Simple Children's Ministry: Learning How to Talk to Kids
I am continuing a series of posts 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 with fewer resources can minister to children in ways that are both effective and sustainable.
Today’s suggestion for simple children’s ministry is the most simple. It costs no money, takes no volunteers, needs no organization or structure or framework. This practice involves a commitment you can make today and be off and running tomorrow. Are you ready to hear what it is?
One of the best things your church can do to minister to children is to have conversations with them.
Kara Powell, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written extensively about what she calls “Sticky Faith.” Her research has been aimed at identifying the influences and factors that contribute to a child’s faith practices continuing over the long haul, as opposed to faith practices being present in childhood but not continued into adulthood. Through her research she has found that children need at least five faith-based relationships with adults who are not family members. At least five people who actually know every kid—what they are interested in, what they are good at, what they enjoy, what they value—five people with whom children have developed a true friendship. When children have at least five faith-based relationships with adults who are not family members, they are more likely to continue their childhood faith practices into adulthood.
Isn’t that interesting? In addition to all of the important things we hope to teach kids in church, and all of the important faith commitments we hope they will make during childhood and adolescence, one of the most important things our churches can do for children is to simply know them! To talk to them, listen to them, and be their friends.
Try out a little thought experiment with me. Think about the last time you were at church. If you taught a children’s class (great job, by the way!) then think outside of that class setting. Think about the kids who sat in the pew in front of you or the children you passed in the hallway. Who do you remember seeing? Did you talk to them? If you did, can you recall your conversations? Did you ask them questions? What did you ask and what were their answers?
I’d venture to guess that most of us do not remember having substantial conversations with children. We probably noticed lots of kids. As adults we do notice children—we think they are cute and interesting and funny. But rarely do adults look at children and see them as potential conversation partners. In fact, many adults don’t really know how to talk to children. We may even find it intimidating! We know how to initiate conversations with adults, and listen to other adults, but we get confused and tongue-tied when it comes to initiating conversations with children.
But good conversations are an essential block in the building of community. Through conversations we have the opportunity to share our thoughts, interests, values, and experiences. When we reveal ourselves and are affirmed for who we are in the context of a compassionate conversation, we leave feeling accepted and loved. This is undoubtedly true for adults, and it is absolutely true for children as well. Children are blessed with a stronger sense of belonging when they can feel truly known and loved by their faith community.
Conversation is also essential for learning. We are verbal creatures. We relate to the world around us through language. A baby learns not by practicing flash cards but by verbally interacting with loving caregivers. This process continues as we grow throughout our lives. For instance, we can learn a lot from reading a book, but when we share what we have read with another person the knowledge becomes ours in a new way. This is an understanding we already put into practice in our children’s Bible classes. Would we ever have a class where eight-year-olds are expected to listen to a lecture and take notes? Of course not! We know that children, like adults, learn through discussion and dialogue. They must have the opportunity to ask and answer questions if they are to learn and grow. This understanding should not be limited to the classroom. Just as adults find space for meaningful conversation all through a congregational context, so can children. If we want to teach children the life-giving message of the gospel, we must invite them, over and over again, into meaningful conversations.
This presents a powerful opportunity for ministry. Churches have the potential to become places of authentic intergenerational relationships where children are surrounded by kind-hearted adults who know them and are invested in their wellbeing. Churches can minister to children by simply cultivating opportunities for authentic conversations between adults and children. Nothing fancy is needed—just space for conversations while eating a donut or during a “greet your neighbor” time, and a little education. Adults can learn to be curious about kids’ lives. They can learn how to ask children open-ended questions and to listen attentively to their answers. Adults can learn to take kids, their thoughts, and their experiences, very seriously. As seriously as God takes each and every one of us.