Discover the four cultural trends impacting children’s ministry that’ll impact the way you do ministry for years.
Children’s leaders need to read the culture and then develop a plan for action. As a profession, we’ve done a good job of watching trends within church culture. We identify trendsetting churches, and we note their strategies and benchmarks. We apply what works best for our ministries. Likewise, children’s ministers must become students of our surrounding culture. Culture shapes our priorities and perceptions of reality. Studying culture can keep us from being changed by culture in unbiblical ways.
Studying culture isn’t only necessary for our ministries’ survival; it’s an exercise in love. When I married my wife, I quickly realized that loving her also meant I’d have to learn her family’s culture. Exhibit A: The kitchen. I’m the primary cook. Early in our marriage I discovered that our differing family cultures created a problem. My mental image of spaghetti sauce involved hand-diced tomatoes simmering in freshly cut spices for hours. Amy envisioned machine-puréed, jarred, processed sauce. Imagine my surprise when Amy tasted my homemade sauce and asked if I could make it “more like Ragú.” Eventually love (and practicality) overcame indignation, and I now buy jarred sauce. In the same way, children’s ministers study surrounding culture to discover what unchurched people value —and so that our efforts to reach them actually feel the way they’re meant to feel — like an act of love.
Read on for four cultural trends from outside the church that every children’s minister needs to know and respond to.
Cultural Trend #1. “Micro-trends” impact family ministry.
From my view, no trends in our wider culture mandate family ministry in the church. Our current spotlight on family ministry seems to be “from within” — arising from prophetic voices within the church. The Orange Movement, driven by forward thinkers such as Reggie Joiner, arose from within church culture and reminds us that God’s institution of choice to transmit faith from generation to generation is the family, not the children’s ministry.
And although this drive for family ministry isn’t a result of outside cultural trends, to be successful we have to build family ministries that resonate with our surrounding culture. Here are microcultural trends to heed.
Young parents value self-expression and customization.
Young parents value products and services that are customizable. Companies design and market social media platforms, phones, and clothing lines as items that let individuals showcase their personalities. Parents don’t want massive family ministry programs around which to conform their lives. They want values, advice, and programs to choose from as they build their “family brand.”
Young parents were raised to believe they can change the world.
According to sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials’ parents taught their children that they matter. We can expect Millennial parents to pass that same value onto their children. Family ministries must tap this trend and provide opportunities for parents and children to serve together.
Young families are often fatherless.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 24.7 million children live without their biological fathers. The divorce rate for first marriages is 41 percent. Though the rise of blended families softens some impact of this statistic, the notion that a family consists of husband and wife working together to raise children isn’t reality to a large segment of our population. As you design family ministry, intentionally communicate God’s grace to all families. Consider the book of Genesis and how God chose to save the world through a family dysfunctional enough to make writers of Desperate Housewives blush. Our message to today’s parents must be that God works through our fragile families.
Cultural Trend #2. Young parents may view Christianity as the root of the problem and not the cure.
September 11 is a powerful cultural marker.
The terrorist attacks on American soil not only mark the end of the Millennial generation, but they marked the beginning of open distrust of any type of religious fundamentalism. Christian maverick Spencer Burke notes in his book A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (Jossey-Bass) that to the common observer our conflict in the Middle East is a “clash of monotheisms.” The conclusion is that some brands of faith, including Christianity, are inherently dangerous.
Recently researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons commissioned a survey of people outside the church between the ages of 16 and 29 and published their work in their book unChristian (Baker Books). The duo discovered that the majority of these “outsiders” possessed a negative opinion of Christianity that fell into six broad categories: Christians are hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, too intellectually and socially sheltered, too political, and too judgmental.
These views must be taken seriously, whether we consider them fairly earned or not. Why? Consider the age group surveyed. These are the people who are marrying and having children. Past church-growth wisdom was that a teenager would graduate high school and temporarily abandon faith during his or her college years. Somewhere in his mid-20s, he’d settle down, marry, have children, and realize he needed the church to give his children moral and spiritual bearings. That was then. Now the bad news is that today’s parents are less likely to value the church as a trusted partner. Churches are seen as hives of fundamentalism and bigotry — places not to take your children.
What can we do?
