If what ails children’s spiritual growth is primarily parents not knowing what to do, we’ve got practical ideas for you to partner with parents now.
Imagine that you’ve become sick with some rare disease. No doctor seems to understand your symptoms — or their cause. You spend months — and even years — going from doctor to doctor, trying to find a remedy for your maladies. A dermatologist treats your rash; an endocrinologist treats your hormones; and an internist treats your organs.
If only these physicians would communicate with one another and treat your entire being, they’d discover that you have a rare allergy to doctors!
Odd story, but hopefully it makes a point for children’s ministers when it comes to treating what ails families today. We have children’s ministers who treat children, youth ministers who treat teenagers, and pastors who treat adults. Does anyone ever stop to take a look at the entire body that we call the family? We need to care for the entire family as one organism rather than focusing on individual parts alone.
The predominant mind-set in Christian education concerning families has long been that to “strengthen the whole you must strengthen the parts.” But families need more from church life than segregated programs and the occasional all-church activity. Many of our church activities actually pull family members apart from each other. We know something’s wrong with this picture, but sorting out a solution seems complicated.
Most children’s ministries focus almost exclusively on individuals. Parents are an afterthought to many children’s ministers. Yes, we sincerely want to make a difference in the lives of our children’s families. We want to help parents teach their children about God, but our response to that desire is to tack on one more program that doesn’t really involve parents interacting with their children. Instead of this add-on approach, we need to create a biblically solid, “family-friendly church” orientation. If we want to truly partner with parents, we need a new way of thinking.
BALANCING PROGRAMS TO PARTNER WITH PARENTS
Think about what happens with most families on Sunday mornings. Families drive to church together, but once they arrive, they scatter to separate classes. They worship in different rooms — the children in one place and the adults in another. Family members don’t even see each other again until it’s time to leave. When are parents and children supposed to be involved in family discipleship activities? It’s hard to admit, but we Christian educators may be our own worst enemies!
To effectively partner with parents when families attend our church programs, we need to balance age-level and intergenerational ministry times. Here are ways to establish a healthy balance in your children’s ministry and church programming to meet parents’, children’s, and families’ needs.
Welcome parents into your children’s programs. The preschool program was abuzz with the gossip about the mother who asked to sit in on a class to see what her kids were learning. “It’s as though she thinks we’re going to do something to her children!” “She’s such a control freak!”
Ever heard comments like these about parents who want to come to their children’s classes? Rather than being threatened by such parents, we need to embrace them. Parents shouldn’t be perceived as strangers or intruders when visiting their children’s Sunday school classes. No parent should feel guilty for wanting to worship with his or her children.
Establish a family-friendly church culture by inviting parents into your classrooms and programs. Welcome them as the primary partners in their children’s faith development. (Who knows? You may even find your most amazing future teachers from this vibrant pool of hands-on folks!)
Welcome children into adult programs. Can you imagine children in your worship services? in your adult education classes? in your small groups? If parents want to keep their children with them, how would you react? Would you welcome those children — or not?
A family-friendly church welcomes the children. Granted, you need to educate your leaders — and your parents — as to what is and isn’t expected of children in these adult arenas. You could also equip the parents with snack ideas and child-appropriate activities that supplement the content for the class (that is, not just coloring pages!).
Concerned about the noise levels? Ever notice how a parent’s tolerance for noise increases after having children? It’s the same with a family-friendly church. When children are welcomed into the entire arena of the church, the quiet hum of their presence is hardly even noticed.
Offer ministry programs for all generations. This can’t always happen, but make it common practice to include those who want to be included. When churches offer adult-only worship services and exclude children, the message is loud and clear: The church doesn’t value children.
Instead, work to create programming that’s intergenerational and integrated, not isolated. And if you invite parents to come to a children’s ministry program, give them something significant to do. Have them learn right beside their children.
Some programming easily lends itself to integrating the family and home. In your training programs, how about having units on family communication or safety issues for the home? Have you considered small group family Bible studies? Or intergenerational Sunday school or VBS?
Minister to families as a unit — not solely as a collection of individuals. Develop simple, user-friendly welcome materials that include children’s ministry, youth ministry, and “grown-up” information. Train greeters to be child-friendly — engaging and welcoming to children so they feel at home in your church.
Keep families together whenever possible, but remember that age-specific classes and programs have their place as well. You have to balance children’s educational and age-appropriate needs with families’ needs. Age-specific classes are important so children are able to learn at their pace and on their level. But children can also grow by leaps and bounds as they learn about, serve, and worship God with their parents.
TEAMING WITH PARENTS
For too long, we Christian educators have communicated to parents that we’re the only people who are equipped to pump faith into kids. Parents have gotten our message: Drop off your kids on Sunday mornings — and we’ll take it from there.
