08 March 2012

Making the transition from children's ministry to church

A few weeks ago I went to a conference for people involved in children's ministry.  One of the sessions was an excellent talk on the subject of helping children/teenagers to transition from their children's ministry activities to sitting (happy and willingly) in church, given by David Goodwin from Kidsreach.

Here are a couple of the more background/philosophical issues he raised to get the ball rolling...

*  Our current understanding of the development of the brain suggests that teenagers' brains are not fully developed and will not be so until into their early 20s.  So we ought not to expect our teenagers to be fully able to make big life decisions (like the decision to live a life fully accountable to God) during their teenage years.  (It's a generalisation.  Some will.)

*  It helps to have a framework of faith development in mind.  David's framework (and I am sure there are others) is:
EXPERIENCE FAITH - living a vicarious faith of one's parents (0 to about 10 or 11 years old)
AFFILIATIVE FAITH - taking on the faith of those with whom they affiliate (the youth group, the football club, the school friends, the gang on the street...)
SEARCHING FAITH - leaving the affiliate group (either completely - by choice or because they have outgrown it - or at least mentally) and seeking out personal answers to the big questions
OWNED FAITH - taking on a faith of one's own

At this point David spent quite a long time talking about youth groups, suggesting that it is helpful to have a youth group for teenagers - a better group to affiliate with than maybe some of the other groups on offer. Because this is a better (safer?) place to do one's searching.  Which at one level I agree with, and which personally filled me with a measure of despair as we don't have a youth group at our church (with no real prospect of one starting any time soon) and I don't know of any viable youth group within coo-ee.  And I have heard time and again in wonderfully encouraging conversations, letters and blog posts that what so often pulled teenagers through those years was a good youth group.  A good youth group, I think, is a good thing.

That said, I was delighted to read Kathy Keller's post a few days ago, especially her words about youth groups - which did remind me once again (and I need reminding on this front every now and then) that the formula for raising our kids to be Christian adults is not Gospel + Youth Group or for that matter, Gospel + _______________(fill in the gap.)  Which is echoed in Cathy's wonderful post on raising kids to be Christian adults and also this quote from Disciplines of a Godly Family by Barbara Hughes. 

And sometimes I think people have to leave the church to do their searching.  I did.  It wasn't a dramatic exit.  Just a slow drift away.  And while I drifted off I didn't become a danger to myself or to anyone else.  It doesn't have to be horrible and damaging.  And in time (thankfully not too much time) God drew me back. 

Conversion is God's work.

David went on to suggest that some do seem to make the transition from their children's ministry activities to church and come out the other side as Christian adults.  At this point he provided a list of strategies and things that in his view seem to make a difference, most of which have to do with forming good relationships across the generations.  Here's his list...

*  Have the children and adults form REAL relationships with one another.
*  Provide "extra-curricular" community building activities like picnics, camps and parties to allow times for these relationships to form and grow.  (But it is incumbent upon the adults to not disappear off into their huddles and ignore the children during these times.)
*  Don't isolate the children from the adults and the adults from the children.  (So, for example, don't have the children arriving at church with their parents and being ushered straight into their separate activities.  Spend some time in church together before the children go off to their activities.)
*  And have whole services (maybe shorter ones) where the whole church is in together.
Teach the adults about the importance of being role models and mentors.  Teach the adults the importance of forming good relationships with the children.  This ought not to be the domain of those involved in children's ministry onlyIt is everyone's responsibility.  The older generations have the responsibility to be proactive in leading the next generations to praise God.
*  Get lots of different adults into the children's activities to give their testimonies - to talk about their faith and how they fill their days and where God fits into all of that.
*  Never say to a child who is misbehaving during their children's activities, "If you keep doing that you will have to go into church and sit with your parents."  Oops...

One other thing David mentioned, slightly provocative but I think it has legs, is that children's ministry is perhaps too good these days.  We are good at what we do and we have great resources at our disposal.  And when the children move from children's ministry to church they can enter a period of culture shock.  Where are the games?  The prizes?  The puppets? 

There is a fine line.  We want the children to go rushing up to their parents at the end of their time together saying, "That was fantastic.  We want to come back next week."  And David Goodwin was talking to a nearly full auditorium of Sunday School and Scripture teachers who had given up a Saturday to attend a conference so that they could hone these very skills.  If we teach children we want to be doing it well. 

But David said at one point that our primary responsibility should be to prepare our children for a lifetime of service to God and His church.  That broadens out the scope of how we view our 30 or 40 minutes of Sunday School or Scripture time.  Ultimately it is God's work but this is a wonderful big picture view of what we are setting out to do with our children's and teens' ministries. 

Lots of good stuff to think about.

And I have to stop saying, "If you keep doing that you will have to go into church and sit with your parents."

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,
but let us encourage one another—
and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 
Hebrews 10:25

If you have any other thoughts on what might help in the transition from children's ministry to church - ideas, theories, personal stories of success or failure - David Goodwin is writing a Masters' thesis on this very topic at the moment and would love to hear from you.  You can email him here.  He would love to hear from you.


Jean said...

Really, really helpful stuff. Thanks, Meredith.

Karen said...

Meredith, this is a fantastic post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this.

Meredith said...

