One of the challenges I have had in some of the churches I pastored was ministry to children and youth. Not always have there been a lot of children and youth; sometimes none except my own. In one of my churches we had none so we began a children’s after school outreach that proved effective in our neighborhood. There is a saying that goes, “Children are the church of tomorrow.” In many churches in the Philippines where I serve, children are the church of today and are leading many ministries. Jesus recognized the importance of children: ““Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Many people over the ages have recognized the importance of children and youth in the church. The “4/14 Movement” recognizes that most people become believers in Christ between the ages of 4 and 14 (see https://4to14window.com). Those are the ages when some of the most important decisions and character forming take place. Since the fact is well established that children and youth are important to God and God’s Kingdom, what can we do as pastors to foster ministry to these ages? Here are a few ideas:
- Preach and teach about it: I have tried different methods of stressing ministry to the young in my preaching. At some contexts, I have had “children’s moments” or mini-sermons. Funny that adults say they got more out of that sermon than the “real” sermon. We can also make children the topic of a sermon. Help parents be better at the ministry of parenting by giving practical and biblical advice from the pulpit. I have had the philosophy in preaching that what I say should community to the simplest minded, least educated, or youngest in a church. If my sermon goes over the heads of people by being too complex, wordy, or using large words, I have been a poor communicator. I remember a few sermons and preachers from my childhood who made an impression on me because they communicated at my level. I may not have understood everything they said, but I caught enough to make lifelong decisions based on their preaching.
- Model and mentor: Children and youth will look up to pastors whom they respect and who show them attention. Pastors are in a great position to mentor young people. First, we can model a godly character by our interactions with other people, especially with the young. Second, we can create systems within the church where the young are mentored by the more mature. Third, when appropriate, we can choose promising youth and specifically mentor them in ministry. In some situations (such as working with the opposite gender), we may have to find qualified lay people who can mentor the youth. A youth or children’s pastor tasked with specific ministry to the young can also do this.
- Involve children and youth in ministry: Give the young opportunities to serve, not just token service or to fill in when no adults are available. Plan and program this. This might include participating in some aspects of the worship time (just about any part of a worship service can be done in part by the young). We may need to teach and mentor those who participate, but children and youth are quick to learn. I preached my first sermon at age 14. It was five minutes of a three part sermon in a youth service. By age 16, my pastor was allowing me to speak 3-4 times a year and had granted me a local minister’s license. My first itinerate preaching was in a church 100 miles from home by a pastor, Rev. Frank Dizmang, who believed in me and invited me to speak on a Sunday morning service. I was only 15 or 16 years old. This investment in me made a big impression on my life.
- Recruit caring and visionary workers: No one is just a natural at children’s or youth ministry. They must be trained. There is a sense where a willing heart will go a long ways in this, but to be effective and not harm the children or youth, there must be training and oversight. But we must be cautious that we do not over burden anyone. My first Sunday School class was when I was a senior in high school. I was asked to teach the second grade boys class. I did not really know what I was doing, and I am afraid I was not very effective. Some training would have helped. We may need to nurture people to the point of their becoming volunteers. Recruiting for such ministry is a constant job.
- Create a setting where young people can hear God’s call: I am a firm believer that a call to ministry is enhanced or can be more easily heard when there is an atmosphere in a local church where people are seeking God whole heartedly. If we are preaching heart holiness through total commitment, some of our youth will hear and respond. They will respond to the message of salvation and sanctification and give their lives to God. God may call some of them to full-time ministry. If we live with this expectation, we will more likely see results.
- Allocate time and money to children and youth, which will indicate your priorities: How is the local church money spent? What we believe in will get priority in our time and in our finances. If our heart is in discipling our children and youth, then they need to be made priorities in our building designs (don’t put the youth in a remote, cold/hot attic), our allocation of funds, and in our general programming. Pastors must stress this with their local church boards.
What can a church do that has few if any children or youth in attendance? That is a difficult question to consider. The first thing must always be the mission and vision. Is there a shared vision for ministry to the young, and is this vision being implemented in practical and measurable ways? One thing to consider is if the church (the people) is inflexible or stuck in the past, if people are following outdated traditions and doing things the way they have always been done. This might include music style, worship formats, traditional Sunday School, or other cherished practices. Has the church done any outreach projects? Are there people who are trained and visionary working with the young? How much are people willing to change and sacrifice in order to serve the young? What are the priorities of the church? These will become evident in the programs, structure, staffing, and worship of the church. Are families, especially parents, discipled to be disciplers of children? These are not easy questions to ask or to answer. If a church is not moving in this direction, the church and pastor must honestly ask how they are fulfilling God’s plan for them as kingdom people.
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