The 4-14 Window
Courtney Clark accepted Jesus as Savior earlier this year at an after-school Good News Club in Commerce, Georgia. After singing songs and hearing a story about a boy who stole ice cream, Courtney, 10, said she knew she had disobeyed God and needed Jesus in her heart.
"I'm trying not to sin as I used to," she said, "and I'm trying to be nice to people."
For generations, ministry leaders have been proclaiming the importance of evangelizing children. Now many are moving beyond flashcards and cookies to teach children challenging spiritual truths.
In April, 94 children's ministry leaders from 54 organizations gathered for a two-day conference to focus on ways to effectively reach children between the ages of 4 and 14. Awana Clubs International, which has trained leaders who head clubs in 10,000 U.S. churches, hosted the meeting at its Streamwood, Illinois, headquarters. Christianity Today International and six other groups co-sponsored the gathering.
"Never before had there been a single-minded gathering like this for those passionate about children," said John Crupper, strategic partnerships director for Awana. Findings included the need to develop more challenging curricula plus integrating the growing effectiveness that children, rather than adults, have in teaching other children.
Researcher George Barna, author of Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Regal Books, 2003), stresses the importance of children's ministry by contending that lifelong moral views are largely in place by adolescence.
"What you believe at age 13 is pretty much what you're going to die believing," Barna said. Research compiled by his Barna Group shows that children between the ages of 5 and 13 have a 32 percent probability of accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior. That likelihood drops to 4 percent for teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, and ticks back up to 6 percent for adults older than 18.
Indeed, children's ministry is an optimal time to shape the church's rising leadership. In a 2003 Barna Group nationwide survey of pastors, church staff, and lay leaders, four of five leaders said they participated in church children's programs for a number of years before they turned 13.
Jill Harris, a children's mobilization specialist for the Caleb Project and 26-year veteran of children's ministry, is encouraged by the trend of kids ministering to other kids. She noted that children increasingly are leading prayers, playing in the worship music band, operating the soundboard, and running PowerPoint.
Harris has also observed increased child-to-child evangelism. She says young people can understand such concepts as comparative religions as long as the teaching incorporates concrete terms they can understand. "More churches are recognizing the importance of equipping their kids to be able to give a Christian response to their Muslim classmate or their Hindu neighbor," Harris said.
New Kids Require New Techniques
One of the chief challenges today for church volunteers is keeping up with technologically savvy youngsters, some of whom know how to program a dvd player and play games on an Xbox by the time they start school.
Children are bombarded with bright-colored, fast-moving images on scores of TV channels, said Robert T. Schlipp of Bibleman Live, a 51-minute stage presentation with songs, stunts, stage illusions, and choreographed battles.
"Just putting together coloring book pages or flannelgraphs is not creative enough for today's kids," maintained Schlipp.
Many believe the key to reaching boys and girls is to go beyond the church walls. More than 40 million of America's 280 million residents are between 4 and 14 years old. The Good News Club, the foundational ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), seeks to reach this group through weekly neighborhood gatherings, where unchurched kids sing choruses, memorize Scripture, and visualize Bible stories.