Children’s and Family Ministry: Creating An Ethos of Mutual Benefit, Rather Than Conflict

For those of you who are interested in the interface of campus-based children’s ministry with family ministry, I invite you to consider my thoughts below and even help me wrestle through the issues I raise by leaving comments, if you so desire. The ideas I share are partly generated by my own direct ministry experience and also by my consulting experience with churches throughout the USA and in other parts of the world.

In my view, a healthy children’s ministry should honor family ministry as the general center of gravity for its initiatives. Likewise, I think family ministry should honor children’s ministry as a vital and necessary expression of outreach and discipleship for the community in which the church campus is located and the communities in which church attenders reside. I am intrigued with the notion of slightly adjusting the initializing focus of children’s ministry from the needs of the campus to the needs of families in their neighborhood settings. I believe that this should not be perceived as a threat to campus-based ministries and initiatives, but as a necessary missional corrective from what often becomes a consumer model of discipleship to a more holistic model, which infuses the normal rythms of daily personal, family and community life with the presence of Jesus Christ.

Yet in many of the church settings I have encountered, I perceive a certain level of territorialism on a number of fronts. This is unfortunate. In part, the territorialism is a by-product of an ingrained church growth ethos. That is to say, the church is expected to increase in numbers in terms of weekend campus attendance, and since the children’s ministry has become a recognized integral part of accomplishing that ongoing goal, it logically must receive primary focus so that personnel, resources, facilities, and finances are available to accomplish the aim. Anything which redirects even part of the attention from this aim can be seen as a threat. I believe that the burgeoning focus on family ministry in general, and neighborhood focused ministry in particular, fall into this category. Again, this is an unfortunate tension.

There are additional potential causes for territorialism. For example, in churches with full-time children’s ministry staff, there is an inherent desire to ensure job security. In the business world, I am expected to produce on a daily basis. Failure to do so will result in discipline and possibly removal if the failure persists. In churches, staff members are expected to produce according to expectations. If weekend attendance falls, then tithing probably will too, putting jobs at risk. So naturally, there is a desire to attract and retain as many people as possible to weekend services. I realize this sounds crass. Yet it is a reality. Even as a part-time volunteer I have felt this pressure over the years. I can only imagine how it feels for a full-time leader.

Having said all of that, I strongly feel that the placement of children’s ministry at cross purposes with family ministry is an unnecessary and unhelpful false dichotomy which creates unhealthy tension, rather than constructive integrative ministry expression.

In my church, my aim is to find ways to refine the children’s ministry so that it becomes missional in focus concerning the needs of our immediate and outlying neighborhoods and so that the center of gravity concerning our ministry ethos rests on family and community, thereby more clearly informing our best practices for campus-based discipleship and activities. In essence, I desire to develop practices and resources for family discipleship which encourage, rather than frustrate those whom I am attempting to encourage. Instead of adding to their burden with more programs, I desire to infuse into their normal way of thinking and living an ethos of passionate living for Jesus in the context of family, community and yes, even the church campus.

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5 thoughts on “Children’s and Family Ministry: Creating An Ethos of Mutual Benefit, Rather Than Conflict

  1. So what would that look like?

    Are your children apart of the weekend services with their families? Or do you have children’s ministry during the weekend services?

    Our church is going through a rethinking of our priority on weekend service to a shift of focus to our neighborhood community groups. (all still in the thinking, planning, talking, praying, stage) We are looking at how this will impact what we do on the weekend and midweek on our campus versus in homes. I can see that we as a children’s ministry staff would want to support these groups and families with resources for their gatherings, especially at the beginning when this will be a new concept and experience for them. But if kids are being taught and encouraged to be missional along with their families they too would be living out their faith in their neighborhoods, schools and teams. They would want to gather with their friends who will support and pray for them as they live their faith out together. Would that all take place in the context of a family worship service on the weekend? Or in small groups with other kids from their school and neighborhood? We’re talking thru this now trying to get a picture of what it would look like and how to support it. I guess it could eventually affect our staffing resources and the need for them on the weekend. We are have large volunteer teams that serve on the weekend. If they truly begin to become missional in their communities will they have time to lead children too?

    If you’re further down the road than we are I’d love to hear more detail.

  2. Hi Kathy,

    Thank you for dropping by. Great thoughts and questions! It is wonderful to read the ideas of someone who is engaged with this important issues.

    I will try to answer your questions the best I can. First, my church does offer children’s church during the church worship hour. There are some kids whose parents opt to have them in service. Others do not. We do not try to force the issue, either way. I have encouraged the church to occasionally integrate children into active participation in the service. Not simply in terms of performing a play or song, as we also do occasionally, but actually ministering through certain elements of the service. For example, on one occasion two girls and their father led one of the worship songs. It was really quite touching.

    It sounds to me like your church is a bit further along in the process of rethinking. However mine is also becoming engaged. We are beginning with 100 days of prayer and conversation. We are asking people to meet in groups of three at least once weekly to pray intentionally and talk about what is on their hearts. No prescribed agenda. Just seek the Lord together. For my part, the conversations have been quite constructive and telling.

    I am honestly not sure how the thoughts I have shared in the blog will ultimately translate into the practice of ministry in my church. I do, however, have a suspicion that we would continue to offer children’s church and Sunday school, and attempt to do so at even a higher level, especially in our weekend service. We want to do it in a way that allows families to have conversation points on the drive home and throughout their week. Sort of a catalyst for discussion on the week’s message. We are looking at moving to faithweaver material to help us achieve that aim.

