Why am I concerned about ministry to and with families? What motivates me on this investigation of its various expressions in the church context? Perhaps a brief outline of my thinking will help explain.
As some of my readers are aware, I began the journey in 2002, asking why are we doing children’s ministry the way we are doing it. In 2005 I began asking why are we doing church the way we are doing it. Now I am asking why are we doing life the way we are doing it. I believe the three questions are closely related.
Why are we doing children’s ministry the way we do it?
At no point, have I thought that children’s ministry on the church campus should be disbanded. That would be a disservice to the community. There are some who advocate such an approach. In my experience, they would prefer a move toward strictly holistic neighborhood-located, home group types of ministry. In their view, campus-based children’s ministry is ineffective and becoming irrelevent. Personally, while I can understand how they might arrive at that view, I disagree with their solution, especially given that many boys, girls and families would never have an opportunity to hear the gospel, were it not for children’s ministries on campus or in the neighborhoods. I have no quarrel with those who are able to transition into home-group models of ministry which integrate the whole of the family. As near as I can tell, however, few do it with excellence. Most such ministries are pretty much affiliation based and have minimal impact on local neighborhoods.
There are others who favor intergenerational on-campus expressions of ministry which would impact commonly practiced ways of doing children’s ministry. Northpoint is a good example of this with their KidsStuf program. While they maintain age-graded programming, they also provide environments for parents and children to interact in an intensive weekly experience. In fact children cannot attend unless parents are with them, as I understand it. By its nature, the program seems to have exclusivity, given that only children with parents willing to attend the KidsStuf program are allowed to attend. However, I could be wrong on that. If anyone knows differently please leave a comment. Also, I am not sure how they handle marginalized children, such as orphans, or children from unchurched homes whose parents will not attend. In my context, quite a few children would be precluded from attending.
While many churches, including my own, still have age-graded Sunday School classes, there seems to be a strong reaction against this expression of ministry on church campuses. By linking age-graded ministries to all that is perceived to be evil about the public education system, some churches are attempting to model themselves after more of a homeschool model, placing upon the parents the primary responsibility for nurturing their children in the faith and educating them in biblical truth with the primary aim of helping them to know God and follow Jesus Christ. This is great. However, I am perceiving in my studies just a little condescension toward those who are not postured to move into that role. Also, I think that we do a disservice to the many fine men and women in the public education system by characterizing their efforts as completely ineffectual.
Why are we doing church the way we are doing it?
Most campus-based churches handle their outreaches to the community on an attractional level. That is to say, they employ methods which they hope will draw in the unchurched and the non-believers. Willowcreek and Saddleback are notable forerunners of the seeker movement. Interestingly, Willow has moved several paradigms past the seeker movement based on a credible source which asked me not to provide identification on this blog. Yet, many churches still aspire to the former seeker model which based on the long track record of both of these churches. Others are not intentionally modelled after these two examples, but they still have elements of seeker friendliness which is woven into their church culture. They hold events, employ multisensory experiences, using marketing approaches, and so on. They do whatever they can, within reason, to draw people to the church worship experience on their campuses. This philosophy is a given in many of our children’s ministries, particularly in the USA. Job security is dependant on the ability of the children’s minister to attract and retain large amounts of children to their ministries. By extension, this implies they are also bringing in revenue generating parents who, one hopes, will tithe. This is not meant to sound cheeky. Just realistic. Obviously we want kids and parents alike to come to faith. But it doesn’t hurt if they give financially as well, yes?
But have we ever stopped to ask why?
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Please don’t misunderstand. I want people to come to church. I do. I love it when people walk through the doors of my church. I try to greet them whenever possible. But why has our emphasis on bringing people to our campuses or even home churches coopted actually getting out into the community on a daily basis in incarnational ways? We speak of incarnational ministry, but do we know what it implies? Do I? Do you? I think it means living out the life of Christ as he would in the community where all the sinners and those who don’t intentionally worship God hang out. Not that we wish to become of the world. But certainly we are located in it as witnesses to the world through our lives, actions and words.
What implications does this have for children’s and family ministry? I am concerned about some of the expressions of family ministry I am observing in that they appear to be insulating themselves all the more from the world. I agree with protecting our kids from worldliness, but I think we have a wonderful opportunity to speak into our culture regarding the family and their children. What might this look like for your church?
Why do we do life the way we do it?
Isolation. Loneliness. Lack of communication. Overly busy. Overworked. Irritable. Driven to success on the road to despair. And those are just the “happily” married church leaders of our congregations. Or, at least a significant percentage of them. What about the rest of us? What about the world who is watching? Why do we do life the way we do it? I am encouraged to learn that the concept of life margin is gaining traction slowly but surely. We can do far less activities with far more excellence and far more impact while regaining our sense of life proportion (margin and balance) and seeing God accomplish his purposes for which he will get all the glory, as it should be. We can. Why? Because in doing so, we entrust the outcome to God, rather than attempting to micromanage his work through our overwork.
Weaving the questions together
The questions of why we do children’s ministry, church, and life the way we do it are inextricably linked, in my view. They speak to a worldview in which many of us are located, so much so that we struggle to identify its parameters since it is so much a part of the way we think and act. My encouragement is not to go make drastic decisions based on this or any of my other writings on the subject. Rather, I encourage you to think and pray. Consider what the Spirit of God might be speaking to your heart as you ask his guidance for your ministry leadership in the weeks ahead. I personally am on a journey of discovery. I don’t know how it will look a year from now, or even in the years beyond. It is uncomfortable and risky. It is heart breaking and exhilarating. It forces me to challenge assumptions I have long held dear. Many of them have long since given way to new ways of thinking. Others have maintained their ground, but have been refined. Hopefully, as I struggle to learn and grow, I will gain some humility and ministry effectiveness in the process.