By Chuck Peters
This summer my 13-year-old son and I went on a mission trip to Jamaica with a group from our small church. Our primary purpose was to facilitate VBS in a poor community in the center of the island. It was a fantastic week and we saw God work in awesome ways—not just in kids, but in whole families.
While we were there we stayed at a hillside boarding house. The property was protected by tall, colorfully painted cement walls, and the small parking area was protected by a massive metal gate that rolled in a 6-inch-wide groove in the ground that was ankle deep.
The gate was designed to protect guests from outsiders when it was closed, but when it was opened it became a hazardous gash in the ground that nearly broke the ankles of several of our team members.
I quickly found myself acting as the gate gap guard; cautioning my teammates to ‘mind the gap,’ lest they unknowingly stumble into the cavernous chasm that could take them out of commission.
Fortunately, none did. Because we noticed the gap, we were able to take proactive steps to avoid the harm that it might have otherwise inflicted and our mission was not delayed or distracted by the calamity that it could have caused.
My experience running VBS in that small Jamaican community, and in avoiding the gaping gate gap at our guesthouse, caused me to ponder the state of the church back home. I believe many of our churches unknowingly have deep and dangerous gaps.
While these are not physical chasms in the ground, they are real, and churches are losing kids and families because of them. The gaps I am talking about are the areas of disconnect that exist between ministry areas.
The most pronounced and prominent gaps may well be the ones that separate our kids and student ministries. When ministry areas operate in isolation, we may find people are connected to individual ministries for short seasons, but aren’t securely attached and connected to the church as a whole.
Churches are vulnerable to lose families when it’s time for kids to transition from one area to the next. As ministry leaders, we need to identify and acknowledge our gaps and mind them well on behalf of the families we serve. By tightening some gaps and bridging others we may prevent some of our families from falling into the cracks.
1. Relational gaps (the who)
Relational gaps can take on two forms. The first one, ministry relational gaps, occurs when there is a lack of connection between ministry leaders. Churches are stronger when kids and student ministry leaders know, trust, encourage, support and promote one another.
The second, personal relational gaps, occurs when people who attend a church feel relationally isolated from other members. They desire, but don’t find, meaningful and lasting friendships, relationships, and acceptance within the church.
People want to be where they feel known, loved, valued and appreciated, and kids want to be where their friends are. If a child’s perception is that her friends are all in the kids ministry, but she now has to move up to the student group, she may feel relationally isolated, and not connect well.
Bridge this gap with communication. Kids and student leaders need to interact with one another more and better. These leaders may not seem to have much in common at surface level. They may be of different ages and genders, and may be at different stages of life.
Meaningful communication between these leaders may require effort and intentionality, but the connection they build is invaluable for the sake of kids and their families. Leaders must always be aware of the relational gap that kids face as they advance from one ministry area to the next and take active steps to connect newcomers into friend relationships.
The effort we take to build strong connections will pay off in creating security and a sense of belonging.
2. Physical gaps (the where)
Kids and student ministries tend to function in separate spaces places. This practice can be a good thing inasmuch as it gives unique contexts and identities to the two ministry areas, but moving from a place that is familiar and comfortable to another that is unknown can be intimidating for kids as they advance and can cause stress that keep them from making the transition.
Bridge this gap with celebration. Make changes in environment an exciting rite of passage to which kids can aspire. Create opportunities for kids to visit and tour their future gathering spaces. This may look like an open house for kids and parents (parents need to feel familiar also) or visiting a class for a week or two before the transition.
Celebrate the arrival of newcomers with welcome receptions and a party atmosphere. Getting younger kids comfortable with their new location can alleviate the stress of the unknown, and actually get kids excited as they anticipate moving up.
3. Schedule gaps (the when)
Unfamiliar and uncoordinated ministry times and cadences can make it difficult for kids to transition well into the student space. The primary time slot for children’s ministry is typically on Sunday morning. While kids may have Sunday night or Wednesday evening programming, attendance at those times tends to be lower in kids ministries.
