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16 mins

What Children’s and Youth Workers Want You to Know

The editors of Rev! magazine sat down with Christine Yount Jones, executive editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine and Rick Lawrence, executive editor of Group Magazine, to listen to their views on what’s happening in the areas of children’s and youth ministry.

What enduring principles have you seen over the years in terms of connecting children and youth with God?

Lawrence: It’s well known that about 85 percent of people who come to Christ do so before the age of 18. That finding was originally from a study by George Barna’s organization that we had some questions about, so we replicated his research here at Group and found basically the same numbers. We differed from Barna, though, in his conclusion that churches should pour all of their resources into children’s ministry. Our study also looked at important “booster rockets” in a person’s faith. We asked Christian college students whether they had a subsequent experience with God as significant as their conversion experience. We found that about 95 percent said yes. These were young adult college students, and they had on average four experiences that were just as important to them as their conversion. To continue with the booster rocket analogy: First, you launch your children’s ministry and get the rocket into the air. Then you need booster rockets in youth ministry to get you into orbit as an adult Christian.

So, yes, children’s ministry is important because that’s the launching pad, but if you don’t have stage one, stage two, stage three, the rocket goes up, and the rocket goes down. You need every booster. The other thing we stress is that the number one evangelism strategy is parents taking their small children to church. Nothing else comes anywhere close to that method for welcoming people into the kingdom of God.

Yount Jones: There’s no option in terms of the importance of connecting kids and youth with God. As Rick was talking, I kept thinking over and over, Jesus said, “Let the children come.” God loves the children; don’t keep them away. There are severe eternal consequences for anyone who harms a child. We have no option but to minister to children and connect them to God.

Children are in their highly formative years. The brain development that’s happening is so rapid from birth to age 6 — it’s happening educationally and socially. Therefore, it’s incumbent on the church to make sure that spiritual formation is happening within the family.

Lawrence: The thing that endures is identity. And identity is formed when you are young. If you identify yourself as part of a family that loves God and goes to church, there is something very deep and almost gravitational that happens. There’s been a lot of talk…Group right now is looking into this widely publicized statistic that says about 85 percent of churched teenagers leave the church by the time the graduate college. It’s being thrown around a lot and, on the face of it, it seems to me like that’s not true. Other statistics are much lower, in the 50 percent category. We’re now going to figure out what the truth is about this. But the point there is that Gallup and others would say that as these people get into young adulthood, they start looping back to church. Well, they have to have the gravitational pull that started when they were kids in order to loop back because it’s part of their identity. The reason they loop back is they start thinking about the issues of their identity when they were growing up, and they want their children to also have that gravitational pull in their life. So in every way this is important, not only for what happens then they are children but also what happens later on when they actually have left the church.

What cultural trends have you seen in the last couple of years that will affect children’s and youth ministries?

Yount Jones: I can think of two big things. One is ministry to the whole family. Churches are beginning to add family worship services or children’s ministry that incorporates the family, where the parents are required to attend. More and more resource providers are giving helps to the family at home. The number one thing that we’re hearing from children’s workers is “How do we equip parents to help their kids grow in Christ?”

Everyone knows that times have changed rapidly from the recent past. Most kids used to come to church, and they had a foundation. But that’s not happening anymore — the foundation is missing. We’re hearing the cry that churches need help in assisting families because they’re getting kids who have no Christian worldview. The other part of that is what to do when they go home. If we have them one hour a week, is what we’re doing in that one hour being reinforced at home? There’s a huge trend toward finding new ways to minister to the family and not just to children. Educational degrees are moving from “children’s ministry” to “children and family ministry.” That’s a shift.

The other change is that in a multimedia-driven and rapidly changing culture, attention spans are shorter than ever before. The challenge is how to capture children’s attention. How do we get kids engaged? The key is active learning. Active learning is multi-sensory and hands-on. When done well, kids make discoveries about their faith, dig in to the Word of God, and move away from passively listening to a story. How do we help them to experience God firsthand?

Another trend is a move toward video-based curriculum. Hey, if they love TV and X-box, then they’ll love media. Let’s just put in a dvd and press play. People let the video do the teaching. I think there’s some merit, because it is a multimedia generation, but my fear is that we’re going to see kid’s practicing, not what we preach but how we preach. If we are training a generation to be passive, what are we delivering to pastors? If we’re training a generation to sit and soak and be pew-sitters, then we’re not training them to be people who are engaged in their spiritual growth, in digging into the Word of God and experiencing God. I think there’s a real risk with that model.

