Imagine an apple tree that can’t grow apples or a field of corn
without a single cob or a palm tree sans coconuts.
Jesus evidently thought so (Matthew 21:18-19).
God’s creation is designed to produce and reproduce.
Children’s ministries are no different. In fact, as part of a
larger body, the health of a children’s ministry is a microcosm of
a broader perspective. Dysfunctional children’s ministries reveal
congregational disease, division, and disability.
In the past quarter century, children’s ministry has emerged as a
powerful entity within the American church culture. Today there are
more resources, programs, and models than ever before to engineer a
ministry to kids.
But that’s the problem.
We’ve become engineers and mechanics, not gardeners and farmers.
In many American churches, children’s ministry is programmatic, out
of a box, and stiffly organized. We recruit staff to job
descriptions, manufacture attractive “environments,” and feed
spiritual needs on schedule (Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights).
Church happens in the box, from a box.
Unfortunately, nearly three decades of mechanized children’s
ministry has produced little crop. Recent trends reveal a crisis of
biblical proportions. Many adolescents who grow up in the church
leave the faith and congregations after their high school
graduation. Those who remain tend to gravitate toward consumer
churchianity, passive pew-sitting, and entertaining
Some critics blame youth ministries, which may resort to gimmicks,
guilt, and games to inspire spiritual commitments. It’s a fair
criticism. I recently taught Bible Survey to churched teenagers-the
cream of the crop (from several well-known local congregations). I
was shocked to hear how they talked, what they did, and how little
they knew. Most viewed church as a hangout. Several youth admitted
they only attend youth group, not Sunday worship. Even fewer
regularly attend church, let alone actively participate.
In our universities (secular and sacred), the problem is worse.
The Christian dropouts, no-shows, and absentees are salted with
narcissism, boredom, and growing distaste for organized religion.
Meanwhile, social behaviors among Christian collegians betray their
family values and years of Christian education.
The problem is obvious. It’s the causes that seem elusive.
One thing is certain: It’s time children’s ministries (and their
churches) recognize that what happens in children’s ministry sticks
with a person for life. If we’ve learned anything, it’s how faith
and values develop early and guide future choices. It’s a fact
confirmed in the social sciences and in the Bible
The biblical formula is clear: no root, no fruit.
First, if a children’s ministry is to effectively grow faith
within a child, then a return to a biblical paradigm is desperately
needed. We must abandon mechanism for organic and lead less like
engineers and more like farmers. We have to focus on developing
persons of faith rather than launching programs. That means every
congregation (and child) is contextually different. One size
doesn’t fit all. What works in Birmingham won’t equally work in
Second, a thriving children’s ministry is seeded for health, not
merely growth. A plant that grows tall is good. But if it never
produces or reproduces, it’s dysfunctional. Roots and fruits are
the key. No depth, no potential.
Third, effective and healthy children’s ministry is future-fitted
and proactive. If you aren’t thinking and leading ahead, then
you’re likely too focused on organizing and managing today’s
programs. Want to see the future? Volunteer for a teen mission trip
or sit in on teen worship. Join with your youth minister in
marrying your children’s and youth ministries.
In the Scriptures, Jesus often refers to faith development using
natural entities like seeds, yeast, fish, vines, and trees. Faith
is a mustard seed. Faith growth involves pruning. Reaching those
outside the faith resembles fishing for men. Health is similar to
Jesus told a parable about four soils that outlined faith
development. Your children’s ministry can use these soils as
evaluative devices to confirm program health and potential growth.
Jesus even explained the parable so there’s no confusion. The seed
is the Word of God. The human heart is the dirt.
The first soil is rock hard and for the birds. The seeds
that fall on this soil just bounce. Nothing penetrates and no plant
Essentially, Jesus revealed that some children are hard-hearted
and resistant to God’s truth. The core issue is comprehension. The
Word is misunderstood because it’s a foreign substance.
Now any good farmer worth his salt knows what to do with hard,
packed dirt. It takes time, sweat, and even tears to crush the
concrete. And in reality, it’s only perceived that the ground is
stone. It’s rock hard, but it’s not rock. For faith to seed in such
a heart, your children’s ministry must soften the soil and prepare
it to receive the message. Hard-hearted kids are all around us.
They’re outside the faith and live in homes that are non-Christian,
agnostic, and atheistic. Their families have no regard for
Christianity and, consequently, we often don’t know these
Finding hard-hearted kids requires getting out of our box, walking
our neighborhoods or malls, and sitting at the park or poolside.
Hard-hearted kids are foul-mouthed, angry, arrogant, and greedy.