We must change that message if we’re to significantly impact children’s faith. Parents are meant to have the primary role in teaching and discipling their children. Our job is to support parents in their efforts. If parents refuse to do their job, then the church, by default, takes the primary role. But that’s supposed to be the exception rather than the norm. The following are practical ways to partner with parents to help them train their children to love and follow God.
Encourage parents to lead. Re-educate parents about their role as their children’s primary faith-shapers. Many parents lack the confidence and skills to comfortably take a leadership role. So give parents a boost of confidence by helping them see God’s perspective of their role. Share with them Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 11:18-20: “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
As we assign the responsibility for children’s spiritual nurture back to parents, we must equip them with the tools to nurture their children’s faith.
Build family-friendly churches. We need to set and support realistic parent-partnering expectations. While it’s true that parents are to be the primary teachers and disciplers of their children, it’s equally true that the church plays a role, too. It’s unlikely that parents will want us to partner with them if they don’t feel fully embraced and supported by the church as a whole.
There are many things your church can do to become family-friendly. A church with a family-friendly orientation will embody these 5 elements.
1. Families worship, learn, and serve together. In addition to worshiping and learning together, families can serve together as well. It’s a powerful thing to see families working together to do God’s work. In every issue of Children’s Ministry Magazine, you’ll find practical ideas to help families serve together. In this issue alone are ideas for families to clean the church together, conduct church services at a resort, go on a mission vacation, or adopt a family.
2. The church values families. You can tell what a church values by looking at its mission statement. A church with a family-friendly orientation will intentionally state the importance of families. Some family-friendly mission statements contain phrases such as “to partner with parents,” “to come alongside parents,” or “to support parents.”
3. There are signs of follow-through. A mission statement that mentions families is fine, but if it’s in print and not reflected in programming and lifestyle, so what? To determine if your church’s mission statement is adequately implemented, ask parents themselves. Use a scale response system to survey parents so you can create a benchmark from which to grow. For example, ask “On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being dismal and 10 being angelic), how would you rate the family-friendliness of our church?” Include four or five questions. Allow the responses to inform any changes you need to make. Then check back in six months with the same survey to see how families’ perceptions of your church have changed.
4. Lessons for kids are prepared with families in mind. Instead of just thinking about how children will relate to the lesson, teachers think about how the children can apply what’s learned in the context of family relationships. A great tool for parents is a family-friendly curriculum that includes take-home papers to connect the lesson to home. Choose a curriculum that provides information about lessons and includes activities for families to do together to reinforce lessons. If you’re really ambitious, you can even create your own.
5. The church staff is family-friendly. Talk with your senior pastor and other staff. Find out where they stand on ministry to parents and families. Then take a look at your church calendar. How many activities segregate family members? How many activities bring families together? Evaluate the quality of the programs that are offered for families. Are all parts of the family considered in the planning — or are certain parts central while other parts are afterthoughts? You can tell a lot about your church by looking at your calendar. If you find that family-friendly programs are add-ons or once-a-year events, it’s time to visit with your church staff about what can be changed.
One last thought. Creating a family-friendly church begins with you. If you want to bring about change, start with yourself. If you have children, let others see you partner with your children’s Sunday school teachers and other adults who work with your kids at church. Be intentional about sharing the impact those partnerships are making in your family. Use whatever soapbox you can find or create to tell parents that God rejoices when parents lead family time with God, pray with their children, and worship with their kids inside and outside of church.
Remember, the goal isn’t just to have kids spend time with their parents. Rather, the goal is to equip and motivate parents to be their kids’ teachers, shepherds, and heroes!
HELPING PARENTS SUCCEED
There are two primary ways you can help parents succeed in their role as their children’s faith developers.
1. Encourage parents to do these simple faith-building activities with their children.
- Pray daily with and for your children.
- Memorize one verse together as a family each week.
- Review Sunday school take-home papers. Do the activities together. Talk through the recommended discussion questions.
- Be with your children daily — talking, listening, and applying Bible truths to your lives and theirs.
- Read Scripture together. It doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be clear that God’s Word is an important resource and part of daily life.
2. Provide faith-building connections between homes and your church.
- Give a copy of your curriculum’s scope and sequence to each family so parents know what Bible personalities and stories children are studying in Sunday school.
- Create a prayer room at your church where entire families can go and pray together.
- Organize family outings such as day trips, outreach opportunities, and service projects.
- Send a monthly newsletter like Parenting Christian Kids with information about your ministry and practical, spiritual helps for parents.
Mike Sciarra is the pastor of adults and families at Voyagers Bible Church in Irvine, California.