As part of the team behind RaiseUPfaith, I’m acutely aware of the problems that children’s ministry leaders face in the post-Covid world.
If you’re not already aware, RaiseUPfaith.com is a platform that delivers multimedia curriculums to church communities worldwide, and as such we speak to a lot of kids’ leaders. Time and again in our conversations we hear the same two pain points being articulated:
1. Children now expect to learn through multimedia – it’s what they experience in school. Discovering high-quality kids’ ministry content that satisfies this requirement is not easy.
2. Volunteers are time pressed. The pandemic diminished volunteer rotas. Volunteers need easily accessible, highly engaging resources which make it really easy to plan and run Sunday school.
A very sobering picture
Between hard-pressed volunteers and disengaged kids, it is no secret that the numbers of children and young people attending church is declining rapidly. Unless we stem this flow, we risk losing a generation of disciples, we risk losing the future leaders of the church.
According to the Church Times, in October 2017 the average British Anglican Church had just three children attending. Forward a few years, add the damaging effect of the pandemic on church attendance, and we are faced with a very sobering picture. The church has haemorrhaged children and youth for so long we almost forget to be shocked by the numbers and trajectory.
In his extensive research, Peter Brierley notes several reasons why church attendance is in
decline. He is focusing on overall attendance, but some of the causes are most definitely mirrored in the drop in children’s and youth numbers. Let’s take a quick glance at two of his observations, not to make us more miserable, but actually because there is enormous hope in the middle of these statistics and, with the right actions, we might discover how to play our part in reversing the decline!
Brierley concludes that since the 1960s there has been growing weakness of family life. Families provide structure both to a child and a community, yet as separation, divorce, and blended families have become more normal so the decline in church attendance rises. If nothing else this will affect even a committed church child if they are possibly having to divide time between two households each weekend. God is still relevant, even if the church hasn’t always been!
There has also been a significant societal shift away from Sundays being a ‘rest’ day. In 1994 Sunday trading became legal. Until then it was normative practice for communities to come together to worship and rest. But with the overnight acceptance that regular life can continue through a Sunday, the church now faces another great competition for people’s time.
The church must respond to the changing needs of the world around them whilst holding firm to the biblical truths that mean God is still relevant, even if the church hasn’t always been!
Be more peachy and less coconutty!
Anyone who has been part of a loving Christian community knows it is the best place for friendship, worship, discipleship, and mission. So, the question arising out of Peter Brierley’s grim statistics is how do you make the good stuff of church accessible to children and young people?
The danger for the church is that we can be like a coconut, with an exterior that is hard and difficult to break into. Maybe this is illustrative of buildings, which are often dark and unwelcoming, perhaps it’s our judgements on people that stop them breaking into the family of God, or the times we meet which are inaccessible to the people we are trying to reach. It takes so much effort to break into the coconut in order to get to the ‘good stuff’ of a church community that many don’t bother. In comparison, could your church be like a peach? Do you have a soft exterior, an openness to anyone to taste and see the goodness of God in a gentle, non-confrontational way? And in contrast to the coconut’s soft centre, is the centre of your church and faith rock solid like the inside of a peach? Is it challenging and invigorating to be in the middle of your church community?
This analogy can be helpful when thinking of how to effectively grow our children’s and youth work. Are children and young people going to find their way to God through your loving, warm, authentic welcome of them, so as they get closer to Jesus the gentle challenge and commitment to follow him is able grow?
Here are 12 ways for our churches to be more peachy!
This may seem fairly obvious, but start with prayer. Pray for the children who do come to your church. Pray for the children who don’t yet come to your church. Pray for opportunities to join in with where God is already at work amongst the children and young people in your community.
2. Belong, believe, behave
You may have heard the phrase ‘behave, believe, belong’ before. Historically churches have expected people to behave in a certain way and believe a certain thing, and then they can belong to their church community (think of the coconut).
