Here’s why building a balanced faith in kids today can have eternal implications.
One of the scariest things about being a parent is wondering whether what you’re doing will produce the results you hope for in your kids. I’ve heard many parents say something like this when their kids are about to go off to college: “I hope I’ve given her everything she needs.”
We feel the same anxieties at church. Endless studies and books attempt to answer why we’re losing kids after they graduate from high school.
Part of addressing the problem of losing young people is looking at where our efforts to build a faith foundation in children begins: in our children’s ministries. The responsibility for building a lasting faith doesn’t rest solely on the youth ministry. Before we send kids across the hall to the youth room, we must give them a solid framework. There are many things we can feel good and confident about in our ministries, but we must also be willing to look objectively at what we’re producing in kids—and this goes far beyond choosing the “right” curriculum or planning the perfect event.
As children’s ministers, what we’re really aiming for is to develop a genuine, active faith in our kids that they can build on throughout their lives. And while there are vast differences in our outward expressions of faith, there are two common denominators when it comes to developing faith: knowledge and experience. As a disclaimer, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that there’s much more to Christian education than just knowledge. However, for the purpose of this article, I’ll use the term “Christian education” to refer only to the educational aspects of Christian faith formation, with the other aspects of children’s ministry being mainly experiences that nurture faith development.
Knowledge and Experience?
Everything we do with the children in our ministries will fit into the category of knowledge or experience. Without one, the other will suffer.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
I recall one ministry where the church felt certain the kids were really “spiritually mature.” They opted to skim over laying the foundation of basic biblical knowledge (or Christian education). They made the mistake of assuming that even the youngest kids had a foundation of biblical knowledge, so they jumped ahead to focusing on experience, where kids would in effect practice real-life application of things they hadn’t yet added to their faith foundation.
Experience Without Knowledge
Experience without the foundational knowledge of God’s Word and message leads to a shallow and fleeting faith. Over time, I witnessed how some of these kids grew into adolescents and young adults who struggled to maintain consistency in their faith life because they lacked foundational knowledge of God. Unfortunately, some are still riding a roller coaster of experiences rather than enjoying a journey of deeply rooted faith.
Think of this another way: Church camp is a great example of experience. Now take campers who haven’t grown up in church. Maybe they attend camp with a friend or cousin. They most likely have a very real, touching camp experience, and they might even connect with God in a way that beforehand they didn’t know was possible. But if they leave that experience and never receive any of the foundational knowledge of God’s Word, they’ll struggle to hold on to that experience—no matter how real it was. Life happens to kids, and without the framework of knowledge of God and the Bible, they won’t have the tools they need to assimilate their experience into a life-long journey of faith.
Knowledge Without Experience
On the other hand, if a ministry is focused solely on knowledge and not experience, it’ll be difficult for kids to bridge the gap between Bible information and real-life application. Even though many of our Sunday school lessons include application material, kids can still struggle to take their faith from their Sunday school room to the soccer field, to sleepovers, and to family life. When the focus is too heavy on knowledge, it’s as though we give kids the skeleton of a living faith with none of the muscles and organs and skin. If kids have the feeling that religion is cold and dead, they probably aren’t having the experiences that nurture healthy faith formation. One of the best things we can do for our children is offer them opportunities to experience their faith in action.
Faith-forming experiences where kids use their knowledge in real-life application can come in many forms. Here are examples of experiences kids may have. What does experience look like in your ministry?
This can include singing, Scripture reading, and praying together.
Service and Mission
Often this is serving within and outside the church. For children, this might include older kids helping with younger children’s classes, leading singing, or even helping with media. It might also be visiting a nursing home or delivering clothing or food for families in need.
Many things fall into this category such as small groups, parties, camp, or movie outings.
It’s great to celebrate our kids as a congregation. This is a powerful way to connect them to the larger church. Third-grade Bible presentations, baptism, and confirmation celebrations are ways churches celebrate with children.
Education and Experience
Both education and experience are absolutely necessary if we’re going to help our kids form a life- long faith. Intentionality and balance are key to this, no matter what your ministry’s philosophy. If I could sum up this concept in one simple equation, it would look like this.
