Principles of effective children’s ministry
Petra Institute calling is to serve the Christian community by building capacity for children’s ministry. Our main activity is to equip adult leaders for effective ministry with children. To reach this goal we try to apply training principles that will facilitate the process of learning for the learner. In our understanding of Christian adult training there are certain key elements or principles that can be regarded as “foundational”.
Petra Institute’s mission is to serve the Christian community by building capacity for effective children’s ministry. But what does effective children’s ministry mean? In our understanding, children’s ministry is effective if it leads to deeper, fuller relationships with God and one another, bringing healing and hope and purpose to children, families and communities as they live together in the presence of God.
In our understanding of children’s ministry, there are certain key elements or principles that can be regarded as “foundational”. They should guide all Christian work involving children.
A Biblical imperative
Children’s ministry is not just another option in how we behave as children of God. It is a serious obligation placed on the church to ‘let the little ones come to Me’ (Mat 19:14). Jesus clearly stated that our Father does not want any of these little ones to be lost (Mat 18:14). If the Great Commission of Mat 28 should be taken seriously by the church, then so this ‘Commission to the small’. Old Testament texts such as Ps 78 and Deut. 6 are equally clear on the duty of the older generations to lead the next generation into the walk of faith with God.
Children’s ministry is not child-centred. It is not about developing a new life-style or obedience to a set of rules. It is not about activities or programmes or Bible knowledge or numbers. It is not even about loving interpersonal relationships, or praying and worshipping.
Children’s ministry is about Christ and His love for children and His desire for children to respond to His love. It is about walking with children in Christ’s presence and in His footsteps. It is about knowing Him personally for who He really is, and learning to live in fellowship with Him. It is about listening to Him and communicating with Him. It is about sharing in His suffering and death and experiencing the mighty power that brought Him back to life (Phil 3:10), all this with children as companions on the journey.
We believe that all ministry of the church should be relational. Relationships reflect the true identity of the church – a body of people in living relationship with the Triune God, with one another and with the world in which they live. These relationships are characterised by Love. This stands opposite to an understanding of ministry where the other becomes an object, whether the Other is God, fellow believers or the world.
Children’s ministry has often fallen into the last category: children are objects of teaching, of ‘care’ or of formation. The danger of such an approach is that children are not really taken serious as fellow human beings and their value is determined, for example, by their ability to respond to teaching.
When we opt for a relational approach to children’s ministry, we respect children as our brothers and sisters in Christ, or as equal recipients of God’s love. We believe that we grow together and that our maturity will be measured by the health of our relationships in all aspects of our existence.
To enter into relationships with children means that we meet them where they are. We try to speak their language and to look at life through their eyes. We ‘become like children’, to borrow Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, which can only be done with an attitude of utter humility.
We believe faith is passed on within the community of believers, not only through formal educational means, but in particular through different generations living out faith in each other’s presence (Ps 78:1-8). ‘Faith is caught, not taught’, means faith is contagious and can only be transferred if someone spends enough time in the presence of a practicing believer. The Bible is full of examples of children sharing key experiences with elders that contributed to the faith formation of all generations. We acknowledge the value of focussed age or interest related ministries, but see this as the exception rather than the norm. The basis is inclusive, intergenerational ministry.
Children’s ministry has an ethical component. It should not be taken for granted that Christians know and will always respect boundaries in working with children. We have much to learn from the Children’s Rights movement and other voices reminding us of the need to be wise in our work with children, knowing that Jesus Himself warned against letting the little ones stumble (Mat 18:6). In the end, we shall be held accountable for our motives, attitudes and actions with every single child entrusted to us.
Children live in this world. ‘The term ‘world’ has many meanings. It could refer to the modern ‘global village’, but also to the very specific time and place they find themselves in – the home (or street), the school, playground, the internet based social networks, etc…. It could refer to his or her specific social and economical circumstances, family set-up or personal situation.
Children’s ministry that is serious about children is serious about the context of children. Relationships are forged with children within their environment, in their language and on their level. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in children’s ministry. Every place, time and group or individual is unique. This does not rule out that there will be some universal principles regarding communication with and entering the world of children.
Children are not passive recipients, or empty pages to be filled by the activities of the adult children’s worker. They are partners who join in a process of spiritual growth with one another and with adults.
