Nervously I walked into our small country church for the first time. My husband was being introduced as pastor of the two-church district, and it was my first Sabbath juggling our 14-month-old son and 5-year-old daughter alone.
The historic structure wasn’t equipped with a special room to escape to with my toddler, and he could be easily heard from anywhere in the sanctuary. I was so concerned about the disruption it might cause that I hardly heard the sermon. After the service an older, soft-spoken gentleman approached me. “You know,” he said, “I used to get a little irritated by noise from kids during the sermon. But now I enjoy it! It means our church is alive.” The members embraced our children with love, and we felt we’d found our home.
Yes, our church is alive. As of 2014 more than 1,796,000 children under the age of 15 were found in our congregations.1 This energetic group is the future of our movement. What are we doing to prepare them to take the helm? How are we ministering to them and raising up leaders?
Building a Foundation
Jesus, during His ministry on earth, spent considerable time with children. He recognized important character qualities in them. While talking with His disciples, Jesus admonished, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3, HCSB).2 Children are tenderhearted, not yet jaded by a critical spirit. They are sensitive, simple, and accepting. If the seeds of truth are planted in the soil of their heart and cultivated while they are still young, “when [they are] old, [they] will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, KJV).
Developing a solid children’s ministry program in your congregation is important for several reasons. First, it acts as a support system for parents as they seek to disciple their children. Second, it provides a secure environment, through weekly Sabbath School and other programs, for children to develop a relationship with Jesus. Third, it offers training opportunities to develop leadership qualities in the youth. Fourth, it gives children occasion to use their talents and gifts in service to others.
Let’s explore these a bit further.
A Support System
As a parent, my goal for my children is for them to have a personal, living relationship with Jesus. I want them to learn to love His church and find their identity in being a Seventh-day Adventist Christian preparing to meet Jesus. I want them to be faithful, not just in church attendance but in lifestyle, tithing, and devotion. I want them to be mission minded, not simply maintaining the status quo.
An efficient, well-oiled children’s ministries program can help parents, like me, with these goals. Local church children’s ministries coordinators should talk with families, assess needs, and convey all concerns to the pastor and board. Programs such as children’s prayer meeting, baptismal classes, children’s choir, youth Sabbath or children’s church, youth retreats, or Vacation Bible School can then be planned, where children can grow and learn in an age-appropriate atmosphere.
A Secure Environment
According to The Children’s Ministries Coordinator handbook: “Children are individuals with emotional, social, physical, spiritual, and mental needs. They are not miniature adults. They all need love and care. They need to be free to play, explore, create, and express themselves. They need to be instructed with the right values and be challenged to learn and master new skills and knowledge. When they are in our care, we need to offer a safe environment where children feel welcomed, valued, and accepted.”3
Church should be a safe place for all ages, but especially for our children. In this age of rampant abuse, it is our duty to protect them and surround them with an environment of trust. Children feel secure when they are loved unconditionally. They respect church members who take the time to listen, who really take an interest in them. Members should show children appropriate attention, but also familiarize themselves with church policy regarding appropriate interaction with youth. Children’s ministries can provide education on what is proper.
Raising Up Leaders
Another facet of children’s ministry provides opportunities for children to discover their talents and abilities. Children can be involved in every aspect of the Sabbath service, from leading songs, collecting offering and reading Scripture, to delivering the Sabbath sermon. This enables them to take ownership of their church, becoming an integral part of the growth and life of the congregation. It requires some effort on the part of church leaders to coordinate programs and provide mentoring to young people, but what better place to invest their time and wisdom?
Some congregations dedicate a special Sabbath every quarter as children’s church or youth Sabbath. The entire service is planned by youth, with guidance from children’s ministries and/or Pathfinder leaders, as well as a youth pastor, if the church has one. This is a fantastic outreach opportunity! One of the teens in our church invited her family and friends who were nonmembers to come listen to her special music. They attended and were blessed by the program.
Leadership qualities can also be cultivated by involving youth in service-based ministries. These offer hands-on, tangible experiences for them to “establish a pattern of outreach…that may well continue through life.”4 Children are fearless. They’ll knock on a door and leave a brochure; they’ll ask for donations of food for the hungry; they’ll ask a stranger if they’d like to be prayed for. And they’ll get results!
Children around the world are finding their voice, preaching, teaching, and witnessing for Jesus. Imagine if they had never been given the opportunity to use their gifts.
We live in a consumer-driven culture. The attitude “What’s in it for me?” has polluted the church, too. The happiest congregations, those that are growing and retaining members, are missional in nature, not looking for what they can get out of church, but what they can contribute.
In the same way, my child’s spiritual happiness is not the responsibility of the Sabbath School superintendent, pastor, or children’s ministries coordinator. They are there to offer support, assistance, and grace-filled programming for me to take advantage of, but ultimately it is my God-given responsibility.
We can have the most child-friendly church in the world, with the most engaging programs, but if we are not training our children to love and obey Christ (instilling within their hearts a desire to know and serve Him) at home, future church attendance for them will become irrelevant. Instead of creating disciples, we will have fashioned Adventist consumers who sit idly occupying a pew each week, completely disconnected.
So how are we preparing our children to be true leaders and find their place in the church? By building a solid biblical foundation at home, by taking advantage of church support and programming, and by providing them with a secure, nonthreatening environment to stretch their wings.
If you’d like more information on organizing a children’s ministry in your church, visit www.gcchildmin.org. n
1 Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016 Annual Statistical Report, p. 8, http://documents.adventistarchives,org/Statistics/ASR/ASR2016.pdf.
2 Bible texts credited to HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission.
3 The Children’s Ministries Coordinator, p. 13, www.gcchildmin.org/pdf/chmcoordinatorbook/chapter6.pdf.
4 Ibid., p. 7, www.gcchildren.org/pdf/chmcoordinatorbook/entirebook.pdf.
Beth Thomas is a freelance writer living in Maryland, United States. She is a happy wife, and mother to two future leaders.