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Changing Church Culture: The Case of Plentiful Workers

In a church culture where recruiting volunteers is often a mystery, one church has cracked the case!

You might be skeptical if I tell you that Coastlands Church in Aptos, California, has successfully recruited 60 percent of its congregation to serve in children’s ministry. But it’s true–and you’ll be encouraged to know that Coastlands is a church that may look a lot like your church. It’s in a typical, middle-class, diverse community. Children’s Ministry Magazine did some detective work, sending me to the church to interview Senior Pastor Todd Millikan, Children’s Pastor Priska Martinez, and five others from the children’s ministry team. Let’s get to the bottom of this intriguing case.

Just the Facts

You read it right: Coastlands has about 60 percent of its adult congregation involved in some aspect of children’s ministry. That’s impressive by any standard, but especially considering the church averages 550 to 600 in weekend attendance, including 100 children (infants through fifth grade).

“Children’s ministry and serving really are a part of our culture,” explains Senior Pastor Millikan. “If you’re going to be a part of Coastlands, you’ll discover that we value children and we also believe that serving is a part of your spiritual growth. It’s just who we are.”

How do they do it? It’s a straightforward strategy: Coastlands has intentionally built a culture where kids and service are highly valued–and they go hand in hand. Here’s what we uncovered about this unique church culture.


The key to the structure of Coastlands’ high volunteer rate is its small group program. The church has formed Inner Congregational Units (ICUs), their version of small groups that meet twice monthly. Every ICU leader is responsible for the teaching and care of his or her group. The groups vary in size, from five to 15 members. All ICUs are assigned to serve in one of six children’s ministry classrooms in the church’s three weekend worship services.


Coastlands found that Saturday evening services are more popular than Sunday morning services. So they have three service times: Saturdays at 5 and 7 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Between evening services, the church serves a meal for people to fellowship and form relationships, which helps build bonds for service.


One thing Coastlands is known for is being a “two-service church,” meaning that church members attend one service and serve in another.

“This is part of our core values,” children’s pastor Martinez explains. “We call it the STAR principle: servanthood, teachability, accountability, and repentance. In giving our life away, there’s so much life found.”

 In Search of a Motive

Coastlands’ strategy for getting people involved in children’s ministry is foundational to the church’s greater vision, and it has benefits that are twofold.

Adult spiritual formation

One of Coastlands’ biggest goals for its children-first culture actually revolves around big people. Adult spiritual formation is one of the driving factors behind the church’s culture.

“We believe and teach that you grow most when you’re serving,” Millikan explains.

But what about gifting and passion? Aren’t these important aspects of spiritual formation?

“We believe that growth happens most when people come to realize finding fulfillment isn’t about them. Ministry to children teaches humility and sacrifice. Only then can we learn what Jesus wants us to become as his followers,” says Millikan.

Jessie Engelhardt, a volunteer who recently became a paid staff member overseeing weekend coordination of ICU leaders, said, “We say that some of the little things you at first might not be crazy about at Coastlands are the things you grow to love. For example, we intentionally have people sit close together during the worship service. At first people don’t like it, but then they come to enjoy it. The same thing has been true for some serving in children’s ministry. At first, they aren’t sure about it, but after a while they wouldn’t consider doing anything else.”

Leadership development

Another goal of Coastlands’ children’s ministry strategy is leadership development. ICU leaders are responsible to cast the vision to engage their groups in ministry. This is at its core a leadership challenge; it’s not always easy to gather a service team to step up in addition to the normal ICU meeting to serve in a ministry they may not feel equipped to do. Attempting–and meeting–this challenge is a large part of what develops ICU leaders in their skills and abilities. The result is stronger people who are able to lead in areas beyond ICU and children’s ministry.

Unsolved Mysteries

Sixty percent is an amazing statistic-but Coastlands is quick to point out that they still face their share of challenges.

Elevating perceived value

“Holding to this principle of service takes a lot of work,” Martinez admits. “The hardest thing is keeping a heart of passion and not obligation. We constantly remind people in personal conversations and meetings that kids are a gift from God. There are still Sundays when people don’t show up or ICU leaders fail to communicate who is and isn’t coming. But because of how we’ve organized service teams and our sheer numbers, we’re able to quickly adjust and cover our bases.”

