Addition by Subtraction:  A Student Ministry Experiment

 In Jason Bunger

Children and youth are an important part of the life and ministry of Hope Church.  We take seriously our responsibility to disciple children, empower youth and equip parents.  It for this reason that we have been experimenting with the concept of offering LESS children and youth ministry.  Instead, we are attempting to equip parents and involve students in the life of the collective body, starting with the worship service.

“What do you mean there is nothing for 8-year old during the church service?  I thought children’s ministry was a priority about at our church?” This is a question that I have been asked by many parents throughout our summer service experiment.

Beginning in the 1980”s church leaders throughout the country had this well-meaning idea that went something like this: “If we offer children’s ministry the same time as the main service, we are able to minister to two captive audience at one time.  We can teach the children, who are here only because they are brought by their parents, in one area of the building while we have services for adults, who are only here because they brought their children in another area of the building.”  I call this the “age-segregated” model where children, youth and adults all worshiped at the same time, but in different locations within the church building.  It seemed to be the perfect way to minister to both children and adults at the same time. In fact, I was a major supporter of it for a long time. However, a generation later we are learning that this model didn’t work in the long term.  The children that grew up in this “age-segregated” model of ministry have left the church at the most accelerated rate in human history.

The data shows that millennial’s, born between the 1980-2000, are dropping out of the church at the fasted rate of any generation in history.  Yet this generation is the first generation to have “kids/youth church” as an alternative to church. Here is the problem. The church has invested more in that generation than any other generation in history.  We created all these age-specific programs for that generation. We changed our music, facilities and many traditions in order to try to become relevant. Yet this generation above any other generation is the most likely to say that they were hurt by the church and that the church is irrelevant.”

Now that we have tried this model for a whole generation, let’s take a look at what could have gone wrong.

In my estimation, this “age-segregated” children and youth ministry offered during the main service created four main problems.

  1. It unintentionally communicated “you don’t belong here” to the students.  When we have a place for our students, we communicate that “they are not supposed to be here” when they want to gather with the rest of the church family.
  2. It unintentionally communicated “church is irrelevant” to our students.  If the worship service was relevant to kids, why on earth did we ask them to leave to go someplace that was “more on their level” or “more fun” instead of staying in the main service with their families?  I cannot agree more with one of my mentors Howard Hendricks who said, “It is sin to bore people with the Bible.” However, we have made an idol out of making things fun. We have made fun an idol we cannot ever please.  There is always something else that is quite honestly more fun that sitting in church. However, there are few places where we get to encounter the presence of God and enjoy the fellowship other people.” When EVERYTHING is only about fun, then NOTHING is about God.”
  3. It unintentionally communicated “go with your friends” instead of “stay with your family” to students.  When their friends went to kids church/youth church, students followed along.  Then when their friends quit going to church in college, likewise they stayed home.  Statistically, their friends never came back to church, and these students never followed.  I believe one of the main reasons why is because they never felt belonged to main church in the first place.

So, this brings us to our summer experiment.  We did something radical, we asked students to attend the main worship service with their parents.

Why do we ask our children to be part of the main service?

    1.  It communicates “You belong here.”  We are a multi-generational church.  There is no “kids table” in the household of God.  You always have belonged and you always will.
    2. It creates environments for observational learning.  Christina Embree writes that “Observational learning is another powerful developmental tool for young children. Watching others model what they should do is an important part of social development and one that has been lacking to in the larger church.” For example, church is one of the primary places were children get to observe parents participating in worship and being willfully submissive to benevolent leadership.  When parents follow along in the Bible (instead of being on social media), sing songs they may not like, stand when they want to sit, they are demonstrating to their children that they honor Christ and follow authority in the way they ask their children to do so.
    3. It communicates that “Church and God are relevant” The same grace that parents need is the same grace that kids need.  The challenges of every generation are similar, the sandbox just gets bigger, and messier as we get older.
    4. It actually makes the service better.  Children provide laughter, movement and excitement.  I also think it makes the messages and music better. How?  The older we get, the more we are able to tolerate mediocrity.  Most of us adults are able to appear interested when we are not.  We have learned the social grace of faking attention. Kids have not learned that yet.  Therefore, if a sermon or music is not engaging, it is often reflected in the behavior of the children more than the expressions of the adults.  Kids are great at telling the preacher to “wrap it up.”
    5. It encourages growth on the part of the children’s ministry staff.  I believe the first casualty of the “age-segregated” children’s ministry are the adult leaders who serve weekly in the kids area, but never are able to attend worship themselves.  Without noticing it, they often stop growing spiritually because they no longer are able to attend worship services. And adult who are not growing spiritually don’t make very good teachers.
    6. It connects our students to our adults.  Kara Powell has noted that in order for students to continue to stay engaged into adulthood, it takes a minimum of five adults within the congregation to be investing their lives into the students.

Let me offer two caveats here.  

  1.  For children that are too young to sit still, we need to offer something for them during the service.  It is not fair to the child, parent and those around to expect really young students to sit quiet for long periods of time.  This is not a moral or a parenting issue, it is a biological development issue. We don’t expect a three-year-old child to sit as long as a nine-year-old.
  2. We don’t have all the answers now.  It has been said that “today’s problems are the result of yesterday’s solutions.”  I am not sure if having children in the main service will keep them in the main service in their adult years. But I am willing to try.   Again, this is not a moral issue for all people in all settings.
  3. We will continue to offer age-based ministry for all children at the 9:00 hour.  This means that parents can serve or attend a class of their own while the students attend age-specific ministry and then the family can worship together.

In short, if we want our students to be adults that are engaged in the church in the future, we need to begin making space for them now.  The studies show that when kids are regularly dismissed from the “grown-up” church, they rarely ever come back. We need to create an environment where we don’t have to get them to come back, because we never encouraged them to leave in the first place.

Sitting in grown-up church may have bored a few people, but it sure didn’t kill anyone.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment