I remember going to a Children’s Pastors Conference years ago, and there were a couple of people there who I thought were strange. They were using the words “disciple” and “discipleship” when talking about teaching children. When I heard or saw that, it was as if a red flag went up concerning the person or group. You see, I have three seminary degrees. What does that mean? Nothing. I am very grateful for my training, but I don’t consider myself an expert in childhood education or in theology. What I do remember throughout my education was that I rarely heard the words “discipleship” or “making disciples” when referring to children. I would say that I never heard it at all in seminary. So, it was normal for me to have a red flag when someone used those words. The problem is not with the word “discipleship,” though. The problem is that in many Christian schools and seminaries, we have replaced it with the words “Christian education.” Somewhere in the grand history of the Christian church, we have gotten off track. We have jumped ship. I believe that education is very important for every child to be successful in life. However, there is a difference between education and discipleship.
This question may challenge you, but the research shows this to be true. According to Nelson, the moral foundation of a child typically peaks between 10 and 13 years of age, which he calls the 10/13 window. Barna says, “By age 13, your spiritual identity is largely set in place.” When I first saw these stats, it was concerning to me. But as I began to think about it more, the reality of preteen ministry and its importance hit home. So, we have to take preteen ministry seriously! What’s exciting about preteen ministry is their heart for the Lord, and if you have ever worked with them, you have seen that. Preteens have an openness and a hunger to know the things of God. They desire to serve and are willing to do so. They are willing to take risks for the Gospel. They are also still very trusting of adults and our influence on their lives.
When you purchase resources for children in your church, I would say that the majority of them are written on the basis of the developmental learning styles of children. They move from concrete to abstract thinking as they grow older and older. Every ministry leader desires for kids to come to know the Lord and to see them grow in their faith in Christ. Could it be, however, that we may be doing it all wrong? Are we educating children, or we discipling them? If we are not careful, we may be educating children about the Christian faith but never discipling children to have a life-sustaining personal relationship with Christ. Our calling is not to impart wisdom but to make disciples. It is great to have a knowledge of Scripture, but knowledge without action is nothing. Just like James said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 1:21). You see, the faith of children is caught not taught. If you want to disciple a child, move them from being listeners to doers. For a season in your class, you model for them the Christian faith. After you get to know where they are spiritually, you move them into action. The next step is to put them to work in your class. Here is how you do this: First, you walk them through a spiritual gift test. Second, you identify the highest score for each child. Third, you involve them in your class according to their gifts. If I have a child that has a high score of administration, I have them take records each week and organize the classroom. If I have a child with a high score for the gift of teaching, I have them help me teach the lesson. It is easy to make a copy of what you want them to teach and give them clear direction on what you need them to do. Kids with the gift of helps can help set up the class and reset it when you are done. See what I mean?
The problem with most of our kids in church today is that they will sit from early childhood to 18 years of age and listen to someone teach them. The two results you will get from this teaching style are as follows:
This is a common question asked of me by many leaders as they begin a path toward discipling children in their churches. They are very concerned that certain kids in their groups are just not where everyone else is. The main temptation here is to target or focus on those who are behind or not ready. In other situations, we might focus on getting kids saved as our top priority. Which is best? I admit I have struggled with the same questions. Several years ago, I came to peace with the idea that I am called to make disciples, not converts only. Let me explain. If I focus all my attention on reaching lost children in my church, when will I have time to disciple those who know Christ? Getting a child to accept Christ is one the greatest joys of my life. For years I would lead them to Christ and I would go after the next kids who did not know the Lord. The problem was that I was sending preteens into the student ministry who were still “baby” Christians. They prayed the prayer, but that was it. As we look at Scripture, we have a mandate to make disciples (Matt. 28:190-20). So, the church is a place where we make it our top priority to disciple children. Lost children will continue to be saved, but the children in our ministries will grow in their faith and have a solid foundation in their lives before they hit the student ministry.
So here is how we turned the corner: