Out Of The Mouth Of Babes
Have you noticed that plenty of Baptist churches seem to have missing generations? The solution may just lie in as aspect of church ministry that is often forgotten and put out the back whilst the adults get on with things.
Missing generations are often the result of a fallout of some kind at some point in the history of the church (or a few) or the pull factor of a large regional church that has everything a Christian could ever hope for in a church: amazing worship, inspiring preaching, blossoming Sunday school, burgeoning youth groups, popular young adults (ideal dating ground for future partners) and a raft of high quality full time staff to attend to the full suite of ministries.
Some churches never recover, and the average age of the congregation just gets older. It gets harder to attract new families to the church because of the lack of pulling power. It’s often the case that that the church doesn’t have a big enough cohort of youth or young adults, in which case families look elsewhere. The needs of children come before the needs of adults in church choices. Understandably Christians are keen to see their children enjoy church and want to be part of the specific programs for their age cohort.
There is hope though, and it comes from the least expected ministry in the church. It’s not new, innovative or trendy, in fact it’s old hat. It’s the ministry that happens out the back when the main game is on in the auditorium: Sunday school.
Enthusiasm From Surprising Quarters
In my local area a surprising number of people who do not profess any faith in Christ at all are keen to enrol their children into the local independent Christian school, and plenty are also keen for their children to experience Sunday school. As someone whose primary locus of ministry is outside of the church and in the community I am asked continually to provide references for school enrolment applications.
When I ask why they would like their children to be enrolled in a school which is specifically Christian they almost all say the same thing: that whilst they are not professing Christians they want their children to be exposed to Christian beliefs and they also feel that their children will enjoy a superior education (this isn’t necessarily true but they are possessed of this belief).
Parents dropping their children off to Sunday school in the church car park and then picking them up afterwards say similar things: that whilst they are not Christians they want their children to have every opportunity to learn about the Christian faith and make their own mind up.
As a religious marriage celebrant I am continually asked by people who do not attend church to conduct their weddings. When I explain that I am a religious celebrant and what the ramifications of that are they express that they specifically do not want a ‘secular’ wedding ceremony and that they embrace the fact that the wedding is conducted in the sight of God and that the pronouncement is in the name of the Trinity. People in your neighborhood who don’t attend your church or any other church often have a surprising level of openness towards faith in God. When it comes to their children they often have a greater degree of openness.
Whilst many adults in your local community may not be all that interested in walking through the doors of your church they have a different view about their children. And herein lies one of the best opportunities for renewal for churches with missing generations or a flagging missional enthusiasm.
Growing From The Ground Up
In my travels around churches throughout Australia I have been interested to see the results in churches who have invested heavily in Sunday school (or Children’s church). Invariably these churches include the children as a major emphasis in the weekly morning (or family) service.
The standout examples that I have experienced are churches that fall into the ‘Missing Generations’ category. The result is stunning. Whereas previously the church may have lacked spark and where many may have had a sense of inevitable doom about them, now the church is buzzing. Given enough time the church can return to health and there can even be a return to a healthy and balanced mix of age groups from the very young through to retired.
In one particular church the children come back into the service from children’s church and are interviewed by the pastor about what they learned that day. In each service the children get a voice, and their teachers get recognition for the important ministry they fulfil. The children also have at least one song that they get to lead the adults in. That is quite rare these days.
Childrens ministry is regarded as being important by all churches no doubt, but for many it is something that happens distinct from the main service. Apart from the odd accolade many children’s church teachers labour without much fanfare or appreciation by the wider church congregation (apart from grateful parents of course!).
Children Leading Parents
Whilst the parents of the children are not card-carrying church attendees or Christians to say the least that doesn’t stop their children from educating them in the story of the Gospel and teaching them scriptures and songs. My friends who have children in Christian schools or children’s church regularly tell me what their children have taught them. This represents a magnificent opportunity for churches to ensure that the Gospel reaches into the homes in their community of families (adults) who have a favourable disposition towards the Christian faith (at least in relation to their children). Herein lies the primary reason why churches need to invest heavily in the quality of their ministry to children: mission.
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. [Mark 10:13-16]
Sidewalk Sunday School
Perhaps the most stunning example of children’s church as mission is the story of Bill Wilson who was abandoned at the age of 12 by his mother who told him to wait and that she would be back. Three days later he was found on that corner by Dave Rudenis, a local mechanic and committed Christian. He sponsored Bill to attend a Christian summer camp where he committed his life to Christ. He went on to study theology and established one of the first bus ministries in the USA, picking young kids up to attend church in Florida.
Bill moved to New York in 1979 and set up in Brooklyn. He established Metro Ministries and launched a similar bus ministry. His ministry outgrew the church and he changed strategy to take church to the sidewalk, by way of converted trucks from which a team of ministers could share their message. These collective ‘Sidewalk Sunday School’ congregations now number more than 100 000 children in attendance each week.
Bill Wilson still lives in a building adjacent to his Church and continues to walk through the often-dangerous neighbourhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn. He has been shot, stabbed, beaten and hospitalized numerous times. Bill’s ministry has expanded now, but he still drives one of the hundreds of buses utilized by his ministry each week, when he can.
Now known as Metro World Child, their ministry aims are summarised as follows:
Metro World Child is committed to providing hope and building futures for children living in adverse conditions in metropolitan areas around the world. Whether faced with the physical effects of poverty or the dangers of gangs, violence, abuse and hopelessness, we want to see children’s lives placed on a new path through the life-changing love of Christ. By meeting children where they are, personally investing in their lives and presenting the Gospel in a fun, accessible way, we believe we can build foundations that lead to hope, a future and better lives for children around the world.
We accomplish this in several ways:
Helping children encounter the hope and love of Christ through weekly Sunday School programs in the neighbourhoods where they live, summer camps and personal mentorship.
Investing personally in the lives of the children we serve through consistent one-on-one relationships, weekly home visits and child sponsorship.
Meeting physical needs that hinder personal and spiritual growth, such as school supplies, coats, food and clean water.
Your neighbourhoods will be nothing like those in the rougher parts of Brooklyn but the opportunity to help children understand and embrace the Gospel is no less. The capacity of God to use the simple faith of little children to impact others both now and in the future is incalculable.
Many churches don’t realise it but the best thing they have got going for them in terms of life, vitality and Gospel is hiding away from view, simply because it’s not part of the adult congregation scene. Churches cannot afford not to invest their very best in the childrens ministry, and not simply so that they can look after the needs of church members’ children.
The one age cohort in church that feels completely free and enthusiastic about inviting their friends are children. It may well be that the best evangelists your church has are children, they are well worth the investment.