Intentional Christian Education + Intentional Faith Experiences = Christian Faith Formation
At the risk of sounding like your high-school algebra teacher, the equation means almost nothing until we acknowledge that we all add our own variables into it. One of those variables is the ratio of Christian education to real-life faith experiences. Because every church culture is different, there’s no right or wrong ratio of education to experience in your ministry. It’s something you must assess within your ministry setting, families, and overall church.
To start thinking intentionally about faith formation, mentally picture those sixth-graders walking into youth group for the first time. What do they need to successfully navigate their faith life as they enter that world? You must determine who you want those brand new sixth-graders to be spiritually when they cross the threshold into the youth room.
And in every church these youth groups will look different, depending largely on the culture of the whole church. In one church, service to the poor might be a hallmark, while in another, the small- group ministry might be the focus. Who we are as a congregation is what we want to produce in our kids. Unfortunately, in many churches, children’s ministry (and sometimes youth ministry) has become its own animal, with little resemblance to the rest of the church. As children’s ministry leaders, it’s our responsibility to impart the hallmarks of the larger church onto our children. We can do great children’s ministry in any setting, but we must keep in mind that we’re always one part of our local church. Our kids need to understand that, too.
Balanced Faith Formation
To be more intentional about balancing education and experience for kids’ faith formation, it’s wise to begin by investigating what’s currently happening in your ministry. Remember: Your end goal is to ensure your ministry offers a good balance of education and experience so kids launch well into their next stage of faith development. Here are specific ways to assess your current balance and make any needed adjustments.
Talk to Your Youth Leader
Ask the youth leader what he or she sees in the kids coming from your ministry, especially those who’ve been part of the church for several years. Chances are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. But be willing to ask what struggles kids have. What are they missing when they reach the youth area? And what should they learn in children’s ministry to be prepared for youth ministry?
Ask for Input
Ask parents and volunteers to talk with you about the most foundational passages and concepts they’d like kids to learn. Add this to your overview of what kids are learning. You know which concepts are appropriate for certain age groups and which aren’t. You also know what your curriculum scope and sequence includes—and omits. Ensure you’ve considered the big picture with input from others as you move forward with intentional planning.
Talk About Ministry Experiences
Ask parents which experiences are most meaningful to their families, and why. What do they wish their kids could experience? Sometimes it can be tricky to talk to parents about their opinions because you don’t know what you’re going to hear. It takes effort, but it’ll be worth it. Fear not: Asking the question doesn’t mean you’re committing to meet every desire. But you are looking for commonalities. Make that clear, and listen for patterns and repeated requests.
Talk to Your Pastor
Your pastor may have insights about the hallmarks of the church that could become part of your faith-formation plan.
Make a List
After you’ve done your investigation and have followed the steps above, create a list of the top 10 things kids need to know and the top five things they need to experience before they move up into youth ministry. These items can become your guide as you choose curriculum and design your calendar of events.
Chances are, as you consider your curriculum, you’ll find most of the educational elements covered. But in many cases, there’ll be a few things that aren’t covered in your curriculum. Take note of any gaps, and find other ways to tackle these areas. Some- times adding things such as service opportunities for families or fun learning workshops are simple ways of ensuring you’re hitting your target when it comes to balancing knowledge and experience.
Your end goal is to ensure your ministry offers a good balance of education and experience so kids launch well into their next stage of faith development.
Our best chance for successfully launching kids into their next stage of faith development is by building a strong foundation based on education and experience. One without the other will result in kids with incomplete faith who find it easier to walk away when the world comes calling. By intentionally creating a ministry philosophy that balances every child’s need for brain-building knowledge and heart-impacting experiences, we help set the stage for a faith that lasts.
Take Our Quiz
If you’re wondering where your church lands on the scale of educational and experiential faith-building, take our online quiz.
Annette Safstrom has over 20 years of children’s ministry experience. Currently, she’s a children’s ministry coach and consultant with Ministry Architects.
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