Simple Children’s Ministry: Thinking Intergenerationally
I am continuing a series I began last month looking at ideas for simple and effective children’s ministry. While there are wonderful opportunities available to churches with large budgets and plenty of volunteers, I’m considering how smaller churches can minister to children in ways that are both effective and sustainable. Last month I talked about how the church is uniquely positioned to offer children hope and community—both of which are desperately needed for spiritual living and thriving. Today I am going to look at the advantages of seeing the church from an intergenerational perspective.
Speaking as a mother of five and a former children’s minister, I believe there are indeed many good reasons to separate children and adults in church. Children of all ages benefit from instruction and activities aimed at their specific developmental level. Church can be “fun” for kids when they have the opportunity to be with other children their own age and do things that are designed specifically for them. In addition to the benefits for children, there are true benefits for adults as well. As a rule, young children are noisy and wiggly, disruptive and distracting for older children and adults in a worship context. Plus, parents of young children are exhausted most of the time (it’s true—just ask them!). For these parents, an hour of peaceful reflection away from their children on Sunday mornings is a gift and a blessing.
The advantages of separating children and adults are clear, but there are disadvantages as well. Over the past couple decades the disadvantages have become increasingly apparent; thus many educators and ministers have shifted the focus away from children’s programming and moved toward an intergenerational model of ministry. The intergenerational model considers ways the church can function as an intergenerational community, similar to how a family functions with members of all ages.
The most compelling reason to look toward intergenerational ministry is that God intends for the church to be a place where we rub shoulders with people who are different than we are. Differences include gender, race, and class, but age should be on the list as well. Like a family, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles, cousins, parents and siblings should have many opportunities to sit at the same table and share a meal together. We love to create a “kids’ table” so the adults can have a nice civilized evening, but if the children are always separated the family misses out on beautiful opportunities to know and learn from each other. The same is true in church. When children and adults spend time together in worship and fellowship, we get to know each other, learn from each other, and grow together.
An added benefit of intergenerational ministry is that it is less labor intensive for a congregation. When children stay with their parents, the need to staff a children’s program is greatly diminished. Instead of needing multiple teachers for each age group, perhaps the only program that needs to be staffed is a nursery/toddler program for the loudest and wiggliest among us. Using this model, parents monitor and supervise their own children, and the presence of children in the corporate worship service is assumed and celebrated.
However, it is important to not make the mistake of expecting the kids to be cute, little adults. Embracing intergenerational ministry requires an intergenerational mindset in which every activity, every plan, is assessed in terms of how it will form the faith of adults and children alike. Leaders and ministers must prayerfully and creatively think of ways to make the content of every worship service accessible for children. Those who speak in church must not only address adults, but remember that they are addressing children as well. Adults must be encouraged to let their “inner child” worship the Lord as they sing sillier songs complete with shouts, hand motions and an occasional stomp or jump. Crayons and coloring sheets, activity bags, and Goldfish crackers can go a long way toward helping children feel included in any gathering.
Change is always hard. If a church decides to move away from separating adults and children, toward an integrated, intergenerational model, there will certainly be hurdles along the way. The church may feel like they are getting rid of their children’s program because they don’t have the resources to sustain it. That may feel like failure, but it doesn’t need to be seen as failure. Sometimes we are called to change so that we can faithfully use the resources God has given us at this particular time in history. It is always dangerous to hold to a form from the past when the present is calling for something different. Every congregation must prayerfully determine the model and mindset that God is calling them to for their specific season and location. If a shift toward intergenerational worship and education is called for, I encourage you to walk courageously forward, trusting in God, humbly willing to make whatever changes are required.