There are many tried and true strategies for building and maintaining a strong community of faith. There is, however, one absolutely sure and certain way to destroy it and that is to neglect or underserve the most important people: our children. Here are some ways to make sure that the GMC points the next generation to Christ alone. Be encouraged!
I once heard a church leader say that the sound of laughter in the halls is the best sign that your church is strong and healthy. I agree completely, but I would add to that the sound of many small feet running, lots of childish chatter, and the raised voices of young people who are happy to be at church. Mix in some singing and guitars and that's all you need.
I was a youth/children's ministries director for over twenty years. I have such joyful memories of teaching and loving, coaching and guiding. I loved it so much! Each day was a new opportunity to shine the light of Christ in the lives of children who, in spite of all the differences in their backgrounds, families, interests, etc., all had a hunger for God.
Children's ministry matters for eternity even though, usually, the outcome is hidden from our eyes in the moment. This work is all about planting seeds you may not get to harvest. Planting those seeds takes so many forms. But the bottom line is that we engage children and show them the face of Christ. There are endless ways to do this but there are a few fundamentals that are absolutely essential.
If I were to sum up youth/children's ministry in a short phrase, it would be "the hard work of having fun". In order to fully engage young people (and those of us who are older) there must an element of enjoyment. Young people, with their boundless energy and shorter attention spans, need a more active learning atmosphere. Activities that take them out of their seats are crucial. Purposeful games that introduce the lesson or act as a review for prior lessons can get minds and bodies going. Anything that gets them moving can be a great way to get energy going and gain attention.
For those heroes of the church who volunteer to secure our faith by teaching our children, and for those of you who joyfully work for a small salary to ensure that the Church continues, I praise you and your dedication. You are essential, you are admired, you are beloved and you will have many crowns to cast at the feet of Jesus.
Here are some important things to remember about youth and children's ministries within any congregation. Impress these on the entire Body of Christ.
Budget appropriately. If you have children you know that raising them properly costs money. This is axiomatic. Children and youth ministries should be budgeted in proportion to their importance. Hold up a $1.00 bill and ask your finance team how much of that money should go to youth ministries. Chances are good that they will answer ten cents or thereabouts. Even if they say five cents, that equals five percent. Look at your budget. How much is designated for children's faith formation? Is it as about 1% or as high as 2%? Do they have to do their own fund raising to get any resources? How well are you providing for your youth/children? This is not spoiling them or making them selfish and entitled. It is providing for your children.
Cultivate respect for children. The youth and children are an easy target. It is quite common for some church members to blame the children for any stain on a carpet, mark on a wall, or nick on furniture. I have borne witness to this many times. I have also seen that the truth, very often, is that spills and accidents are not the doing of "the children" but an adult. Youth and children should be taught to be good stewards of the property and to be respectful of their elders. They will learn this best when they are well and kindly supervised, and treated with respect. Love and respect.
Coloring sheets? Bah. Humbug. Children learn by doing, moving, building, creating, imagining, exploring, and other active experiences. I know coloring sheets are an easy way to keep grade school children occupied and quiet but consider the goal. Do we really need another generation of quiet Christians who are not fully engaged in their faith? Develop lessons that are experiential and get the children out of their seats. Use all their senses to teach them. In this way you are developing a generation of Christians who will see God all around them. They will have a variety of ways to express their faith if they have seen a variety of expressions.
Try these games. Use games as "bell ringers" at the start of your lesson. Engage in a short, active game that reviews last week's material or introduces this week's. For example: Throw bean bags on squares of paper on the floor that have questions on the other side. Pick up the question and answer it for points. The same thing can be done by popping balloons, throwing pool noodles though a cardboard target with holes, any kind of corn hole type game can be turned into a review. These games can also be used to give each student a secret hint for the upcoming lesson. They then wait for the time to teach their classmates. All the secret hints put together create a fuller picture of what you are teaching.
Hire a creative staff person. Why can't two small churches share a children's director? This person could provide lessons and activities for two congregations and not have to have another job to provide for their needs. Consider when hiring a person their level of energy, creativity, resourcefulness, organizational skills, dependability, and passion for children. A masters' degree in Christian Education means nothing without these essential character traits. Be wary of higher degrees and where the credential was acquired. Many "Christian" schools are leading their students to deny Christ's divinity and the authority of scriptures. Just be careful.
Children and youth ministry takes energy, patience, time, and money. Those are indisputable facts. Those who freely give of their resources to keep these ministries going are my real life heroes of the faith. They are the ones who "get it". They understand that without well nurtured children the Church is doomed to die within twenty years.
As Global Methodists, if we are to remain an influential force for Christ, we must reexamine how we prioritize children and youth. We can not neglect teaching our young people the faith of the Old and New Testaments. We must throw off the yoke of curriculum written by people who haven't spent enough time with real kids or who have an agenda not aligned with the truth of Scriptures and the Lordship of Christ. Fill the lessons with the Holy Spirit.
I propose a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to reaching out to our young people the way that the Holy Scriptures tell us to do. I challenge us, as a new denomination of Christ centered people, to raise the bar for our children. Get beyond Bible "stories" and cartoony coloring sheets masquerading as a lesson. Let us teach our children diligently!