How to measure success in children’s ministry can be a tricky subject. In this post, Andrew Weiseth considers how God made children to grow and learn, and how that redefines this success.
To my fellow children’s ministry leaders, may this be of service to you.
What we value as success is what we celebrate. What we celebrate, we promote. What we promote, we tend to get. In other words, the legacy we pass on from our investments in kids’ ministry will be reflective of what we value as success.
So what should we value most? How should we define success in kids’ ministry? Is it that the kids had fun? Is that the biggest win? Is it that the day was well organized? Maybe it’s the lofty achievement of a completely staffed roster!
These are all great fruits, but they are not the core of success. We know, for example, that kids’ programs can exist with vacuous fun, lifeless order, or a full but unengaged team. The real win must be more central than all of these.
How we define the win
We succeed in kids’ ministry when we align to the way God has designed kids and the way the Holy Spirit is at work within them.
That may sound a bit over-pious, but consider the lilies . . . or the tomatoes. Would a farmer try to harvest seeds, till up young shoots, or plant yields? Sure—if they’re crazy. That’s not the way God made plants to work. Farmers till the soil, sow seeds, and harvest the crop. Just as God’s ordained developmental stages for plant growth, he has placed a purposeful, intentional design into the way a child develops. And he is at work in unique ways at unique times in their lives.
Assuming attentiveness to the Spirit’s leading, let us look at the general design God has placed in kids so we can better align to it.
God’s design in kids
The Bible doesn’t fully spell out the way God has wired kids. So where might we look for wisdom? Lessons learned from a couple thousand years of child education might be a helpful place to begin. Dubbed the classical education model—formalized in the Middle Ages, with roots back to the Greco-Roman ages (but shockingly not to the Baby Einstein Ages)—this teaching method has both wittingly and unwittingly discovered God’s design in children and leveraged it. Over the centuries three basic cognitive stages* have been identified:
- The Grammar Stage
- The Logic Stage
- The Rhetorical Stage
*Plenty of online resources exist to explain all three stages if you’re interested.
Knowing these helps us tremendously in framing why and how we pour the gospel into young hearts.
Kids’ ministry is typically targeted at the pre-K to 5th grade range (a.k.a the Grammar Stage), so that’s where we will focus. Child educators have noted that children in this stage crave repetition and the intake of information (despite behavior which at times seems to contradict this). They also note that kids in this stage prefer to handle concrete facts, not abstract or corollary reasoning. These faculties come later.
Here’s the big, important take-away: God has not wired kids in this first age range to fully synthesize all the information yet. This is absolutely key to understand. Our success is far more about packing the content in for them rather than slowly trying to make sure they fully understand it all.
Kids’ ministry success defined
Thus, success in kids’ ministry is primarily the implantation of biblical truth done in partnership with the Holy Spirit. We plant and water seeds. God alone makes them grow. He is the one who can turn head information into heart transformation.
Again, this means that kids’ ministry is not primarily a time to try and get kids to fully understand it all. I know this seems counterintuitive and perhaps even offensive. “Don’t we want young kids to understand everything we’re teaching them?” Yes, we do! We also want the plant sapling to grow huge and bear fruit. It’s just not there yet—by God’s design. “Don’t we want kids to come to faith?” Yes! Absolutely. Many kids come to faith in this age range and this success metric is often the means God uses. It’s encouraging to remember that John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit in utero!
If we want the most bountiful harvest possible later, then we get after it with gusto now in the planting season. The more good seeds we plant now, the more vines we have to train and fruits to harvest in the years to come! Some will pop early as we just discussed—to which we offer a grand praisalluiah every time! But the greatest total yield lies beyond our season of investment, known as kids’ ministry.
Let us celebrate the way God has wired children and partner with him in planting a vast array of biblical truths, stories, Scripture, gospel literacy, and the like in their minds. May we see many come to faith early. And may we see an even greater harvest sprout up in the years after. To God be the glory!
See below for additional content regarding:
- Practical Tips
- Questions to Ask
- Additional Notes on Developmental Stages
Practical tips for partnering with God’s design
Why are the A-B-Cs set to a tune? Why do advertisers all have jingles? Why do you know the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby”? Few things have the staying power of song. Now ask this question: What do kids do when they get a song stuck in their heads? Answer: They sing the words over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over . . . Consider the implications for scripture memory, biblical literacy, and sound theology!
The need for variety increases with age but that doesn’t mean it’s best to add a bunch of extra thoughts. Your day should have one point. Find ways to come at it from multiple angles. Kids play a game related to the point, sing songs that emphasize the point, and tell the Bible story which hits the point. Have the kids tell the story, act it out, play games to memorize the day’s verse which hits the main point, and have kids tell their parents the main point on their way out the door.
If you break into small groups at any point in your kids’ program, guide your leaders to understand the win. Those who don’t will likely err too far on the side of abstract discussion, because that is what is more natural for adults. Once they see the value of getting the seeds planted, they can better guide the time. And nail this point: great evangelism can happen without getting into adult-level thinking.
Questions to ask yourself
- What parts of kids’ ministry do I tend to value and celebrate? And what do I hear my leaders celebrating?
- How have I defined success? How have my leaders defined it?
- What’s the one aspect of our current kids’ ministry curriculum or culture that is most out of line with God’s design?
- What should I start valuing and celebrating to help realign it?
Additional notes on developmental stages
The Logic Stage is essentially middle school. God has designed kids in this age range to shift from the “what?” (of the Grammar Stage) to “why?” He made them for discovery. The initial processing of abstract concepts begins here as well.
The Rhetorical Stage comes to play in high school. God made these kids to take the facts they learned in the Grammar Stage, and the reasoning they learned in the Logic stage, and now formulate their own persuasive conclusions. God wired these kids to begin specializing as they discover their God-given gifts and passions. Mentorship becomes exceedingly potent in this era.
Nearly all of classical education focuses on the verbal over the visual. This is because God has made our minds to more actively engage with words—yes even in visual learners. The mind that God designed takes on a more passive mode with greater visual input. Notice how Jesus used words to paint a vivid picture.
Another helpful way to frame these stages is offered by Reggie Joiner in his book