    As for neighborhood initiatives. I encourage you to read Randy Frazee’s, Making Room for Life and The Reconnecting Church. He is the guru of family and neighborhood connectedness. Very clear, practical and challenging. He is a bit of idealist from the perspective of someone like me, but then he also is living out what he teaches.

    Having said all that, I believe there is a valid and important place for worship and discipleship in the church. For me, I just think we need to find ways to remove obstacles which prevent people from gathering for worship.

    I think neighborhood groups are key to the process, not in the sense of the way they typically have been organized (affiliation, for example), but more by proximity, as Dr. Frazee advocates.

    My goal is to help the families in my church nurture their kids within the normal rhythms of everyday family life. This isn’t just about having devotions, going to a small group meeting, or coming to church to have an experience in worship and discipleship. It is about daily, moment-by-moment living for Jesus and being the presence of Christ in an intentional way. So my goal is to find a way to inspire, encourage, enthuse, equip and model this way of living.

    You asked about missional living. It is interesting the way you framed it. Yes, I suspect some choices will need to be made. I have thought about this for myself as well. Missional living means being the presence of Christ in the world. In our family. In our immediate neighborhood block or street. In our extended neighborhood. In our city. And so on. What I am about to say is strictly my opinion. I think some churches are organized in such a way as to ensure that any person who is considered a committed church-goer will have the minimum possible contact with the community in which they live, work and play. Committee meetings, practices, sub-committee meetings, studies, prayer groups, small groups, accountability groups, and so on. This doesn’t even include the many outside responsibilities of work, kids activities and the like. So yes, it is possible that a specific church may need to place everything on the table and evaluate the activities in light of the emerging priorities. This is why prayer, conversation and listening need to infuse the process, or it could get ugly.

    I have no idea how large of a church you are in. Mine is about 250 people and we have about 60 kids, birth through 6th grade. Regardless of size, I encourage your church again to pray, converse and listen while working through possible scenarios. If you ever need a sounding board, please don’t hesitate to ask!

  3. So let me give you a little history of who we are and how we got to where we are today.

    We’re a non-denominational church in a suburb of Syracuse NY, about 40 years old as a church. We are a church of 1,000 adults and 300 children (infant to 6th grade) average weekend attendance. We built and moved into a new building 18 months ago. Since moving into the building our growth has slowed. Initially there was alot of buzz and visitors – come just to see the building. But that quickly faded and we have experienced alot of introspection by the Board of Elders and Leadership team, which I am apart of, to seek God’s direction for our future.

    Our leadership team has read Connecting Church, Making Room for Life and also The Forgotten Ways. Those 3 books have sparked many conversations about incarnational missional living. And that’s where we are today. Taking some steps to move from a self centered small group mentality to a missional community team mindset. We have had a very attractive weekend service model and it has been successful in the past but we’d like to move toward the missional teams being the front line of ministry. We are praying and as you said this is key that God do a work and direct each of us individually before we can corporately see any changes. Otherwise the changes are just programs.

    I agree that getting families engaged in the process is more than just a shift in programming. Modeling, encouraging and equipping parents to be the major influence in their childs life is key. But probably won’t be found in a kit or from a catalog.

    And your opinion resonates with me, we have over programmed our Christians to disengage from their community. That is one of our major thoughts as we rethink this as a church. How can we encourage, equip and challenge believers to engage in their neighborhoods and communities? It’s a journey and we’re taking some steps, but we’re early on along the path.

    I’m sure I’ll be talking to you more. I’ve hear of some churches in the NW area, Portland, Tacoma areas that are missional in their approach. Know anything about them?

  4. One one of the churches I plan to contact to discuss this, is Pantego Bible Church in Texas, Randy Frazee’s former church where we started the Neighborhood Initiatives.

    Here in Portland, there may very well be some churches who are moving down this road, other than mine. However, I think most of the larger churches are following the traditional evangelical model of weekend services and small groups.

    Here are three progressive questions I have been asking. Starting seven years ago, it was why are we doing children’s ministry the way we are doing it? A few years ago it was why are we doing church the way we are doing it? Now it is, why are we doing life the way we are doing it? I think the three go hand-in-hand.

    Let’s face it, no amount of cosmetic changes in emphasis will prompt a shift into missional and incarnational living, without first inspiring heart change.

    For example, I am earnestly doing things to change my lifestyle in terms of my health. It was not the result of a new years resolution (it started long before), it was not the result of a church program, intervention, or any such thing. It was the realization that I needed to change; that I needed to make fundamental adjustments to how I live for the sake of my health.

    Randy Frazee suggests that one of the first steps in creating this holy discontent (in a positive way) is to tell stories of real people living incarnationally and missionally in their neighborhoods. It is sorta like the affect that “Biggest Loser” is having on many people in the usa. It isn’t about the end-game result of the winner getting a prize. It is about the fact that real people can lose weight in a healthy way, just as it is about real churches and church members can have a real impact on their communities in ways that go beyond the four walls of the church.

    In my apartment community, I work to get to know people. My missional community is the very place where I live, about 8 miles from my actual church campus. I also get to know business people, civic leaders, police officers, the gas station attendent, and so on. I do not travel a distance to go to a small group to do spiritual things. I am in the process of instigating that sort of thing right where I live. So that way, my missional community also becomes the place where I reside. This was inspired, of course, by Dr. Frazee’s stories in his books and in person when I met him for a week in a class.

    Step one for me, was following his recommendation to cut back my evening activities to make margin for actually connecting with people. Our church is not quite there yet. I am beginning, on a one-on-one basis, to suggest this sort of thing to families in our fellowship as a way to deal with the hectic pace of life and make time for each other and their community.

    More on this soon. Time for work now:) Keep asking questions! This is helpful for me.

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