develop relationships with students, teach the stories, values and ways of God, and model a mature and authentic faith in their lives. Volunteers create, through their committed service, an environment of love and integrity that shows children there are other adults beside their parents who love God and live their lives accordingly as well as display a unique kind of world where God uses his special people to go about transforming the world.

How can your strengths be best used in children and family ministry?

My particular strengths lie in the development of an overall curricular strategy to teach children the values and ethics of the kingdom of God. This strategy includes teaching the children and youth about the big picture story of God (Genesis to Revelation), what it concretely means to be a follower of Jesus, and how to live wisely in this world that God made.

Additionally, I have the ability to roll with the way things are in a community and work in and around those obstacles to created communal traditions and programmatic momentum. I can see pretty clearly what will work and will not work. What I have had to learn is that I cannot tell people what that is merely by what I say; I have to walk them through that process relationally.

I also love to teach, tell stories, and creatively awaken children, youth and adult’s imagination to what life was really like during Bible times and hopefully, that awakened imagination informs the choices and ways they live their lives.

What are your dreams for children and family ministry?

My dream for children and family ministry at Hayward Wesleyan Church is to see all the children in the Hayward community actively being ministered to through the faith community at-large. Whether that be in a church-based program setting (through our church and through all of the other churches in town), or through spiritually minded families that are connected with children through organic, natural connections (such as coaching, parents of children, friendships, etc), it is possible for our community to be radically influenced and transformed by the ways of Jesus. Our children and family ministry outlook can be a catalyst for this movement.

As an outspoken advocate for children in our community and my unique platform as the only children’s pastor in town, I get the unique privilege of being a significant shape-r of all things children and spiritual. Through our children’s ministry we have created a few community traditions that extend goodwill and spiritual instruction and awakening to children and their families. I would like to continue our practice by making more traditions available that touch the deep need of spiritual formation in the children and families of our community.

Conclusion

Children and family ministry exist to promote the passing on of the faith traditions and values to our children and youth. As long as there is a remnant who believes that God is actively redeeming this world through Jesus’ people living out his ways and values of the kingdom of heaven, there will always be a need for ministry to children and their families to carry this unbelievable message of hope to the world around us.


Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment was, he replied: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus echoes the ultimate purpose of God’s redeeming action is through love from Deuteronomy, particularly in the Shema, Deut. 6:4-9.

[3] Examples of barren women include: Abraham’s wife Sarah (Gen. 18:10-15; 21:1-7), Jacob, later Israel’s, wife Rachel (Gen. 29:31; 30:22-24), Samson’s mother (Judg. 13:1-25), Hannah—Samuel’s mother (1 Sam. 1:1-28), Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25).

[4] Also referred to as the Torah or the Mosaic Covenant.

[5] Deuteronomy 6:4-9

[6] This reliving comes in the form of yearly traditions designed to continually remind all of Israel (both young and old), particularly the Passover.

[7] After Joshua and the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River, they pulled 12 stones from the dry riverbed to remind each tribe and their subsequent generations of what God did for them that day. If children were to ask: “What do these stones mean?” the people could answer them and remember.  (Joshua 4:21-24)

[8] Cf. Matt. 18:1-4; 19:13-15

[9] Cf. Matt. 18:5-6

[10] Children are radically shaped by the “village” around them. Opinions to the contrary miss the highly relational and communal connections Jesus intended his people to build, maintain and foster with others. It seems to me that any family unit would agree that they could not do it on their own no matter how hard they tried.

[11] Scottie May, Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, and Linda Cannell, Children Matter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 259.

[12] The model prayer Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:9-13).

Photo credit:Ben White on Unsplash

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