By Mathew Gilbert
When people talk about kids ministries what often gets brought up is the kind of environment that leaders create for the kids being ministered to. The prevailing wisdom is that a kids ministry can only be effective if there is a vibrant, exciting, enthusiastic, loud, and fun environment led by a charismatic and energetic leader. The environment must include loud, fast-paced music with fun games and food. While there is nothing wrong with cultivating an environment like that, and while it can and often does enhance kids ministry, if this is the only (or even the primary) kind of environment that is created, then leaders who work in children’s ministry have failed the kids that we all love so much. Creating clever themes for the classrooms has little effect for the kingdom if the message of the kingdom is absent from the room.
An engaging and fun environment is helpful, but it can only serve a valuable purpose if another kind of environment is in place. From the moment the kids arrive to the moment they leave, the most important kind of environment that leaders can create is a gospel-centered and gospel-saturated environment. Do we want the kids to have fun? Yes. Do we want them to be energetic and scream, laugh, dance, and sing? Absolutely. But more than anything else, we should desire to point them to Jesus. Our goal as kids’ ministry leaders must be to take the boys and girls we lead by the hand and show them the Christ who lived, died, and rose for them. Now, I am not talking about just sharing the gospel message when we teach, though that must be present. I am referring to creating a whole environment that oozes gospel from every throughout the entire space and program. The question then becomes, “How can we create a gospel-centered environment?”
I believe there are at least three keys:
1. A Gospel-Centered Environment Takes Sin Seriously
Most adults in the church speed out of the sanctuary like the road runner from Looney Tunes when churches ask for volunteers to serve in the children’s ministry. This is mostly due, I think, to the fact that kids ministry programs often have little to no disciplinary structure. And any adult who has been around kids knows that kids + no structure = World War 3! In structuring and planning and promoting kids ministries, the inherent sin of the children (and their leaders!) has to be taken into account. The gospel cannot be seen if sin is passed, ignored, or treated lightly. Only when we related to children as fellow sinners can we meaningfully call kids to repentance and faith in the Christ who bore their sin.
We are off-base if we create an environment that either passes over sin or makes kids feel like church is a place where they cannot sin. A gospel-centered environment addresses sin. If we pressure kids to strive for perfection, we point them away from Christ and toward self-righteousness. If we overlook sin, we point kids away from Christ and toward antinomianism (obedience to God is unimportant). A gospel-centered environment takes sin seriously while avoiding both legalism and cheap grace.
2. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Grace in All Things
The gospel of God is all of grace. When we make kids feel like they must look or act a certain way in small groups or Sunday School, we are not filling the room with grace, but with works. While calling Christian kids to further holiness is admirable, it must be done with grace-empowered works. We should strive to create an environment that gives glory to God for all good gifts in the kids’ lives. We must be aware of evidence of grace in the lives of the kids and our own as well. At times it is good to shower kids who have sinned in class with grace by giving them gifts they do not deserve.
Filling kids ministries with grace will point them to Jesus. When kids memorize Bible verses or catechism questions, it is important that the leader praise God for the grace of imparting this knowledge so that spiritual growth is seen as being granted by God. This eliminates the threat of elitism when memorization of truths are tallied. Instead of encouraging kids to brag on themselves when they grow spiritually, a gospel-centered environment causes kids to brag on God as the one who distributes grace.
3. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Unbridled Passion for Jesus
No matter what is being taught and no matter what activities are being performed, leaders in kids ministry must demonstrate their unbridled passion for Jesus. When kids leave a ministry event, they must be blown away with how much the leaders love someone named Jesus. All leaders leave impressions on kids either for good or bad. And kids associate one or two particular things with every leader. How awesome would it be for both consistently attending kids and visiting kids alike to be amazed at how passionate their “church teachers” are about Jesus. What happens when we do this is we show the gospel to be a means to an end. That end is the enjoyment of God in Jesus.
Should we be energetic during games? Sure. Should we dance and sing with the kids when the music is blasting? No doubt. But when we are raising the roof during games and activities, yet reserved when we talk about Jesus or anything about God, we send a clear message: Jesus may be important, but he is not as enjoyable as the games and activities. A gospel-centered environment points kids to a Christ who is not only the Savior of sinners, but also the Fountain that is overflowing with joy and satisfaction that surpasses all other joys. Kids ministry leaders, do not be more excited about games than you are about God.
The week in and week out work of kids ministry is all about their environment. Create an environment that is as fun as it can be. Create an environment that is completely engaging and entertaining. Oh, but in the process do not miss the gospel! Create a gospel-centered environment by taking sin seriously, showing grace in all things, and showing unbridled passion for Jesus.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt, Kentucky. He is a student at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter at @Mat_Gilbert.