With most new people, and especially children and young people, we must reverse this phrase. When children and young people are genuinely welcomed into the family of God, when they truly belong and can be fully themselves, then they can start to explore what they believe. The community helps shape their beliefs through discipleship, which ultimately changes their behaviour as they become more Christ-like.
The key to all of this is the non-judgemental, loving approach to welcoming a young person who may have very different biblical or world views to us, but allowing them the safety and freedom to belong. This is not a new shiny idea, this is what Jesus did with his disciples.
3. Be yourself
Don’t try and be cool. Be yourself. Children and young people need authentic relationships outside their home. They need spiritual aunties, uncles and grandparents who embrace a child within a positive Christian community, and with the breakdown in family life over the past 50 years genuine intergeneration relationships are key.
4. Meet on a different day of the week
There may be children and young people who can’t come on a Sunday morning. Could your church find an alternative time to meet and be together? Could you find ways to gather in homes, run after-school clubs or start a youth church? Making church easily accessible has to start with meeting people where they are at. RaiseUPfaith provides hundreds of resources that can be easily adapted to different situations, like homes, parent and toddler groups, youth groups etc.
5. Find relevant ways to engage children with the gospel
This is about discovering the different ways children learn. Some learn through auditory methods (listening to facts/sermons/ writing), some learn visually (watching, drawing), some learn kinaesthetically (doing, practicing) and others discursively (through conversation/ discussion). By using all these learning methods, many of which are the basis for the RaiseUPfaith curriculums, you will find ways to engage every child with the gospel. You can find out more about how RaiseUPfaith can help you communicate the gospel to your children and young people by heading to www.raiseupfaith.com.
6. Encourage activism
So often church and children’s ministry can be a passive, consumeristic activity. We do, you watch. Children and young people who are likely to stay in church long term will be actively engaged in God’s mission. One church in London decided to change their annual youth weekend away to a week of mission. The transformation in the young people was remarkable. They came back invigorated, stretched, closer to God and each other, and committed to bringing the love of God into the world. Years later many of these young people are adults who are living passionate Christian lives.
7. Encourage participation
In the same way we encourage adults to find and use their gifts in church life, so we should with children. If you have a musical child, release them to leading worship or joining a band. If you have a child who is sporty, ask them to lead the games time. If you have a child who is willing to help, ask them to set up the drinks. Finding their place to be used in the Kingdom of God will provide a framework to grow and root anyone.
8. Encourage leadership development
Asking young people to help lead a younger children’s group will have the double benefit of letting children see older role-models, as well as giving young people a role in which to grow and serve. This leadership development will help them in their commitment to church.
9. Encourage genuine peer relationships
Perhaps one of the single biggest contributing factors to whether children and young people will come and stay in church is their friendship group. Make sure you give children the time and freedom to grow these important relationships. Leave space in your gathering times and provide activities for friendships to thrive. God never intended us to be alone, and these connections are so important.
10. Whole life discipleship
This is such an important part of seeing church growth, we have to empower our children and young people to develop healthy spiritual habits of reading the Bible, praying, mission, etc. outside of a Sunday. This will look different for every child and every family, but is an essential component of long-term spiritual growth. RaiseUPfaith provides some wonderful tools to equip families throughout the week.
11. Orientate church gatherings around all age
As a radical countercultural step, try and base your gatherings around all ages. This is not a children’s service for adults to endure, but genuine, intergenerational opportunities to worship, grow, develop and be together as the whole church. One church in the South of England rearranged their services and spent 30 minutes each week in a creative All Age Service. This was followed by 30 minutes of refreshments, where children and adults interacted, and then the final hour was spent in age-appropriate groups. The children attended their groups and the adults left for their service. This church made intergenerational relationships so key that the children and young people felt valued and important. RaiseUPfaith has some excellent resources to help develop your all age time.
12. Have fun!
So much of the warmth and humour of Jesus is lost in biblical translation, so take time to remind yourself that joy is the second Fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was so much fun to hang out with. Let the joy of the Lord be your strength as you provide a joyful, fun and loving environment for our children and young people to spiritually flourish!