Unless you’re a big Star Trek fan, chances are you hear the phrase “next generation” mainly while shopping in your favorite big-box electronics store or watching a smart-phone commercial. When it’s used to describe technology, next generation means the latest and greatest innovation. The term promises an improved version of your favorite device, as long as you’re willing to shell out the money for a new one.
When it’s used to describe children’s ministry, next generation also implies a better approach — specifically, a more effective way of reaching and teaching young people of all ages. Because next generation, or “NextGen,” ministry is family-friendly and collaborative, churches are jumping on board-and reaping the benefits.
Traditionally, Christian education has been organized according to age groups, with each church having a preschool ministry, elementary-age ministry, junior high ministry, high school ministry, college-age ministry, and so on. Although this approach allows people to specialize in a particular field, it can also lead to isolation (called a “silo mentality”) rather than a shared ministry effort. Separate ministries with separate objectives and competing calendars inevitably frustrate ministry leaders as well as parents.
When I began serving in children’s ministry 10 years ago, my job was volunteering at the check-in table. That’s the only area I knew anything about. But as my children grew older and transitioned into other ministries, I began learning about new age groups, too. As my role developed, so did my understanding, heart, and vision.
NextGen ministry embraces this broadened perspective. Simply put, it’s ministry to multiple age groups who are the next generation. It involves a strategic plan for young people from cradle to college, with measurable goals and clear objectives for each age. Proponents of NextGen ministry encourage mixed-age activities, relationships, and family involvement. They also believe young people should take active roles in the local church.
NextGen ministry has its roots in the burgeoning family ministry movement, in which churches partner with parents for children’s spiritual education. From a practical perspective, it’s tough for a church to truly partner with homes if families must race in 50 different directions to meet each of their children’s needs. So NextGen ministry is emerging as the solution. By using an intentional, shared ministry effort, churches are striving to collaboratively reach the next generation as a whole.
NextGen isn’t another program; it’s a philosophy. With unified vision, purposeful planning, and steadfast prayer, it’s becoming a reality at churches across America. They’re using NextGen ministry in different ways, based on their size and circumstances. Some people describe it as an all-encompassing umbrella that connects their separate programs, while others have abolished many of the age-related boundaries that previously defined their education programs.
NEXTGEN MINISTRY IN A NUTSHELL
Only you and your leadership can decide what’s best for your church. But you’ll want to keep some big-picture concepts-and your end result-in mind as you hammer out the specifics.
Unified Vision-All of your church’s programs for children and teenagers must work toward a common goal. Children’s and youth ministers are laying the ministry foundation for children for the rest of their lives. That’s no small task. So first decide what you want kids to walk away with when they graduate. Then you’ll have a clear measuring stick to determine whether you hit the mark. Sample vision statements include: “Each generation will learn from the generation before it and serve the generation after it.” “Every family will be equipped and encouraged to fulfill its God-given role.” “Each leader will see his or her part in the big picture of building faith-filled young people.” “Creating this type of environment begins at the top, with a vision owned by the church’s senior leadership,” says veteran children’s minister Greg Baird, founder of KidMin360. “The vision must be translated to strategy and practically implemented as a church and for each specific department. Each major decision must be weighed against the vision and strategy.”
Collaboration-Prayerfully brainstorm and map out your ideas together. After you determine your end goal, develop smaller goals for each age-specific area of ministry. With your leaders and staff, decide which concepts children need to understand before they transition from one ministry area to the next. Then choose specific lessons and approaches that’ll best prepare and equip children for the steps ahead. Agree to troubleshoot any issues that arise during the transition. When I sat down with our church’s leadership to plan a NextGen approach, I was amazed at how the details fell into place after we were all agreed about our vision.
NEXTGEN MINISTRY IN ACTION
Now onto the day-to-day aspects of NextGen ministry. You may be wondering how you can possibly add more to your overflowing plate of responsibilities. Although NextGen ministry requires some upfront planning, it ultimately offers a simplified version of Christian education-with everyone moving in the same direction. Use the following tips to make NextGen ministry a reality at your church.
