Small churches: a mission field?
CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Matthew Morine’s friends in ministry keep…
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — On a recent Sunday morning, projection screens at the Windsong Church of Christ displayed Psalm 127:3: “Children are a heritage from the Lord.”
On stage, the church’s elders surrounded their preacher’s family in prayer.
Minister Chris Kearney’s infant daughter, Miah, looked out at the congregation.
“Holy Father, we thank thee for this day and all of the blessings of life,” elder Mike Marlar prayed. “We pray for the spiritual growth and development of Miah. As she grows, we pray that you will keep her close to thee, that you will give her the presence and control of your Holy Spirit.”
The dedication was reminiscent of the Arkansas church’s greater mission: Growing the church through its youngest members.
The focus on children helped draw Kearney, who has a background in youth ministry, to the church staff in April 2022.
“We know that one of the problems facing the church is young people leaving the church,” Kearney said. “So what was the real selling point for me coming to Windsong is that the No. 1 thing we’re going to be devoted to is family ministry and the children.”
In this congregation where attendance fluctuates between 350 and 400, children represent only about 15 percent of the members — yet the church expansion goals emphasize bolstering the youth and children’s ministry programs.
A $4.5 million expansion plan for the church building includes five new children’s classes and a space for Vacation Bible School presentations. Monthly service projects led by the children’s classes involve the youngest members in their community. A “Faithful Friends” program assigns older members in the congregation a child to pray for and cultivate a relationship with through handwritten notes, holidays and church events.
All of these activities are directed at reversing the growing trend of young adults leaving the church — and answering questions that have pressed Churches of Christ in recent decades.
“How do we raise up children so that they know what we believe and why we believe it?” Kearney asked. “So they’re prepared to engage the world, starting from a young age moving all the way through high school into the college age?
“That’s going to be our focus,” he added. “To try to close that back door that the kids are leaving out of.”
With 73 percent of U.S. parents at least somewhat concerned about their children’s spiritual development as reported by the Barna Group in 2021, many Christians are looking to children’s ministries to properly guide their kids.
Leaders at the Windsong church believe quality biblical curriculum might help.
Starting at 4 years old, students at Windsong are encouraged to read Scripture aloud in class, memorize the Old and New Testament books and read through the Bible using Immerse coursework by 21st Century Christian.
The program is facilitated by more than 75 volunteers who fill the roster to teach children’s classes at Windsong every year. Every class is led by two teachers per semester.
“I think what’s going to help us get younger is when we can look to the mothers and fathers and say, ‘We love your kids, too,’” Kearney said. “‘We want them to stay spiritually strong, so our curriculum is going to be the best Bible curriculum that you’re going to find in the Church of Christ.’”
Jamie Bradshaw, the Windsong children’s program coordinator and a mother of two, said she thinks the program offers students a strong foundation in Scripture.
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“It’s a two-year program,” Bradshaw said. “We group our kids by first and second grade, third and fourth grade and so on. … So if they stay in our program from pre-K to sixth grade, they’ll get the Bible on their level four times.”
Bradshaw administers benchmark exams during two weeks each semester to about 60 children in the Sunday school program, awarding students with stickers when they pass. The exams add a level of accountability for both students and families with young children.
“As they go through semester to semester, there are expectations that the kids are learning certain things, and they’re tested on those things to move on to the next classes,” Kearney said.
Spiritual development is not the only concern.
Among practicing Christian parents, 86 percent are at least somewhat concerned about whether or not their children will remain an adherent of their faith in the future, Barna reported. Yet 90 percent of parents of 5- to 14-year-olds think children’s ministry makes a long-term difference in their children’s lives.
Leaders at Windsong hope that through prioritizing the ministries with children, young families and adults will be drawn to church.
“It’s not just us working with the kids, but we’re bringing in the families as well,” Kearney said.
“We read in the Bible that the church is the pillar in support of truth, so we have to equip our families in an ever-changing world.”
As numbers in Churches of Christ decline nationally from younger generations leaving the faith and older generations dying, Kearney doesn’t think the solution is for church leaders to change their messaging, but rather their approach.
“I don’t think the right response is, ‘Hey, let’s change our doctrine, and let’s change what we believe and what the Bible says,’” Kearney said. “No, let’s stay where we are. But let’s change the way we think about evangelism by changing the way we teach our children.
“We read in the Bible that the church is the pillar in support of truth,” he added, referencing 1 Timothy 3:15. “So we have to equip our families in an ever-changing world.”
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