January 15, 2021

The Liturgical Gangstas 4: What About Children’s and Youth Ministries?

Welcome to IM’s popular new feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different liturgical traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.

Who are the Gangstas?

Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Rev. Peter Vance Matthews is an Anglican priest and founding pastor of an AMIA congregation.
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction. (Alan’s not a priest. If he is, his wife and kids need to know.)
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.

Here’s this week’s question: In my own Baptist tradition, one of the most significant developments of the post-war era was the investment in “age group” programming, especially for children and youth. Successful Baptist churches are almost always churches with successful children’s and youth programs, usually with significant amounts of staff, facilities and resources dedicated to the experience of children and youth when they are “at church.”

But today there is a re-examination of this approach. A vocal minority of SBC churches are now questioning this methodology. Not in terms of its ability to grow churches- there’s no doubt that consumer minded families want full service churches- but in terms of producing disciples. Many believe this methodology has undermined the role of parents in the spiritual nurture of their children and produced young adults who are almost guaranteed to be uninterested in an adult commitment to the church. “Family centered” ministry is a label heard more and more often as a signal that age group programming is discouraged or limited.

What do the liturgical gangstas have to say about this debate? How much age specific programming do you believe is needed? Are children and young people in your worship services, or do they have their own options? What is the right balance between Christian education provided by the church and spiritual nurture provided by the family?

Father Ernesto/Orthodox: St. Francis Xavier (born Francisco de Jaso y Azpilicueta) of Spain, gave birth to a Jesuit saying in the 1500’s: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” Scripture tells us to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. G.K. Chesterton said that education is the transmission of the soul of one generation to the next. It is that last saying that I like best.

But, there has grown a false dichotomy between family and church among many groups, that is inappropriate and unhealthy. Already in Scripture, one can see the young Jesus being taken to the Temple at 12 years old. The Talmud says that this was the age when youngsters were questioned about the Law. Not surprisingly, the young Jesus was found among the teachers of the Law. The Talmud also says that as young as 6 years old, children were questioned about religious practices. Hmm, those are age-specific expectations. The New Testament confirms the presence of rabbi-led schools, such as that of Gamaliel, while the Old Testament confirms the teaching function of the scribes in passages from books such as Nehemiah. The training continued through adulthood.

From early Old Testament times, the raising of children was a responsibility jointly shared between the community and the parents. It was considered a joint project, in which the parents were expected to teach, by word and example, but the community of God, through its leaders, was supposed to provide more formal teaching, and, certainly, a checking of what was learned. This was the pattern that continues to this day in the synagogue and among various Churches. How does some of this pattern work out?

Well, the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” gives a rather humorous picture of it. But, here is the practice. Any Orthodox or Catholic parent would be embarrassed to show their face at services if their toddler could not make a basic sign of the cross. Any Orthodox parent would be embarrassed to show their face at services if their toddler would not know how to reverence (kiss) an icon. If the parent is an attender, that child is going to be with them in the service, and, since regularity is easily learned by young children, that child will have learned significant parts of the service before they are even in a secular first grade. As they grow older, they will have the opportunity to be altar boys or to participate in a dance group (especially the Greeks) or some other function that lets them represent the community. Though many Orthodox and Catholic parishes have Sunday School, it is not the mainstay of training, and it does not take the place of the worship.

The mainstay of training is a during the week school. If the child goes to a parish school, then they receive their training there. Parish schools have four R’s: Reading, (W)Riting, (A)Rithmetic, and Religion. If the child goes to a secular school, then they will attend an additional school, on at least one day a week, where they will learn the basics of the faith. And, yes, the training is age graded. Among both Catholics and Jews, either Confirmation or the Bar Mitzvah are important rites of passage which are the successors of the Talmudic statement that youngsters should be ready to give answers at 12. For Catholics, First Communion fulfills the Talmudic statement about the youngsters knowing some of the basic practices of the faith by 6 years of age–though First Communion really takes place around 8 years old.

“Sunday School” was never meant to, nor is able to, fulfill all that I have stated above. It is often a limited In fact, the system above involves the parents and the parish working together hand in hand. But, does it produce disciples? Ideally, yes, but . . . . The reality is that it produces people who claim to be Christian, are faithful to your Church (or synagogue); and, most important, it trains children who train their children who train their children.

But, here is the reality. No system will guarantee the production of disciples. The road of discipleship is a matter of personal choice. Discipleship is a perfect example of the saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. This is the major mistake made by those in the SBC who try to measure the effectiveness of a system by its production of disciples. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the common system used by Judaism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism in producing generation after generation of people who call themselves either Jews or Orthodox or Catholic is quite obvious. We can argue about how many people are nominal (too many) coming out of that system. But, after all, the most important question is whether it produces people whom God would accept as His at the time of the last judgment. I am willing to argue that the system does.

Matthew Johnson/United Methodist: I grew up in a rural Methodist church. Our age specific programming was birth to the age you could still. I was in worship every Sunday and did what I was supposed to because Mom and Mamaw were in the choir loft giving me the evil eye if I acted up. This is not the church my daughter is growing up in. When I arrived at my current appointment, we had a paid Children’s Director and a paid Youth Pastor. We have programs set up for these two groups because if we didn’t, lifelong Methodists would head down the road to the awesome ministries with XBox’s and awesome worship bands. Frankly, these two age specific programs are necessary so that we don’t die down the road.

I could go into the issues relating to missional versus attractional, but I think this church needs these programs and does a good job for this area. I would prefer for my four year-old daughter to learn to sit by her mother, learn the Lord’s Prayer, the creeds, and listen to her daddy preach, but as long as we are here she will eventually get that. Our younger children slip out during the offering but the older kids, say eight years old and up, stay in the worship service in our contemporary service (another Liturgical Gangsta’s topic, maybe?) but they are in Sunday School during the traditional service. The youth pretty much only show up on Wednesday nights. We have one or two kids who come to church at all on Sundays. Our Wednesday night program has about 25 kids participating and only about eight of them are children of members. The rest have really no place else to go. It’s the best outreach we do.

