As a pastor, that is a question I have often heard over the years. In most cases, what is being asked by parents is whether there are programs and opportunities at the church for their children to get involved. They want to know if there are youth groups, Sunday School classes, Vacation Bible Schools, and other things that are geared specifically to their kids. It is a fair question to ask and for the most part, activities such as youth groups or vacation Bible schools have their place (though I am very much in disagreement with “children’s church,” but I digress).
Coming out of seminary, I served a little congregation that had an older membership. They were wonderful Christian people, but they had made some unwise choices over the years and thus, for a season, my children were the only children in the church. That did change, though, over time. From there, I served a larger congregation with a full-time youth pastor. They had lots of kids in the life of the church and more programs for kids than could easily be counted. My point is that I have seen both spectrums, from very few organized activities for children and youth to quite a few things. Now, as a church-planter, I am re-thinking a lot of things as we start a new congregation pretty much “from scratch.”
Now, don’t take what I am about to say as a condemnation of vacation Bible schools, youth activities, or Sunday School programs, but can we put down our defenses of these programs for a moment and just talk? Can we ask an even more basic question that ought to govern how we approach all that we do? Can we ask what children and youth need most in the life of the church? And can we do so in light of a reality? The reality is that for close to a generation, churches have bent over backwards to offer bigger and more vigorous youth programs. Families, in turn, often jump from church to church based on the activities that said church has (or does not have) for the youth. Vast amounts of the budget for many churches gets directed to youth activities and to tailoring music and worship services toward the youth. Yet, the youth in our society are drifting further and further from the church and from Christ.
What is it that youth most need in the life of the church? They need to be discipled in the ways of the Christian, just like adults do. They need to be taught how to “give a reason for the hope they have,” just like adults do. They need to be engaged in destroying “every argument raised against the knowledge of God and to take every thought captive to obey Christ,” just like adults do. They need to learn to be “pillars and buttresses of the Truth,” just like adults do. They need to learn to love God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love their neighbor as themself, just like adults do.
So, Groseclose, are you saying that children should be treated like adults? No, not at all. I’m not even saying that children do not learn differently than adults learn, because they do. So, what is the difference? Children learn a great deal from their parents. And thus, if parents attend closely to the Word of God and children observe their parents doing so in church and in life, then children will learn these things as they learn by imitating their parents.
And folks, that is the most important thing that a church can offer children. Seeing their parents pay attention to the Word of God as it is read and preached, seeing their parents intentionally seeking to learn what the Bible says as part of a community of faith that takes the Bible seriously, seeing their parents study the Bible at home and share those studies with their family and in application, these are the things that children most need in a church.
So, should children start ditching all of their youth programs? No; insofar as the youth program encourages and supplements the children’s participation in worship, they are great. If these programs take children away from the gathered body (yes, my objection to “children’s church”), then they ought to be jettisoned. Children need to see their parents engaged in the worship of God’s people from an early age. Children need to learn from their parents how to look up a passage in the Bible, sing along with a group of people in worship, and follow a preacher’s sermons from their earliest years. Generations were raised in such a matter and those generations tended to make faith a much higher priority than does the generation that has grown up on youth programs of every flavor.
So, how do I answer the question above today? In politely and cheerfully say, “We offer a context where their faith and growth in faith will be taken seriously and where they can see you (as mom or dad) seriously engaged in the same. Is there anything more valuable?”