Thanks Jean and Karen. This post has certainly been a few weeks coming. I've been thinking a lot about the content of that talk and my thoughts have certainly been moved along by some of the material that has been buzzing around blogosphere this last week or so.

It was a bit of a hard post to write in some ways. Found myself getting a bit tangled up given that conversion is indeed God's work and in His mercy and grace. But in His grace and mercy He does use us. And this emphasis on relationship seems to make so much sense.

Anyway, thanks for your encouragement. Mx

Ali said...

Hi Meredith,

This is very interesting. For something different, I actually grew up in a church that didn't hold to children leaving church to go to Sunday School, or kid's ministry, so all the children stayed in church - every last one of them. And the truth is, I don't think that did any of us any harm, and did no small amount of good. (And, to be frank, I'm a little bit disturbed these days when I go to churches and see that teenagers in high school are still leaving church, because I don't know why you would do that, and I think it would require a lot of whoever was teaching the teenagers, other than the trained and equipped minister, to be up to a standard of teaching them appropriately, if you know what I mean, plus that is just more resources of people being taken out of the church service to run another thing.) But, we did have a youth group, and it WAS fantastic, and it's probably not what people wish to hear, but for me it was really quite formative - yet that is as much because of those incredible young(ish) adults who were leading it and investing in us, as because of the other teenagers in it (so it was a mix of both ideas, I think). We also had "koinonia" every fortnight, which was smaller groups that met in homes on a Sunday after church for lunch, then bible study (usually all the kids went off during this and played around somewhere) then afternoon tea - so that was a good occasion where we did all mix up together (they didn't run evening bible studies during the week - we were quite counter-cultural when I think about it). So, that is just another idea. I actually think Sunday School per se is a reasonably recent invention when you look at the history of people going to church.

Meredith said...

Fantastic contribution Ali. Will get back with a reply later today or tomorrow. Really helpful. Just wanted to get your comment up so that didn't think I had moderated you out!

Meredith said...

Thanks Ali for your really helpful comments. I agree with you about teenagers being in church. Which is why, I think, if we are taking the kids out in the first place, that the relationship building across the generations has to be well established so that they are not feeling completely isolated when they go back into church as teenagers, at a time in their lives when even making eye contact with others is seemingly difficult.

There are of course stories of great success (and great failure too) of all the configurations - kids in church, out of church, attending church more than once on a Sunday, youth group, no youth group - which really tells us once again what we already know, that conversion is God's work.

I am in fact pro-youth group, if a good youth group exists. As I said, I have heard countless wonderful stories of people who didn't seem to need to leave the church at the searching stage but hung in there all their lives and it seems that youth group was a key feature.

But it was personally encouraging to read that there can be another way without youth group, inferred in Kathy Keller's post, given that we find ourselves in a situation where sourcing or creating a youth group could be tricky/near on impossible. And it pushed the issue further to defuse the Gospel + Youth Group equation which does seem to be quite strong.

Thanks for throwing your story into the mix. It was helpful to read your story. More to think about. Which is great.

Ali said...

Thanks Meredith. I did wonder if I had been moderated ;) (I was thinking outloud, and sometimes you realise your "tone" is not as intended in such blog comments). But yes, I definitely agree, I am sure children have been converted under any and every combination of upbringing (and I am sure many, even kids from outside the church, have benefited from their Sunday School days) and we don't need to put any faith in the circumstances.

At my current church the kids stay in for the singing and preliminaries, there is even usually a kids talk in this part of the service, then they all go off to Sunday School, so I guess that is doing some of what is suggested here.

Anyway, I shall perhaps keep quiet till/if I have kids of my own (I'm wary of saying anything about raising kids, in case I have to eat all my words one day ;) ).

Deb L said...

Meredith, could you comment a little more about why it was said that you should never say, "If you keep mucking around, I'll send you back into your parents..."? I'd love to know the reasoning. Is it because we shouldn't give the impression that church is a place of punishment? I don't think it's inappropriate to say that to children. I think it sets a standard for behaviour in Sunday School that says, "This is important and we're not just mucking around in here." I don't see what other discipline option would be open to a Sunday School teacher and there are some kids that love to push buttons (my own included). I guess the other option would be to say, "If you keep mucking around, I'm going to need to ask Mum or Dad to come out here with us so that I can concentrate better on the rest of the class." Boy! That would probably work REALLY well. You'd only have to do that once to have a kid sit up and fly straight!

Meredith said...

Ali, feel free to weigh in on any such subjects on my blog. You may not have had kids but you're observant, intelligent and perceptive and you have been around plenty, and been one yourself. You're opinion matters and is valid.

Meredith said...

Hi Deb,

I think you nailed it as you wrote your own comment. It is all about words. I agree 100% that kids need to know that what we do in Sunday School is important. And yes, we have very little leverage when they muck around.

It is perfectly valid to send them back to mum and dad or, as you say, get mum and dad in (that's genius...you would indeed only need to do that once!) But saying, "If you keep doing that I will have to send you back to sit with mum and dad" is a better message than "If you keep doing that you will HAVE TO SIT IN CHURCH!!!!"

If our aim is to keep church as the ultimate aim, then best we don't turn the church into the naughty corner while they are little. It's a minor point in lots of ways, and involves just the change of a couple of words, but it might make a difference.