For much of my childhood, my parents owned a seventy-five acre property that bordered on a lake. About seventy of those acres were bush. Those acres were part of a much larger bush that extended for seventy-five miles if one walked in the wrong direction.
I never worried about being lost in that bush because I was so familiar with it that I could have found my way out of it with my eyes closed. I spent many a happy hour building teepees, climbing rocks and just having fun there.
I do remember one time though when my cousins were visiting. They weren’t as familiar with all the landmarks that marked the way out of the bush. After about an hour or so of play, they became convinced that they needed to head in the wrong direction to go home.
They were absolutely convinced that they knew how to get back to the house. After some intense discussion, my brother and I decided that we would let them go in the direction that they had chosen.
We headed back to the house without them, leaving them to find their own way out.
Actually we weren’t that foolish. As soon as we were out of sight, we circled around so that we could see what they were doing. After a few minutes of standing alone in the bush with trees all around them they decided that maybe they needed our help.
We rejoined them and we all came out together.
There is nothing quite so dangerous as an absolute certainty that the wrong way is right.
The danger of numbers
For the past few weeks I have been considering the question of whether a small church can run an effective children’s ministry.
My answer to that question is “Yes” but they may need to head in a different direction to have a lasting impact.
They may have to stop focusing on numbers and be content with fewer children.
You read the above statement correctly.
Churches need to be willing to work with fewer children if they are really going to be effective in the programs that they run.
It may be that the more children a church has in its Sunday school, mid-week club and summer day camp, the less effective that church will be.
In most cases, churches have two criteria by which they judge the effectiveness of their programs.
The first is the number of children that attend. A summer day camp that has one hundred and fifty children attending is judged to be more successful than one that only has fifty and the camp of fifty is seen as more successful than the one that only has ten.
The Sunday school with five children attending looks with envy at the church across the road that has fifty children.
The problem with a focus on numbers is that it can blind us to the potential that already exists in a small program.
A children’s program with ten children in it isn’t a failure. It is an opportunity to have an eternal impact on ten young lives. The staff in such a program need to build a foundation for discipleship into those ten young lives.
Aiming for impact rather than success
Churches tend to measure the success of their children’s programs by the number of children in attendance. They also measure the programs by the number of decisions for Christ that those programs produce.
Few things get people more excited in our churches than to hear that there were one hundred children (focus on numbers) at the summer day camp and that ten of those children professed faith in Christ (focus on decisions). With those kinds of numbers the whole church is excited about the camp. Everyone is convinced that it was worth all the money, time and energy that went into putting the camp on.
I want to suggest that these may be the wrong measurements for determining the success of the children’s programs.
Churches need to look at the long-term impact of their programs rather than the immediate measurements of success.
Each program that a church runs needs to be seen as an element in a process that will bring a child through childhood into their teens and then into adulthood with a solid, growing faith in tact.
The measurement of the impact of the programs that churches run for children is the level of faith that those children have when they have left home and are raising their own children.
The measurement of the impact of the programs that you run for children is whether or not they are passionate followers of Jesus Christ when they reach their adult years.
A children’s program that has large numbers of children attending and that experiences large numbers of decision for Christ among those children but loses large numbers of those children when they move into high school or when they leave home is not a successful program.
Churches need to have a long-term plan for keeping the children who attend firmly anchored in the church so that they can grow those children to the point at which they are adults who are passionate followers of Jesus.
How can this be accomplished
I do not profess to have all the answers to an issue that has plagued churches of every size for as long as I can remember. I don’t have any easy four-step program that will ensure that you keep children in your church but I do want to share two facts that churches need to consider when they are planning their programs.
First if you reach the parents, you will usually reach the children.
Most programs are designed to reach out to children with the hope that the children might bring their parents along.
It almost never happens.
Parents who do not attend church are often willing to let their children attend the children’s programs as long as they don’t have to attend themselves.
The problem is that when outside activities become more interesting than church programs, the children stop attending and the parents see no reason why they should force the children to go.
When that happens usually around the time that children move up to high school, the church loses a significant percentage of the children with whom they have been working.
On the other hand most of the children whose parents attend the church continue in the youth program right through high school.
If a church is going to have a long-term impact on non-churched children, they need to figure out how to reach their parents.
I would suggest that the key question that must be answered in the planning of every children’s program is not how do we get children to attend but what do we have to do in order to get their parents to attend. Until a church has answered that question it isn’t really ready to run a program that reaches out to children in the community.
The second fact that should be part of the planning of children’s programs is that at the heart of small-church life are relationships. That should be the strength of a small church.
In planning a program designed to reach out to the children in a community the question needs to be asked; “How do we build relationships with the parents of the children whom we hope to reach?”
There can be many answers to that question but until a church has come up with its answers it isn’t ready to run a children’s program.
It is relatively easy to run a children’s program that has limited impact on the children who attend.
It is easy to run a program that consistently loses children when they reach a certain age.
It is easy to run a day camp that results in professions of faith but no long-term results in the children who make those professions.
Churches all over Canada do that all the time.
It is much more difficult to run a children’s program that is reaching families for Christ with a life-long impact of the children who attend.
As difficult as it may be, however, it is what churches are called to do. Every church needs to accept that challenge; take the difficult route; and make the kind of impact that turns children into life-long disciples of Jesus Christ.
I would love your input on what I have written. It would help me as I think through the implications of this challenge.