Kids. They are a part of the church, but too often, they are apart from the church. They are the future of the church, but they are the present as well.
How do you teach them about Christs love the most exciting lesson they will ever learn in a way that doesnt leave them bored beyond belief?
And then there are childrens ministry leaders. How do you find them, build into them, and ensure they are serving in their area of spiritual giftedness, rather than relying on the people who feel its their obligation to be with the children even as they are burning out from weekend after weekend of duty?
Its enough to make a childrens ministry director want to cry & or, cry for help. Welcome to the paradox that is childrens ministry.
Sue Miller, the executive director of Willow Creek Community Churchs Promiseland Ministry, knows how frustrating childrens ministry can be. But, more importantly, she also knows how joyous and fulfilling it can be.
A fun place to be
Pick a Saturday night. Or a Sunday morning.
What youll find on the west wing of Willow Creek Community Church is fun & or, more rightly, FUN. From infants being rocked to fourth and fifth graders rocking along to songs about Jesus, this is the place to be for more than 3,000 kids each weekend. And this is church.
There is energy and momentum throughout the hallways and classrooms of Promiseland each weekend, Sue says. Our volunteers serve with passion and joy because they feel like they play an important role in helping our church release its full redemptive potential each weekend.
And I hear story after story of kids dragging their parents to church because they dont want to miss Promiseland.
In other words, church for these kids is what it should be. But Promiseland has not always been fun and games. When Sue, a former school teacher, arrived on the scene, things were heading in the wrong direction.
We started experiencing stress cracks in the ministry in 1988, Sue recalls. Kids were starting to complain that our lessons were boring, and we were struggling with teaching them in relevant ways. We were adapting traditional curriculum lessons each week and it wasnt working well.
Then there were the volunteers. Our volunteers were overloaded and tired; they werent being nurtured or developed, Sue remembers. We were understaffed, but the number of kids kept growing.
Add to that the turnover of four of the six paid Promiseland staff members and this was a ministry in flux. Things became so bleak that Willow Creeks associate pastor at the time, Don Cousins, was brought in to find some solutions.
Don leveled the ministry, Sue says. We went back to the drawing board with Promiseland.
Part of the 1991 blueprint put Sue in charge of the ministry. I accepted, knowing that we had a huge implementation process ahead.
Step one: some difficult discussions
One of the hardest parts of the transition for me as the leader was having all of the tough conversations I had to have with key volunteers who were having trouble getting on board with our new direction, Sue says. Most volunteers signed on once they understood why we were making the changes; they heard the vision and affirmed the new direction. But there were some who left our ministry at that time. That was hard for me to watch. Despite our conversations with them, we lost some key people in the changeover.
But they also won over the most important people: the children.
I wanted to create an environment that made kids excited to be in Promiseland, Sue says. And the kids were the ones who convinced us we were moving in the right direction. They absolutely loved the new vision.
Kids catching a vision? Is it possible? How does it happen?
We started writing our own curriculum and having more relevant Bible teaching programs, Sue recalls. We wanted to harness the arts to help us be relevant to todays kids, so we added drama elements and a live band in the upper ages.
Building into the leaders
But interestingly, the most beneficial aspect for the kids was probably what was happening with their leaders.
We recruited and developed our volunteers around their spiritual giftedness, and we created more realistic job descriptions in order to honor their time, Sue says. We put leadership and care structures in place for our volunteers, providing small groups for them to be in each weekend to receive care.
It took about three years for us to reap all of the benefits that came from this change. Our volunteers are so much happier now; their joy in serving increased significantly when these changes were made, Sue adds. They feel much more fulfilled and they are no longer burning out like they used to. Our goal was to have our volunteers get more than they gave.
One of the things volunteers were given was a little flock of children to love.
Over the years, we have added small groups for all of our kids from age three up, Sue says. We give the kids Bible teaching in a large group gathering, and then they break out into small groups of approximately ten kids and a loving shepherd who helps them apply what they learned that day to their real lives.
