Children’s Ministry and the Ministry of the Word

An old Baptist Sunday School class in the 1940s. National Archive photo

As it turns out, Twitter is an excellent source of inspiration for my blog. Why, a couple weeks back, I couldn’t help but notice someone commenting that the New Testament applauds churches for many things, but children’s ministry is not one of them. I think I understand where they were coming from, but I do not like the implication of this statement.

The person in question, who I am not going to name because I have no wish to demean them, belongs to the Reformed tradition. There is a great emphasis within this sphere on the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. If I understand correctly, these means of grace are the focus of our corporate worship in church. In some quarters (though certainly not all), this can lead to a de-emphasis or even suspicion of anything that is not a part of that Ministry of Word and Sacrament. Once again, this is how I understand it: I did not grow up in a Reformed church.

I assume that this was the genesis for the comment that scripture did not applaud (i.e. institute) the other “ministries” that are commonly part of church life in this country and others. I do not fully disagree with this, but if we are using such a point of view to diminish children’s ministry or say that it is not important, then I think we have made a grave mistake. Let me explain why I believe this to be the case.

1. Children’s ministry is part of the Ministry of the Word.

I am admittedly in danger of losing a few people with that statement. After all, the general understanding of the Ministry of the Word in some circles is that it must be carried out by an ordained minister. By no means do I wish to take away from the special and essential role played by teaching elders, but if we reduce the purpose of the Church to the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament, then say that only a select handful of people participate in it, then what is the role of the rest of the congregation?

I think that if you were to survey a cross section of godly Christians, you would find that many of their most formative influences were not actually ordained ministers, but rather parents, Sunday School teachers, and mentors who taught them biblical truths. Like it or not, children are learning about the Word of God in those children’s classes, whatever you choose to call them. This instillation of scripture in young minds is not inferior in any way to what takes place in the minds of adults. If anything, it is more critical and not less. You may or may not win a person for Christ at that age, but you can certainly lose them.

If children’s ministry is nothing but fun and games, then I would agree that it is not part of the Ministry of the Word. However, if children are being taught about scripture, then that falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Word. You may be thinking that it is not on the same level as the preached word in the corporate service, but consider that it is very difficult for someone to preach equally to both children and adults in a sermon. There are some concepts that a youth simply cannot grasp. They need an explanation that is geared toward them. This is what children’s ministry can provide. To the extent that this ministry supports the work of ordained ministers in corporate worship and is firmly grounded in scripture, I see no biblical reason why it should not be considered part of the Ministry of the Word.

2. Children’s Ministry is essential for church growth.

Oh dear – I’ve hit another nerve! “Church growth” are two particularly dirty words for some. Once again, this is understandable. There are far too many congregations pursuing growth at all costs. To borrow a phrase from another one of my articles, their grace is as cheap (and their doctrine as shallow) as their sound systems are expensive. They gather around charismatic figures who are so intent on getting people into their pews that they are unwilling to offend anyone, even though the cross itself is an offense. I would describe such movements as “a mile wide and an inch deep”. They are sure to be popular in the short-term, but unlikely to stand the test of time.

However, the failings of the “Church Growth Movement” do not imply that church growth is a bad thing in and of itself. The Church grew by leaps and bounds in the first century under the leadership of the Apostles, but that was not because it sacrificed doctrine. In fact, it was rather the opposite. One of the ultimate goals of the Church is to expand: to bring more people into a saving knowledge of God. Growth that is brought about through clever human marketing is problematic, for sure. Spirit induced growth, on the other hand, is entirely biblical.

What is my point? Well, I can tell you for certain that if you make no attempt to have any kind of children’s ministry in your church, you are unlikely to grow. Rather, you are quite likely to gray and eventually die. It is wrong to value one age group over another, and discipleship must occur at every level. I have seen churches make the opposite mistake of ignoring those who are older while chasing the fountain of youth. However, the fact remains that families with children are about 500% more likely to attend a place where their children will be taught the Word of God in a manner that connects with them. If you make no effort to reach those people, they will move on to another church home. I have seen it happen so many times: parents are willing to tolerate a wide array of stylistic and even doctrinal differences to make sure their children are happy and cared for in a godly manner.

