“Pastor J….can you make me another paper airplane?” James asked me almost every Sunday as he and his family patiently waited to talk with me after worship. James was about six years old, but we had a strong bond. I was proud to call James my friend and thrilled the day he was baptized.
I (Jonathan) realized over time the ministry of bended knee. Not the bent prayer knee you are probably expecting. Although that is an incredibly important bended knee, the bended knee I am referring to is not about connecting with God but connecting with children.
Getting down on bended knee is a simple yet amazing practice. To a four-year-old, you look like a giant. And when you stand on stage to preach, you are not only a giant but an untouchable. Like it or not, a natural barrier exists between you and the audience with whom you are communicating. You can bridge that gap with good communication and relationship, but you will not need a bridge with children if you get down on their level, literally.
I (Jennifer) remember visiting a church recently and observed how the pastor interacted with the children and youth of the church. He took time to visit the nursery and high-fived the preschoolers as they affectionately called him Pastor Jared. Everyone he saw was greeted with a handshake, an elbow tap, or a smile and asked about their day. Children were noticed, and teenagers felt like they mattered. Taking the time to speak to the children of the church personally made an impression on me, and I knew that this was creating a healthy space for these young people to discover who God was and their value in Christ.
According to New Testament scholar Craig Keener, in Jesus’ day, as many as half of the children died by the age of 12. Believing in the Messiah, or at least Jesus as a Rabbi, “people were bringing little children to Jesus to have Him touch them….” (Mark 10:13 NIV, ‘84). The adjective “little” and the fact that Jesus “took them in His arms” (Mark 10:16), indicates that these children were babies or small children. The intent was for Jesus to bless the little children.
With the busy schedule of Jesus and His healing and gospel ministry, it appears the disciples wanted to protect or shield Jesus from the interruptions of parents and infants. The disciples even rebuked the parents who brought the children. But Jesus had a rebuke of His own! Jesus was indignant with the actions and attitudes of the disciples. Why? The word indignant is centered around injustice. It was unholy and unjust for anyone to think children were unimportant. Much like Jesus did with women, he rebuked the low ontological (value) view of the day that children, especially impoverished children, were shackled by. Instead, he said let them “come to me” and “do not hinder them.” He took the children in His arms, He put His mighty yet gentle hands on them, and He blessed them—what a powerful image for ministry.
According to George Barna, there is a 20% retention rate among young adults, in their 20’s, who grew up in the church and remained active. Further, only 50% of Christian teens will continue to be actively involved in church during their college years. Also, only 16% of all churches, across all denominations, have a significant representation of young adults. What is happening to our younger generation when it comes to faith?
In Why They Stay, Dr. Parr and Dr. Crites indicate that the number one reason a young person stays in the church is due to “family upbringing.” It is imperative that we, as ministers and church leaders, equip parents to teach children about the truths of the Bible. Over time, parents have abdicated their role as spiritual leaders to the church. The church was never meant to be the sole source of spiritual development, only a supplement to what is already happening in the home. Without this support from family, a child’s spiritual development can suffer. Strengthening the role of parents is a critical task that we must not neglect.
If family upbringing is the #1 reason a person stays in church, what are reasons they would stray? The number one reason a person strays from the church, after being active as a child or youth, is a “bad church experience.” Children need healthy experiences in the church, and they need to know they are valued. Children and youth are a vital part of the congregation and need the nurturing and discipleship of the congregation as a whole.
A child’s view of their pastor is also a contributing factor in their spiritual formation. Dr. Parr and Dr. Crites observe, “A young adult who grew up attending church and disliked his or her pastor is 90% more likely to have strayed from church.” What can pastors do to remedy this problem? Simply, be approachable! Be likable! Take time to walk around and visit families before the service. Greet the children and take an interest in what is going on in their lives. Personally interact with them and let them know that you care. Don’t be afraid to get eye level with them and have a conversation. Be a leader at VBS. Go to all the camps, even if you go for a few days. A child’s formative view of God is shaped by the adults in their lives, and care should be taken to provide them a safe place to discover who God is and how much he loves them. Pastor, those few extra moments interacting with a child on their level has the potential to build a bond with you, but more importantly, with Christ and His church.
I (Jonathan) remember the day a young mom and her two daughters stopped by the office. The entire staff was preparing to leave for an overseas mission trip the next day. With suitcases everywhere, I stopped and stooped and spoke with the two little girls without much of a thought about it all. A few weeks later, the same young mom stopped by the church. New to the church and community, her marriage was in turmoil, and she wanted to inquire about marriage counseling. She stated, “I prayed that God would show me who could counsel us, and when I saw your heart for my daughters, I knew you would have a heart for our marriage.”
Pastor. Deacon. Leader. When it comes to children, there are no interruptions.
Regardless of her size, location, community or demographics, every congregation needs to be growing young. While many factors can help your church be inviting for children and their families, you will not go wrong with the ministry of eye to eye with children. How will this practice of bended knee with children help your ministry?
God will honor ministry with the “least.”
Blessing yields blessing. While no one in your congregation or community should be overlooked, we are commanded in scripture to look after widows, orphans, children and anyone else who is amongst the least.
You will build good leadership capital.
The parents and grandparents will notice you making paper airplanes, commenting on that sparkling new outfit, or wiping a snotty nose or two. Ministry to children reveals your heart. Let your heart be seen because…
You will set a tone.
If you want your church to grow young, then children must be a visible priority not only in your church but also in your personal ministry. Yes, you might have a children’s minister or a set of volunteers, but your church will take their cue from your ministry. A senior pastor friend of mine volunteers in the preschool, children and special needs ministry once per quarter instead of preaching! That’s a bold move. But his church is growing young because children are a priority to his personal ministry.
Mark 10:16: “And Jesus took the children in his arms, put His hands on them and blessed them.” Be like Jesus.
Jennifer Howington serves as the Childhood Ministry Specialist for Texas Baptists. Prior to her work with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, she served in the local church as a Preschool/Children's Minister for nearly a decade. Jennifer holds a BBA from Baylor University and a Masters of Arts Degree in Children's Ministry from Dallas Baptist University. She is also a licensed CPA and is currently pursuing a D.Min degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more information about Childhood Discipleship ministry, go to txb.org/childhood.
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith is the statewide director of Church Health Strategy for Texas Baptists. A twenty-nine-year veteran of preaching and pastoring, his calling is to equip pastors and lay leaders to grow God's Kingdom. Dr. Smith holds degrees in Christianity and Speech from Houston Baptist University, a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.