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U-Turns Allowed

He's young. He's driven. He's shaking up children's ministry.

 

Justin Browning is on a mission to shake up children's ministry and create a flourishing, faith-yielding family ministry that equips parents to teach their children about Jesus. And he's only 21. In his short career Browning has transformed two ministries into thriving, magnet programs that've grown exponentially in short periods of time. Those who know him describe him as bold, dedicated, and exceptional. Browning and his staff of 120 volunteers have developed a successful children's ministry at First United Methodist Church in Maumelle, Arkansas, that engages more than 150 kids each week. Recently Children's Ministry Magazine caught up with Justin Browning.

Rumblings

"Sometimes people who are young think they can't be bold because they're young," says Browning. "Being bold is what I believe in."

Justin Browning fits a lot of descriptions--passive isn't one of them. Even in brief conversations, Browning's drive and vision for children's ministry is evident. Browning has an uncompromising view of what children's ministry can be -- and what it's not.

"I knew ministry was in my future," says Browning, "but I didn't know how soon." Browning is currently a senior early childhood education major at the University of Central Arkansas-one of about five males in the program, "Which is kind of cool," he muses. Despite his young age, Browning's no newcomer to ministry. He's been connecting kids to Jesus since he was in the 8th grade, even though he came from a non-churchgoing family.

"None of my immediate family goes to church," says Browning. "My dad's a non-Christian. My mom doesn't go to church. I have a twin brother, and he's not a churchgoer, either."

Browning says his best friend invited him to church, so he went. "We started teaching a kindergarten Sunday school class together," he remembers. "It was really important that someone gave me so much leadership responsibility at such a young age in the church. I'm now 21, and my kindergarteners are in 7th and 8th grade, which is kind of weird. They make me feel really old," he laughs.

Early on, Browning knew he was hooked on children's ministry, thanks to his church.

"That church is where I really got my taste and my love and my feel for ministry just because they gave me so many opportunities," says Browning. "I helped direct music arts and drama camp there. I directed VBS for three years. In those three years, VBS just grew and grew. We had our biggest VBS there when I was leading as a senior in high school."

When Browning enrolled in college, he knew he was at a crossroads-the world was wide open to possibilities. He chose children.

"I just really felt that God was saying, 'This is where you're talented and this is where your gifts and abilities are, so don't blow it now that you're going to college.' "

Born to Lead

Browning stayed involved in children's ministry through college. In fact, at 18 he applied for a ministry position at a small church and was selected over two older, more experienced applicants. He'd barely had time to celebrate his new position when he realized the monumental job he'd taken: creating a children's ministry from the ground up.

"My first Sunday, there were three kids," says Browning. "Then I found out that the three kids were the pastor's nephews; they didn't really go to church there. I knew there was a challenge before me."

Browning and his team worked to create a midweek program, and they set about giving the existing Sunday morning program a facelift. Both programs flourished, and over time the tiny ministry that had started with no children had 45 active kids.

"That church was really where I got my feet wet in ministry and learned the nuts and bolts of the small church," says Browning.

While Browning volunteered with junior high kids at a summer camp, his love and passion for kids caught the attention of someone from First United Methodist Church in Maumelle, Arkansas. The church was restructuring, and Browning was handpicked to lead the children's ministry department.



Leading a Revolution

"This church had been through a lot," explains Browning. "It went through a period of such rapid growth that the church staff couldn't keep up. Things were just booming. But the children's ministry didn't look like a children's ministry for a booming church."

Browning discovered a host of problems contributing to the lack­luster children's department.

"Can't-Do" Attitude -- Typical of any significant change, Browning initially met resistance when he set about revamping the children's programming to include a more family-focused core of spiritual education.

"[It was said], 'There's no way we're going to be able to pull that off. We don't have the people. We don't have the resources.' "

But Browning pursued his goal and visited North Point Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, a leader in family-centered programming. "I came back with this vision and shared it with my volunteers and the key ministry people. We decided it was something we wanted to do. We had no budget for it. We had none of the people for it. We didn't even know if it was going to fly with our church."

But it did.

Uninspired Volunteers -- Another hurdle Browning faced was pervasive volunteer burnout.

"The volunteers served one Sunday a month; they didn't really want to be there," he says. "They were tired and worn out and only doing it because they signed up three years ago and said they'd do it once a month." Browning made dramatic changes.

"We're kind of big on the pruning parable around here. If [volunteer placements aren't] bearing fruit, then we can use those people somewhere else," he says.

Logistics -- "When I first got here, the church was in the middle of a huge expansion-a $3.2 million expansion. There were 12 rooms including nurseries for me to focus my energy on." Browning quickly realized that the ministry had taken a back seat to the requirements of physical growth. "There was so much logistical stuff to do that ministry in this church was suffering."

Browning, a bundle of energy and a servant at heart, set about refocusing the children's department on building relationships and involving entire families in the process.

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