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I n May 2022, The Barna Group, in partnership with Awana, released a report that churches and church leaders should give significant attention to. “Children’s Ministry in a New Reality seeks to look at the church of today in order to form the church of 2050. Awana CEO Matt Markins asks a question that we should all be concerned with. It’s not a question of what the future church is, but how we can be a part of actively forming it today:

“If today’s kids are to be the church members and church leaders of 2050, how should we change our thinking?”

The Barna/Awana research gives us four specific areas where church leaders and members need to change their thinking around children’s ministry—child discipleship—in order to build a thriving church for 2050.

Child discipleship must be paramount

Children’s ministry impacts the heart of both the present and future church, so we find ourselves living under what Barna and Awana effectively term a “looming discipleship deadline.”

The primary seasons of faith formation are the childhood and teen years. In fact, George Barna’s previous research concluded that spiritual beliefs are largely set by the time a person reaches 13 years of age!

However, leaders are dealing with unprecedented challenges facing kids today, most notably technology and social media. Parents are still considered the most influential in terms of development, but friends, social media, the internet, television, and the church all fall immediately after that in practically equal percentages of influence. That puts the church in a very interesting place, doesn’t it?

Research also tells us that among adults ages 18–29, the church dropout rate sits at 64 percent. A startling number, no doubt, but there is a major problem with how we’ve been handling this information.

Markins, Awana’s CEO, believes that worldview formation is not a conversation for high school students in youth groups; rather, it’s a conversation about child formation and thinking about the “canary in the coal mine.” (This phrase refers to the former practice of taking caged canaries into coal mines. The birds, being hypersensitive, would die if methane gas became present and thereby alert miners to the danger. The purpose of the canary is to identify the deadly gas in order to stop it from hurting people.)

“The Church looks to the canary in the coal mine as the high school dropout rate [when] students walk away from the Church after high school. But the purpose of the canary in the coal mine isn’t the moment the canary falls over, it’s what deadly gas led to that and where did it come from?” says Markins. “If we’re looking at age 18 as the deadline, we’re actually looking at the wrong deadline. It’s not 18; it’s 13.”

What we do with children forms who they will become by age 13, when their spiritual beliefs are set. For the future church, investing in children and their faith today must be paramount.

Child discipleship must be a partnership

Research shows a large discrepancy in who people believe should be responsible for the faith formation of children. Ninety-five percent of children’s ministry leaders say the home is the primary source of discipleship, while more than half of parents say the primary source is the church. Combined with other statistics, this reveals that children’s ministry leaders and parents don’t agree on much when it comes to faith formation, resulting in a stalemate that needs to be broken. Rather than disagreeing and putting the responsibility on the other party, parents (caregivers) and children’s ministry leaders need to begin working better together.

As we begin or continue that partnership, recognize that many of those who are responsible for child discipleship are scared. Almost half of the children’s ministry leaders surveyed reported that they are afraid of “getting children’s discipleship wrong.” Likewise, half of all parents surveyed feel they are not equipped to be spiritual leaders of their children. None of us want to see more people walk away from the church. Yes, child discipleship is a tall order and a big responsibility, but it’s critical for the health of the present and future church. And more than just the future church, an eternal future for our children with their Lord and Savior is on the line.

Related: Why It’s Imperative That We Continue the Legacy of Faith

Let’s understand that child discipleship is a full-on partnership between church and families. Instead of pointing to one another to accomplish the goal, Barna suggests “a third space.” This space can contain both people and resources that serve as powerful allies in growing faith in young disciples. Looking outside the church and the family can strengthen the quality, creativity, and theology of child discipleship. It was this understanding that led me to co-found GrowthRings to help bridge the widening faith formation gap between church and home. Other partner ministries, such as Connected Families, Visionary Family Ministries and Family Time Training, have similar bridging resources so that both family and church are involved in the faith formation of children.

Child discipleship must be supported

If you are a children’s ministry leader who understands the paramount importance of child discipleship and you have concerns of getting it wrong, you are no doubt overwhelmed. And you are not alone. Eighty-eight percent of children’s ministry leaders today shared that they are “concerned that children will leave their Christian faith when they become adults.” That is a heavy weight to carry, especially when facing that “looming discipleship deadline.” It’s not surprising that there is a high risk for burnout among children’s ministry leaders. 

What can we do to better support those called to lead children’s ministry? For starters, don’t forget about them or overlook their important work! Barna reports that 56 percent of leaders agree that children’s ministry is forgotten by their church. Being forgotten often means that children’s ministry leaders don’t have the support, resources, or equipment they need to help raise up the next generation of Christian disciples.

One of the best ways to support children’s ministry leaders is by providing training and education in order to combat their fear of “getting it wrong.” That is exactly what motivated my team to create the online course “Foundations of Child Discipleship.” The goal is to support and equip children’s ministry leaders in child discipleship, drawing on Scripture, history, and psychology in order to understand children’s spirituality. This kind of support can give confidence in leading a ministry to children that will form robust and lifelong faith.

Additional support resources for children’s ministry leaders are available through the International Network of Children’s Ministry, Small Church Ministry, and childrensministry.com.

Child discipleship must be relational

In many churches, a congregation’s first introduction to a child is usually through an infant dedication, baptism, or blessing. This includes a time for congregants to express their commitment to being a part of that child’s spiritual journey. In the Reformed Church in America, congregation members are asked to hold this covenant:

“Do you promise to love, encourage, and support these brothers and sisters by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?”

Are we going through the motions, or are we intentionally living out the commitment to teach, model, and support? How we engage in this act is critical to the future church. Barna’s research tells us that children who have a meaningful relationship with an adult in the church are more likely to be rooted in Scripture, to be grounded in children’s ministry and the life of the church, and to externalize their faith and move toward generous, countercultural behavior.

Strong intergenerational connections don’t happen by accident. For the future church, we must invest in community-building relationships today. Consider ways to facilitate these intergenerational relationships through mentoring, as modeled by Generation Spark.

Related: Mentoring in ministry can be as simple as playing ping-pong.

A renewed commitment for the future church

One of my favorite Scripture passages comes from David in Psalm 71:17-18:

“Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.”

David’s words remind us of the blessed calling we have to declare God’s power, goodness, and might to the next generation. Let’s claim these words as a renewed commitment to raise a generation of church members and leaders—the future church—who are steadfast in their faith and passionate about spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth! That work needs to happen today.

Shelley Henning has been involved in children’s and family ministry for over two decades. She currently serves the Reformed Church in America as the facilitator for KidMin, the children’s ministry branch of Next Generation Engagement. She is also the co-founder and CEO of Grow Family and has written a book, numerous articles, and curriculum related to children and family ministry. You can connect with Shelley by email at shenning@rca.org.