The Lord doesn’t play favorites, but it might appear that way given how Jesus spoke about children. He gave them front row seats, called them the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, warned sternly against leading them astray, told adults to be more like them, defended them against injustice, and associated them with Himself. Scripture also repeatedly takes up the cause of the fatherless, which could be interpreted to include not only orphans (no parents), but foster children (unfit parents) and mistreated/neglected kids (abusive parents).
Nearly every church in America places a heavy emphasis on ministries for preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, and college-aged youth. Is that evidence that churches care as much as Jesus does about children? Jesus’ love and motives are entirely pure, with the same concern for children inside and outside the family of believers. However, His Church ostensibly has far more interest in children inside than outside the body (of Christ). If children’s ministries truly reflect a heart for ministry to children, and not a growth strategy to attract parents, then wouldn’t those churches be active in serving troubled youth in the community and intensely discipling their members’ kids?
- Taylor had endured a lifetime of trauma by the age of 13. As a child of an alcoholic mom, she lived in constant fear, never knowing which version of her mother she’d arrive home to after school each day – tipsy and angry, drunk and huggy, or sober and nosy. Taylor was abused long ago by one of mom’s boyfriends and is questioning her sexuality. After repeated incidents of Taylor’s mom driving with her in the car while intoxicated, neighbors intervened and contacted Child Protective Services. An investigation resulted in Taylor being removed from her home and, with no other family to place her with, she entered the foster care system.
- Aaron never really knew his dad. His mom loves him but works two jobs to make ends meet. Without much guidance or support at home, Aaron runs with the wrong crowd and sees little hope for his future. He can’t read at grade level and has fallen behind in school. There’s a high likelihood Aaron will slip through the cracks and suffer the fate of many other young men from his neighborhood – not finishing high school and in trouble with the law. His mother needs help and prays for her son, but no one has offered to tutor or mentor him.
- Jason’s mom and dad are happily married, attentive parents, and church members. He grew up in the church’s children’s ministry but attends a public school that teaches evolutionism as irrefutable fact and blames Christians for America’s history of slavery. Jason’s parents relied on the church to disciple their son. They didn’t worry when youth group became more social than spiritual, content to know he was hanging around “good” kids. They were more interested in him becoming a doctor or lawyer, not a pastor or missionary. Lacking discipleship at church and home, Jason’s fragile faith is crumbling under the weight of the anti-Christian onslaught at school and on social media.
Taylor, Aaron, and Jason desperately need a ministry to children, not a children’s ministry.
What Churches and Christians Do Today
Research shows fatherlessness results in higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, physical and mental illness, behavioral issues, dropouts, crime, prison, and teen pregnancies. Knowing those facts, how can churches claim to care about (all) children when most invest so disproportionately in the happiness of their young attenders while largely ignoring “lost” youth down the street or across town?
- Single parent households (through death, divorce, or desertion) and addiction (primarily to drugs and alcohol) are on the rise in America. Taylor and other children in broken homes are the young, innocent victims Jesus so deeply loves. Yet few churches have ministries dedicated to helping families avoid child removals or assisting foster parents. What’s particularly concerning is the inconsistency of staunch Pro-Life advocacy without a demonstrated willingness to step up to help women who carry their babies to term. With 391,000 kids in foster care and 380,000 churches in America there wouldn’t be a shortage of foster homes if one family from every church served as foster parents. Countless ministries work with churches to recruit and retain foster parents, yet annual turnover remains 50% primarily due to inadequate volunteer, financial, and moral support from churches and agencies.
- Schools, charities, and government programs can’t fill the fatherhood gap that fatherless children like Aaron experience. Only churches and Christian ministries can point Aaron to a dependable and loving Father who will never let him down. Our heavenly Father also provides the guardrails and discipline to keep troubled youth on the right track. So why do churches rarely intervene with programs and services for at-risk children in their city? If fatherhood is so important, how many pastors are reaching out to men in their community to teach the value of caring for their children? Churches not located in lower income areas tout diversity when it’s culturally expedient, but how often does that entail serving and inviting the socioeconomically and paternally disadvantaged to join their congregations (instead serving them occasionally at arm’s length)?
