By Rick Chromey
“It’s better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than a hospital at the bottom.”
That’s sound advice every church needs to heed. Its why children’s ministry should be your church’s highest priority.
Correction: it’s why children’s ministry must be your church’s highest priority.
Think about it.
When we build a wall of protection around the hearts of our littlest saints, we empower a lifetime of purpose, peace, and promise. When we protect tender minds from influences that distract or detour, we teach them creativity, discernment, and confidence. When we put a fence around their fragile faith, it allows children to deepen roots of sanctuary and grow fruits of influence.
Essentially, it’s an ounce of investment today to prevent pounding in the cure tomorrow.
We’ve all heard the statistic that three out of four Christians commit to the faith prior to their 18th birthday. It’s a powerful indicator, but there’s a deeper truth to consider, and that’s three-quarters of these youthful decisions happen prior to middle school.
Translation: Children matter, and we can’t afford to wreck faith, waste time, or wait too long. Kids don’t stay kids forever. We have a brief window of opportunity to capture a soul for life…or crush it. We need to build fences now.
How do we construct positive, powerful, and productive hedges of protection? Let me suggest three critical planks:
1. Ditch the Bribery: Many a church has wrecked a child’s faith through “do this, get that” incentives. When teachers and leaders reduce spiritual behaviors like attendance, friend invitations, participation, and Scripture memorization to bribery (candy, toys, prizes, Bible Bucks), we impair true motivation. Yes, the winners love it, but let’s look at those losers. Educational and sociological research has overwhelmingly proven incentivized learning produces the opposite result, especially after treats are removed. Children have less interest, or worse, own a negative attitude.
If your children’s ministry is grooved by “trick and treat” bribery, you’re actually discipling children toward works righteousness (I have to earn it), perfectionism (I have to do it right), consumerism (What do I win?), and pride (I win and you don’t). I believe it’s a primary reason millennials have left church behind as adults. We taught them to conform and perform but not to be transformed.
2. Pursue Excellence: A church can waste a child’s faith with mediocrity. When we subject children to learn, worship, and play in environments that are substandard, we send dangerous messages to kids and parents. When children’s ministries are understaffed, underfinanced, and under-appreciated, apathy emerges (as does the potential for abuse). Churches can easily forget the children when funds and facilities focus on adult ministry and relegate children to outer porticos, stale basements, old gyms, and small classrooms. It’s why adults don’t volunteer, and many children’s ministries struggle and fail.
3. Stay Forever Young: A church can wait too long and suddenly grow old. It’s a simple rule of thumb: When a congregation’s average adult age surpasses 50 years, the church is now trending toward eventual death (churches in retirement communities not included). The reason is clear: These churches can no longer attract families with children. No amount of money solves the problem, including hiring a (young) youth pastor, employing better curriculum, renovating classrooms, or building a new facility. These cosmetic changes only make an aging church feel better but rarely produce growth. It’s the beginning of the end…and that “end” can last years.
It’s why dynamic churches—of any size, type, or stripe—emphasize ministry to children. They don’t waste time or wreck the opportunity. They disciple children with grace (not works), creating positive, productive relationships that empower and affirm kids through pleasurable, safe spaces to learn, worship, and play.
It’s the most selfless thing any church can do.
And it’s what tomorrow’s church needs most.