Back in 1922 this church prepared a list of goals for what they wanted to do and be. It is an amazing document that I am trying to resurrect and get people behind in such a way that it builds on the commitment and faith of those who went before and looks forward as we try to live as disciples in the 21st century. One of the goals was “A family altar in every home.” Few know what this even means today, but I interpret it as “Families will pray and worship together in their homes even before they show up to do both at church.” This means that the adults are going to have to do something they haven’t done before: take responsibility for the spiritual care of their families. They will lead prayer, sing hymns and choruses together, and learn the Bible together. It might mean that Mamaw and Papaw repent of their lack of leadership in the lives of their own kids and help teach their grandchildren. My goal is to see our families lead in the home and see how that plays out in the mission of the church.

Peter Vance Matthews/Anglican: I don’t have a strong feeling about whether or not to have children an youth programming or how it should look if implemented. I think each congregation has to figure out to answer these questions for itself.

What I do have strong feelings about is that the primary responsibility for raising children as Christian disciples falls on parents. We Anglicans begin the spiritual journey for our children when they are baptized – the earlier the better. At a kid’s baptism one or both parents (depending upon whether both are Christians) make vows to raise the child in the faith. Here is what they pledge:

Minister: Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
Parents: I will, with God’s help.
Minister: Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents: I will, with God’s help.

One of the things these questions presume is that Christian disciples can be raised. Anglican’s don’t wait for a kid to have a conversion experience before we call them a Christian. The minute they are baptized they call them a Christian and begin teaching them to live as a disciple of Jesus. Now, this doesn’t mean our kids don’t have conversion experiences (some do) and it doesn’t mean we think conversion experiences are unimportant (they are). What it means is that we narrate conversion experiences as part of journey that begins with baptism and ends when Jesus comes back. Sure, some of the kids begin that journey, fall away and never come back to the path. Others begin the journey, fall away and come back. And even others begin the journey and stay on the journey. The point is that they are on a life long journey of Christian discipleship where the most important influence during the early stages is Mom and Dad.

Given this calling, the central duty of parent in discipling their kids is to be faithful disciple of Jesus. In life, and especially in discipleship, more is caught than is taught. You can tell your kids what to believe and what to do until you are blue in the face, and with rare exception, they will not be attentive unless you are living what you are telling them. I also think the majority of the teaching of our kids whether formal or informal (and following Deuteronomy 6 I think most if it is to be informal, on the way kinds of teaching) is the responsibility of parents.

Now given this, what is the best way for a church to organize children and youth? Again, I think each church has to work this out. At Saint Patrick’s we have a nursery and then send toddlers to “Toddler Church” for about 75% of our worship service and send early elementary kids to “Children’s Church” for about 50% of the service (this group returns to receive Holy Communion). Once a kid is in 4th grade they are in worship and help participate in leading the congregation in the liturgy in various ways. Some argue that kids should be in the service the whole time. That is a legitimate argument. Some argue they should have a separate Sunday school or mid-week event. That is also a legitimate argument. However, no matter how much programming a church has or does not have for kids, children and youth programming will not and should not be the central means by which kids are raised as disciples of Jesus. The central path is for parents to fulfill the vows they make at a kids baptism (or dedication for credo-baptists) and get busy intentionally raising their kids as disciples.

Alan Creech/Roman Catholic: When I think of this question, I think of how I have taught my own children over the years, what I’ve taught them, and it actually is my primary responsibility to teach them and raise them in the Faith. It’s no one else’s responsibility. It’s mine. It’s Liz’s. If you’re a parent, it’s YOUR responsibility.

You see where I’m going with this. And of course I’ll say that there is a sense in which it takes a… community. It does take the Church, of which we are a part, to fully complete the formation of any person. I’m not just talking about the institutional/official classes and staff members. They may play their part but only as organically real members of Christ’s Body, working in Him and by His Grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to help in the formation of our children into the Image of Christ. If we’re talking front-lines here, though, we’re talking about ME as a parent. If you’re a Catholic, you should know that the Church teaches you exactly what I’m saying. It’s not the Parish council’s job, not the Priest’s job, not the good Sisters at the school, not their job, or the Youth Minister’s job, primarily, to transfer the deposit of Faith into your children. That’s supposed to happen in what is called “the domestic church” – your family. Again, all those things and people will and can play their parts but they cannot, and should not, take the place of YOU, the parent.

My point is that if you abdicate this responsibility to “the Church,” you are doing just that, abdicating a real responsibility that has been given to YOU as a member of “the Church.” Therefore, the Church doesn’t work as it is supposed to work because an integral part of it is not functioning in it’s assigned role. See what I mean? It seems that many many parents have been told, by someone, or at least given the idea somehow, that they just work and live their lives and hand their kids over to the (and I’m talking about Catholic kids here – plug in any Christians, it’ll work) Catholic school system or any number of classes provided in their Parishes – and that’ll do it. The kids will get all they need there and you can rest easy. Well, they may well get good things, very good things, or they may not, but what they will not get, which is really irreplaceable, is the every-day loving and constant teaching about their lives in Christ and what that means at home – from Dad and Mom (not just Mom and Dad’s playing golf please, or working).

We want to be nice and say that people shouldn’t worry, that everything will be alright, even though this is pretty screwed up and is inherently handicapping of a child’s spiritual formation, but that’s not helping anything or anyone. It just feels better to say that, and everybody feels nice and cozy and a whole generation of kids end up having little or no faith, not understanding Truth, drifting away from the life of the Church, etc. Sure, a portion of our kids will grab hold of anything about God and the Church even without the parents’ involvement. It would be hard to say why that is, but I think this is true, it’s an anomaly. That percentage will be very very small indeed and it’s not something to be counted on. Most of us won’t gravitate that way as children if it’s not lovingly handed on to us by our parents and constantly reinforced in our homes. Most kids aren’t that kid.