Of course, real life and a kids version of real life are somewhat different. Thats one of the reasons many Promiseland volunteers recently participated in a version of the Becoming a Contagious Christian Training Course specifically designed for them. The course helped small group leaders think through how to tell their personal story of faith in a way that makes sense in an eight-year-olds world. It also taught leaders how to help the kids see their own potential for reaching out to other kids.
And Promiseland kids have been reaching out to their friends in a big way. A winter sleepover for fourth and fifth graders saw hundreds of new kids introduced to their friends church. And, as part of a regular weekend Promiseland, that same age group was presented with the Gospel.
There were 92 of our fourth and fifth graders who made decisions to start a relationship with Jesus Christ. Volunteers were ecstatic as they experienced Gods amazing power all weekend long, Sue says. One volunteer told me, I love being a part of what God is doing in Promiseland. Serving here is the highlight of the week for me.
The highlight of their week. If its that way for a volunteer, just picture the impact Promiseland has on its audience of kids.
The best hour
We want Promiseland to be the best hour of a kids week, Sue says. Our kids are going to form their first impressions of God and the local church through our ministry, so we want that picture to accurately reflect how awesome it is to have a relationship with the God of the universe. We want them to love His Word, to want to be a part of a small community, and to be committed to using their spiritual gifts within the body someday, so wed better do an excellent job of painting the picture for them now, while they are young. As we strive to make these things happen in Promiseland, and we do it with excellence, we can make Promiseland the best hour of every kids week.
That requires a willingness to step back after each week and assess how things are going. And if something isnt the way it should be, there must be a willingness to change it.
We set the ministry bar of excellence high and try each weekend to get there. We continue to reinvent Promiseland every year, Sue says. We are committed to not changing our mission of supplementing families in their attempt to lay a spiritual foundation, but we evaluate everything else we do. We want to make sure we are staying relevant to the kids we are trying to reach.
Knowing the value
One of the ways that Promiseland is different these days is in its values. Without starting from scratch in what they try to accomplish, they have refined their focus.
Instead of saying they are a child-centered ministry, Promiseland has changed to saying they are child-targeted in their approach. We feel that this is a better definition that clarifies what we are trying to be about, Sue says. We want to look through the eyes of each child and create a ministry that reaches, teaches, and loves that child. Thats child-targeted.
Another value used to say that Children are significantly impacted by relationships that model the biblical truths they are learning.
As Sue relates, We have grown in that definition recently. We do not value merely caring for and relating to kids each weekend. We have changed the value to: We value intentional shepherding through our small groups, where we can model an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.
In other words, our small group leaders are trying to model who Jesus is to their kids. And kids get their first taste of a biblically functioning community in their small group.
Yet another change deals with creativity. In the past, Promiseland said creativity was valued in the Bible lessons. According to Sue, that value now says, We want to teach the Bible creatively in order to reach todays children.
Whats the difference? We dont value creativity for the sake of merely being creative and innovative, explains Sue. Rather, we value teaching the Bible in creative ways so that kids will listen and learn.
A safe place
While the values of having application-oriented lessons and making Promiseland a fun place remain unchanged, a new value has been added. We want Promiseland to be a safe place for children, Sue says. We understand that safety and security is one of a childs highest needs. They cannot learn well in an environment where they are afraid and dont feel safe emotionally, physically, or spiritually.
A never-ending process
Building a prevailing childrens ministry is an ongoing process, Sue says. Weve been writing our own curriculum and creative teaching programs for ten years now and every week we still tweak what we do to stay culturally relevant to our target audience. We constantly re-adjust our programming elements in order to keep pace with our kids as they bring their seeker friends with them. We always have a need for more volunteers. Our facilities remain a challenge as we set up and tear down each weekend and manage our space limitations.
In other words, childrens ministry isnt easy. But the realities of childrens ministry mean little to a kid. Theyre just looking for a fun, relevant place to learn about God.
The important thing is that were committed to being Gods army on behalf of His little ones, Sue says. Were committed to being unstoppable and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. That requires staying power for the long haul. And the enthusiasm of a kid.