When I was growing up, the kids pretty much tagged along. The adults did what the adults wanted to do and the kids just tagged along. I don’t remember my parents asking me, “Where would you like to go for supper?” except for special occasions like a birthday. Families were oriented around the parents and the kids came along.

Not so much, anymore. Anymore, families are oriented around the kids. The kids are much more at the center of families. Evenings are dominated by soccer schedules and kids’ stuff. Parents cart the kids around like taxi drivers to do what the kids want to do. The parents’ needs, wishes and desires tend to take a back seat.

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the relative merits of this approach, or to explore why this trend came to be. I just want to point out it creates an opportunity that many churches are taking advantage of for the cause of Christ.

Do not prevent them

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them;” Matthew 19:14 [NAB] It is easy enough to brush this off. No one actually prevents children from coming to Christ, do they? Actually, churches do it all the time. The main way we prevent them is by making church boring to kids. We frustrate them if we do not teach to their level–asking questions that are too difficult, or too easy. We sometimes do not give them the dignity of being treated like a real human being and including them in what is happening. But the main thing is, in many churches, church is boring for kids.

There are three levels for kids:

  • Kids don’t want to go. At the lowest level, kids don’t want to go to church. They actually resist it. They complain about going. They ask to sleep in. They ask if they can do something else. They complain about being sick when they are not sick. They smile and put on a happy face when they get there. They look pretty all dressed up in their Sunday-best. But, don’t let the smiles fool you. Make no mistake-they do not want to be there. This is more common than you know.
  • Kids don’t care whether they go. At this level, kids don’t resist going, but if you ever gave them a choice, they would certainly take a cut. They are not opposed to going, but they don’t particularly want to go, either. They are neutral, apathetic, bored.
  • Kids want to go to church, look forward to going to church, and, if necessary drag parents along. There is a movement among churches to get into this top level. It is not that hard to get there, and it pays big dividends.

Bill Hybels is fond of saying, “Even unchurched, irreligious parents will take their kids where the kids want to go.” They take them to Chuck E Cheese and McDonalds and Disneyland, not because they want to go, but because the kids want to go. If the kids want to go to McDonalds, the parents take them. If the kids want to go to Chuck E Cheese, the parents take them. If the kids want to go to church, the parents will take them. Not necessarily because the parents have a Christian conviction about taking their kids to church, but because the kids want to go. This approach is the theme of the book, Making Sunday the Best Day. .

The #1 trend I am seeing

People often ask me, “What are you seeing out there? What is new? What are cutting-edge churches doing to reach people for Christ?” Clearly, this is the cutting-edge trend I am seeing today:

Churches are building Northpoint-inspired, Nickelodian-style, Disney-class space for their kids.

Churches are building spaces for kids that make them say, “WOW!” They are building big, attractive stages with lots of bells and whistles and colors and flags and characters and Plasma TVs. We have seen all kinds of themed spaces for kids:

  • Space that looks like caves and is complimented with a rock-climbing wall

  • Space that looks like a jungle

  • Noah’s ark / water/ ocean theme

  • Kid Bible stories illustrated

  • Space space–looks like rocket ships and has stars and galaxies and planets

  • One church had a huge slide that went from the second (or was it third?) story down to the ground floor. It was big. And the kids thought it was really cool. The kids wanted to come to church and they drug their parents with them.

Can’t picture it? See this web page http://www.gccwired.com/listTemplate.asp?pageid=24

The vast majority of people who will ever come to faith in Christ will do so before they leave their teenage years. Many of them will come to faith in Christ before they reach their teenagers years, or not at all. It just makes sense to go after the most reachable segment of society: kids. And today, if you reach the kids, the kids will drag their parents along with them.

Of course, it is not just space. Calling a first rate Children’s Minister is huge. Training is huge. Everything matters. Even space.

Let me close this brief article with a statement of the obvious. Ultimately, it is not about theme, the decorations, the slides, or the plasma TV. Ultimately, it is about Jesus and teaching kids about our Lord. The slides and stuff are just a hook to get them in the door and listening long enough to hear about Jesus. It is one way we can make the gospel attractive (Titus 2.10).

Note: I received this thoughtful response to this article:

I love to see Christian Educators and Sunday School Teachers create a learning environment that “hooks learners attention”. I think the learning environment or the teaching room is the “silent teacher”; sometimes it says, “I’m ready to teach my learners the Bible!” but all too often it says, “I don’t care about my learners or God’s word enough to prepare my teaching room.” It may also be saying, “I just don’t know how to prepare a learning environment.” We need to help them at this point.

The examples you shared as the #1 trend tend to be the mega-churches’ answer to the huge numbers of kids they have coming. They deal with these numbers often by sitting the children down and “puttin’ on the ritz” or a big show. This entertains the kids, but the results of this may be that the children are becoming frenetically excited about someone they do not know. These churches are often simply doing what they can with their mega-situation, and that is not always the model to go by, nor do they mean for it to be.

Anybody that knows anything about how children, youth, or adults for that matter learn knows that only a few learn best by sitting and being verbally entertained. I’m all for making learning fun; it should be, but learning must be more than a big show. When we set up these “show” models as the example toward which we should all grow, I think we’re doing a disservice to excellent Christian Education. When a child or a learner enters the teaching room, he should visually know what he is going to be learning about. The visuals and focal wall should immediately be pointing their minds to the lesson to be taught. Do we want that to be the “Central Biblical Truth of the Session” or do we want it to be “all about caves, jungles, oceans, rock climbing walls, or for that matter Noah’s Ark every single Sunday”?

I’ve had the opportunity to visit several of these “show” models, and I’m convinced that many are doing some good things. But to honest, if a leader in a smaller or medium membership church develops a modest learning environment that focuses the room on the biblical truth of the session and then keeps his/her learners actively involved throughout the session in “discovering for themselves biblical truths that are life-changing” by using a variety of teaching methods, then this more humble model will beat-out the “show” model every time when it comes to real learning and transformational teaching.

Thanks for sharing the importance of creating a good learning environment for Sunday School. It is extremely important. However, I propose that we help the average Sunday School leader with some practical steps to create a learning environment that supports the biblical truth. Then the teaching room will become the “silent teacher” that says, “My leader is ready to teach me, and I can begin learning as soon as I walk into the room simply by looking around.”

Thanks for letting me share my views.

Phil Stone

State Sunday School Director