“You’re telling me my child has to sit in church with me?”
“He’s going to be bored out of his mind!”
“But Pete is preaching through the book of DANIEL!”
“I drove 30 minutes here just for you to tell me there is no Kids Ministry? This is unacceptable.”
These are all real, actual statements I’ve heard from exhausted, well-meaning parents at my church when they find out that their kid has to go to church with them. For some, it seems to be the bane of their existence.
To be honest, I don’t blame them. I have a third-grader and first-grader who both weep at the thought of not being able to hang with their small group leader and peers on Sunday mornings and instead have to sit next to me while I weep during “What A Beautiful Name.”
Drippy-nosed, irritable children are the last ones I want following me into a service to get my worship on. Even Kids Pastors need a break from their own kids, okay?
It’s also clear that parents who respond like those above never caught the vision behind these seemingly unusual days, which is a failure on our part as leaders. We have to be willing to acknowledge and constantly re-evaluate our communication strategy for the steady flow of new families who are joining our ministries each month.
So what do they need to know exactly? Every year at Bent Tree, we choose a handful of weekends to celebrate what we call Family Sundays. In short, they are an opportunity for parents to worship with their first- to eighth-grade children. These Sundays typically fall on holiday weekends and days we have special programming, like Good Friday.
They have also become an important part of who we are as a church. Here’s why:
Family Sundays are Strategic
When we flash forward a few years, our team wants to see a generation of kids who not only experienced dynamic, intentional ministry in environments geared for their age and stage, but kids who have truly felt like members of the congregation—not just the kids of the members of the congregation.
When we visualize our kids as adults, we want them to have memories of watching their parents surrendered in worship during a difficult season of life, hearing stories of life-change during baptism, experiencing the generosity of their church family as they give their offering, and soaking in biblical teaching that will inform them of the type of church they will choose to take their family to one day.
We want kids to say: “I had a place in the body of my church. I was welcome.”
Research has shown that about half of high school students who grow up in church will likely leave their faith after graduation. It turns out that two of the keys to building lasting faith in students are intergenerational relationships and intergenerational worship experiences. In their study of nearly 500 youth group graduates from around the country, Fuller Youth Institute revealed the following important insight about the power of intergenerational relationships in building sticky faith.
Involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.
Furthermore, by far, the number-one way that churches made students in our survey feel welcomed and valued was when adults in the congregation showed interest in them.
This should come as no surprise since we are well aware of how often Jesus made kids feel welcome and valued. Outside of the research, there are countless places in Scripture that honor kids, reminding our giant, adult selves of the innocence, humility, and faith we all too often forget as we age and desperately need to hold onto.
For example, in Matthew 19:13, when the disciples try to keep parents from bringing their kids to Him as He taught, Jesus drops facts. Some translations say Jesus was indignant, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Jesus intervenes. He reprimands.
In that moment, He becomes their advocate.
Family Sundays Give Permission
Many have asked over the years if Family Sundays are “kiddie services.” Will the preacher “dumb down” the message or will every worship song feature fantastical hand motions set to electro-pop beats? I wish, but no.
Family Sunday services are still geared toward adults, but they are kid-friendly in the sense that kids in the room are given permission to be kids. We have to acknowledge that they will not always use an inside voice. They will wiggle and complain and spill and fall and laugh a little louder than everyone else. And we think that’s awesome.
We want kids to be who they are and know they are accepted.
If they get tired, kids have permission to rest on their parent’s shoulder or lap. If they can’t see, kids have permission to stand on top of the chair during worship. If they have questions, kids have permission to ask their parents in the moment.
It is just as important for parents to know their kids are welcome as it is for kids to know it. We try to make sure there is at least one element in each service that helps everyone know beyond a shadow of a doubt that kids are in the right place.
These elements can include things like activity pages with crayons, a kid-friendly video, opportunities for kids to serve within the service, a kid reading a scripture passage or an illustration in a sermon that would apply to their elementary world.
We’d say no more than one or two of these elements should happen within a single service. But these “value-communicators” can be both powerful reminders and stress relievers for parents who are feeling uneasy about the squirmy second-grader beside them.
My favorite blog on this topic was written by fellow family ministry ninja and fellow Wesley Seminary alum, Christina Embree, who focuses not so much on what actually happens programmatically in an adult service that has children in attendance but more on a “culture of welcome” that Jesus is creating. In it she says:
Even if we add in a cool new bulletin or some crayons for coloring, even if we sing some songs with motions or keep our sermons shorter, even if we offer booster seats and give grace when kids are loud, which are all fine and good strategies for making space for kids in worship. . . .
If we don’t do it from a place of genuine belief in the absolute importance of the community of faith being one, regardless of age, and a place that specifically answers Jesus’ command to “welcome the little children and not hinder them,” than I don’t think it will make the impact we want it to. – Excerpt from “Do Not Hinder” from RefocusMinistry.org
Yes. Christina. Yes. More of that, please.
Let’s strive to be a Church that gives kids permission to be who they are. And not just on their side of the building.
Family Sundays are a Catalyst
We believe one of the very best things that can come out of a Family Sunday is the opportunity for a parent to share with their child how God may have spoken to them. It is a chance for parents to model what it looks like to grow in their faith. To celebrate answered prayer together. To process doubts and questions.
We want these days to be about what might be caught, rather than what might be taught.
In a culture where sports, schedules, and activities dominate the lives of most families, Family Sundays could be, in its simplest form, a gift of time. A handful of minutes to have an intentional faith conversation that may otherwise not happen given they spend another day segregated like they do the rest of the week.
In truth, our church has not figured it all out. There are plenty of Family Sundays under our belt that we would consider “a miss.” But every missed opportunity has become a lesson learned and we will continue to cast this vision to parents as best we can.
If my daughter’s faith is stickier because she grows up in a church where she is known, welcome, and given permission to be who she is, then I will gladly drag her through the doors of the big room. If she is able to learn from my rollercoaster relationship with Jesus, then I say that’s a win.
Does your church incorporate Family Sundays into the rhythm of their year? If not, what would it take to get started?