Paradigm Shifts in Children's Ministry

It has been debated for decades that children are not changing, but there is no doubt that their culture is rapidly changing. Today's church leader must recognize these changes and demonstrate a willingness to evaluate and incorporate an appropriate response.

In the past, a family rode to church together. They could discuss what they were about to experience and debrief on the way home. Now, because of the family's involvement at church or elsewhere, the norm is for more than one car to go to church and for family members to have a variety of attendance patterns.

Twenty years ago, many churches purchased curriculums from a single source and used it in all children's forums and in all age levels. Today, churches use curriculums on an as-needed basis and a single morning's menu can include a smorgasbord of differing curriculum pieces.

In the past, children's facilities were sequestered and not much thought was given to getting families from the parking lot to the classroom. The parents were expected to find the best ways to accommodate their children. Today, enormous effort is expended to ensure that a family not only knows where the classroom for kids is located, but how they can get there in five minutes or less.

Churches that have the mechanisms in place to evaluate and the personnel to coordinate the systematic strategies needed for change will be the most inviting and successful for future growth.

In his book Champions of Change, David Nadler illustrates that the true challenge of change is to shape perceptions, expectations, and performance. These functions are people-related and pivotal to changing paradigms.

In the book Managing Transitions, William Bridges identifies the significance of understanding the psychological aspects of dealing with change. He says that leaders should not be surprised by negative reaction to change and that they should be patient while guiding people through the process.

As we explore the landscape of change in children's ministry, we must be prepared to bring our people along and vigorously examine which systems will help us maximize our ministry.

A recent survey indicated they believe the person who will have the greatest impact on their future is Microsoft leader Bill Gates. According to Wired magazine editors, the future of the information superhighway will divert to what they call push media. Push media represents the flood of information that will come through a variety of sources and find us. Presently, consumers seek information through reading, television, and the internet. It is our job to explore and pull information. Today's kids are very comfortable with the electronics that will carry this information right to their eyes and ears! Kids are torn in these high-tech times as they gain information but continue to lose intimacy with adults.

Just a few weeks ago, I was leading prayer time with some young children. After a few requests for pets with ailments, sick relatives, and common children's ow-ees, a boy broke the ice about a difficult family situation. For the next five minutes, several children shared similar sincere requests for family healing. Just below the emotional surface of these worshippers were some deep wounds caused by fractured family relationships.

Recent news items in southern California included a gang shooting in the dugout of a tee ball game for 5-6-year-olds, the arrest of an 11-year-old who was participating in a war protest, and the murder of a 7-year-old boy (who was killed by his own mother!) Relational stability for kids is disintegrating. This leads to a variety of social and physical problems. In our consulting ministry, we have conducted focus groups with kids and found them to be honest, inquisitive, visionary and extremely bright. These positive qualities have been balanced with a level of insecurity and a real concern for their future we've not heard previously.

The Golden Marble awards are given to the best commercials created for kids. The recent award winners I viewed indicated that kids like surprises, they love choices, they like to laugh, and they're comfortable making comparisons between products being offered. How do the kids evaluate what is happening in the church? Are they connecting with our program? How do we strategize our ministry to connect to this changing world of kids? Let me share a few key ideas that will serve you and your children's ministry well.

Relational connections.

The "Can you hear me now?" ad campaign for wireless phone service is reaching Wendy's "Where's the beef?" proportions as an easily remembered commercial. A deeper question for me that our children might be asking is whether or not we hear them now.

The starting point for ministry must have a relational context. Our kids need and want to know God and they want to have friends. Our programs should provide more opportunities for building relationships with other kids and adults as role models.

Program enhancements.

I was teaching a seminar on ministry to preadolescents and was building a case for providing an atmosphere to help those students feel comfortable. I was interrupted by a lady who said I sounded like I was more interested in entertaining them than educating them. We must get our students' attention and then teach them creatively.

Creative program enhancements can include an upgraded facility or a change in your lesson plan to surprise your students. Many churches are integrating live video of the kids within the morning programming. Some churches have established various teams to create awesome environments, develop special ministry teaching teams, plan special events, etc.

Parent co-ops.

To affect change, we need to embrace parents to assist us in our programs. We obviously need their help in the classroom, but I believe we also need their insights to guide us through the cultural changes of family experience and how this affects church programs. Consider forming a team of workers composed of children and parents to discuss future programming ideas.

I want to conclude this article with some responses to present paradigm shifts affecting the church and its children's programs.

Customer service pressure.

As consumers become more sophisticated, they bring greater expectations to church. They are thinking about how they are being greeted and basically handled during their visit. The children's ministry is often the one with which new members become involved first. We must be conscious of both children's needs and the needs of their parents at this point of entry. As the little boy in the McDonald's commercial tells Kobe Bryant in their pick-up basketball game, "Don't blow it!"

Recruit and train the best people in your church for children's ministry. Also recruit some PR specialists to greet and welcome parents who are new to your church, and connect with existing members. Listening and responding to your people's needs is vital.

Attendance patterns.

Because of people's schedules, types of services, or crowded parking lots between services, attendance patterns are changing. Many people attend one service. Some children are only in attendance once a month due to family structure. Club sports can take children away 3-4 weeks at a time. I recommend slowing things down with curriculum use and the actual volume of programs. Less is more. Don't penalize the kids who are irregular in their attendance. Remember, kids don't drive!

Overworked volunteer pool.

We have observed more volunteers working in multiple roles in the children's program (e.g. a weekend teacher and a midweek club leader.) As leaders, we must do our best to monitor the involvement level of our team and provide help as needed. Ideas such as recruiting in pairs or partners can not only provide break time for volunteers but also significantly increase the length of their commitment. Also remember the value of consistent affirmation for your team, as well as excellent training.

Ministry to children has never been more important than it is today. We must do our best to be aware of our culture, explore the most effective ways to minister, and be willing to change our approach to connect with this exciting generation of God's kids!

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.