In contrast, student ministries tend to have their largest ministry gatherings midweek or Sunday evening. Some student groups meet on Sunday afternoons or Saturday nights.
These shifts in schedule can be a hurdle for families with busy routines to overcome, especially if they have multiple children who are involved in both kids and student ministries.
Bridge this gap with coordination. Make things as easy as possible for families by scheduling regular kids and student gatherings on the same days, at coordinated times, and on the same campus.
This will require collaboration on the part of leaders, but maintaining consistent and predictable schedules that coincide will build a culture of meeting times for which families can plan.
4. Educational gaps (the what)
There is often a large disconnect in the content taught in kids and student areas. Areas often choose curriculum resources separately and follow their own individual study plans without consideration of a progression of learning for kids as they advance.
Kids are generally taught foundational Bible stories from first through fifth or sixth grade. Students regularly focus on real-life situational issues. Both types of teaching are important for developing mature and fruitful faith, but the gap between kids and students teaching plans can be a tough adjustment for many kids to make.
Bridge this gap with cooperation. Kids and student leaders can align their curriculum choices, opting to use the same resource for both kids and students.
While the approach to study can be contextualized to the different age groups and physical settings, kids and families can continue on the same, or a very similar, journey in regards to study style, approach to application, and the scope and sequence of their study plans.
5. Philosophical gaps (the why)
Kids and student ministry leaders can be motivated by starkly different mission, vision, and values, all of which impact the decisions leaders make in regards to content and methodology.
A ministry’s why acts as a target and a filter as leaders build strategic plans for their ministries. Even if each ministry has its own clear and compelling goal, without building in some common language in regards to the church’s larger purpose, we may unintentionally create philosophical gaps that make ministry areas feel disconnected as people move from one to the next.
Bridge this gap with contemplation. When kids and student leaders agree to adopt and adapt to a common mission, vision, and purpose for ministry, the gap between areas will be greatly diminished—even if they use different methods or resources.
Having a common why unites us in culture and mission. Landing on a shared philosophy of ministry may take deep thought and shared philosophical, theological and methodological contemplation, but the return is well worth the investment.
6. Methodological gaps (the how)
The way we do ministry looks and functions differently between kids and student areas.
Kids may sit in rows or around tables where they complete worksheets, memorize verses and provide simple answers to questions around a Bible lesson, but they primarily listen to biblical stories and teaching.
Students in the same church may sit in circles, perhaps even on sofas, with the expectation of participating in active discussion and application of abstract spiritual truths. This change in teaching methodology can cause young kids transitioning into a Student ministry environment to feel insecure, intimidated, and uncomfortable. Some may subsequently drop out.
One group or the other may meet in a large open auditorium with a big stage, lots of energy, a praise band and concert lighting. Unless both groups share this culture, moving from one to the next can cause culture shock.
Bridge this gap with collaboration. When leaders from both teams understand each other’s what and why they can work together to bridge gaps in how they each execute ministry to make transitions easier for children as they move from kids ministry to youth group.
This may mean placing older kids within the children’s ministry into a special discussion group set in a more youth-like environment to begin preparing them for student conversations.
Kids and student teams might also plan to attach a bridge adult leader to a group of children who are advancing. This adult leader might begin working with kids in the children’s space, and then move to the student area with advancing students to help them make a clean transition.
This type of strategy requires a high degree of collaboration from ministry leaders, but it has the successful adjustment of the child in mind.
If we aren’t careful, we can lose families into the gaps that exist between our kids and student ministries. As ministry leaders, we need to come together around a common mission, purpose, and strategy as we minister to kids, students, and families.
Ultimately, each specific ministry within a congregation should share the common and consistent culture of the overall church. Evaluate your gaps, and take active steps to build bridges that set kids and families up for success and satisfaction as they grow.
CHUCK PETERS (@_chuckpeters) is director of operations for LifeWay Kids. He is a graduate of Columbia Bible College. A creative person by nature, Chuck’s unique combination of experiences in media production, business, and ministry has caused him to become an unexpected fan of strategy, data, and analysis in ministry. He lives outside Nashville with his wife and four kids.