Every child needs a consistent adult at church. I don’t remember much of anything from being a preschooler at church except this: There was always a guy, one of the greeters, who had a piece of gum for me and my brother when we got to church. Same guy every week. I can’t tell you his name. My family left that church when I was six, but during those itty-bitty years, I knew I could count on that greeter.
The premise of Just a Phase when it comes to adults who serve with kids is this: Every kid needs a consistent adult at church. For us, this becomes their small group leader on Sundays or table leader on Wednesdays.
Joiner and Ivy say that preschoolers need this relationship because they can be terrified by an unfamiliar face; elementary students because they will tell anything to a stranger; middle schoolers because nothing else in their life is consistent; and high schoolers because they only trust people who show up consistently. Sound about right?
A consistent leader in UpStreet doesn’t do the same things that a leader in CREW does. The time commitment is different, the teaching style is different.
Leaders of preschoolers embrace them so they feel safe.
Leaders of elementary students engage them so they can believe.
Leaders of middle schoolers affirm them so they will keep believing.
Leaders of high schoolers mobilize them to participate in something significant.
The common theme is this: Small group leaders get to know multiple kids in the same phase, and that gives them an advantage. Over time, a person who works with 2nd graders week in and week out begins to know how they tick and learns how to engage their thought process to encourage trust in Christ.
Most of us who serve in kid’s ministry may not think of ourselves as experts. We may doubt our own faith at times or wish we knew more about the Bible. But we cannot underestimate the power of showing up consistently. You can grow in your faith. You can learn more about Scripture. But you cannot pass it on to the next generation if you’re sporadic.
Joiner and Ivy add, “Every kid needs a parent who has history, and every kid needs a leader who can discover them now.” My encouragement to you is this: You may wonder what kind of an impact you’re making. You may struggle just to get to church on a Sunday. It may be tempting to skip out on serving because there are other things that look more rewarding, relaxing, or beneficial. Don’t give in to the temptation. Stick with the group of kids you’ve got. Invest in them. Invest what you know about them back to their parents. And see what God does in the midst of your consistency, stability, and faithfulness.
Doing ministry with the conviction that what happens at home is just as important as what happens at church…well, that’s easier said than done. We have a larger amount of control over what we program on a Sunday or Wednesday. We know what we’ll say to kids, which part of the Bible we’re teaching, and what we expect them to do. Okay, maybe we don’t always even know that.
We certainly don’t have control over how parents will disciple their kids. Which is why I think it’s very tempting for the church to create a dependency for parents by trying to always have the answers and program families to death. But in the end, is it really that effective? Will having families come to church on Sunday morning for Sunday School, then for church, then Sunday night, then Wednesday night, and then for special events really swing the discipleship pendulum so much?
Sure, it gives me a little more job security, but in the end, we all end up worn out with very little time to live out the gospel.
That’s why it’s our job to, as this chapter says, “reactivate parents” every year so kids will stay connected to them. Parenting a preschool takes different skills than parenting a middle schooler. And if parents don’t retool along the way, they’re in danger of missing out on the relational influence they can have. The church has an advantage in this: Volunteers get to work with a bunch of kids at the same phase. Which leads to familiarity with the characteristics of kids at that phase. Which leads to the ability to help parents see who their kids are becoming.
Joiner and Ivy give the example of companies who didn’t adapt with changing times:
- Kodak went from $16 billion in sales in 1995 to $7.1 billion in 2010.
- Blockbuster (who?) went from $8.4 billion net worth in 1994 to $24 million in 2010.
Similarly, others did adapt:
- Disney World went from annual attendance of 12.5 million in 1975 to 50.1 million in 2013.
- Amazon went from $15.7 million in sales in 1996 to $88.9 billion in 2014. That’s nuts!
The point is this: If parents (and the church) don’t adapt how they parent (and make disciples), they’ll miss out on relational influence (and relevancy).
Parents have an average of 12 hours a day with a preschooler, 6 hours with an elementary student, 4 hours with a middle schooler, and 2 hours with a high schooler. At the same time, those 12 preschool hours are largely about positional authority: “I’m dad; do what I say!” Those 2 high school hours are largely about relational influence: “How’s school going?” while on the way to a baseball game.
So how can our church help parents as their kids grow through the phases?
- We can help them parent with the end in mind. They are raising kids who will become adults. What does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus?
- We can emphasize the transitions. This is why we have UpStreet Parent Preview. We want moms and dads to not only see where their kids are going next, but also to talk with them about the spiritual growth of their kids at this elementary phase. It’s why Randy meets with parents of graduating 6th graders and has a CREW Preview Night for parents and kids entering youth group. It’s why we make a big deal for graduating HS seniors with a banquet.
- We can resource families. This is why our church website has a list of resources for families (www.nbwesleyan.org/family-resources).
