Children spend more time at home than they do at church: this convicting truth fuels family ministry initiatives across the country. From providing parents with materials to use throughout the week to producing events that moms, dads, and kids attend together, churches continue to place emphasis on the hours that impact a child outside of the one (-ish) spent attending a children's ministry program.
Another block of significant time, though, deserves more attention. A typical elementary student spends 35 hours a week at school (unless homeschooled, of course). Second only to home, children spend more time at school or in school activities than anywhere else. For that reason, churches can learn plenty by paying close attention to public education trends; these three seems like a good starting point.
1. Pre-kindergarten school readiness.
Educators, government officials, even business leaders in a growing number of communities actively promote the need for young children to possess academic skills prior to entering school. Gone are the days when learning started in kindergarten, after snack and nap time (my favorite topics in kindergarten, by the way). Whether one agrees or disagrees with this trend, no one can deny it's a big deal.
What can churches learn from this trend? In essence, expectations have emerged in our country to engage a pre-school child's ability to learn. Does your church's children's ministry approach the youngest kids in similar fashion? Many take the opposite approach and simply seek to keep toddlers through five-year-olds entertained, occupied, and as quiet as possible.
Develop a better plan. Look for appropriate lessons to share guided by this bit of wisdom: "It's never too early for God's created people to do the very thing he created them for: have a deep friendship with him," say Dr. John Trent, Kurt Bruner, and Rick Osborne in their book Teaching Kids About God: An Age-by-Age Plan for Parents of Children from Birth to Age Twelve (Tyndale House). Yes, offer short and bite-sized lessons for the littlest. They can handle it and parents will soon expect it—if they don't already.
2. Character development/campaigns of the heart.
Recently, a school district invited me to speak at an event for parents of students in every grade. While I talked about the need for parents to truly engage their children, school officials shared an initiative, called "Capturing Kids' Hearts ™," in full operation at every grade level. They also presented information about the district-wide anti-bullying efforts. Both are solid programs—and represent well a growing trend of schools guiding behavior and personal decision-making through character-building.
Oh, how this topic draws criticism from the faith community. For a moment, though, let other faith leaders argue with society about who talks with children about sex—there's so much more to this trend. Respectful behavior, conflict resolution, the courage to speak up when others are bullied: an increasing number of schools now cover these topics and more. Why?
Kids clearly don't receive adequate instruction in these areas, that's why. This represents an opportunity for a church to partner with the local schools. Shouldn't a ministry that seeks to make a difference in children's hearts (church) find the efforts of others doing something similar at least of interest?
Working with schools does not mean faith-centeredness must be lost. In fact, something quite interesting could happen. Imagine the amount of attention that a church and a school would capture if a child heard an occasional consistent message from both entities. Or the attention of parents. This co-existence worked quite well at the parent event mentioned earlier—school officials shared about their program and gave strong endorsement to my clearly-faith-based book, Words Kids Need to Hear: To Help Them Be Who God Made Them to Be (Zondervan).