Of course one needs to be on the journey of real transformation themselves in order to pass something like that along. We can make sure of that. And I’m not talking about an extremely high bar here, or that everyone has to be a theologian or a mystical contemplative. Should we all know a little bit of theology and be just a tad bit of a contemplative? I think so. I think that’s bare-bones Christianity. And if you’re a Catholic, what in the world? You’ve got a deeply RICH well to draw from. Everybody else is drawing from it, why don’t we dip into it ourselves? No reason really. Sometimes people don’t realize the well is there I think, and that’s not their fault. In this day, though, access to the deep, rich stuff is not just at the hands of the monks any more. It’s right here. Grab hold of it and drink deeply! And then teach your kids to do the same. I know some of that up there sounded a little bit hard. It sounds hard to me when I hear it ringing in my own heart. That’s what I hear. I thought it would be helpful to share. We have to know this, too, even though we’ve not, perhaps, done our part perfectly: God is merciful. His Love leans toward mercy for us. He WANTS to pick up our slack. We can turn to Him and He will do everything He can do inside the maze of our wills, to turn all things to good. So, we shake ourselves awake (because His Grace alarm has roused us up) and we go forward.

I like that, in general, kids and youth are in the Mass with their parents in the Catholic tradition. It depends on the parish, but generally speaking, Mass is a family affair. I think that’s where they should be. How can they learn to worship as mature adults outside the context of worshiping, mature adults? It would be hard I think. Youth groups and other classes to teach them and keep them connected? Sure, nothing wrong with that. The important thing, though, is that we don’t end up taking the responsibility out of the hands to which they belong.

Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: Wow, I almost sat this one out, but “fools rush in” etc., so I decided to comment. I am probably more down on “age specific programming” than I’ve ever been in my life, though I know my own penchant for pendulum swinging and so I’m trying to keep myself in check.

For one thing, I believe that the widely accepted approach to “age specific programming” that operates in most Southern Baptist churches has been, on the whole, over the last 30-40 years, utterly disastrous.

Why? Because, (1) it has fed into, created, sustained, and propagated the ruinous consumer mentality of American Christians whereby the church is reduced to “product,” the congregant is reduced to “customer,” and the church is reduced to Wal-Mart. So Eugene Peterson’s old quip about pastors becoming “shopkeepers” has now been fulfilled. (2) It has, in many cases, driven a wedge into the family dynamic of worship, a dynamic constantly attested to throughout scripture. Time and again we see God calling families to come and stand before Him. (3) It has created a sense of entitlement, so that young families are more apt to ask, “What’s in it for my kids?” than they are to ask, “Is this a church where we will be on our faces before God together?” (4) It has led to a frankly diabolical inversion of roles in the family. Kids now effectively tell their parents where they will go to church, in many cases. Skye Jethani of Leadership journal recently called kids “the great evangelical trump card.” (5) It has dumbed down the doctrinal sensibilities of congregants. This is where some of Voddie Baucham’s tirades about hiring children to entertain our children rings true (to an extent). So when I hear of Mark Dever’s youth group studying Grudem’s Systematic, I must say I am not only impressed, I’m flabbergasted. (6) It has infantalized Christianity to many of our kids who have no counterbalance at home or elsewhere in the church. Lord, I wonder if our pizza-stuffed, X-boxed, Wii-saturated, Jesus-t-shirted, isolated, separated, and spoon-fed youth groups are ready to die for Jesus? (And, yes, I do ask the same question of myself. Am I, who am no less a product and propagator of American materialism than others, ready to die for Jesus?) (7) It’s let parents off the hook for being their children’s spiritual leaders in too many cases. (8) It has led to a maddening “outsourcing” approach to ministry and church life that has stunted the spiritual effectiveness and usefulness of church members. (9) It has contributed to youth disillusionment with unified corporate worship. The same SBC that lives, eats, and breathes this stuff keeps reporting over and over again that over 80% of our kids will leave the church (many for good) after they leave high school, etc. etc.

That being said (!), I do not believe that “let the little children come unto Me” is a catch-all mantra that is synonymous with “it is never appropriate to have kids learn with other kids on levels more suited for them.” All I know is, the current situation is broken, badly. I believe that more and more churches are asking themselves hard questions about what too many of us have been doing for too long.

I hope the readers will forgive this screed. I have generalized horribly, and I do apologize. I readily admit the presence of wonderful youth groups that do not fall into these traps. I myself thank God for the experiences I have had in Sunday School and in the youth group, when I was a teenager. I admittedly have less answers than diagnoses (and these are certainly open to critique!), and I look forward to the comments and discussion.

William Cwirla/Lutheran: The Internet Monk throws down a provocative topic sure to ignite a parents vs pastors smackdown worthy of World Wrestling Entertainment. Since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, here I go.

I strongly suspect the answer to this question will be different for sacramental and non-sacramental churches, and whether one views worship as an exercise in education, evangelization and communication or as divine revelation of the Mystery of salvation in Christ.

Speaking out of a sacramental, liturgical tradition that didn’t even know of such a thing as “Sunday School” until the Methodists invented it and we adopted it along with their flag as the “Christian flag” to offset Old Glory in the chancel, we Lutherans tend to include our children and young people in one, general worship. We see worship as a “family event” in which the baptized family of God gathers around the Word and Supper to hear and receive the blessings of salvation. For us, “family friendly” does not mean separating the family at the church door.