‘Participation’ of children is often seen as ‘involving children in activities’, such as singing, playing or answering questions. Our understanding goes beyond this – children do not merely participate by following certain instructions of the adult leaders, but are allowed to take the lead or to contribute from their own wisdom and spiritual wealth.
This means that the adult leaders in children’s ministry are open to hear God speaking and see Him moving through the children. This calls for a deep respect for the children and an ability to facilitate mutual growth, rather than ‘teaching’. This is why we prefer to speak of ‘ministry with children’, rather than ‘ministry to/for children’.
The church has at times been accused of a narrow or one-sided approach to children’s ministry. The ‘Christian Education’ approach, for example, has been criticised of a bias towards knowledge (Bible verses, doctrine, history, education) or morals (do’s and don’ts). The ‘Evangelism’ approach sometimes seems to be satisfied when the child has ‘given her heart to Jesus’. ‘Relief’ approaches tend to focus on the physical needs of children. And so on.
Holistic children’s ministry means that children are valued as complete people within their context and relationships, with all their needs and abilities. They are physical beings with physical needs, but at the same time social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual beings – hearts and souls and bodies, whole people.
Holistic children’s ministry is constantly aware of this fact and approaches children on all levels and in all aspects of their being.
Integrated children’s ministry links to holistic children’s ministry – where possible emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and even physical needs should be addressed in an integrated way, so that growth can take place on all levels at the same time. We understand that children are ‘systems’ within ‘systems’ – one cannot split up the child into different parts, neither can one separate him from his environment.
The primary ‘system’ in any society is the family, consisting of different people, normally biologically related, and normally of more than one generation, who are sharing some physical or social bond. But children also belong to other ‘systems’, such as a group of friends, a school, a church, etc.
Integrated children’s ministry will keep these ‘systems’ in mind and strive to tie these ‘threads’ running through children’s lives together and link them to the creative work of the Spirit. For example: Although we strongly advocate for special awareness and specific attention to the needs of children in the ministry of the church, we do not necessarily support ‘segregation’, where children are removed from their parents and the other adults and entertained separately. We strive towards an approach where unity in families is strengthened and growth can take place in a setting where different generations serve the Lord together.
Of course, there are times when children will meet separately, for good reasons. This should not be the norm, however, but should be regarded as an addition to the heart of ministry with children, which is intergenerational.
Children are often divided from their parents, families and communities through emotional or physical neglect and rejection. Unresolved conflicts within such relationships, or complete breakdown of relationships, are often the result. True children’s workers are ‘peacemakers’ in the full sense of the word: people who minister the love of Jesus to children and their families, who serve to heal wounds in a society and who strive to reconcile different generations with one another.
We acknowledge those cases – and there are many – where a child might be the first in a family or even a community to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Very often, such children have to endure persecution and rejection and it becomes the duty of the Children’s worker to protect and support the child. But even then, the ultimate goal is not to isolate the child, but to strive for unity and mutual acceptance.
Reconciliation could be extended beyond interpersonal relationships in the family or society. It can refer to a process involving cultures, nations and even the world of nature. And of course the basis is God’s work of reconciliation between Him and us (2 Cor 5:18,19).
By ‘experiential children’s ministry’, we mean children’s ministry that is applicable, that takes children out into the real life. As with adults, children are shaped more by what they do and experience than by what they hear. Experience in itself, however, is not a good teacher. It is the proper interpretation of the experience that brings wisdom and growth and leads to new ways of acting.
We believe therefore that children should not only be exposed to various experiences, but also be guided to understand the meaning and value of their experiences in the light of the Word.
The children’s worker is a ‘midwife’ for the spiritual birth and growth of children. Our role is to help create an environment that makes it ‘easy’ (Latin – ‘facile’) for children to understand and experience God’s grace and to respond to Him in faith. We walk with the children and help them to grow towards Christian maturity, sometimes leading, sometimes guiding, supporting or coaching.
Such an approach not only reflects respect for the work of the Spirit, but also for the children themselves. Facilitative children’s ministry breaks down barriers often put up by ‘educational’ or even ‘evangelical’ and ‘relief’ approaches and creates community, freedom and responsibility.