But if we’re going to soften their hearts, we’ll have to get past
We shatter the soil by meeting two basic needs of hard-hearted
kids: security and fun. Every child hungers for safety-physically
and emotionally-and laughter. But don’t think you’ll meet these
needs in your box. Almost always, hard-hearted children stay far
away from church. You’ll need to go into their world. But if, by
God’s grace, such a child does attend a program, you must ensure
that they find the experience safe and enjoyable; otherwise they
won’t be back. The message will simply bounce. They won’t
understand the Word because of insecurity and boredom.
The good news is most children who attend church fall into the
next three categories.
Shallow and Rocky Soil
Jesus describes the shallow soil as good but desperately
thin. The seed sprouts and a plant emerges, but the roots soon
strike stone. Without depth, the tender shoot withers in the dry
soil and noonday heat.
The primary issue with shallow children involves connection and
community. There’s nothing for the roots to grasp, no hands to
hold, no sense of authentic relationship. Such children thrive at
first, sensing security and experiencing fun, but soon wither
because they lack friendships. They can’t, don’t, or won’t develop
relationships. Many a churched kid has survived children’s ministry
only to exit in middle school because they have no church
In fact, cliques are a serious issue in youth ministry, but the
cliques rarely develop there. Cliques emerge in preteen ministry as
friendships are forged. Cliques are natural and expected, but no
one should be left out, hurt, or abused. Children without faith
friends eventually spiritually stall and die.
In many children’s ministries, there are stumbling stones that
make the soil shallow and prevent faith development, so it’s vital
to creatively shatter situations that produce dissonance and
division. Community building is key. Children need to know each
other’s stories, honor each other’s values, and embrace each
other’s weaknesses. Interactive, learner-based instruction is
essential. Community is messy and some kids will balk, but keep
pounding the pavement. As John told his readers, you can’t love an
unseen God and hate those you can see (1 John 4:19-21). Otherwise,
when trouble comes-and it will-the friendless faith fails.
Jesus explained the third soil is a group of people who
inhabit a faith that’s choked with weeds. The soil looks good and
the plants grow, but not for long. The weeds of worry grip the
tender faith and sap its strength. Jesus points out the problem:
selfishness and self-righteousness. He also points at the weed that
poisons emerging faith as life’s worries and deceitfulness of
This is a sticky, touchy wicket, but hear me out. Too many
children’s ministries are tragically rooted to a works mentality
and consumer strategies. When we motivate spiritual commitments
with candy, Bible bucks, toys, and other material things, we
unintentionally produce thistles. Instead of sowing the seed of the
Word, we cast kernels of thorns. These innocent tactics have
serious consequences, for they produce doubt and worry, not to
mention narcissism and self-righteousness.
Don’t believe me? Just listen to the children: “What do I get if
I’m good?” “Hey, that’s not fair!” “I’m better than you,” and “I
can’t do this.” When we tie material treats to spiritual
commitments (attendance, Bible memorization, friend invitation) we
cheapen the real reason for these behaviors. Attendance becomes
just another notch in the Bible belt. Memory verses are important
only to get the prize. One church even let newly baptized children
select extra toys from their “store.” Kids were lined up for the
baptistry, but did they understand what they were doing (and
These tactics only produce thistles in a child’s emerging faith
and confusion later when the treats disappear. It’s no wonder many
under-30 Christians-raised beneath such bribery-now behave as
consumers. Faith is a commodity. Blessings are treats. Do good, get
Unfortunately, reward-based motivation fails to meet a child’s
essential need for grace and worth. Deep down, every human hungers
for unconditional blessing and to know we’re uniquely created and
valued by God and others. When our children’s ministries spawn
losers, winners, and whiners, we’re planting thorns rather than
Like a dandelion, our fun seems pretty and innocent until it goes
The final soil is good. Jesus taught that good ground
produces fruit because it has roots. But there’s one defining
catch: Not every soil produces the same crop. Every healthy faith
produces differently-some with amazing returns and some more
modest. The investment of a church into children clearly pays off
As one sage professed, “It’s better to build a fence at the top of
a cliff than to station an ambulance at the bottom.”
The key issue here is empowerment. Every child is different and
uniquely gifted for ministry. Our job is to fertilize faith with
opportunities to serve others and expand on the gifts God has given
us. Children need to contribute, in some way, prior to leaving a
children’s ministry. Every child! Not just those we like, know, or
A healthy children’s ministry seeds faith with hands and feet.
Christianity can’t be contained in the head (intellectualism) or
heart (emotionalism) alone, but instead it must move into action.
As James declared, faith without action is dead (James 2:17).
Ultimately, the fruit of the Spirit is what you’ll reap. It’s the
sign that faith has rooted for life: The older the person, the
tastier the fruit. Shallow, rocky, or thorn-infested soils create
temporary buds but fail to develop long-term crops of love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and
self-control. These are also evidence of an effective, thriving
children’s ministry and the values that mark a congregation as
Rick Chromey is a leadership consultant, author, trainer,
and 30-year veteran in children’s ministry who empowers leaders to
lead, teachers to teach, and parents to parent.