I like to think of the divine service (that’s “worship service” in Lutheran parlance), as the thanksgiving (eucharistic) meal of the baptized people of God. Now I do know and hear of families who relegate their kids to rickety card tables in a back room for their Thanksgiving dinners so that they don’t disturb the grownups, but a true Thanksgiving dinner in my book has everyone present including the dog and crazy Uncle Harry who tends to spill food in his lap. (Incidentally, there are Duehrer woodcuts depicting Luther’s congregation listening to Luther in the pulpit with kids crawling around the floor of the nave with a dog.) The kids may crawl under the pews and have the occasional nuclear crisis, but hey, they are family. How else are they going to learn to identify with the family?

Having said that, we also recognize that family life has changed from the days when Mom’s twenty foot pew reach could smack you backside the head faster than you could say Kyrie eleison. Most parents, especially the Moms, would like to be able to hear a complete sermon now and then without having to deal with flying Cheerios and a meltdown by the two-year old. Truth be told, my parents didn’t take us to church much before we were five, but left us at home with Grandma who went to the late service. My congregation provides for a modicum of babysitting during the sermon as well as a nursery room with double-paned, bullet-proof glass, a sound system, and comfy couch and rocking chair. All in all, we think it’s better for the little ones to be in church with their parents.

Parents are the principle educators of their children, as the home schoolers will nod vigorously in agreement. It’s a divine call that goes with having the kid. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Teachers and pastors can be no more than delegated deputies of the parents. I find it revealing that Jesus taught adults and blessed little children. The church might take that into consideration. We need to be spending more time with the parents and supporting them in this part of their parental vocation.

With regard to “age-appropriate” education, there is a time and place for segregated age-appropriate Bible study, so long as it is truly study of the Scriptures with a long view toward firmly nudging children into fully discipled adulthood. On this, we Lutherans have much room for improvement. Honestly, most of what I learned in Sunday School was best forgotten, and thankfully was. “Youth ministry” all too often panders to the multi-cultural myth of a “youth subculture,” retarding emotional and spiritual development and producing rather spectacular failures to launch into responsible Christian manhood and womanhood. In my opinion, the youth of our congregations would better be served by meaningful apprenticeship into mature adulthood in the company of genuine Christian adults rather than hanging out with their own “age-appropriate” tribe.


  1. Dr. Richardson,

    I must say, as your former youth pastor, that you barely ‘threw the dog a bone’ with your last paragraph. Barely.

    Yours (barely),

  2. Haaa! Classic. I’ll be eeouta dis protty prezon bafor sundeown! Only 20?? We shall see.

  3. Lee,

    True, but what if I had said, “Lee Herring is responsible for me being who I am today?” Do you really want that on your conscience? You do realize that would include a great appreciation for Bob Dylan, right?


  4. I had something really insightful to say about this up until I read Rev. Cwirla’s comment, for he almost completely took the words out of my mouth.

    Because I do think there is a distinction between how liturgical and non-liturgical churches approach this. Children’s and youth activities, for lack of a better word, are nothing new in Catholic practice. Even aside from CYO and CCD, there have been, every since people started thinking about this things a couple of hundred years ago, devotional groups and practices and catechetical efforts directed at specific age groups.

    But what I sense here – correct me if I’m wrong – from Michael and Dr. Richardson and the SBC’s is the impact of youth/children’s programming as a replacement for corporate worship.

    As an outsider, it strikes me that this is a particular issue for non-liturgical churches because of the nature of corporate worship which is dependent on the sermon. In that context, I can easily see the appeal of peeling off age groups and placing them in a different context to hear a message which they can more easily understand.

    But in the liturgical churches, as important the sermon/homily can be (and it varies in importance from denomination to denomination), that is not the center of worship, worship, done properly in a rich environment is, you might say, constantly multi-leveled as it incorporates not only the Word, but ritual, material things, art, music and silence.

    The “children’s liturgy of the word” in which children go out for the readings and the homily as well as separate “youth Masses” are certainly a part of Catholic pastoral life. I think both of them are net negatives, and honestly watch the experience of Protestant churches with great interest, in the hopes that Catholics with evangelical-envy on this score can take heed of the pitfalls!

  5. Dr. Richardson,


    Never mind.


  6. Interesting discussion. One angle I didn’t see addressed, though, was the situation of children of unbelievers. When these kids come (as part of an outreach, or kids / youth ministry or whatever), if there’s no age-specific ministry for them, then what? Not likely in today’s culture that they’ll sit through an “adult” service. Of course, I’m kinda defining my own scenario here: if they’re coming due to an outreach, then there already *is* an age-specific ministry… If not, then they’re probably not coming to the church, so it’s moot.

    So, in those cases, if the body is interested in a youth outreach (pick an age stratum), you pretty much need an age-specific ministry. Unless you manage to also convince mom and dad to come, which could be problematic if they’re meth-heads or something.

    Our church has a kids’ church up through about 5th grade, after which the youts are put into the main Sunday AM service. Seems to work pretty well.

    But I agree. In the case of a Christian family unit, the parents have primary responsibility for inculcating discipleship, and my observation indicates a HUGE lack of that, these days. Very sad. (Heck, most of the parents barely seem converted to me, but that’s another story!)

  7. JimBob:

    Excellent point, and a glaring omission from the thought of a lot of churches who are focusing on the family without thinking of missional concerns. A perennial problem.

  8. This is one of those times that each one of these ganstas wrote things that are going in my quotes file. Thank you for some excellent reflection and interaction.

  9. Wait, wait! Is NO-ONE going to defend age-segregated ministry? I count six Ganstas, and they are ALL against it — so why are we all doing it?

    (I’m not offering an opinion either way here, just expressing my perplexity at the disconnect between what we all seem to think and what we all seem to do.)

  10. Amy,

    Very perceptive comments. Thanks! I think you’re right: in traditions where the sermon is the center of the service, it’s almost inevitable that people would begin to say, “Well, let’s let them stay in for the bits they can handle (i.e., music), and then cart them out for the bits they can’t.”