“We have about seven women in our ICU,” says volunteer Patty Clark. “When we began serving, we only had one or two involved in children’s ministry. But then we began talking in our group about how we could serve the kids, and we began praying for them. Now we have five serving. They realize it’s more than just showing up and being a baby sitter. We love our kids.”

Missing worship

Even though the church encourages people to attend a worship service and serve during another, the pastors know that some people who serve can’t always make it to the worship service. This is considered okay because they’re involved in ministry and small group community with fellow ICU members.

“Kids are the best way to grow adults,” says Senior Pastor Millikan. “Jesus said if you receive a child, you’ve received me. I think being with children is better than hearing a sermon.”

Safety and training upkeep

Even with such a large number of adults involved, the church does background checks on each participant. Training is typically on the job as new members observe those more experienced. Staff train by wandering around, peeking into classrooms to encourage, giving one-on-one teaching tips, and making sure everything’s going well.

Competition between ministries

It seems that with all the emphasis on children’s ministry, other ministry area leaders might feel as though they’re in competition, but through its positive culture, the church has been able to avoid this pitfall.

“Staff and ministry leaders understand this is a priority for us,” says Millikan, “so we don’t have people vying for attention or complaining that children’s ministry gets more promotion than other ministries.”


People periodically leave Coastlands as they do other churches. The most common reasons people give for leaving include scheduling or distance. But these departures (which are estimated to be on average with other churches of this size) don’t impact the church’s purpose. The church remains focused on helping people mature in their faith at the same time they’re helping children grow in theirs.

Room for more

Also typical of many churches is the question of landing on outreach that really works to draw new families in. With an abundance of children’s ministry volunteers, Coastlands is well-equipped to draw many more than the 100 or so children it does each weekend.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can attract more children from the community,” Martinez laments. “We have a capacity for more kids than we have attending.”

Case Closed

It doesn’t take a lot of undercover work to determine the significant secret to Coastlands’ success. It’s all in the motivation behind the willing hands–motivations of love, belonging, relationship, and care; just ask any passing volunteer or ICU leader.

Lauren Spencer, an ICU leader who cares for 1- and 2-year-olds, has volunteered more than 20 years in the ministry. “I was never able to have my own children,” she says, “but I have a family here. I’ve cared for infants who are now having their own kids.”

Dane Brown, an ICU leader, agrees. “People are in an ICU for a reason, to be together. They want to be with each other, whether it’s in a coffee shop or a children’s classroom. About 80 percent of our people show up every week.”

Jeff Young, an ICU leader says, “Tonight during the 5 p.m. service, we’ll probably have six adults with a couple of high school helpers, in a class of 15 to 20 kids. During the down time, we’re able to be together and have relationship.”

“To be honest, perhaps the biggest challenge we face is that the ICU groups enjoy being together so much that sometimes we need to remind them that they’re here to serve the children, not to talk to each other,” Engelhardt laughs. “But for the most part, people do a great job and enjoy being together.”

Church Culture Clues

If you’re interested in following Coastlands’ footsteps, follow these clues to get started.

Get top-level support.

For any value to become a part of your church culture, your senior pastor has to share the passion and energy to make it so.

Spread the love.

When children become a priority churchwide, your ministry will overlap other ministry areas, as opposed to being a silo where information is not shared. Small groups serve as a crossover vehicle to organize people through existing networks and relationships. Children’s ministry provides a means for deepening friendships while giving.

Emphasize spiritual growth.

Serving is a means to individual spiritual formation, not just a way to fill “holes” and gather warm bodies. This value must be embraced within your church culture.

Grow your leaders.

Make leadership development an intentional goal, so leading a small group also involves gathering a team to serve in children’s ministry.

Coastlands Church has built a remarkable cultural emphasis around investing in children. Coastlands’ children and families gain from the quantity and quality of care provided. Theirs is a village approach to children’s ministry, with win-wins for the kids-and the adults serving them.

Alan Nelson is a leadership development specialist and founder of KidLead.

For even more great ideas like this in every issue, subscribe to Children’s Ministry Magazine today!

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