Lawrence: Two things leap to mind, too. The last two years, Group Magazine Live workshops have focused on this. I’ve written a new book about it called, “Jesus Centered Youth Ministry.” The title will make some people thing, “Huh? I thought that’s what we’re about.” But that’s my point — we’ve reached a place in our culture and church life, where we think we know Jesus so well that we don’t really know him anymore. We’ve overlooked him. We’ve taken him for granted. In many ways, he’s not at the center of many youth ministries anymore. There are all kinds of things that are much more attractive that we’re moving toward. I put myself in this camp, people who’ve fueled and tried to support movements like family centered youth ministry or family ministry and youth ministry. We’ve done events and articles and I co-wrote a book on family ministry. There are other movements within the church, whether it’s Son Life or Purpose Driven or any of these movements, that are smart, wise strategies about how to construct or structure youth ministry. But what I’ve found more and more over the last few years, and the evidence shows in the kids’ lives, is a real everyday relationship with Jesus is off the table.

Kids come to church and live a church relationship and do church things. But their everyday life very often doesn’t reflect an everyday relationship with Jesus. In the National Study of Youth and Religion by the University of North Carolina, the researchers tried to categorize thousands of young people. They not only did phone interviews but also spent good amounts of time interviewing teens face to face. It’s the largest study of its kind ever done. What they found was that only about 10 percent of American teenagers have what social researchers define as a “devoted” faith — meaning a faith that’s at the hub of their lives. So if you continue to apply that into youth ministry, the question is, “What’s at the center of your youth ministry?” Surprisingly, it’s often not Jesus. It’s something else such as relational ministry, an ancient-future approach to ministry that looks cool. All these things are good, but what happens is kids don’t have a very good idea of who Jesus is and they don’t have many examples of how Jesus is involve in their everyday life. So one of the big changes in the last few years is this surfacing of an absence of Jesus in youth ministry. We’re trying to counter that and put a focus on Jesus. Teenagers today are the Millennial generation. They’re very reflective of the G.I. generation — the ones that saved the world for democracy. They’re good kids. They’ve been showered with love and attention from their parents, but that has also produced an entitlement mentality. They’ve grown up in the most prosperous time and county ever on the face of the earth. They’ve had everything given to them except for time with adults, so they have a sort of consumer mentality in terms of their faith.

One thing that’s emerged organically to counteract some of this is a noticeable trend toward orthodoxy in church ministry to young people. The way I would frame it is young people are tired of eating “donuts,” and they’re looking for a hearty “pot roast.” The ancient spiritual formation practices of the church and serious Bible study have all come together to form a backlash against consuming the shallow and unfulfilling “donuts” of the wider culture. Another hopeful sign is the growing number of kids who want to go on lifelong overseas missions. These are kids who literally say, “I would die for Jesus.” They’re hungering for something deeper than the norm in this culture. That’s a very encouraging backlash.

One other thing that’s radically affected youth ministry in the last few years is the rise of video gaming as the number one cultural influence in kids’ lives. The reason I mention this is that it’s one of the few cultural influences that’s almost universally barred from adults. Adults have no idea how the games are played because they would have to spend days to acquire the skill levels that kids are at. There’s a significant lack of knowledge on adults’ part as to what their kids are being influenced by, and this is very unusual. Parents can listen to the music coming through the kid’s door. They can see the shows and movies their kids are watching, even the books and magazines they read, but it takes a huge commitment on the part of adults to enter into the teen’s world of video gaming. Ironically, gaming is the number one influencer in kids’ lives, and adults are outside of it. Group Magazine has tried to do something about that by focusing on video gaming as a way to spark discussion in youth group. But it’s kind of like entering a dark cave.

Every pastor says children and youth are important. But if you talk to children’s and youth pastors, many of them say, “I don’t make much money and I’ve got very little budget.” How would you help pastors close the gap between what a church says versus what it does?

Lawrence: I was in England about four years ago, and I visited one of the biggest churches. It was on the southern coast in Chichester. I was introduced to the pastor, who’d started the church as a youth church. As the people got older, married, and had kids, it became an adult church with a youth feel to it. I asked the pastor, “What’s your approach to embracing and nurturing young people in your church?” He said, “Biblically, the older, more mature person should bow the knee to the younger, less mature person.” Yet that’s exactly the opposite of how most churches work. They force kids to fit into the adult environment. They underfund youth ministry in favor of overfunding adult ministry. Essentially, most churches make it hard for the less mature to graft in and be a part of the body. “Our approach has been to always bow the knee because the adults in this church are the more mature. Our mission is to serve those less mature.” They upended the entire economic structure of what they did in their church. I thought that was profound and prophetic.