- Conventional church growth models point to children’s ministries as the key to luring parents. Smaller churches simply could not “compete” with the number of kids, programs, facilities, and ministry options available at Jason’s church. However, what attracted Jason and his parents to that church eventually hastened his departure from the faith. Building youth ministries around 1-on-1 discipleship may have been less interesting in the near term but would have strengthened Jason’s resolve over the long haul. The role of parents is also critical but few churches disciple parents to make disciples of their children. When children stumble (as they often do today), advice should come from a mature Christ-follower (a parent or church leader) who has navigated those ups and downs, not a young believer who hasn’t yet endured those tests.
The only hope for Taylor, Aaron, and Jason is Jesus. However, churches aren’t reaching or teaching that message diligently enough to combat the worldly influences pulling them so hard in the opposite direction.
What Should Churches Be Doing?
A church can show it loves every child of God and isn’t leveraging children’s ministries as a marketing ploy by following the Bible’s commands to care for foster kids, orphans, and the fatherless – and its instructions for how to lead disillusioned youth back toward the Lord.
- One out of every 1,000 U.S. households will be a foster home, while 7 of every 1,000 children will at some point enter the system. Despite nearly $11 billion in government spending annually on foster care, this crisis persists due to a high acquisition cost (of a new foster family) combined with their rapid turnover (for lack of support). Anything other than a Christian foster family will push a child like Taylor away from Jesus, not toward Him. Love must overcome our fears of bringing traumatized children into our homes. Engagement in fostering and adoption is a non-negotiable for any church that claims to care about children – the only question is how:
- Partner with a local or national foster care ministry to recruit foster families
- Increase retention by helping foster parents within or outside the congregation
- Before child removals, work in prevention with parents to keep families intact
- Assist toward reunification by offering Christian counseling to moms and dads
- Teach parents and children going through hard times about the Father’s love
- Aaron never entered the foster care system. He’s blessed with a loving mother but doesn’t know his dad or his Father. He’s a spiritual orphan, just like anyone else who lives absent a relationship with Jesus. Only churches can address both fatherhood issues (no dad or Father) by demonstrating God’s love, helping men become responsible dads, and stepping in when parents will not (or cannot) step up:
- Support single moms with free childcare, job readiness, and parenting classes
- Launch community programs and activities leveraging underutilized facilities
- Conduct personalized mentoring, discipleship, and tutoring for boys and girls
- Adopt schools, serving teachers and students through prayer, care and share
- Welcome parents and children from different walks of life into the family
- Nearly all youth whose faith survives social media, high school, and college point back to a parent or church leader who discipled them. Jason’s deconstruction (despite spending most of his childhood in the church) was a sad but predictable consequence of replacing personal discipleship with group fellowship. Social activities kept Jason around churchgoing kids but he never had intentional relationships with committed Christ-followers. Parents or parental role models engaging in the life of a child lays a firmer foundation than friends whose faith may lack an adult’s stability. Therefore:
- Stop competing and prove you truly care as much as Jesus about all children
- Disciple children intensively, even if that drives away lukewarm parents
- Gear activities toward life change (not fun) and external focus (not Selfism)
- Counterbalance rather than conform to culture to stand out from the crowd
- Prepare youth for the challenges they face today and will confront in college
Imagine the difference Jesus, through His Church, could make in the lives and futures of Taylor, Aaron, and Jason. However, until churches view members as Kingdom employees (to equip and deploy) and not customers (to attract and retain), those three precious children will likely never receive the help and hope found only in our Lord and Savior.
It’s Your Turn…
Is your church fully engaged in children’s ministry or ministry to children?