Be intentional. As a generational team, set aside time to dream, plan, and pray. Regular meetings allow everyone to learn to work together as you explore what NextGen ministry can look like at your church. Study what other churches have done, and, if possible, meet with them in person or by phone. Read up on the needs and desires of today’s children, young people, and parents.
Be a team player. “I now care about what preschool is talking about because I want to make sure elementary kids are prepared,” says Dan Scott, director of elementary at Ada Bible Church in Ada, Michigan. “I care about junior high because I don’t want the investment I’ve made in the kids to disappear.”
Gina McClain, children’s ministry director at Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, bridges ministry gaps by helping her church’s young-adult and small-group pastors increase their effectiveness. “Most frustrations those pastors experience can be tracked back to spiritual maturity…or lack thereof,” McClain says. “Allow those leaders to help determine core competencies so you’re working together and unifying your goals and your message to families.”
Rethink the schedule. Study the programming calendar from a family’s perspective. Camps, social events, outreach projects, and so on must be coordinated so parents and children aren’t stressed out by all the available opportunities. Schedule events that bridge age groups; for example, all of our church’s ministries for fifth through 12th grades (preteens, junior high, and high school) meet on Wednesday nights. They all have separate meeting areas and age-specific teaching, but we’ve aligned the general scope of the lessons. All these kids take home the same “bottom line” each week. Plus, once a month, we bring the groups together and invite parents to join us for worship.
Develop a mentoring program. It’s essential to recruit and train older kids to invest in younger children. Create opportunities for college students to serve in the high school ministry, for high schoolers to assist with junior highers, for junior highers to help out in the elementary ministry, and for preteens to volunteer in the preschool ministry.
Don’t compete for volunteers. Discuss recruiting strategies so you’re all working together to seek out potential helpers and leaders. At our church, a staff person handles volunteer assimilation, asking interested people what age group they’d like to work with. Volunteers are encouraged to try out each group to find the best fit.
Celebrate ministry transitions. When children move from one program to another within NextGen ministry, it’s a big deal to them-and it should be a big deal to us, too. Last August, we collaborated on something we called “Elevate Week.” For an entire week, we had parties for each transitioning age group. We concluded each event with a short parent meeting to share our vision and expectations for the year ahead.
Create experiences for the whole family. When one family’s children are in three different age-specific ministries, it’s hard to participate in every scheduled event or activity. So create opportunities for the whole family to worship, learn, and serve together. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
Equip parents. Parents want to know that our ministries are working together and that each area is doing its part. Keep parents informed of your team’s common end goal-and help them make it their own, as well. Create or offer resources spanning all ages and stages; that way, parents can be their children’s primary spiritual influence, no matter where they are in the parenting journey.
Capitalize on every encounter with families. Cross-promote within the various areas of your NextGen ministry so families know what’s happening and can get involved, if they’d like. This communicates that each ministry area knows about and believes in what the other areas are doing. A children’s ministry newsletter, for example, can include information about the high schoolers’ food drive. E-newsletters or tweets can alert teenagers and their parents about volunteer needs in the younger grades.
NEXTGEN MINISTRY THE CHALLENGES — AND PAYOFFS
When you switch to the next generation of any electronic device, you’ll initially face some hurdles. But with a bit of reprogramming, learning, and experimenting, you’ll not only adapt but also discover more efficient and effective ways to complete your tasks. Then you’ll wonder how you ever managed with the old version.
The same is true with transitioning to NextGen ministry. It takes time, teamwork, humility, and persistence. It requires outside-the-box thinking, as we allow God, in his wisdom, to reveal new ways to reach children and partner with parents. But the payoffs are amazing. Because NextGen ministry creates a partnership, it redistributes the pressure that each pastor, leader, or parent feels. Children’s and youth ministers no longer need to run at Mach speed to plan, program, staff, and promote individual ministries. Events and activities are completely staffed with student volunteers. Parents are onboard because you keep their whole family in mind. And, most importantly, you reach the ultimate goal: seeing children grow in their faith-and live it out as they help minister to the next generation.
Megan Lacefield is a children’s pastor at New River Fellowship in Hudson Oaks, Texas.