Yount Jones: I don’t believe there’s a pastor who would not respond favorably to God’s blessing of a children’s ministry. The Millennial generation began around 1980. Starting between 2000 and 2004, we saw the next generation being born, which will have carryover characteristics. One of the key things that a pastor needs to know about this generation is that their parents heavily orient their lives to their kids, much more so than in earlier generations. These kids affect billions of dollars in spending. They decide where the family is going to eat. So it’s clear that if pastors want to reach out to adults with children, then the church will need to offer something that the children will love. We can prove it in church after church. Just ask families why they come to your church. Overwhelmingly it’s going to be something like, “I love your children’s ministry. My kids love it. We’re staying here because my kids are happy.” That’s a key if you want your church to grow, especially with healthy, thriving families that aren’t going to die away in your church. You’re going to want to reach children.

The other thing is that children’s workers are often grossly underpaid. These are often the last positions to hire. I think that’s a major mistake in today’s generation. But once a staff member is hired and funded, I would turn that around and say it’s on the children’s and youth ministers to produce fruit. What pastor in his or her right mind, who sees the growth, isn’t going to say, “God is blessing here, and we want to show up and be there with you.” I’ve experienced that in churches in which pastors ask, “What else can we do? We see God at work. What else do you need?” If God weren’t showing up, why would a pastor keep pouring money into a ministry? When God shows up, we’ve had pastors buy us video projection units and remodel the room. Pastors, give them enough money and other resources. Give them the “stuff” that they need. Support them and love them. Equip them by sending them to training. Do everything possible to partner with them and pray for them. And when the fruit is there, I think the pastor will want to invest in that.

How do you measure fruit, other than sheer bodies?

Yount-Jones: I was at a church in Arkansas this weekend and I asked the volunteer children’s person, “What’s your biggest need?” She said, “How do I get kids to come? How do I make it work?” Some of it is that their parents didn’t want to be there. The more everyone can partner together to make it appealing for the parents in Sunday school, and making it appealing for the kids, a church is going to experience growth. But until they do that, she’s going to keep asking, “How do I get the kids to come?” So in a way, it is bodies.

You also need to look at feedback fruit. What are people saying? “Wow I can’t believe that my kid came home and wants to pray at meals now.” Those kinds of reports. Again I would say, if the pastor is not getting those kinds of reports from the youth and children’s ministers, they need to be seeking them. They need to let their person in charge know that they want to hear who came to Christ this week, what were some ah-ha’s or some light bulbs that went off for children. Where did you see kids doing ministry during the week? I want to know that that kind of spiritual growth is happening. That is critical. That’s what we saw in our church when I gave reports every week on what God was doing. They loved it and bought into it and funded it.

Lawrence: Here’s another take on what you’re saying. I’m going to Bethel College. On Saturday I’ll spend an entire day with all of their youth ministry undergraduates. The title of the seminar is “Five Youth Ministry Lies.” Lie number 1 is that you can cause spiritual growth in young people. And the way I’m going to get at this is by the way Paul described it. He said, “I planted, Apollos watered, and God caused the growth.” Well, with God causing the growth, there’s no explanation of that. There’s no blueprint. We’re not inside God’s mind understanding how he causes the growth. And we’re not even responsible for it. What Paul said is I am responsible to plant, so what we’re planting is a very important question. Apollos is watering. We’re also responsible for watering. So there are two things that we have something to do with that God has said, “I’m doing this together with you and here’s my role: I’m going to cause the growth. Your role is to plant and water. Do a great job of that.”

When you talk about assessing fruit, I look for what you are planting, how are you planting it, and how you’re watering the plant? We have to go back to planting Jesus, as strange as that sounds. We have to plant him well. We know from our own research that watering means giving kids a welcoming environment where they can be themselves. If you do that and your church is known as a welcoming environment where teenagers can be themselves, and you’re planting Jesus well, then God is going to do whatever he wants to do in bringing about the growth. But that part is a mystery. It’s supposed to be. We can focus on those two other things and do them really well.

Yount-Jones: Here’s another thing, and it may not relate to children and youth. Pastors need to do their own market research by asking regularly, “What brought you here and why did you stay?” Then invest there. If what brought them here was that they heard that you had great preaching and what kept them here was that their children were happy, focus on that. Find out why they are coming and why they are staying and invest in that, keep giving where things are happening. You have to know those things.

Lawrence: We did a nationwide to find out why Christian teenagers went to their churches in the first place and why they stayed. We gave them a list of 10 factors from which to choose. I expected close relationships with other teenagers to be the far-away, number one winner, but it was number two. The number one reason was a welcoming environment where I can be myself. I think kids are saying something very profound to the church. They want a place to belong and they want to be real in that place. If the church does what it can to provide that environment, they are going to stay.