    I’m not jettisoning the centrality of the proclaimed word (I’m a bit too much of a Baptist to do it!), but you’ve given me something to chew on here. (And you more liturgical dudes chill out: I know that the sacraments are no less proclamation than the sermon. 🙂 )


    Well, I know my own piece is pretty overwhelmingly negative, but I do hope I’ve communicated that I’m speaking of “age-graded programming” as I know it in my own little odd corner of the Church: the SBC. Even there, I do not claim it is all bad. I merely feel a bit of real frustration at the moment and am trying to think through how it can be done in such a way as to not create or lead to the very real problems that I see coming out of it.

    Your input and thoughts would be much appreciated.


  11. Ky Boy but not now says

    Mike Taylor
    “Wait, wait! Is NO-ONE going to defend age-segregated ministry? I count six Ganstas, and they are ALL against it — so why are we all doing it?”

    Because that’s the way we run our school systems. And it’s a model the church copies from the secular world.

  12. I think we might say that all six have various degrees of reservation, but all seem to accommodate some measure of it.

  13. wow….I never really thought much about this to tell you the truth, and I feel sad that I haven’t…I really like these segments from the different perspectives, we didn’t get that in my SBC church growing up and when I tried to bring in other perspectives and compare them…I was told to leave. “We only teach the Bap. Faith & Message…..sigh.

  14. Children of unbelievers — in our church, when children of unbelievers come, it’s because they’ve been invited by one of the members or members’ children. So the kids of the unbelievers generally just tag along with the friend and family who brought them, Sunday school then the church service. I’m a (Lutheran) Sunday school teacher of the teen group — so I’ve seen some children of unbelievers come through as guests. We usually have some great conversations those days. Unbelievers who are trying to understand ask some of the best questions …

    Btw, Rev Cwirla, I’ve been trying to make some better teen Sunday school materials. One lesson at a time …

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF

  15. Can we all agree that the hideous ‘children’s sermon’ that is foisted on many mainline churches come to an end? Whenever I visit an LCMS this part of the liturgy turns my stomach.

  16. “Can we all agree that the hideous ‘children’s sermon’ that is foisted on many mainline churches come to an end? Whenever I visit an LCMS this part of the liturgy turns my stomach.”

    We don’t all do them, nor are they a prescribed portion of the liturgy. Though they often are “hideous,” they needn’t be. I’ve seen some a few good ones where the pastor taught the kids something about worship or a little bit from the catechism. I even saw one where he taught them how to make the sign of the cross and why. That’ll pretty much guarantee an end to children’s sermons.

  17. Father Ernesto shows his quality once more. Bravo.

    To Alan however I must say he makes the perfect point. The most important Youth Ministry is run at Home in which it must be an extension of the Church.

  18. Southern Baptists, of which I am one, are having their chickens come home to roost with too much age segregation in the form of the worship wars that have been wrecking our churches right and left. I always tell my congregation that the tenor of your church will be the same as your youth group 15 years or less down the road.

    I have a very admittedly small congregation. But for our size we do have a good portion of youth. We have the typical Sunday School classes, which I feel after observing my own experience, as a good thing.

    However, when we do things as youth, say bowling or caroling or whatever, all folks are invited and it is not rare for us to have 80 year olds with 8 year olds on the same trip to the Apple Festival and Corn Maze.

    Basically, outside of Sunday School, or youth and children are expected to participate in the church service and carry out responsiblities just like everyone else.

    I recently started using our teenage boys to do the second scripture reading for the Sunday morning services. It was good for them, the church, and the parents and grandparents loved it of course.

    I’m not a big fan or “children’s church” at all. I feel that families should worship together. The only esxeption is that we do have a nursery for infants (say birth to 2) . I’ve know folks who have said that if you can’t preach over a crying a baby you can’t preach, but that is ignorant.

    You need a staffed safe nursery and a time for fellowship for young folks. Other than that I don’t see a need for much else. You will not have a large church with this philosphy most likely, but you will have a very close church family.

  19. It seems that whatever we do has somewhat limited results in most cases, as the vast majority of “youth” don’t remain active or drop out before the end of high school or shortly afterwards. I have read that 19 year-olds are the least likely of any age to be involved in the life of the church.

    I certainly concur with the comments about so-called Children’s sermons. I finally quit doing them because so often adults laughed at, not with, the children. I also wonder if most of what we do to attract children and youth isn’t consumerism, as several have noted. Our Junior High leader does a wonderful thing in that she has adults praying for individual students. I have one for whom I pray, and she lets me know at times for what she wants me to pray.

  20. Wonderful thoughts; thank you all. As for children of unbelievers, as Weekend Fisher said, they just mingle in with the other kids.

    But I think, apart from having the essential theology of Christianity hammered into them nail by nail, there is a seed being planted in unbelievers when they come to church. Children remember seeing adults in real prayer. This seed sprouts – often many years later when the individual is searching and recalls a memorable time when they visited a church and encountered Christ without understanding what was happening. This is a frequent theme in conversion stories.

  21. Michael Kennedy says

    Well I must say this is an interesting discussion. Wyman, my good friend, this SBC youth pastor is not the least bit offended by what you have said! Your observations are definately correct and extremely perceptive. You are not alone – I constantly ask many of the same questions and come up with many of the same answers. There are numerous problems with contemporary youth ministry. However, I think we are in a great place at this point in time. We, at least, have begun to recognize the problem. This was not the case 10-15 years ago. Books have been written addressing the current state of youth ministry and they offer a challenge to reform it to something that is worthwhile. Two books come to mind: ReThink by Steve Wright and Raising the Bar by Alvin Reid. ReThink addresses the issue of partnering with parents in Student Ministry instead of being a drop-off service. It recognizes the responsibility of raising teenagers rests with parents, not the youth pastor, and encourages youth pastors to partner with these parents. Raising the Bar addresses the need to challenge students with the truths of Scripture and life instead of offering cotton-candy teaching (sweet but with little substance). Reid argues that students want to be challenged. In fact they thrive on being challenged!

