I recently read a book entitled Gospel Centered Kids Ministry. From the very beginning, the author makes an assertion that can be a little striking. He asserts that one of the main reasons millennials and young adults are leaving the church is not necessarily because the church is failing them, but rather, the church is failing children. According to him, the main way we do this is by teaching lessons to kids that focus more on behavior than they do the gospel. This is what the author, Brian Dembowczyk, writes:
“…is it the college and young adult ministry’s fault? The dropout is occurring ‘on its watch,’ right? Is this ministry simply failing in its role to pick up the baton from student ministry?…While each of these [parents, youth, young adult pastors] may play a role in the dropout rate, there’s one other ministry we have to put under the microscope, a ministry which may be key in reversing the trend of young adults leaving the church – kids ministry.”1
The book suggests that a lack of gospel centered lessons and ministry has left children with empty and dry hearts and contributes to the dropout rate of young adults after they graduate high school. It makes sense if you think about it – if kids receive nothing but moral behavior messages from the time they enter the kids ministry until the time they reach youth and graduate, once they step out into the world, the wonder of worldly things is going to overtake whatever wonder, if any, they had of the gospel. Reggie Joiner states that,
“It is important for leaders to recognize what is at stake if our children and teenagers walk away from our churches without a concept of God that captures their imaginations. We need to show them the wonder, mystery, and power of a God who is too big for them to define, yet who has proven through time and space that He loves them intimately.”2
We need to show them the wonder, mystery, and power of a God who is too big for them to define, yet who has proven through time and space that He loves them intimately.”3
As a children’s pastor, it is easy to not think about the impact my lessons and ministry efforts can have on kids when they become young adults, and it is hard to think that I might be guilty of contributing to a young adult dropping out of church because all he or she heard their whole time in the church was that God wants them to be good. George Barna states that,
“Nine out of 10 young people (93 percent) consider themselves to be Christian by age 13. For a large portion of those kids, however, being Christian does not correspond to having a grace-based personal relationship with Jesus Christ…If born-again Christians are described as those who say they have made an important personal commitment to Jesus Christ and who believe they will have eternal life solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior, then we estimate that 34 percent of children are born again by age 13.”4
That information should really awaken us to the importance of reaching kids with the message of the gospel while they’re young. It’s a dangerous thing if a young adult who has grown up in the church sums up what they know about the Bible by saying, “God wants me to be good,” or “it’s a book that tells us how to be good so God will be happy.” If that is how they sum up what they have learned from being in church, then it is safe to say that the children’s ministry has not served them well. Starting when they’re young, parents, churches, and leaders in kids ministry should strive to make sure kids understand the Bible as a book that ultimately leads to Jesus. They need to know, in a way that they can understand, that God’s ultimate plan is to bring unity to things in heaven and on earth and to bring it all under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). The way He did this and is continuing to do it was by creating a new, redeemed humanity out Jews and Gentiles, which is the church (Ephesians 2:14-16). If kids trust in Jesus, they are a part of the church and stand justified before God because of what Jesus has done; not only that, but they also will have a part to play in the work God is doing to bring everything under the lordship of His Son. That sounds a lot more exciting than simply trying to be good to make God happy.
It’s a dangerous thing if a young adult who has grown up in the church sums up what they know about the Bible by saying, ‘God wants me to be good’…”
God is calling us into His work. We need to help children understand the message of the gospel and that living for Jesus has a lot more at stake than simply being good. Children are just as much a part of the body of Christ as youth and adults and we need to draw them into that body by showing them they have a part to play. Helping them understand the complete story of the Bible can help them choose the path that leads to life instead of death. Jesus said that the road that leads to life is narrow and few find it, but the way that leads to destruction is wide and many find it (Matthew 7:12-14). Are gospel-centered kids lessons the answer to keep young adults from walking away from their faith? No; there are numerous reasons that play into that decision. However, helping kids understand that the story of the Bible is more than having good morals is a good place to start.
Have you ever read Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken? It is a beautiful poem about a person struggling to make a choice between two different paths. In the end, he chooses the path less traveled and finds that it was the better and best path. Read the poem below and imagine the person in the poem being a young adult who has grown up in church and been through kids ministry all the way through youth ministry, and is now about to make a choice for his or her life, whether or not he or she will stay faithful to Jesus or travel the way of the world. If you’re a parent or worker in kids ministry, let’s strive to help kids choose the straight and narrow path, the path less traveled, which starts with the Gospel.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
1. Brian Dembowczyk, Gospel Centered Kids Ministry: How the Gospel will Transform Your Kids, Your Church, Your Community, and the World (Nashville: Lifeway, 2017), 15.
2. Reggie Joiner, Think Orange: Imagine the Impact when Church and Family Collide (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 39.
4. George Barna, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 33.