The fact that children’s ministry is a serious Biblical imperative does not mean that it should be serious in style. On the contrary, speaking the ‘language of children’, which is play in all its forms, allows for a great deal of fun and joy and celebration. Love, care, comfort, closeness, peace, these are key elements in children’s ministry. To raise harsh discipline and discomfort to the highest priorities defeats the purpose of children’s ministry, which is to help the child experience and respond to the love of God in its fullest sense.
Naturally, this does not mean that sadness, anger, fear and other such emotions are ignored. There are times when children need to express these feelings and where light-hearted fun is not appropriate. Creating a safe space for children to honestly and openly bring their feelings into the light of the Word often leads to healing and regained trust and security – and joy.
‘Faith is caught, not taught’. A close, caring relationship between a children’s worker and children leads to intimate knowledge. The children are allowed to see who and what the children’s worker is, so that they can shape their own lives according to the examples they see. This is challenging, but the only really effective way to do children’s ministry.
Modelling is a two-sided business, though. Careful attention to Jesus’ words in Matt 18:3 brings us to understand that the child becomes the model and us the learners! Ministry with children means, then, that we all learn from one another and all follow the Godly example set by the other. Which, of course, can only be based on the model of Christ.
Children’s ministry is not a short-term, hit-and-run affair. It is a deliberate, strategic process involving time and people. An organisation/church should structure its ministry with children in such a way that it will endure, adapt and grow ‘from generation to generation’.
Saying this, we take into account that there are situations where short-term relations might be the only or even the best option, such as on children’s camps, with therapeutic or medical intervention, while the child is in some transitional situation, etc. Ideally, though, even these short-term inputs should link into a longer chain of care and love.
Sustainability in children’s ministry means to think ‘past, present and future’ and to plan accordingly – Where did the child come from? What inputs did she have in her life? Where is she now? What inputs are needed now? Where are we going? Who will continue walking the road with her (if not me?)
It is not always possible for a children’s worker to maintain a long-term relationship with a child outside his/her household or family circle. The ideal is, however, for children’s ministry to be extended over many years. It is then when mutual growth can take place and true faith can be formed. The children’s worker, who becomes a guide and mentor to children (and their families) through different stages of life, leaves a lasting legacy.
The aspect of needs of children has been mentioned above, and it was stated that all the various needs of children should be addressed in children’s ministry. This is one side of understanding children’s ministry as ‘needs-based’.
There is a danger in the term; however, namely that ministry is only about demand and supply. Children express needs, or the children’s worker perceives needs, and gives or does something to remedy the situation. Or even worse, the children’s worker has a need (acceptance, recognition, control, physical touch, etc.) that he expects the children to fulfil. Of course, many needs of the children’s worker will be fulfilled to some or other extent in his work with children, but it cannot be the motivation or purpose of children’s ministry.
In stating that children’s ministry should be needs based, we try to think broadly. We keep in mind that needs can be very fundamental – the need to be a human being, to live in loving relationships, to make a meaningful contribution, to have a purpose on earth… These needs are universal and both children and the children’s worker will strive to find answers to these questions. Needs based children’s ministry means that these deeper needs are also acknowledged and the ‘heavy’ questions are not avoided.
Children’s ministry is purposeful. It can also be described as ‘goal oriented’ or even ‘outcome based’ (The term ‘outcome based’ is widely used in various fields, especially education. By including it in this list, we are open to misinterpretation. Its use here should not be seen in educational terms, although the formal understanding of ‘outcomes’ gives valuable insight into ministry ‘goals’).
Purposeful children’s ministry points to the fact that there is movement in children’s ministry that the future is taken seriously. The Bible refers to this future as the Kingdom of God – where God reigns, where His will is done. The Kingdom is already present, but is still to come, too. In children’s ministry, we build purposefully towards the coming of this Kingdom. We ‘claim’ the earth bit by bit in God’s Name. We deliberately fight against evil in our own lives and allow the Holy Spirit to change constantly us. We set goals and strive to reach them, to ‘come out’ victoriously on the other side.
Therefore, children’s ministry is not plan-less. Yes, it is relational rather than programmatic, it is needs based rather than contents based, it is Christ centred rather than curriculum centred… but in structuring our ministry with children we keep our focus on the goal line and carefully see to our steps so as to stay on track.
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