    I firmly believe Student Ministry can function in a way that partners with parents in order to challenge students to be fully functioning and serving disciples in the local church. It doesn’t mean that every student ministry functions this way but this is exactly my goal as a student pastor!

  22. Ky boy but not now says

    “I always tell my congregation that the tenor of your church will be the same as your youth group 15 years or less down the road.”

    I got into many discussions over the last two years about what is the point of teen programs. If the goal is to prepare them for Liberty university, then we’re doing a good job. (No comment about what after that.) If to prepare them for ANY other life after high school, we’re doing a terrible job. Some of the discussions got rather tense. My kids (now 16 and 19) were world wise enough to see through the nonsense but of course when they asked hard questions during the simplistic classes after a while they (and others doing the same thing) were ostracized or asked to leave. If my old church is typical then kids aren’t leaving, we’re driving them out.

  23. I’d suggest the book “Theses on Worship” by James Jordan.

  24. JimBob, our youth group is about 25 kids and maybe 8 of them are children of our church members. I heard one of these kids tell his mom, “I’m going to church tonight, geez!” last week. It’s pretty much the only contact the church at large has with non-Christians week in and week out. I’m proud of that ministry even though I wish it were unneeded. Because it is needed we will do it.

  25. In the conservative Mennonite Church that I grew up in we were expected to sit with the adults and listen to the sermon and sing four part harmony from the hymn book with the adults.

    I have great memories of my father’s wonderful Tenor voice and the deep theology of those hymns.

    Yes, I was bored as a youngster, but I heard a lot of good theology and I learned/was taught to sit and be quiet and listen. It has helped me in many ways throughout the years. I think my attention span is longer because of it. I had/have no problem sitting through lectures and sermons and I actually enjoy doing so (most of the time)

    We need to train our children with an eye on the 30,40 or 50 year old we want them to be, not with an eye on instantly gratifying their desire to be entertained right now. But this does not begin when you walk in the church doors, it must begin at home during the week.

    Yes, it takes time, love and discipline on the parents’ part, but what is the alternative.

    I think this discussion has more to do with parenting in the home, then the style of “children’s service is used or not used.

  26. A few thoughts:
    1. The cheering always starts in the student section. Any event you go to the student’s start it and the fans follow. Because they are bold, enthusiastic and ready to encourage change. The youth of today is the church of tomorrow and should be invested in more than any other ministry because when they are poured into the they are pouring into the other areas of ministry and it works.
    2. If a pastor is preaching a message that is meant for and understood by adults, teenagers, and children then I feel like all three are getting shafted. We learn on different levels and are experiencing different challenges at every point in life and to have a sermon dummed down or to have it way over some one’s head is not helping them grow.

    3. The concern is even greater for youth and children who are unchurched or dechurched and who have no family that follows Christ. Strategical and intentional discipleship in youth ministry will change the world.

    4. This is for Matthew Johnson. Seth Godin – marketing guru – says this about goals
    If you don’t have a goal (a corporate goal, a market share goal, a personal career goal, an athletic goal…) then you can just do your best. You can take what comes. You can reprioritize on a regular basis. If you don’t have a goal, you never have to worry about missing it. If you don’t have a goal you don’t need nearly as many excuses, either.

    Not having a goal lets you make a ruckus, or have more fun, or spend time doing what matters right now, which is, after all, the moment in which you are living.

    The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run.

    It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow and who make an impact… those people have goals.

  27. JimBob said: “So, in those cases, if the body is interested in a youth outreach (pick an age stratum), you pretty much need an age-specific ministry. Unless you manage to also convince mom and dad to come, which could be problematic if they’re meth-heads or something.”

    This got me thinking. Lots of kids do have folks who are out of it… drugs, alcohol, overwork, out-of-work, etc. That is a tragedy, but a real feature of modern life. I am a professor, and I have noticed a lot of my colleagues’ kids have parents that are too sophisticated and smart for Christianity (it’s for “poor” and “weak” people, you know.) At either end of the spectrum (crack-head to egg-head), there are kids growing up without the Gospel.

    Our kids go to public school (IN SPITE of the messiness or maybe BECAUSE of the messiness… we haven’t figured that part of the Incarnation out yet), and as such, they have quite a variety of friends. Many are unchurched.

    Fast forward to this weekend. We (all five of us!) went to a new car dealership with rebate fever. As we considered different models, the question kept coming up… “How much room do we really need?” If we dispatch with some of our usual preferences, we can get a much hipper vehicle (not trying to take anything away from our Minivan). If we all get additional jobs, we can get a very expensive vehicle. If we follow Proverbs to any degree whatsoever, we should exit this dealership now because of the lender/borrower slavery situation (and our credit scores!)

    As I was reading JimBob’s comment, all of the aforementioned came together for me. (Thank you for still reading…) Maybe I am the last person on the missional planet to get this, but maybe we should get a really big used car (think: 10-yr-old Suburban or full-size van). Why? So we can take more unchurched kids to church with us. The kids with parents that are unable or unwilling to take them. Those kids. The ones that my kids are already friends with from school. Natural community. I can be a “father” (with my wife by my side), and we can be missionaries in our own little neighborhood. It’s intentional. It’s missional. It’s radical. It’s simple. If and when the parents decide to check it out, we have another spot open in our vehicle. “Kids, invite someone else, and we’ll pick them up.”

    (Sorry for such a long post, but these ideas hit me like a ton of bricks, and I felt like sharing. Incidentally, for the price of any of the new cars we saw, we could probably acquire a fleet of used people movers and have money set aside for fuel and maintenance.)

    Thanks JimBob!

  28. Amen to many of the points all six made. (Thanks for organizing these iMonk.)

    But hey, if church can be like the Luther woodcutting with the kids crawling around under the pews, I first need to not receive the evil eye from half the congregation when my two-year old won’t sit perfectly still for the 70 minute monologue, as fascinating as it may be.

    If your going to axe the nursery, some folks are going to need to learn to chill out. And no, their refusal to chill out is not a reflection of personal piety.

  29. Both of my adult daughters work in our community’s Children’s Ministry. They are appalled that the children of church members do not know their Scripture the way they knew it growing up. We are talking adults who have been Christians for a substantial amount of time, of course. When I questioned them as to what they thought was the difference, this is what they said.

    They learned the Scriptures from going to Christian school, K-12. They learned it at home, at school, and at church. The truth is that hearing about Christ once a week at church is not going to be sufficient for your children. (When it comes to the children who attend based on a missional outreach, then anything is better than nothing.)

    It all comes back to:

    It is the parent’s responsibility.
    It is the parent’s responsibility.
    It is the parent’s responsibility.

    Once a week will not be enough.

    For those children whose parents are not engaged, how do we as a community do more than just once a week for them?

  30. I believe that balance is the key in this discussion. On one hand, children/youth groups can provide the needed help from the “community” that we seem to all agree is a good thing in the rearing of our kids. On the other hand if that “community” usurps or undermines the role of parents then this is not good. The current trend in re-thinking how we do children/youth ministry is healthy and I welcome it. Change is likely in order. The “family church” movement (Voddie Baucham) is IMO a good thing as well, but not the only way.

  31. What a shame it is that in small group discussion we separate into age groups. The wisdom of the elders and the novel excitement of the youth might just meld into an interesting , uplifting time for all.

  32. OH and what about the gender specific children’s ministries? My experience as a youth was that the whole point of the girls’ ministry was to train us to be “proper” women, teach us how to go about catching a husband, not make any demands at all of our men, and to make us as vacuous as possible. We’d have a lesson about how we were supposed to attract men with inner beauty, then spend the rest of the night learning how to properly do hair, nails, and make-up. “Now, remember girls – for those of you with two brain cells to rub together – make sure nobody knows about it! Men don’t like it when their women are smarter than them or have more education than them.”

  33. I am on staff at a SBC church that has been in existence only 10 years. We have seen great growth in many areas, and work very hard to not be institutional in nature. With that said, heading into our Fall 2007 semester, as a staff we were HEAVILY convinced that family ministry was a must-do for our community. Several different factors were present in this decision,some from reading, others from hearing prominent voices from within and without the SBC discussing how we were now reaping what we had sowed by segregating families. Regardless of the factors, each of us prayed about it, discussed it, and felt led that it was a God thing to do…what happened you ask?

    Basically, the people revolted. We had high school age and up groups where we could have young men and women being discipled by older generations, and have older generations be challenged (in a good way) by young men and women…we presented the shift with scripture such as Psalm 78:1-8, 1 Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:1-8, and so on…and the following are examples of what we heard in return…

    “I don’t want to be in a group with my daughter! She might find something out about me!” “I don’t understand these young guys! We just don’t have anything in common!” “If I’m in bible study with my children, I’ll have to be careful about what I say so they don’t think I’m not living right!”

    Even though we presented with SCRIPTURE the command to be multi-generational in format, no such luck…ironically, the young men and women, say high school age to mid 20’s or so…LOVED IT! They raved about how awesome it was to hear testimonies of struggles and victories, and how much they learned from the lives of those older then them…but alas, due to the outcry, in the fall of 08, back to the same old same old. I can honestly say it has been one of the most frustrating times of ministry for me…

    I have two daughters, 7 and 2. The 2 year old obviously can’t stay in “big” church, so she goes back to the toddler area. My 7 year old loves her age graded stuff on Sunday morning, and we do have excellent teaching/leadership there. But, we have begun holding her out one Sunday a month, and bring her to big church with us, so we can worship as a family. When my youngest gets of an age that’s proper, we’ll do the same with her. I don’t what the church (not my church but THE church) is going to do about this, but it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Sadly, I believe it may only be implemented in new church starts that begin that way, before everyone gets settled in to “That’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it.”

  34. Steve,

    I think you’ve pointed to a difficult reality that must be acknowledged. Many churches that would love to do otherwise are essentially held hostage on this issue by those who cannot conceive of anything different. That’s all I’ll say on that particular point, but believe me when I tell you: I hear you and I feel your pain.


  35. If people are saying that they don’t want to be in Bible study with their kids because they’re afraid that their kids will think they’re not living right then maybe they’re not? I don’t have any problem with the thought of my son being in a Bible Study with me. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is good for kids to see that the adults and even their parents have struggles and aren’t perfect. It might take some of the pressure off them to feel like they need to be perfect.

  36. Perhaps a distinction should be made between “accountability groups/small groups” and bible studies. I would have no problem attending a bible study with my adult children however, my adult children did protest when my spouse began to attend the same small group as them. They felt they could not open up about their daily/weekly struggles with one of their parents present.

  37. As a pastor of a medium-sized (250), multi-generational non-denominational community church, we are attempting to move away from a segregated ministry by integrating our ministry approach to the family. With three church staff members in addition to the lead pastor, we are struggling through the process of staff roles and responsibilities. In the past, our staff has been divided up according to age-graded areas-Pastor A, you run the children, Pastor B, you run the youth, and Pastor C, you oversee the adults. But now we are trying to take more of a team approach, but are having trouble with understanding who is really responsible for what. The old paradigm was easier to draw lines of accountability and responsibility. How should we organize our team in such a way to have a truly integrated family approach and also know exactly who is responsible for what?


  38. Ky boy but not now says

    I suspect there’s something going on that I didn’t know much about and didn’t register on my radar. I guess some churches treat Sunday school for kids as an alternative to the service. I never thought of that. In all the churches I’ve been a part of to date, Sunday School and “church” were two different things. The entire family went to church (except for the baby screaming issues) and then everyone went to the age specific Sunday School.

