The longest but surest way to grow a church is to invest in the small members who will one day become big members

“Any kid will do great if you give them two things: a warm welcome and an adult who’s crazy about them.” | by Ray Johnston Growth in children takes place best when environmental conditions are conducive to growth. Parents have a unique ability and special power to connect with the children under their own roof, but other adults with a heart for kids and a flair for the creative can also have a profound effect. Never underestimate the power of a connected adult. I heard a Young Life leader say, “Any kid will do great if you give them two things: a warm welcome and an adult who’s crazy about them.” Beyond that connection, how do we create an environment that develops children into competent, caring Christian adults? Many resources offer great strategies, but seven factors are essential:

1. Believe that Christ’s call to service includes our young

The call to the Christian life is the call to service. For years, children have been taught that they are “the church of tomorrow.” Kids today aren’t even sure there will be a tomorrow, especially teenagers. This “wait a bit” attitude only serves to excuse kids from hearing the call of Christ in the present. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus say, “Come, serve. Tomorrow will be fine.” Our kids, and particularly our teens, need to hear the call of Christ to service today. They need to believe that their service, gifts, and abilities are needed now. Let teenagers serve in some capacity on the church board. Invite children to participate in services. Expect people of all ages to give financially. Insist that teens vote in congregational meetings. Take young people seriously and they will begin to take church seriously.

2. Create a motivational environment through vision

Vision leads to enthusiasm and enthusiasm is a motivator. Vision means seeking people in terms of their potential. It was a critical key in the leadership development ministry of our Lord. Jesus saw a writer in a tax collector, a great preacher in a bigmouthed fisherman, and a man of faith in a doubting Thomas. In fact, Jesus tipped his hand when he called the disciples by declaring, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus showed us the key to vision and motivation when he was more focused on what the disciples could become than what they were in the present. Show me a parent who is focused on what his or her kids are like now, and I will show you a discouraged parent. Conversely, the person who is focused on what the kids they’re leading can become will discover a remarkable ability to stay encouraged. If you want to become a person who brings out the best in others, focus on their futures and look at them through the eyes of faith. In that kind of environment, kids will be convinced they can become someone great for God.

3. Create a motivating environment through affirmation

Most of us are trained only to remember the negative feedback we hear, not the positive. Developing children positively requires the art of catching them doing something right. Be quick to encourage and slow to criticize. Most kids attract attention only when they act out in unhealthy ways. In church, our ministries to young people ought to be centers of celebration. Renowned child psychologist and author H. Stephen Glenn states, “Any positive movement in the right direction, if it is received in the spirit of celebration, will produce more movement in that same direction.”1

4. Believe that kids are capable

Teenagers especially are capable of having an incredible impact for Christ and that capability is often unlocked when an adult finds an area of strength and calls attention to it.

5. Have a specific vision for how kids’ capabilities can be realized

Kids need specific responsibilities. That’s why giving assignments is so effective. The best teachers know that the way to get a child’s attention is to give them something to do. And yet, in the average church does the average kid feel significant or insignificant? Does the average church kid feel powerful or powerless? Does the average church kid have a sense of value and virtue? Does the average church communicate to the average kid, “You are competent” or “You are incompetent”? Recently, while speaking at a high school conference in Jackson, Mississippi, I met two remarkable high school students. These young women were two of the sharpest, most motivated high school juniors that I have met in a long time. They cornered me for lunch and wanted advice with their ministry. They co-lead a weekly on-campus Bible study for sixty junior high girls. They were planning a retreat and wanted advice on how to put one together. These two young people couldn’t have been more motivated. They were loving junior high kids, leading a Bible study, and dreaming about putting together and running their first retreat—all at age sixteen. I later found out that during the previous year their youth pastor asked them to lead a small group of junior high girls in a Bible study. They started with six kids. The rest is history. Their lives and the lives of a lot of junior high girls changed the very minute a youth pastor got specific. Kids need significant, specific responsibilities at church. That one thing can unlock the door of opportunity and bond them to your church while developing gifts for leadership.

6. Have patience

When you’re leading children week after week, you have to wonder if it will ever pay off. In the church, few children’s workers realize such a reward for many years—until they stumble upon an adult who they once influenced as a child. Art Erickson invested twenty-three years in the young people of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis where he was associate pastor and president of the Park Avenue Urban Program and Leadership Foundation. Art received a letter from a former youth group member from twenty years earlier who grew up in an urban neighborhood two blocks from the church. This boy overcame seemingly insurmountable odds in an extremely dysfunctional family, married, earned a Ph.D. in counseling, and went into private practice. He realized the pivotal point for him was Art’s leadership. Whether or not you ever receive such a letter, have the patience and faith to believe God is working through you to reach those young lives.

7. Believe in your own ability to develop your kids

Leaders often shy away from developing kids not because they question the capabilities of the kids, but because they question their own capabilities. Somehow, even in the face of our experiences, we think we need advanced degrees in human development to help a kid discover his or her gifts and potential for ministry. And yet the truth is your capacity to develop children is only limited by your ability to love them. Here’s an example of a guy who did it better than all of us.

Bill’s Story

Years ago, I teamed up with a man named Bill to work with some teenagers. Bill never taught or preached. In fact, he never did anything up front. But I saw him care for a group of seventh-grade boys in an astonishing way. A lot of them had no dads and others came from dysfunctional homes, yet they were developing qualities I didn’t think they could even imagine. Finally one day I talked to Bill. “You are unbelievable with kids,” I said. “What’s your secret to transforming these junior high boys?” “I don’t have a secret.” “Come on, man! What are you doing with these kids?” “Nothing that everybody else isn’t doing.” I kept after him. Finally he said, “Well, if there is anything I’m doing, it would be this notebook.” I thought, I don’t know what’s in that notebook, but let’s publish it and I’ll pay off my college loans! We’ll sell it to everybody who works with junior high kids! “What is it?” I asked. He acted embarrassed as he pulled out a beat-up, but pretty standard skinny spiral notebook. “Here,” he said. “I’ve never showed it to anybody.” I opened the front cover and at the top of the first page, I read the name of a junior high kid, saw his picture, and below it a description of the boy’s family situation. Underneath that, I read five or six things that Bill had been praying for. I flipped to the next page, saw the name of another kid, another picture, another situation, another list Bill was praying about. Third page, fourth page, fifth page, same thing—eleven pages in all, featuring eleven different junior high boys. “Every morning when I read my Bible,” Bill said, “I look at these kids and pray for each one of them. I usually connect with them during the week to see how it’s going.” Those kids have never recovered from Bill’s influence. Despite some horrendous home situations, Bill helped to raise their sights on what they could become. All the important aspects of planning, programming, teaching, training, and delegating will help the kids in our church, but none of them will ever take the place of people who are willing just to be there for kids. It’s never too late to begin loving the children God has placed in your church.
  • 1 H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1987), 87.

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