Dan Lovaglia, director of leadership development at Awana, says there’s a disconnect between the church’s objectives and our results—particularly in children’s ministries. Across denominations, ministries and churches share many of the same goals for discipling kids—and we experience many of the same problems reaching those goals.
The issue isn’t how we are addressing the individual problems with children’s ministries. Dan says the issue is discipleship.
“The facts and figures surrounding lifelong discipleship do not line up with our expectations of effectiveness,” Dan says, “Especially during the faith-testing ‘twentysomething’ years.”
In his book, Relational Children’s Ministry: Turning Kid-Influencers Into Lifelong Disciple Makers, Dan says churches and ministries often place the blame on one of four major factors:
If a church can’t adapt or overcome cultural shifts, that can make kids feel caught between their church family and “the rest of the world.”
If parents aren’t spiritual leaders to their children, the church bears too much of the burden of raising kids up in Christ.
If kids aren’t being taught why staying involved in the church matters, they can disconnect their relationship with Jesus from the body of Christ.
If leadership lets children’s ministry take the back seat and doesn’t give staff and volunteers the support they need, discipleship won’t happen.
Those are all valid concerns, and they’re problems worth solving, but we can’t just plug a few holes so kids stop falling through the cracks. Each of those areas could represent a discipleship gap in your church.
“The reality of the dropout problem is not about a huge exodus of young people from the Christian faith,” Dan says. “In fact, it is about the various ways young people become disconnected during their spiritual journeys. The conclusion is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.”
In his own journey as a disciple, Dan had leaders who cared about him and modeled the love of Jesus to him every step of the way.
“I can picture the faces of high school and college students, pastors, Sunday school teachers, afterschool care providers, Bible club leaders, athletic coaches, music instructors, discipleship mentors, and more who served as surrogate biological and spiritual family members for me along the way.”
Each of those mentors had a personal relationship with Dan. His problems weren’t waved away with platitudes and prescription passages—he was discipled.
“The people who loved me and surrounded me during those years made a huge difference in my ability and willingness to stick with Jesus through thick and thin,” Dan says. “God placed his disciples in that church community and challenged them to invest in me as a person, not just as another name or number in the database.”
Discipleship requires more than just a good program, quality curriculum, and smiling faces.
“They sang the songs and used the curriculum, but they also made sure I was known. They took my questions seriously. They resisted the temptation to always provide answers, encouraging me to dive into God’s Word myself. They also opened up doors for me to serve, modeling for me the sacrificial nature of Jesus. They reached past the curriculum and the ministry program and spoke directly into my life. Why? Because they saw themselves as lifelong disciple makers.”
The solution to discipleship gaps is for men and women who love Christ to stand in those gaps with kids. If we want kids to own their faith and understand their faith within the context of the church, we need to be there with them, like so many leaders were for Dan—who was a kid from a non-Christian family.
“Their obvious desire was that I would come to own my faith instead of borrowing from other people’s beliefs,” Dan says. “When I was confused or conflicted because of something at church, they made sure to stand by my side in the midst of imperfect programs and people. Timeless spiritual practices and relationships, when coupled with intentional equipping by committed kid-influencers, really can change the trajectory of a child’s life. And this, I believe, is what will lead to fruitful, lifelong discipleship for this and future generations.”
Having meaningful relationships with kids doesn’t guarantee discipleship will happen every time, or that your relationships will always last as long as you desire them to. That’s not the point.
“Ultimately, how our kids turn out is between them and God,” Dan says. “The Holy Spirit will guide them at each turn if they allow him to control their lives. But to simply say, ‘How my children turn out is up to God’ and not give our own careful thought and attention to it is to abandon our God-given responsibility, whether we’re a parent or a ministry worker or a church volunteer.”