he greatest evangelistic potential of any church is its mission to the children who sit in its pews for the worship service each week. A captive audience of young and energetic minds, the children are exploring, tasting, and wondering if church is relevant, caring, meaningful, and enjoyable for them or whether it is just tolerating them until they grow up and get baptized. If we don’t welcome them, if they don’t feel safe, if their questions aren’t answered and their gifts aren’t used, we may be inadvertently turning their hearts away from their loving Father in heaven.
The sad truth is that each week many children in our churches across the globe decide that church is boring and irrelevant. Some sit as still as angel statues but have resentment running rampant through their veins. They may look as if they’re listening, but often their minds are drifting in a dozen different directions. Some children experience church as the place where adults are continually reprimanding them for moving too quickly, for fidgeting, for drawing with a pencil, for speaking too loudly, for dropping things, and so on. Some have decided already that church has nothing to offer them and that as soon as they are old enough, they’ll find a way to stop attending.
Fortunately, an increasing number of churches and small groups are becoming more aware of the needs of children and are involving them in their services and worship designs, keeping the needs of the whole congregation in mind. Many are being creatively thoughtful about fresh ways to explore the Bible visually and actively during the sermon, rather than just verbally. They understand and are implementing the advice of Adventist Church pioneer Ellen G. White: “At every suitable opportunity let the story of Jesus’ love be repeated to the children. In every sermon let a little corner be left for their benefit.”*
An Eye-opening Exercise
If you want to know what church is like for many children, try this simple exercise:
Sit on a table facing a blank wall. You will then be experiencing what it is like for children as they sit in church pews on Sabbath morning—their feet can’t reach the ground and their backs are unsupported. Then listen to a sermon in a language you don’t understand. You can easily download one from the Internet. Listen to the foreign-language sermon for at least an hour, and don’t get off the table until the hour is up. During that time imagine that someone has taken you to a church in which you are unable to understand the sermon. You sit there for an hour, and however wonderful the sermon is, you are unable to make any sense of it. Then envision that someone invited you to come again next week. How would you respond? Would you want to go back? What if someone took you to that church every week for 10 years and then asked you if you would like to become a member of the church? After completing this simple exercise, how do you think a child would respond?
There are many other ways in which local churches can reflect on the experiences of the children in their congregations and communities. The Children’s Ministries Department of the South England Conference has created a special resource to help local churches consider their mission to children. Called “Ten Promises for Our Children,” the pack contains 12 colorful and appealing posters. The first poster lists 10 promises that all churches need to consider making to their children; the next 10 posters explore each of the 10 promises in turn; the twelfth is a welcome poster. On the reverse of each poster is a study guide to help adults in the church reflect more deeply on the promise, to understand what the children need, and to begin to make
a difference in their ministry to their children. The 10 promises are:
1. We will help you to understand how much God loves you by the way we care for you.
2. We will help you to feel welcome every time you come to our church.
3. We will listen to you and put you and your needs at the very heart of our church.
4. We will make sure you always feel safe, comfortable, and special.
5. We will be happy with you in your happy times and comfort you in your sad times.
6. We will welcome you when you use your special gifts in our worship services.
7. We will help you learn that Jesus loves you, died for you, forgives you, and is making a special place for
you in heaven.
8. We will be here when you wonder about life and God. We will listen to you and help you to find answers.
9. We will be here to guide and support you as you learn how to follow Jesus in your everyday life as a
10. We will encourage you as you discover your special way to serve God and share His love with others.
Across the United Kingdom Adventist churches are using the “Ten Promises for Our Children” in different ways. One church is taking time during its weekly prayer meeting to examine and discuss the study guides that come with the posters. The resulting ideas are leading them to pray about developing a spiritually nurturing church for their children. Another church is basing a sermon series on the guides. Others are focusing on one poster a month and making them the basis of prayer and worship during 2009—the Year of the Child. And still others are using the resource to plan 10 Sabbath afternoon programs for the entire congregation.
An Inspiration for Change
The “Ten Promises” are already inspiring change. One pastor invited the children and teens of his church to speak to the church board about their needs and concerns. One young member said he didn’t feel comfortable bringing his friends to a church with the name the church had chosen. When he explained why, the church board decided to change the name of their congregation. Another young person said she had decided to leave that particular church and was going to try to find one that cared more about its youth. After being invited to speak to the board, however, she decided that her church really did care after all.
Other churches are actively involving children and their creative ideas into every worship service. Children who have been brought to church by their grandparents are now inviting their parents to come and see what they are doing in church. Several congregations now hold monthly all-age services that use multisensory techniques to explore Bible stories in ways that meet the needs of the children and their families.
If we truly want to win people to Jesus we need to start in our own congregations with our own children. The promises we make to nurture their spirituality will help us to build thoughtful, caring, nurturing, and creative congregations in which people can experience even more of God’s all-encompassing and loving grace.
If you would like to find out more about the “Ten Promises” or to download resources, visit www.secadventist.org.uk and click on Departments and then Children’s Ministries.
*Ellen G. White, Child Guidance, p. 552.