When I married a priest, I cut a deal with him. “No children’s ministry,” I made him swear. “Not now, not ever.”

At the time we got married, my husband was serving at a large, wealthy, urban parish where the staff was stacked with priests and lay employees. While I’m sure my presence as a children’s ministry volunteer would have been welcomed, there was no need or expectation of my presence.

“No children’s ministry,” I repeated. And he, confident of our future vocational paths, agreed.

But then God moved, and we moved—to a small parish in rural Indiana. We knew the situation was bleak, but we didn’t realize how bleak it was until we walked in the first Sunday. There were no children, not a single one. In fact, we were some of the youngest people in the congregation.

There’s no way, we thought. How can you get children to come back to a church that has nothing for them?

Over the next year, the absence of children became a metaphor for the parish’s spiritual health. So we prayed, and our faithful friends, parents, and families prayed along with us. We prayed for children at the same time that we prayed for renewal. And we sought a lot of counsel. We also prepared for the day the children might show up, and for some reason I began to feel that it was my job to do most of the preparation.

Then one Sunday, the amazing happened: A mother showed up with three young kids. She had heard from a parishioner that my husband was an excellent preacher. They came back the next Sunday and brought cousins. Then some other kids came with their grandparents at Easter. And a man who had been attending by himself brought his stepdaughter because he thought she would enjoy the other kids. Suddenly, the church began to fill up with children. Despite swearing off Sunday school the year before, I found myself leading a Sunday school of ten children.

Looking back, I have no doubt that that the Holy Spirit was the motivating force behind the parish’s transformation. But I also know that the wisdom gleaned from others and the vast reservoirs of patience (on the part of parents and children alike) made a difference. Here are some of the counterintuitive lessons we learned about growing a children’s ministry at a small church (or any church):

1. Love children for your own spiritual health as well as theirs.

Even when we didn’t have any kids involved, we began to seek opportunities to care for children in our immediate community. Since they weren’t coming to church, we brought the church to them. For my husband, Thomas, this meant stepping up his involvement with the preschool affiliated with the church and working the drop-off and pick-up carpool line a few times a week as a way to get to know the parents and their kids. We also began to host a welcome dinner for preschool families, serving them and their children dinner. It gave busy parents a night off from cooking and also helped them see how the church welcomed children, whether they “belonged” to it or not.

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Although in our case it did eventually net us new attendees, extending ecclesial hospitality to children is something adults are called to do not just for the sake of church growth and not just for the sake of the children but also for our own growth in holiness. In Matthew, Jesus famously rebukes the disciples for turning away the little children, saying, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14).

In his homilies on the Book of Matthew, St. John Chrysostom argues that the disciples first turn the children away because of their preoccupation with preserving personal dignity. Children are noisy, dirty, and, as anybody who has ever hauled a screaming two-year-old out of the grocery store knows, can make us look like fools. However, Chrysostom claims that a child’s innocent disregard for her public persona is exactly the quality that disciples need to be followers of Jesus. We need to learn from their transparent hunger for physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment.

Accordingly, instructing children in Sunday school teaches us how to become the type of disciples Jesus calls us to be.

2. Your goal is to get children more involved in worship, not less.

Often, when I talk to parents and teachers, they describe the purpose of Sunday school as “learning about the Bible” or “teaching kids about right and wrong.” These are important goals, but they’re also second-order considerations. Sunday school does not exist as an end in itself. Its purpose is to prepare for worship, not replace it.

Of course, this statement implies that there is more going on in “big church” than simply learning about God or learning a system of morality. It is based on the theological conviction that, in the gathering of a worshiping community, we not only learn about Jesus but actually encounter him as the resurrected Lord. As David writes in Psalm 63:2, “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” Although robust biblical teaching helps form our minds for this encounter, it is the encounter itself that actually changes us—and changes our children.