    The age specific SS I’m used to has many issues but I suspect the age segregation for worship services has many more.

  39. Perhaps some of the problems with age-segregated churches lies in the size of the group. At least, in my experience, that has made some of the difference. In each of the new church plants I’ve been involved in, the “early days” tended to be much more family friendly. We had neither the manpower or resources to do multiple programs. As a result, the children and adults were more often mixed.
    Our current church is small (45-50), but we do have several large families. The children are all present and part of the worship services. Often several take part in the open sharing time and their artwork is often displayed on a bulletin board. We do have multi-graded Sunday school classes, but in many cases, the parents & grandparents are the teachers. The benefit of a structured curriculum there is that we teach the Bible chronologically for the kids pre-school thru 6th grade. That gives them a better context for later life and study.
    We also meet one Sunday a month for a shared meal…often with other fellowship activities, and sometimes do the Lord’s Supper as part of the meal. We encourage people to invite guests. Also, in the past couple of years we’ve worked with all ages (3-70) producing thousands of Gospel walking sticks for the outreach of Fellowship of Christian Farmers.
    All this to say, our kids are as much a part of the church as the adults. I think we all benefit from that relationship. It would be pretty hard to do if we were a “mega”.

  40. Our church not only segregates youth by age, but also adults. We recently went to three services: one for the 20-somethings or so, one for the 35-50-year-olds or so, and one for the older crowd. This isn’t a huge church (total membership maybe 500 or so). This change is one of the reasons we are looking for a different church. Our kids weren’t challenged at all in the HS program; they got more out of the times they attended our adult SS class (before that was disbanded in favor of a new “program” — but that’s another story). I think a lot of the segregation was done to pacify people who don’t want to change or adapt. Everyone happy in their own little comfortable world. Ugh. That ain’t the gospel or the call of Jesus, folks. Sorry for the rant. I’m grumpy today.

  41. Children understand much…much more than we give them credit for. I have a grandchild who when at church with her other grandmother…was encouraged to nap and doodle with paper and pen…at seven years old. The child had already aged out of ‘children’s church.’ When with me, I required she participate in the service and listen to the sermon. No problem. She did exactly as I asked…and enjoyed it. Concerning when a child is ready for ‘big’ church…I say…when they are too old for the nursery. Today..a third grade is basically yesterdays first grader. Children children of today are experiencing incidental learning every minute of every day….everywhere they go. Oh ya…they can understand messages from their Father.

  42. Having no credentials to commend me to such an elite group of thinkers/pastors/leaders/theologians/etc. I can only add a simple thought. If the fathers worshipped God freely all week long as a lifestyle and taught his wife and children to do the same as God would have him do then this “issue” in the church goes away. The heart of the issue centers on the heart of the father as he lives his faith and teaches it day by day, week to week, event to event so that Sunday is the culmination of a life of worship and instruction not the end goal or as
    a separate need to be filled and feed upon for another 6 days or in other words it would be taken in stride and represent a time of joing a week of family worship with like minded families to the betterment of all. We have it almost backwards thanks to…perhaps modernity or just laziness. Oversimplistic? Jesus seemed simple to me and as far as I can tell He still wants us to be childlike which means simple among other things.

  43. Reading about “children’s ministry to unbelievers” makes my stomach tighten. I allowed a friend, whose little boy was a playmate of my daughter’s, to take my daughter to a kid’s program at her church. My friend assured me it was just learning some Bible verses, and mostly fun events like T-ball and other games. The kids went one way, we adults went another.

    Turns out her little boy was getting points toward toys for having brought an “unsaved” friend to the children’s event–that was why he had invited her–and my little girl was pressured by adults running the ministry/activities (once while I was standing right there, and I objected, but other times, according to her, when I wasn’t there) to come back to their church services regularly, because it would be so much fun.

    My (former) friend knew, and those adults knew–because my daughter *told* them–that she was Catholic, and already went to church every Sunday. But that left her in the “unsaved” category, it seemed. She wasn’t a guest, she was a target; and I consider the “fun and games” to have been a deception and a trap. The thought of those people trying to lure my child away from her faith behind my back still makes my blood boil.

    Children’s ministry to “unbelievers” is the reason that I have never since attended a Protestant church with my children; no child of mine will ever again be separated from me and prosleytized. Yeah, I’m still mad.

  44. As a full-time Associate Pastor of Youth, I agree that the shallowness of the majority of North American church youth ministries is discouraging at best and damning at worst. Although some of my congregants expect me to entertain the youth with parties and bowling trips, my purpose is to disciple them as followers of Christ. Whereas most youth ministries/pastors are judged by group size, etc., I judge myself by the youth’s understanding of Christ and their allegiance to him. Some of my younger youth are upset about less games and more bible study, but I don’t particularly care.

  45. As a parent of three boys who has been attending Evangelical Churches for the past 10 years, I can say I am real disappointed in “Age appropriate” ministry. It seems to have no rhyme or reason. In fact my 9 year old often prefers to go with us instead. I wish our church would have a type of catechism, with specifics objectives each year, devotions we could do with our kids to reinforce those things. Luckily, for now we have Awana, whih seems to do all that.

  46. Just a few more thoughts, I wish our church would provide more, or at least the same amount of resources into helping us disiple our kids as opposed to doing it for us. Teach us to teach our kids, give us the framework and support. Thanks

  47. I’m a bit late to the game, Gangstas and friends, but I’m wondering about the role and statistics for men’s ministry. Yes, bringing the kiddies in is a great “outreach” to get the parents in the door.

    But what about the father leading the family? There’s a more optimistic statistic (published by the religion department – don’t know where they got it – at the USA Today last spring/summer) on what happens when Dad goes to church and comes to faith in Jesus Christ. What about that?

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