The Presbyterian Church in America is the oldest skewing major denomination in the United States, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Group. By no means am I suggesting that there are no PCA churches that have effective children’s ministries, but I cannot help but wonder if this de-emphasis on the part of some has led to older congregations. I don’t think it is good enough to let the Baptists and others convert people and hope that when they grow up and appreciate doctrine, they will move on to the Reformed faith. If you make no effort to reach children, you are setting yourself up to die, no matter how good your doctrine is.

3. The Ministry of the Word as a whole is dependent upon a good children’s ministry.

Allow me to illustrate this point with an example. Our church has multiple Bible studies for women on Tuesday mornings. From time to time, I serve in the nursery during this two hour period. One week, I was sent in to work with our youngest group of charges and met a young boy named Owen. I say I met him, but he rather announced himself with much crying and wailing. You see, Owen had just entered that magical period known as “separation anxiety”. He had come to realize what it meant to be parted from his mother, and it terrified him.

“If he doesn’t settle down soon, we’re going to have to have his mom come take him,” one of the ladies told me. The reason for this was not only that Owen had thoroughly exasperated the poor volunteer attempting to hold him, but his crying had the potential to upset the whole emotional balance in the nursery and send the rest of the children into a fit as well.

At that moment, I knew I was entering a great battle. Owen’s mother is a sweet young woman who devotes herself to the care of her son. I reasoned that this two hour period was most likely the only time during the week when she would be able to sit down with other ladies, freed from all responsibility, and hear the Word of God proclaimed. If she was to get pulled out of her Bible study to come tend to Owen, she would miss out on the Word that week. Therefore, it was imperative that I find some way to tend to Owen’s practical need to feel safe and secure, or else the spiritual needs of his mother would be denied. For the rest of that morning, I held Owen in my arms, and he eventually settled down and became a happy camper.

What was true of our Bible study time that morning is also true of the corporate worship service on Sunday, and it can be equally applicable to both mothers and fathers. The selfless volunteers who tolerate screaming, drool, and dirty diapers are allowing people to hear the Word of God free from interruption. Now, I do not mean to say that children are some kind of hindrance to God’s Word: they are a wonderful gift of God. Yet, every parent needs a break from time to time, and we must admit that people listen better when they are not distracted. Therefore, the children’s ministry can be essential to enabling the church body to derive the greatest benefit from Bible teaching.

4. Scripture does applaud ministry to children.

I admit that you will never find the words “children’s ministry” in scripture. The churches in the time of the Apostles seem to have been rather on the small side, meeting in the houses of various members. They did not share the financial and material resources enjoyed by many American congregations today. In all likelihood, the services were less formally structured, and it seems certain that all ages were thrown in together. There were probably children running here and there, much like what occurred in the “all age services” at the church I attended in England. Therefore, there was no highly developed sense of children’s ministry.

However, we do see plenty of evidence in scripture that teaching the scriptures to children is very important. Of course, it was Christ who said, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16b) The ancient people of Israel were always instructed to teach God’s commands to their children. One example that sprung to my mind is when the Apostle Paul pointed out to Timothy the heritage of faith he received in his youth. “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well.” (2 Timothy 1:5) I think it is safe to assume that these women were teaching Timothy the Word of God, if only in an informal manner. Then there is that oft-quoted maxim: “Train up a child in the way he should go, / Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

More to the point, the Reformed tradition probably has a more developed theology of children within the church than any other within Protestantism. They believe that children are full members of the covenant first made with Abraham and now carried on within the Church. With this in mind, I am rather confused as to why anyone subscribing to that viewpoint would look down on children’s ministry or see it as somehow secondary. If you are part of the covenant community, you are part of the covenant community. If the Word of God is preached, it must be preached to you, and it should be treated with honor.

Let me finish this article by saying that I think most Reformed people fully understand the importance of children’s ministry. It could be that what I witnessed was merely an isolated case. However, if there are any people out there holding such a negative view about children’s ministries, I hope they will consider the points I have made and perhaps adjust their opinion. I myself have no children. I am not promoting children’s ministry simply so I have somewhere to park my kid for a couple hours each week. I am promoting it because I believe it is biblical and necessary for the life of the congregation. Therefore, I hope that as we go forward, we will understand how these other ministries link in with the Ministry of the Word, and we will not assume that they are merely innovations aimed at enhancing numbers rather than doctrine. Our children need good doctrine just as much as adults.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.