In the end, we don’t have control over how parents will own the discipleship of their kids. And that’s ok. The same God who formed the church formed the family. The same God who gave His Spirit to the church at Pentecost gives His Spirit to individuals still today. Just like He doesn’t control us, we don’t control others. But we can have…you guessed it, relational influence.
Last week I started reviewing Just a Phase by Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy.
Chapter one answers the question, “Which phase is most important?” Orange has broken down kids and students into 13 phases. We’ve all heard studies about the percentage of people who accepted Christ by a certain age, or the rate at which teenagers and college students are abandoning faith. For those who work with a specific age group, they might answer, “The phase I am working with.”
And they would be right. A middle school boys small group leader needs to focus on the details pertinent to the boys in his group. He’s not worried about what is happening in the nursery at the same time his group meets. In fact, he’s probably quite glad he’s not sitting in the nursery.
Every church needs people who feel at home and in a niche with a group of students. These specialists can:
- Remind everyone else of the importance of ministry to this age group. When it’s time to dole out budget money, specialists ensure that their phase doesn’t get overlooked.
- Become experts on the subculture of their age group. They can learn quickly the lingo, dress code, drama, likes and dislikes, latest movie craze, website, temptations, struggles, and needs of their students like no one else.
- Communicate Christ in a contextualized manner within their students’ subculture. From preschool worship leaders singing about how God made us to elementary hosts pretending to be a character from the latest Pixar movie to youth ministry specialists texting Scripture
- Partner with parents of those students. Contrary to what some might expect, a youth pastor or children’s ministry pastor may not be the best resource for a parent. That nod goes to the small group leader who consistently sits with that student. If parents are concerned about the spiritual formation of their child, the very best person for them to get to know is their child’s small group leader!
Now, while the current phase is definitely the most important one, so also is the phases before and after that one. The book says, “Effective ministries know how to focus on a specific age group and see the overall vision for a kid’s life” (p. 44).
This means that not only does the church need specialists, but also generalists who can see the big picture, assist with the transitions, and remind the specialists of the end in mind. Generalists may not have close contact with each student because their job is to call people from preschool ministry through high school ministry to the same kinds of things. These generalists can:
- Remind specialists of what’s next. A church wins when elementary-age specialists hand the baton to middle school specialists at 5th or 6th grade graduation. It wins when high school grads tell stories of faith strengthened in college. And specialists need a voice saying, “Don’t forget about the next phase.”
- Become experts on scope and sequence. Generalists live in this arena. They salivate when it’s time to determine what Bible stories kids need to hear and what truths are important for preschoolers. They may not see the entire scope from birth to adulthood, and they don’t have to.
- Communicate strategy in a contextualized manner within their volunteers’ subculture. Generalists make the strategy understandable. They take the big picture and break it down into smaller steps for specialists, knowing that clear, common language pushes everyone in the same direction.
- Partner with parents of students. Generalists partner differently than specialists. They get to partner at the big events, the milestones, the transitions, holidays, etc. Parents certainly will look to a children’s ministry pastor for advice or direction on programming, but this is not their main role. Because their main target audience is the volunteer specialists they serve with, their main role is to equip specialists in the week-to-week partnership. Partnering with parents in the bigger moments happens, but that cannot be the only time parents feel the church’s influence.
Last April, I went to the Orange Conference with several others from our church. This year’s theme and accompanying book was “Just a Phase.” Those who have worked with children and teens, either in an educational or church setting, are at least vaguely familiar with the concept of kids going through developmental stages.
The Orange team defines a phase as “a timeframe in a kid’s life when you can leverage distinctive opportunities to influence their future.” The “you” includes not only parents, but pastors and volunteers in our kid’s and youth ministries.
So often we show up for the task of volunteering–helping kids memorize verses in AWANA, getting our lines right as hosts and storytellers in UpStreet, or running through the activities as small group leaders–and forget that the kids in front of us are different than the kids just a year or two older than them. We don’t take the time to see what makes them tick, what they find interesting, or how they would learn best. We don’t pause to observe the curiosity of a kindergartener or the doubts of a fifth grader.
And it’s not our fault. We each have a myriad of our own responsibilities, worries, bills, and relationships to navigate.
But what if we were keenly aware of the ways our kids are maturing and developing? How would that change the questions we ask? How would it change how we prayed with 4th grade boys in a small group? What would we do differently when it was time to tell the story of David and Goliath one more time? How might it encourage us to show up consistently after long hours on a Wednesday night?
Because each kid is in a unique phase right now, we cannot afford to miss it. We have to pay attention to the current phase characteristics, because soon, everything will change. We can’t know everything. And some weeks, just getting through a lesson will seem like a victory. But most weeks, we’ll keep in mind that this hour on a Sunday or Wednesday is the “distinct opportunity” we have to make an impact, and we’ll be ready not just with Bible knowledge or a script or fun props, but also with an understanding of what makes these kids, these kids.