He was a respected and closely followed movement leader. His influence was broad. His teaching was sound and biblical, but it was also relevant—not to mention controversial. As a result, his schedule was full. Crowds overflowed the venues where he spoke.
This movement leader had a team. The small entourage traveled with him wherever he went, and he poured his life into them. He discipled them with hopes that they would one day be church-planters and leaders just like him. But they weren’t as respectable as him. The team liked to complain and argue. They complained about how the movement wasn’t expanding fast enough. They complained about how they would do things differently if they were in charge. They played the comparison game—arguing about who would be the most successful when they finally got the chance to go out on their own.
Matthew tells us that these disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). How would you handle such a dysfunctional group of trainee church planters? Jesus responded to their self-indulgent question with a counter-cultural answer—children’s ministry.
1. Pray. Be a Kid and Ask.
Children’s ministry is one of the biggest challenges that a new church faces. There is so much to think about—location, curriculum, check-in, security, and recruiting/training a quality team. It’s hard to know where to begin. I’ve talked with church planters who have a clear vision preaching and worship, but children’s ministry somehow brings them to their knees. Jesus tells us that this is where we should have been all along.
Jesus called over a child and put him before his disciples. Then he said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). Why must we be like kids to enter God’s kingdom? Why is childlike humility required for kingdom leadership? Jesus wants us to be childlike, because kids don’t pretend to have it all together. They poop and they cry and the get into things. Jesus wants his team of future church planters to see that they are just as needy.
Fletcher Lang serves with kids and families at City on a Hill, a young church in the Brookline area of Boston, MA. I spoke with him about establishing a new children’s ministry. He told me that step one is prayer. “Pray, pray, pray,” he said. We can’t do effective children’s ministry in a new church plant (or effective ministry of any kind) unless God shows up, but we can expect him to show up when we humble ourselves, admit our need, and ask. A baby cries out for milk before she even knows how to walk. A good parent answers the cry and meets the child’s need. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus reminds us, “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”
2. Welcome Kids!
As the wife of our lead pastor, Mandy Montgomery helped establish the children’s ministry at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY, when our church was getting started twelve years ago. She also helped research and write the chapter on children’s ministry in Ed Stetzer’s book, Planting Missional Churches, (Broadman & Holman, 2006). I asked her what she’d tell a church planter about children’s ministry if she were working on that chapter again today. She said, “[Create a] playful looking environment—parents want it to look like a place their kids will want to be!”
Attractional environments aren’t always easy to pull off when a church is first starting out, but the planter can help paint a picture of what the ministry will one day be. Mandy told me, “People need to know that two pack-n-plays in a hallway are not the end vision but merely a stepping stone to what it will eventually become. There always will be skeptics but the church planter can be the vision caster!” One great way to cast vision is by celebrating children in church gatherings. Fletcher Lang told me, “We do this through having regular parent/child dedications and by making it a big deal when we have kids born in our church.” Big celebrations demonstrate to new families that kids are valued, and they encourage families to trust that their kids will be taken care of as the church grows.
The most important way to welcome kids is to do so personally—with excellent hospitality. Fletcher went on, “The biggest key to this is getting a few sticky families who are passionate about the mission and vision. These people can be evangelists for your church whenever new families visit. They can build relationships with parents who visit and encourage them to stick around.”
Over the past several years at Sojourn, I’ve discovered that our hospitality culture is most effective when key leaders model hospitality. When the pastors who lead our counseling and mercy ministries volunteered to serve in children’s ministry on Easter Sunday, it showed our team how much we value what they do on a weekly basis. Jesus tells us that leaders in his kingdom demonstrate their greatness when they “stoop low” to welcome kids. Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me” (Matthew 18:5).
3. Protect Them.
Jesus doesn’t just instruct his disciples to welcome children. He gives them a strong warning about the dangers of being a stumbling block: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes” (Matthew 18:6-7).
By “stumbling block,” Jesus is speaks about anything that is an impediment to faith. We know that it is difficult for a person to trust God as their Father if their earthly father has abused them. Imagine how difficult it must be for a child to trust church leaders if he has been abused or harmed in a church setting.
I cannot stress enough how important safety and security is when you are first starting out. Consider these safety and security essentials for its new plants and campuses that I’ve adapted from Seacoast Church in South Carolina:
- Run complete background checks on all children’s ministry volunteers in addition to completed applications, completed training on guidelines, and volunteer interviews.
- Provide clearly marked registration areas where registration information is collected and a nametag and accompanying ID number can be assigned to each child for pick up. Volunteers must never release a child to a parent or family member without the proper ID tag or other appropriate identification.
- All volunteers should have some sort of identification. This may be as simple as nametags or it may include a smock or t-shirt with the church’s logo.
- Post and train volunteers on emergency policies, evacuation plans, diapering procedures, room schedules, and classroom-cleaning procedures. Toys, cribs, and other things that little hands and mouths touch should be washed or sanitized after each use.
- Post and follow appropriate volunteer/child ratios. Volunteers must never be alone with a child.
- Never give children food that has not been approved by parents. Allergies can be deadly.
4. Value Kids as a Ministry Priority.
Our society’s approach to kids is often driven by a consumer mindset: “Having kids will fill a void in my life.” “I don’t want to have children, because they’re such a financial burden.” “I pour so much into my kids. I can’t wait until they get old enough to give something back.” Statements like these judge the value of children based upon how much can be gained from them.
Even in ministry, we can sometimes see children merely as a means to an end.
“If you want to reach parents, you need to reach their children.” “Ministering to kids is a necessary evil. After all, if the children do not like the church, the parents may not come back.”
Jesus sees it differently. Little ones are valuable to him. He doesn’t want even one of them to perish: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven… What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father, who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish” (Matthew 18:10, 12-14).
In a new church plant, kids must be more than part of a strategy for reaching parents. They must be part of the mission. I spoke to Trent Chambers, who is planting Sojourn Church in Woodstock, GA. Trent shared his passion for children’s ministry volunteers who will be effective at clearly communicating the gospel to kids and encouraging parents to do the same at home. I’m thankful for Trent, because his values reflect Jesus’ priorities.
Jesus is leading a church-planting movement (Matthew 16:18), and children’s ministry is a big part of it. If we’re going to follow his lead, we must welcome kids, protect them, and value them as a ministry priority. We do all of this in humble dependence on our Savior who has promised to go with us on mission (Matthew 28:18-20).