To reach children, you must sometimes become like a child, but you can lose adults’ respect by doing so. The Kidologist Karl Bastian shares how you can do both!
Kids live in a different world than adults. To reach them most effectively, we have to approach children’s ministry much like an overseas missionary does: by living among them, learning their culture, and discovering common interests that build a bridge to sharing the good news about Jesus.
The Apostle Paul understood this well, revealing his strategy in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23: “Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” Even Jesus implored adults to come to him as children.
We must model Jesus to children while making Jesus relevant in their lives. This requires us to become childlike in many ways to reach kids. However, there’s an inherent risk of taking childlikeness too far and becoming childish. Being perceived as “one of the kids” can be powerful for reaching kids—while undermining our effectiveness with parents, volunteers, and even our senior leadership. How do you find the balance between connecting with kids and remaining a respected leader among adults?
Remember Who Children Are
Leading a relational ministry to kids has been a lifelong passion of mine. Let me offer some key insights I’ve learned pursuing a relational ministry with children—while not alienating adults.
Kids live in the moment; adults are always going somewhere.
Adults seem to always be in a hurry, discussing and planning for the future. Kids watch the world around them while adults watch the clock. Kids don’t worry about the future. Now is what’s important. It’s why homework and practicing are so challenging for them. To connect with kids, we need to compromise by helping them prepare and joining them in the moment. Do you notice cool bugs? Can you spot a picture in the clouds? Can you stop and just enjoy something without concern about what’s next? When you live in the moment, you make powerful connections with kids because they see most adults as just leading, directing, and giving instructions. When you stop and enjoy something in the moment, as trivial as it may be, you stand out as an adult who can relate to a kid’s world.
Kids’ imaginations run on overdrive; adults are obsessed with the practical.
Children love to imagine. “What if” conversations are a common way they’ll join in imaginative dialogue with you. Listen as children converse. Often they talk about ridiculous scenarios that start with one “what if” and lead to even more nonsense. Too often adults squelch such conversations as unrealistic or silly. Kids aren’t trying to be realistic; they’re enjoying imagining preposterous things.
When you join an imaginative conversation with children, you’re speaking their language—a language that’s foreign to most grown-ups.
Kids notice wonder everywhere they look; adults tend to overlook the little things.
The world is an amazing place for children. They’re always learning more about this incredible world God created and asking countless questions. At some point, adults figure they know enough and they stop really noticing things. They stop wondering, and tragically, they often stop asking questions. They assume they have all the answers they need, or they’re afraid to appear baffled by anything. Adults who notice amazing things and ask questions when they don’t know the answers will connect with kids who share their awe of the world.
Kids love to laugh at life; adults laugh at jokes.
When’s the last time you heard a good joke? When was the last time you were the joke? It often seems adults need a joke to laugh, whereas kids laugh at everything around them. Actually, they’re pretty lousy at telling jokes, anyway. Laughter for kids is more an approach to life than the result of some witty wordplay. I often say, “Without laughter, there’s little learning.” Laughter opens up both the heart and the mind. The best teachers laugh with their kids instead of just talking at them.
Grow Old, Not Up
There are so many things we can learn from kids, and these things are key to your ministry. While growing up, adults tend to leave behind many traits of children that they’d be wise to embrace. We can’t help growing older, but we can help growing up. Keeping a childlike heart and approach to life is not only healthy, but it’s also the secret to effective relational ministry.
But can we take it too far? Unfortunately, becoming more like kids can have a negative effect on adult relationships if we aren’t wise in how we approach being more childlike. Here are some things I’ve learned to help keep a healthy balance to prevent childlikeness in ministry from appearing as immaturity.
Explain your philosophy of ministry every chance you get.
Every chance I get, both in large groups and in one-on-one conversations, I explain why I’m immersed in the world of children. If an adult comments on my Minecraft T-shirt, I explain, “Kids today love this game! By joining them in this interest, I’m able to build relationships and even make spiritual connections from Minecraft to the Christian life.” I’ll often say, “Don’t be fooled by all the fun and silliness you see. I’m serious about reaching kids for Jesus!” I can’t count the number of times adults have expressed that they “get it” and are so appreciative for the extra effort I put into reaching their kids.
Don’t neglect adult relationships.
No doubt, the kids are more fun. But don’t neglect adult relationships. If you gravitate to children at all church events, you’ll soon appear to be just another kid. Spend time with children, but not at the expense of mingling and chatting with adults. Attend men’s or women’s ministry events, join a small group, take adults out for coffee, and be engaged in adult fellowship. Let your peers see the other side of you. If they only ever see you with your yo-yo, hamming it up with the kids, you’ll strengthen your connection with the kids while weakening your connection with adults. You need both in ministry.
Model responsibility and safety.
If you’re going to connect with kids, there will be times you’re going to push the envelope a bit more than what most adults would do. You’ll have to. You may be dressed up in a costume, using a puppet, or otherwise being silly with the kids—but know when enough is enough. If you start to be unsafe or bend the rules, adults will start to think you need supervision when you’re supposed to be the supervision. If you make adults nervous, you may be going too far. You want to connect with kids, but you need to remain an authority they respect. It’s perfectly appropriate to say to kids, “You know I like to have fun, but I need your immediate cooperation when I give instructions; otherwise, I won’t be able to be so fun.” It’s also effective to say, “Hey, don’t get me in trouble with the grown-ups.” This is a subtle but effective way of saying, “I’m one of you—but I need the respect of the other adults, too.”
Put away your toys.
Lastly, never forget that in life and in ministry, perception is the reality. We often use toys to connect with kids. As a cross-cultural minister to kids, I call toys “artifacts from the world of kids.” They not only make for great object lessons, but they also demonstrate a common interest with children. There’s no effective children’s ministry that doesn’t include toys. However, even kids have to learn when to put their toys away. If you’re playing with toys when there are no kids around, you might be seen as childish rather than childlike. Even as you decorate your office to relate to kids, make sure an adult who comes in can relate, too. As in all things, balance is key.
It’s no secret—the best teachers are those who can relate to kids from within the context of their world and culture. However, as passionate as we are about kids, we can’t neglect the adults in our ministry. Teaching and leading are different, and each requires different skills. We’re childlike to reach and teach kids, but we need to remain adults in order to lead. Parents and volunteers are adults with whom we need to relate as adults. It’s also adults who set ministry budgets and may sign your paycheck, so be wise and make every effort to relate as well with them as you do with kids. The same apostle who found common ground with everyone to reach the lost also said, “But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Somewhere in the middle, you can find that place where you’re reaching kids while building the support of the adults in your ministry, too.
Karl Bastian is a veteran children’s pastor and founder of Kidology.org.
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