Children’s Ministry Is NOT the Church
Did you and your children join the church for worship last Sunday? It’s possible you were both at the same address, but you gathered with the church while your children went to a ministry of the church.
Churches often betray their own convictions about the church, confusing parents and children along the way. Putting children’s ministry in its proper place is not only a matter of ecclesiological preference; it influences how we affirm the salvation of our children.
CHILDREN’S MINISTRY IS A CHURCH’S MISSION FIELD
Jonathan Leeman helpfully defines the local church this way:
- a regular gathering or assembly of people
- who mutually affirm one another as Christians
- through preaching the gospel
- and participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Notice the church is not merely defined by those who gather for worship. Non-Christians and unaffirmed professors of Christ will be gathered there too. Rather, a church is made up of those affirmed in their faith who gather around the Word and ordinances.
Might there be children of varying ages counted in church? Sure. It depends on the church. However, it’s best not to think of children’s ministry as part of the church. Instead, think of it as a mission field.
This mission field lives in our members’ homes and follows them when they gather for church. Our members try to reach this “people group” through family devotions, loving discipline, and godly example. The church labors alongside, partnering with parents to reach their children by teaching the Bible and modeling the love they see at home. In doing so, they disciple parents how to parent.
This means children’s ministry staff and volunteers are like evangelists commissioned by the church to reach this young mission field. They are trained by the church, background checked, and sent out by the church—even if it’s just down the hall—for the purpose of reaching the next generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How should we think about children’s ministry if it is a ministry of the church and not the church itself?
STRUCTURE CHILDREN’S MINISTRY TO DISTINGUISH IT FROM THE CHURCH
Do we help children when our churches attempt to organize a mock church service down the hall from the actual church?
Children’s ministry should not seek to mimic the church gathered. It should distinguish itself as a ministry of the church and not the church gathered. We should not have a separate sanctuary, a separate worship team, and a separate offering for their own mission projects. That becomes their “church.”
Instead, offer Bible stories, practice catechism and Scripture memory, sing songs, and take time to play games and eat snacks. This all helps to distinguish between the church and its ministry to children.
AFFIRMING FAITH AND UNITY ABOUT BAPTISM
During children’s ministry, we should be careful not to affirm faith in a way that replaces the role of the local church. If a child professes faith, we should encourage them that their faith is well placed and that Jesus is trustworthy, but remember baptism is the church’s formal affirmation of faith.
Children’s ministers and volunteers should know their church’s age of baptism and membership policy. Otherwise, parents or ministry leaders may tell children, “You’re a Christian! Now the next step is for you to get baptized,” only to hear the elders say, “We’re actually very hesitant to baptize seven-year-olds.” Such a situation brings frustration and embarrassment for parents and leaders, as well as discouragement and confusion to children. If baptism is the church’s affirmation of a profession of faith, that should affect the way we encourage professions of faith in children’s ministry.
Elders should teach their convictions on baptism and help shepherd the church toward unity. We should avoid calling for professions of faith, and we should certainly avoid telling the children’s class, “Billy is a Christian now!” We would not expect other ministries, such as benevolence or building and grounds, to exercise this kind of authority or make these kinds of judgments. Children’s ministry doesn’t hold the keys to affirm faith and membership.
Communicate clearly with the church and parents about how to encourage a child’s faith without replacing the church’s role in affirming professions of faith.
OUR CHILDREN SHOULD GATHER WITH THE CHURCH
The longer our children are separated from the gathered church, the more they will confuse the church’s ministry to them as the church itself. In whatever tone, urgency, or volume, parents tell their children each Sunday, “It’s time to go to church!” And upon arriving at the church building, children are dropped off in the children’s wing.
What is church to them? The children’s ministry and its volunteers? Who is the pastor, and what does he do? What is baptism and the Lord’s Supper? What does it sound like for the church to sing? In our churches, a child could easily be eight, ten, or, in some cases, even older before they ever see or hear the church gathered!
At that point, considering travel and sick days, you can start counting the number of gatherings with the church before they leave the home. Imagine being the child of a church member and having never seen the church gathered until you were 10 years old.
Churches should encourage families to bring their children to gather with the church as early as they can. Let them hear the whole church sing. Let them meet Steve the deacon and sit next to Chris the new member. Let them watch their parents and the whole church listen to the pastor’s 40-minute sermon with fixed attention. Bring children to see the Lord’s Supper (and, as a result, see the church distinguish between them and the church).
How many pastors have had families leave for children’s ministry-related matters?
I have. I sent this article to a friend before I finished it, and the first thing he said was, “A family just left our church in part because we didn’t have a separate worship service for children.”
Pastors and church leaders, the church is the display of God’s glory! We should encourage our families to bring their children to church sooner rather than later.