Several years ago we had an after-school ministry for upper elementary aged children. By the time we stopped it, it looked like a whopping success. Our little small town church would have 40-50 kids, mostly not from our church, show up on Wednesday afternoons. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
But there at the end, it was mostly chaos. Our few volunteers lacked the energy to keep up with the kids. We felt a day was a success if no one had been seriously injured or broken anything. Did the kids learn anything? Hard to tell, since most of our time was spent working on behavior issues.
Our current after school ministries are much smaller. But they are also orderly enough that the kids can get something out of them.
The mistake we made earlier – and are still prone to make – is to think our primary focus should be on ministry to children and youth. In a declining church full of old people, it’s really easy to argue for that position. Despite our lack of younger folks, both locally and denominationally, I think seeing our ministry to children and youth as primary is a mistake. What we should see as primary is a discipling ministry with adults so that these adults will then be the doers of ministry with children and youth. Why?
A first reason to focus on adults is that parents have the primary responsibility to disciple their kids. Sure, it’s rare for parents to do that. We’ll teach them to hunt, fish, cook, drive, and other things of life. But do we teach them them to pray? To read and understand the bible? To share their faith with others? To interpret their lives and encounters with the world in terms of the Kingdom of God? Usually not. At least in many UM churches, many of the adults are too spiritually introverted to feel “comfortable” doing these things. Better leave these really important things to the professionals, i.e., the Sunday School teachers and church staff.
I know the temptation here. We on staff reason that if the parents aren’t doing it, we ought to. It’s too good a thing to leave undone. True. But we’re displacing the parent’s responsibility. They will still have to answer to God.
A second reason to have a primary focus on adults is pragmatic. Parents are the ones who have control over their lives. Sure, their control is relative, but compared to children and youth, their control is immense. If they want to go to worship on Sunday morning, for instance, all an adult has to do is get up on time, get ready and go. In this age when you get to church gatherings in a car, children are at the mercy of their parents. Parents have more power to bring children along than children have to bring parents along.
The major consequence for those of us who are in leadership is that our primary job is not performing functions. We don’t hire people to do what we currently think of as our primary ministries (even if we can’t find anyone who is willing). We hire people to invest in the lives of others who will then become the doers of those ministries. Perhaps once upon a time churches could afford to hire people to do all the ministry that needs to be done. Not any more. The people we hire need to be leaders, catalytic people, who develop others to do ministry.