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The Future of Children's Ministry

Children's Ministry Magazine

"By 2010, everything that marketers know today about elementary-aged kids will be completely outdated. There will be a new generation of elementary-school students -- and a whole new generation of elementary schools." -- American Demographics magazine

Say hello to the next generation -- Generation Z -- born from 2003 on. Their needs are different, they learn differently, and what they want from your children's ministry is different. If you've ever played Hide-and-Seek, you know the goal is to find people who don't want to be found. It's a favorite game for children. But Hide-and-Seek is no child's game when it comes to understanding the hidden characteristics of a generation that's still in diapers and just learning to walk. Seeking hidden generational trends is a notoriously frustrating proposition with a shifting and ever-changing culture. Often in children's ministry we discover that the ministry we've created for one generation is outdated and ineffective for the next generation. And as we seek the hidden trends, we lose precious time in making a difference in kids' lives. How then do we as children's ministers keep up with the trends that impact children from generation to generation?

Children's Ministry Magazine sought and found the hidden trends that'll impact your children's ministry in the next 10 years. If you prepare now for these emerging trends, your ministry will be ready "to seek and to save" children with Jesus' help. Take a look at the top six trends that'll impact the future of your children's ministry -- and discover what you can do now to prepare for Generation Z.

Trend 1: Extreme Racial Diversity

Diversity is on the verge of an explosion in America's schools. According to American Demographics magazine, between 2001 and 2010 the number of Hispanic children ages 5 to 9 will increase 21 percent, and 10- to 14-year-olds 29 percent. The number of Asian students ages 5 to 9 will increase 22 percent, and 10- to 14-year-olds 31 percent. The number of non-Hispanic white elementary school children will decrease by 8 percent for children ages 5 to 9 and 9 percent for children ages 10 to 14. The number of non-Hispanic black elementary school kids will decrease 3 percent for children ages 5 to 9 and 10 percent for children ages 10 to 14. The face of your children's ministry will continue to be multicultural. Gene Roehlkepartain, senior advisor at the nonprofit Search Institute, says, "All children's ministry leaders need to re-examine their ministries to determine how welcoming and engaging they are to children and families from many different cultures." Address the issue of diversity in these areas:

  • Music -- Use music from different cultures.
  • Imagery -- Use images all cultures find appealing. Take a look at your curriculum and resources. Are they an accurate mirror of your community?
  • Language -- Use the languages represented in your community for special music, teaching, and print communication. Also understand that not all words or concepts translate clearly to children who speak a different language. An ongoing dialogue is the best solution to this challenge.
  • Values -- Every culture has underlying values that affect the way people perceive all of life. For example, at one multicultural church, one culture's value of timeliness was flexible -- being late was no big deal. Another culture's value believed it was a sin to be late. Needless to say, until these two cultures understood each other better, there was conflict. Learn about the values of the cultures you minister alongside.

Trend 2: Changing Educational Methodology

With the previous generation, children's ministries have tried to emulate the model of television with entertainment, constant change for short attention spans, and variety. This new generation of kids, however, prefers the interactivity of computer games, Internet, and video games to television. Generation Z won't be content as passive observers; they want to be involved. Provide plenty of interactivity in educational settings. "We need to create active learning contexts in which kids are interacting with lesson materials, each other, and ourselves as teachers," says Kevin Lawson, director of programs in educational studies at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. To do this, we must take advantage of these tools:

Internet -- "Churches should be using the Internet to create Sunday school blogs and church Web sites with a section for kids to use," says trendspotter Sharyn Spradlin, who's also the co-founder of the ministry consulting firm New Re-sors-es in Seattle, Washington.

Involvement -- Use curriculum and learning experiences that are multisensory and help kids discover truth instead of just being talked to. Choices -- Provide options for kids, whether the choices are in stations, pre-class activity centers, or even the curriculum they'll study.

Trend 3: Technologically Advanced Kids

Children are learning to use the computer at earlier ages. For most children, a computer in their home is as standard as a television. In fact, 54 percent of preschoolers and 72 percent of elementary-age children use a computer at home. Because of this, "personal, individualized, and 'custom' learning will spell the end of one-size-fits-all Sunday school lessons," according to Rick Chromey, professor of youth and family ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky. But what does individualized learning look like in the church with a limited amount of time and volunteer staff? Does it mean kids at computer stations, learning on their own? Not at all. The prime imperative for children's ministries is a relationship with Jesus Christ and with others. That won't happen in personalized cubbies. Instead, follow these tips:

Catch up. Learn everything you can about using computers in ministry. Ask a kid to teach you. Tracy Carpenter, a children's ministries director in Corona, California, recommends, "Become fluent in computer-ese."

