If you have a passion for youth or children’s ministry you have no doubt heard the call to return to the early church’s model of “family ministry.” Keep families together! Equip parents to disciple their children! However, the family ministry conversation does not go very far before the big problem is raised. It goes something like this, “The family discipleship model is great for Christian kids with Christian parents, but what about all the unsaved kids who don’t have Christian parents to disciple them?” This question is of the utmost urgency and importance.
A Dangerous Assumption
First, we need to address the assumption in the question. The assumption is that our modern age-segregated, church-building based model is radically effective in reaching unsaved children from unsaved homes. Is this really true? Has this been your experience? How many twenty-five year olds do you have in your church who came to Christ 15 years ago through your children’s ministry? The truth is that our modern programming is generally ineffective at reaching unsaved children. But because we grew up with this model, and were trained with this model, we can’t imagine anything else.
I once gathered together my team of ten paid youth ministry staff and asked them a question, “Can you give me the names of students who have come to Christ in this last year?” I didn’t want names of students who checked a box on a card. I didn’t want names of students who were “on fire for Christ” for a month and disappeared. I wanted the names of students who were lost, in families that were lost, and who were now converted, walking with Christ, and meaningfully connected with the church.
The response? At first, silence. Everyone was racking their brain trying to think of a student who was a new believer. This was in the context of five hundred active students from 7th-12th grade. This was in the context of a ministry dedicated to outreach and evangelism. We were blowing the doors off! Many events were standing room only. Yet, we were struggling to come up with specific students who we knew had been converted. After more thought, we identified five students who we believed were new converts. Five out of five hundred.
While God uses fallen people and flawed methods (thank you Lord) to advance His Kingdom, we should not be at all satisfied with the evangelistic effectiveness of our current ministry model.
I set out to interview these five new believers. What happened to them? What was their story? How did God take them from darkness to light? Many of their answers would not surprise you. God brought them a Christian friend. They attended a couple church events. They heard some portions of Scripture. But there was a common thread. Each of these five (and I realize this was not a Barna study) not only had a Christian friend, but they were meaningfully involved in their Christian friend’s family life. They went on trips with them. They frequently were over for meals. They could walk in the front door without knocking, because they were so welcome in that home. They saw love, forgiveness, grace, joy, and the gospel in action.
They told me, from their perspective, what had the greatest impact on their journey toward Christ. “It was being a part of that family!” The dots began to connect for me. Not only was family discipleship the essential biblical practice for making disciples of the church kids, but for reaching the lost as well!
The responsibility for child and youth evangelism is an “all-hands-on-deck” mission for every family in the local church – not just the job of the children’s ministry. As a father, it is not my job to simply say to my children, “You need to be sharing Christ with your friends.” Instead, God calls us to minister together as a family by opening our home to children in the neighborhood. Our family is a powerful evangelism and outreach center. This is not because we are super-spiritual, but simply because we are Christians.
How many unsaved children are in your community? What percentage of those unsaved young people are currently attending an outreach program in a local church? My guess is that the percentage is very low. If we are going to get serious about reaching children who don’t have Christian parents, we need to unleash every single one of the local church’s “satellite ministry centers.” But Rob, we don’t have any satellite ministry centers. Yes you do! They are called homes.
So not only have we overestimated the evangelistic effectiveness of our age-segregated church programming, we have dramatically under-estimated the evangelistic power of the Christian family.
Imagine if the parents and grandparents in your church stopped looking to the children’s ministry to reach the unsaved kids in the community, but took the responsibility to intentionally welcome their children’s friends into their homes with the goal of reaching not only them, but their entire family, for Christ!
Shifting Our Focus
Finally, one of the reasons we do not see many unsaved students coming to Christ is because the majority of our focus in Sunday school and youth group is on Christian students. In most churches, the majority of children in Sunday school are from church families. The leadership of the church, along with the parents, are expecting children’s leaders to disciple the church kids. As a result, most next-gen ministry leaders are overwhelmed with all of their relationships and discipleship with children who come from Christian homes. This leaves precious little time for serious outreach to the unsaved.
It seems counter intuitive, but the essential key for accelerating child evangelism is to embrace the biblical model of family discipleship. When this happens, the children’s ministry team is no longer expected to primarily disciple the Christian children from the Christian homes. Instead, in accordance with God’s Word, parents are trained and equipped to disciple their own children (Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, Ephesians 6).
Imagine every Christian home growing in its mission of becoming a discipleship and evangelism center. Imagine your children’s ministry staff at church freed up to get out of the church building and, in partnership with Christian families, to launch evangelistic initiatives out in the community.
We cannot wait any longer to embrace the biblical model of family discipleship, for the sake of our own children, and for the sake of the lost.
Dr. Rob Rienow
Founder, Visionary Family Ministries
– Shared in K Magazine Mar/Apr 2013
For a systematic plan to accelerate the gospel through the families in your church read, “Limited Church: Unlimited Kingdom – Uniting Church and Family in the Great Commission.”