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Grating Expectations

Jennifer Hooks

Expectations can be a touchy subject. Christian parents quietly wonder whether their kids are learning anything of value in Sunday school. Children's ministers wonder how parents can possibly believe that one or two hours each week alone will instill strong foundations of Christian faith and moral development for a child's lifetime.

Just what are the gaps between a parent's role and a children's ministry's role in developing lasting faith in children? And why do fingers get pointed when the roles become confused? It's a subject fraught with passion, confusion, and disillusionment.

We asked children's ministers at childrensministry.com how they really feel about Christian parents' expectations of their children's ministries. Opinions ranged from downtrodden and disgruntled to positive and impassioned -- but the split was neck and neck.

The large minority of poll-takers indicate that Christian parents' expectations of their children's ministry are out of line. According to these people, there's undeniable tension between parents and the children's ministry that boils down to misaligned expectations.

Behavior Modification -- For Parents

Several people say Christian parents wrongly expect children's ministries to serve as a behavior-modification program that releases them from their parental duties of discipline and guidance.

"Most parents expect the children's church to change the behavior of their children. What they don't realize is that they spend most of the time with their children...It seems parents enjoy other people raising their kids and they don't want to commit to God's calling [to raise their own children]," says one person.

Another says, "While it's important for us to provide the very best in children's ministry, parents need to accept the responsibility of teaching their child the things of God on a daily basis, and not expect that we'll take care of it for them in a matter of two hours a week."

Still another person says roles have been improperly reversed. "As a children's minister, I'm here to reinforce what should be taught in the home. I'm not the example that child sees on a daily basis. Parents often rely on the children's ministry to do their job of training their child."

Whose "Burden"?

A recent study by The Barna Research Group covering the state of today's children and their moral development reveals that while the vast majority -- 85% -- of parents believe they have the primary responsibility for the moral and spiritual development of their children, a staggering 66% admit to handing off that responsibility to their churches. Many of the poll responses reflect frustration with this handoff.

Says one, "I see many parents come into the church today expecting the church to rear their children in Christian faith. From my reading of Scripture, it's the parents who should have the primary burden."

Another adds, "While a children's church program should greatly contribute to a child's learning about Christ, the parent should have the bigger burden."

"It's parents who have the greatest influence on their child's spiritual development, and they need to own that," says yet another.

Barna's study also found that parents typically don't have a plan for their child's spiritual development, don't rate children's spiritual development as a priority, feel unprepared to nurture their child's faith, have no goals or standards in mind regarding their child's spirituality, and experience no accountability in their efforts.

Many poll respondents -- while agreeing that parents are the primary faith developers in their child's life -- do question whether the church is doing enough to support parents in this role.

"I wonder how much we do to help parents fulfill this responsibility. Does anyone have a good program in place to do this?" asks one person.

Interestingly, a Family Disciple-ship Ministries (www.fsfministries.net) article says that overall churches currently do very little that actually equips parents to serve as spiritual guides for their children. And Barna's study shows that only 19% of parents of kids under 13 have been contacted by a church leader, teacher, or volunteer to talk about the parent's involvement in the spiritual life and development of their children.

Don't Know, Don't Care

Poll-takers who say Christian parents have unrealistic expectations of their children's ministry also tend to assess parents as generally unaware of how their children are doing in terms of spiritual growth.

"Most parents don't know what's being taught in their children's programs. It's just where they go so parents can have a child-free service," says one person.

Another says, "Parents often have no idea what their children learn in class and they don't ask. There's an apathetic attitude that the kids are just there to be baby-sat."

Still another says, "People see this as time to be child-free and feel like they're no longer responsible for their children. They feel like it's our children's ministry workers' job to take care of their kids so they can socialize with their friends."

Frustration seems prevalent among children's ministers who believe parents' expectations are out of line, but overall people indicate that they're called to be a part of children's ministry and are determined to make a difference.