Build community. Trendspotters emphasize that the more technological our society becomes, the more "touch" we'll need. Ivy Beckwith, author of Postmodern Children's Ministry, says, "Churches need to become authoritative faith communities offering children real and valuable relationships with adults who model Christian faith for them and communities, which offer children opportunities to be full, functioning members, not just receivers of the community's generosity."

Be creative. Use kids' technological skills to call them into service and to enhance your ministry. Have children design an interactive computer game for the lesson, and then let them use it with the rest of your class. Lead kids in creating a video re-enactment of Bible stories or producing their own music videos. Enlist older kids to make innovative commercials for your announcements.

Trend 4: Conformity Before Conviction

This new generation's core values will include pluralism -- they'll think anything is okay. And according to Roehlkepartain, it might not be so bad for children to value pluralism -- at least for a little while. He says, "Pluralism can be an invaluable opportunity for children to ask deeper questions about their own faith and beliefs as they see and hear different perspectives, histories, beliefs, and practices." Kids' questions will allow them to become stronger in their faith. Help kids develop convictions with these tools:

Make distinctions. In a moralistic society, kids can't always distinguish between what's socially good and what's biblically true. "Children may not intuitively feel a difference between social differences and moral ones; we as teachers must provide the context and foundation for just such distinctions," says Keith Johnson, an Aha Architect for Group Publishing.

Help children belong. Belonging comes before believing. Lawson says, "Most of us have experienced this in our own growing up. We were glad to be a part of the church or some other group we were in long before we really understood why the group believed what it did. It's important that we allow kids to do this in our churches, but in the process begin to teach them the whys behind what we believe and do."

Trend 5: Malaise vs. Making a Difference

While the current Millennial youth generation is known for wanting to make a difference, Generation Z will need help understanding that they can make a difference. William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of The History of America's Future, label Generation Z as an Adaptive Generation. They say, "Adaptive generations often feel as if they were 'born too late' to emulate the 'great deeds' of their next-elders, and feel relegated to an 'also-ran' role in which they can, at best, be maintainers of a social system they did not build." We need to counter this attitude. Roehlkepartain says, "Leaders' task is to help children discover what God is calling them to be and do, and take seriously the responsibility to nurture those sparks." Sometimes all Generation Z will need is the right opportunity to present itself. Here's how to do that:

Involve kids. "Instead of just talking about homelessness, take a group of students to a homeless shelter, and let them serve a meal," says Kaylea Hutson, Hands-On Bible Curriculum editor at Group Publishing.

Give them a cause. Help kids see that the cause of Christ is worth giving their lives to. Kids' commitment is contagious. "The actions of a small group of sixth-graders in southwest Missouri ignited the passions of students in five elementary schools to raise approximately $5,000 for the American Red Cross and the 2004 tsunami victims," says Hutson.

Inform kids. Hutson says, "Use what's happening in the news and in your community." As kids learn about needs, help them see how they can make a difference.

Be a role model. "When children see an ethos of mission modeled for them by parents, church leaders, and other significant adults, they can be transformed," says Beckwith.

Trend 6: Changing Families

The "traditional" family structure is still in decline. According to American Demographics magazine, in 1980, 77 percent of American children lived with two parents. By 1999, that number fell to 68 percent. Also in 1999, nearly 23 percent of all children lived with just their mothers, 4 percent with just their fathers, and 4 percent lived with neither parent. Family structures will continue to change, and so must our understanding of what family ministry is. "We're going to have to get more intentional about bringing parents into planning sessions for children's ministry," says Lawson, "and help them see their role at home and how it fits with what the church is able to provide." Children's ministers must provide more of a role in ministry for parents in the future. What children learn inside the classroom needs to be used outside the classroom as well. Parents are the #1 faith-developers, so involve them in what their children are learning.

Involve parents. "We need to give workable models for spiritual nurture at home and follow up with parents to encourage them as they try them out at home," says Lawson. Spradlin suggests, "Some of the tools we use in Sunday school can be sent home so the parents can see what their child is learning and use the tools to help their child continue learning at home."

Train parents. "We used to hold Nurturing Faith at Home seminars at a previous church I served, and we found lots of parents hungry for this and willing to learn from each other," says Lawson.

Hold parents accountable. In all your communication with parents -- from your mission statement to recruiting volunteers -- consistently convey that children's ministry exists to partner with, to support, and to come alongside children's true faith-developers -- the parents! We've gotten you started by sifting through all the hidden trends and choosing the top six we believe will impact your children's ministry the most. As with generational shifts, the changes you need to make are subtle. Some things you're already doing -- just keep doing them. And with God's help, you'll be more effective at "seeking and saving" the children of Generation Z!

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