What are you hearing from youth pastors and children’s ministers in terms of their needs, and how can pastors be more supportive of both paid or unpaid ministry leaders in these areas?

Yount Jones: When we ask children’s ministry leaders (both paid and unpaid) about their biggest need, it’s always the same: volunteers. That’s what led Group to create Church Volunteer Central. Children’s ministry has a voracious appetite for volunteers. For safety issues, you need at least two people per group, but I’d rather see at least three. That’s one practical reason for the pastor to become children’s ministry’s biggest fan. If the pastor is a fan, that will bleed through everything. The way the pastor talks about children’s ministry in preaching and teaching makes a huge difference. I’ve heard of pastors who didn’t preach a sermon because the nursery was short of needed servants during worship. Instead of talking about the problem from the pulpit, they left the pulpit to serve in the short-staffed nursery to show how valuable the children are.

My favorite pastor in this area is Daniel Brown at The Coastlands, Aptos Foursquare Church in Aptos, California. His philosophy is to be serious about Jesus’ teaching: “When you receive a child you’re receiving me.” Being mature in Christ means being able to receive a child. Every person at Coastlands is highly encouraged to serve in some capacity in children’s ministry. Sometimes an entire small group will teach a children’s Sunday school class. That church never lacks for volunteers, and it’s growing because it has taken seriously Jesus’ mandate to receive the children and it understands today’s cultural reality that parents demand that the church love their children. When children are just a “patch-on” ministry, you won’t get the much-needed volunteers, and parents will not hesitate for a second to go elsewhere.

Lawrence: It’s revealing that there are a large number of youth workers who long for their senior pastor to pastor them, to be a mentor, a guide, and a leader. Youth workers long for it, and there’s also a cynicism about it. Cynicism grows because they’re protecting what’s tender inside. If you go to any youth ministry conference, one of the running jokes is about the relationship youth pastors have with their senior pastors or the church boards. Why do they joke so much about it? Because it’s protecting a tender place in the heart of youth pastors who long for so much more in their relationships with their senior pastors, and yet they’re scared to hope for that. They’ve had bad experiences with it, so they cover the tender inside with a veneer of cynicism. One thing I’d say to senior pastors is to look past the cynicism. Look at what it’s protecting and move toward the heart of your youth worker and be their pastor.

I hear a lot about time constraints. When kids get to be teenagers in this culture they are unbelievably busy. It’s incredible how they can keep the pace they do. They go to school at 6:00 in the morning. Some have after school jobs and two or three things they’re involved in after than. They’re being ferried back and forth. Homework is monumental. And when I mentioned before about the entitlement mentality, there’s also something very strong that’s coming from adults, from parents, that says financial and career success is the most important thing in life, and we’re going to start driving that when you’re in preschool. Kids are very aware of this. When you talk to kids they will say they wish they weren’t so pressured in their lives. They wish they weren’t so drawn to different places. How that hits youth ministers is that youth ministry is often way down the list of priorities. They point to parents as the ones that are engendering that lack of priority. Again, you’ll hear a lot of cynicism from youth pastors about parents regarding this. Why? Because they’re protecting something tender. They see that there is nothing more important to that kid than a deep relationship with Jesus, and they don’t want to fight anybody over that.

Yount-Jones: Here’s what you hear from children’s ministers. You’ll hear nice things, you’ll hear support and love. It’s so funny how youth ministry is edgy. Children’s ministers never say anything about the pastor being longwinded. They are loyal, nice, don’t say anything bad. Very different animal, isn’t it?

Lawrence: Well, youth ministry has classically been in its own orbit somewhat. It’s because of the nature of adolescence, too. It just extends into youth ministry: “Oh, we don’t really understand those kids, and now we really don’t understand them because they’re into video games. Therefore, we don’t understand the youth pastor either. As long as the carpet stays clean and the van comes back with all of its wheels on, we’re OK with what’s going on over there. As long as my kids are happy and they come back from the mission trip all fired up, that’s what I want to see.” But it’s a bad symbiotic relationship in the church where the youth pastor says well, I kind of like to be on my own a little bit. And the church says, well, we kind of like it if you are. Instead it should be fully integrated. I think youth pastors who’ve experienced a very deep, positive supportive, we’re-on-the-same-team relationship with parents and others in the church, love their ministries. They love it. Research shows that the best youth pastor in the world cannot even come close to out impacting even a mediocre parent in inculcating the depth of faith into that person’s life. You can be incredible, bit you’re never going to overcome a parent who’s trying the best they can. So youth pastors who get parents on board with them, it’s like all the cylinders are going.

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