At the other end of the spectrum is the majority of poll-takers who feel that high expectations and a high calling go hand in hand. These same people generally feel that parents should expect more from their children's ministries -- that is, more than "baby-sitting" service, more than programming, and more than cute crafts and fun games. Passion, dedication, and faithfulness -- regardless of circumstances -- flavor these responses.

My Saving Grace

The impact of eternal work is foremost in many children's ministers' minds. When it comes to passing on their passion for Jesus, for many of these people it's quite simple -- no bar could ever be high enough.

"We in [children's] ministry need to realize we're reaching a group of potential Christians. Much relies on our faithfulness to this calling. Parents should hope, expect, and desire to have adults who are godly in the children's ministry," says one person.

Says another: "Are you kidding me? [Those of us] involved in children's ministry hopefully feel called to minister to these kids. If this is our calling, then I truly feel 'too much' can't be expected of us."

"As people who are involved in any form of children's ministry, we should take the responsibility God has entrusted to us very seriously," adds another person. "We should be faithfully using the gifts God has given to us, not halfheartedly, but with a driving passion to see children have faith in our Father. Expectations may be high, but is that wrong?"

Another sums it up by saying, "I don't believe you can ever expect too much from a children's ministry program."

Good With the Bad

Generally, children's ministers who believe that parents don't expect too much from their children's ministries acknowledge that ministry has its rough spots.

"When you're in ministry, it's just that -- ministry. You accept the joys and the heartaches. I'm constantly amazed and encouraged when I teach the little ones in our church. They're eager to experience God. I don't take my call to the ministry lightly, and therefore I don't feel others will. I'm making a difference in the life of a child, and that's my ultimate goal," says one person.

Another addresses the stereotype of "baby-sitting" during grown-up church. "As Sunday school teachers or children's ministers, we've been given the heart and ability to reach out to children on their terms...I don't mind being considered a baby-sitter, because I know what I do and what my responsibility is -- that is, to teach eager, wide-eyed, curious children about God. If the parents won't or don't know how, I'll happily fill in the void."

Another person says, "To whom much is given, much is expected. When we volunteer our time with children's ministry, much is expected because [children are] the future of the church body and should be trained in the right way."

Expect More

Several poll-takers indicate that they wish parents expected a little more from children's ministry -- and that they themselves are driven to provide much more.

"I'm amazed at how little our church expects from children's ministers. I think they just want a baby-sitter...People should expect excellence from all ministry areas," says one person.

Another says, "Parents should expect their children to be taught. Children's church is not a baby-sitting program."

"Children's ministry is supposed to be to the glory of God," adds another. "Nothing is ever too much for God. Excellence should be expected."

Win-Win

Many poll-takers offered ways they think parents and children's ministries can better work together to forge a life-long foundation of faith in kids. Redefining roles, creating support for parents, and fostering partnerships ranked among the most popular solutions to create a win-win situation for everyone.

One person offers, "A partnership between parent and teacher is crucial, with the parent reinforcing on a daily basis the lessons learned at church. Kids' church isn't baby-sitting, nor is it discipline class. Parents who think so need to be reintroduced to what the children's program is and what their expected involvement is regarding the spiritual development of their child."

Another person says, "It's how you approach the parents...They want to feel needed, accepted, and loved, too. Do you greet them by name at the door? Do you ask how they're doing? Do you show interest in their child and greet the child by name? Are you smiling, or do you look frustrated, tired, and angry?...It's all attitude and expectations. Treat each child and parent as though they're the best thing on earth. You'll get more respect if you respect them first."

Relationship and support are the keys, according to one person who says, "The way we talk about ministry needs to change. We say, 'Parents should' do this or that. We need to empower parents to connect with their children and talk with them about faith in any setting -- whether it's at church, at home, or in the community. Rather than pronouncing judgment on them for falling short, let's encourage parents and educate them on what they can do." cm

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children's Ministry Magazine.

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