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 only. It 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.
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.