Of all of the mythical ways to grow a church (Start a contemporary worship service! Call a pastor with a young family! Get a new website! Create a Facebook page!), perhaps the most time-honored are: Hire a Christian Education Coordinator! And, Create new and better programs for kids!
The theory being that parents want quality programming for their children, and if the kids like coming to church, the parents will follow them.
It’s not a bad theory.
Like countless other churches, the congregation I serve works hard to provide excellent opportunities for children. We welcome kids from all over the community to Vacation Bible School, we write our own Sunday school curriculum and we work hard to ensure that children feel valued and welcomed in our worship services. Like many, many churches, we do most everything we can think of to create excellent programs for children.
But there’s a catch — kids are like adults. And when they experience church as a great time of excitement, entertainment and fun, they will keep on coming right up until the moment that something else is more exciting, entertaining or fun. That puts a huge amount of pressure on church leaders and planners to keep ascending a permanent escalator of spectacle.
We had a bounce house last year? This year we’ll need carnival rides!
Our live nativity has become old hat? How many camels would we need for a live Epiphany?
Sadly, as generations of church leaders have discovered, you can’t win an arms race against yourself. Eventually even the most innovative churches run out of energy, ideas, volunteers or money and what is left is just a collection of church folks doing their best to be faithful; which brings us to the secret to awesome children’s ministry — parents.
There is a mother in our congregation who comes to worship every week and sits alone with her three young children. And week after week, she both models and teaches them the life-giving rituals of worship. Her kids know the words to “Holy, Holy, Holy.” When I follow a Scripture reading with, “The Word of the Lord,” every voice in their pew responds, “Thanks be to God.” And near the end of the service, her seven-year-old prays the Lord’s Prayer so loudly and earnestly that I can sometimes hear him from the chancel.
This parent is teaching her children the faith by doing it with them. They sing together, pray together and elbow one another to pay attention during the “boring” parts of the service. And here’s the best part — the people sitting nearby scoot closer to listen to her explain the service to her children. They relish the reminders of deep theological truths articulated in language appropriate for children, “We pray this together because God loves us so much, and when we say we are sorry, God always forgives us for the things we have done wrong.”
The results (in this family and many others) are children and adults who model Christian worship for one another. Children are invited to affirm their faith alongside disciples older than their grandparents. Adults drink anew of ancient mysteries as they receive the cup of salvation from the hands of nine-year-old Christians.
The reason families become and remain rooted in congregations like ours has little to do with flashy VBS or in-house education specialists. Children respond to adults who love them — by reading Bible stories, helping to pour lemonade and laughing at knock-knock jokes. Just as importantly, parents invest in communities that love their children.
Disciples of all ages — who teach and learn, laugh and weep, love and serve together — are the very best thing about the church. And together they provide the clearest glimpse I have seen into what the heavenly kingdom might be like.
Scott Hauser is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Clarion, Pennsylvania.