This is a troubling cultural trend. Still, hand-wringing isn’t much of a faith-filled response. Kinnaman and Lyons point out that a large percentage of these outsiders are individuals who “dechurched” themselves — who left church — lending credibility to the accuracy of their criticisms. The savvy children’s minister will learn from the statistics and criticisms and make adjustments to curriculum and programming that reflect a more Christlike Christianity. Here are suggestions to build a children’s ministry that lovingly defies negative perceptions of our faith.
Educate your families and volunteers.
Teach a series on Jesus’ ability to befriend and love people of varied moral conditions. Model not judging others while not giving up on your own convictions.
Mainstream Christian heroes.
Celebrate noted heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose Christian faith compelled them to champion the cause of the oppressed.
Serve without prejudice.
Provide regular chances for service with nonprofits to help your children become engaged in Jesus’ compassion for the poor.
As you intentionally and consistently take these steps, you’ll not only train your children how to be Christ-followers, you’ll also cause parents to do a double take and reconsider the value of church for their children.
Cultural Trend #3. Shifting economy changes the face of the available volunteer.
Once upon the 1950s, most families were intact and able to live off the father’s income. Volunteer experts Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee assert these economic realities resulted in the stay at home mom being the most available volunteer. Today it’s more common for moms to work away from hom. It’s socially acceptable — and often needed — for women to pursue career dreams. The economy and the rise of the single-parent home have compelled many women to have a job, regardless of personal goals. The stay at home mom no longer makes up the largest pool of volunteers.
The McKees see Millennial professionals and the retiring Baby Boomers as having the most free time to use for volunteer work. Don’t stop recruiting parents of young children; just know that they’re in a life stage where they’re likely to only be small players. Your potential high-capacity volunteers will be those who’ve not yet launched their families or those who’ve raised their children and are entering retirement.
Be intentional with recruitment.
Courting two diverse generations requires more intentionality from children’s ministers. Millennials are impatient multi-taskers, fluent in interactive media. Millennials value customization and working on teams, and they’re often looking for mentors. Meanwhile, retiring Boomers are looking for opportunities to use the professional skills in the church that they spent a lifetime developing. This generation might have conceded that rock wasn’t going to change the world, but they’re still looking for worthy causes. Boomers don’t want to make a contribution; they want to make a difference. Finally, Boomers demand flexible hours. Many have the freedom and means to take extended travel vacations. Some Boomers will avoid commitments that ground them in their hometowns. The children’s minister who adapts his or her volunteer culture to accommodate the needs of these two generations will find a new crop of high-impact volunteers.
Cultural Trend #4. The cost of video technology has greatly dropped.
Today’s children’s minister has access to video editing software that in the 1980s could only be found in a handful of Hollywood.
The accessibility of video-editing software means there’s been an influx of video-based curriculums in Christian education featuring high-quality animation and drama clips. Unfortunately, many of these curriculums put too much emphasis on the video clips at the expense of the interactive teaching methods. Such “electronic flannelgraphs” have caused children’s ministries to go back to passive learning methods that were rejected a few short decades ago.
Applying video tech.
The problem isn’t in the video tech — it’s in our use of it. We seem to be in a phase of integrating new technologies into our ministries. There’s a brave new world of technology available out there that we’ve hardly begun to consider, and it’s great that we’re importing improved visuals as a ministry tool. However, we’re missing the more important value — the “nonlinear” principle that made these new videos possible.
Let me illustrate nonlinear with a handful of examples. When kids use computers, they’re offered an array of icons, depending on what they want to do — play a game, surf the Internet, write a school paper. Most popular video games allow kids to explore and interact in a digital world. And websites often give kids the power of choice to create avatars (digital characters) and online worlds and experiences with the click of a mouse.
Next-generation curriculums will operate like the examples I gave you. Curriculums will offer teams of kids and teachers an array of possibilities to choose from as they discover biblical truth. Make no mistake — video clips will be among those choices. But the most important shift is not to the clips — it’s the change in thinking that made the technology possible.
Wise leaders will study our times, understand the trends, and guide their ministries into a new year of effectiveness-and relevancy.
Larry Shallenberger is pastor of children’s and family ministries at Grace Church in Erie, Pennsylvania. Check out his book Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your Leadership Style in Children’s Ministry.
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