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As Duke Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Worship is not something Christians do to make them ‘moral’… rather, the activities of worship are not intended to affect a direct consequence exactly because they are purposefully directed to God. Because worship puts all that we do before God, we are made part of God’s praise and joy.” In other words, worship is where we have the opportunity to encounter Christ most fully. This applies as much to kids as it does to adults. And Sunday school is meant to be a conduit back into that worship space, not a replacement.

At our church, for example, I found that the more Sunday school explained what was going on in the worship service and the more opportunities children had to be involved in the service as well as Sunday school, the more engaged they were in both settings. This was brought home to me when I realized that one of the three-year-olds had memorized the eucharistic liturgy that we sing in worship and was using snippets of the liturgy to answer questions in Sunday school. Her worship experience informed and enriched her classroom learning. And her time in Sunday school helped her understand exactly what was happening when she returned to worship for the Eucharist.

3. Don’t be afraid of teaching doctrine that you or your students don’t fully understand.

Just as we sometimes neglect to teach children how and why to worship, our pedagogical focus is often limited to teaching them morals and sentimentality without sufficient engagement with doctrine or dogma. Dorothy Sayers presciently critiqued the rejection of doctrine in her 1947 essay “Creed or Chaos,” and her argument is even more relevant 70 years later. “‘No creed but Christ’ has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning,” she wrote. “And however unpopular I may make myself, I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.”

When I first began to teach Sunday school at our small church, I found that I succeeded most when I aimed over the children’s apparent intellectual level, not under. For example, one of the most successful lessons we ever had was provided by a Bible scholar from our congregation who came in to teach the kids about Bible translation. The children loved exploring something new and were excited to learn how to write Hebrew words. For the same reason, the classes I taught on theological doctrines tended to go much better than I imagined. The students had something new to think about, and learning more about Christian doctrine helped them to connect with lessons and stories they had been taught in other classes and contexts.

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My own pedagogical transparency mattered, too. There were several times that student questions went beyond my own biblical literacy or theological knowledge. Rather than cover up my ignorance, I let them know that I was planning on finding answers from people who knew more than I did. By modeling intellectual humility and an openness to exploring new questions, I hoped to prepare them to become lifelong students of theology. And by exposing them to doctrine early, I hoped to excite them about the deep and enduring integration of faith, learning, and life.

If children are the future of the church, how can we offer them less than the very best of the treasure we have received?

4. Approach teaching Sunday school with a healthy sense of fear.

I would be remiss if I failed to issue a warning. Per my previous story, I came to church ministry with the naïve understanding that spending time surrounded by graham crackers, sticky fingers, and hallway meltdowns was an auxiliary service to what I saw as the main work of the church—engaging with grown-ups. But I very quickly had to rethink my views. These years later, I’m more aware than ever that, hidden in the crafts and silly songs of Sunday school, we find both an extraordinary burden and an extraordinary opportunity.

The burden arises from the spiritual dependence of the children on your teaching. Apart from parents (hopefully), your voice is one of the first to proclaim the gospel to a child. And the consequences for doing this wrong, according to Jesus, are worse than almost any other punishment named in the New Testament: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

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However, the privilege of doing it well is equally as great as the possible punishment for getting it wrong. As Nana Dolce notes, “If faith-professing children in our churches today might disconnect tomorrow, then our time with them—from the nursery to the college group—must be viewed not as mere games and morals but as the loving evangelization and discipleship of a growing church.”

Teaching Sunday school is not the last or lowest option for service but instead might be the place where our mandate to carry out the Great Commission is most fruitful—for ourselves and for the children we teach.

As we learn to see our Father through children’s eyes, our own relationship and dependence are redefined, expanded, or transformed. And we can begin to see the gifts and blessings that come from being “the least of these.”

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is an assistant professor of moral theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. Her research focuses on questions of moral formation, the development of virtue, and the intersection of law, business, and theology.

A different version of this piece originally appeared at Covenant, the weblog of The Living Church magazine.