Children’s Ministry in Three Dimensions
“Children’s ministry in the 21st century should be in three dimensions. To have any of those dimensions missing is to seriously jeopardise the impact of church ministry to this rising generation.”
Reverend Dr Mark Griffiths, from St Padarn’s Institute, the training arm of the Church in Wales, explains these three dimensions – family, church and child evangelism.
The First Dimension – Bah’ith בַּיִת
Phil Cliff concluded his PhD on the Sunday School movement with the words, “Sunday School teachers cannot do for parents what they must do for themselves. The classroom is no substitute for the family.”
It’s a popular view and of course is very much in keeping with the family-centric emphasis of the Bible, particularly as laid down for us in the Pentateuch. But his statement does need further analysis, and a closer inspection reveals that there are actually two Hebrew words that are translated as family in the Old Testament.
The first word translated family is the word bah’ith (בַּיִת). Bah’ith communicates the concept of what we would now call the immediate family – parents and children together under one roof. We encounter this word in the instructions for the Passover meal (Exodus 12:21-28). On the very first Passover, a lamb was sacrificed and the blood of that lamb placed on the doorpost of individual homes. Inside those homes, the lamb was then made into a family meal that the Hebrew family celebrated gathered together around the table. This first Passover was the night of liberation, the night of freedom, and God instructed them to continue to celebrate this meal every year to remember what God had done. It’s instituted to remind the Hebrews (in the context of Bah’ith) that they don’t serve a passive God, but an active God. The God who does things.
So every year for over 3,000 years, Jews have sat down together and celebrated Passover. It is a liturgical ceremony because at the appointed time during the meal the youngest child asks, “what makes this night special?” Thus, allowing the father to make his liturgical response by explaining the story of the Passover and of the Exodus. Emphasising that they serve an active God, but not just a God who does things, but a God who is doing things, a God endowed with potentiality – God was active in the past, is active now and will be active in the future.
The earlier followers of Jesus would continue this practice, but the stories would have been added to. Not only would the account of the Passover and Exodus be recounted, but now also the Son of God, Jesus who became flesh, who walked on water, fed thousands, healed the sick, raised the dead, was crucified, and resurrected. The bah’ith context remains the same, the principle of the communication of an active God remains the same, but the stories change.
Today across the planet followers of Jesus gather in the context of bah’ith and exchange stories – stories of the Passover and Exodus, stories of Incarnation and Resurrection, but new stories too, the God who heals today, empowers his church today, and does miracles today.
The Second Dimension – Mish-paw-khaw מִשְׁפָּחָה
However, bah’ith is not the word most commonly translated family in the Old Testament, that honour goes to the word mish-paw-khaw’ (מִשְׁפָּחָה). This word carries within it the sense of clan or community, it is in effect a bond of kinship uniting people to a common cause. Deuteronomy 6:5-7 and Deuteronomy 11:18-19, when instructions are given for the passing on of the belief system from one generation to the next, are written in the context of mish-paw-khaw’.
That which constitutes a family in the Old Testament is the bond of kinship that unites its members, mish-paw-khaw’ includes all those to whom that kinship extends. So when a Hebrew boy reached the age of marriage he would travel to the home of his wife to be and propose (weddings were usually arranged by the parents, so his proposal was a sure thing!) Once she had formally accepted and hung the lit lantern in her window to indicate that she was now engaged, the young Hebrew man would return to the family home and begin construction of a new set of rooms added onto the family home, or a new house next to the family home. When the home was completed then, the bride would move to her new home (via a week of celebrations). Other sons within the same house would be doing a similar thing and in turn the son’s sons would follow the pattern. Over time what started out as a family, would become an extended family, a further extended family and eventually would become a whole tribe (Hebrew archaeology supports this, view with archaeological digs revealing a central older residence and newer residences emanating out from there). The word used to describe this group of people that could number thousands was mish-paw-khaw’. And every member of this mish-paw-khaw recognised their responsibility to communicate the faith of the mish-paw-khaw to the children of that mish-paw-khaw. Over time particular teachers were appointed to train the children, but the emphasis on the whole community having input into the child’s life was never lost.
This pattern was continued by the early followers of Jesus. When they gathered in Solomon’s Colonnade (Acts 5:12) as this new Jesus community, there would have been children present and all the members of this new Jesus community recognised their responsibility to communicate the Jesus story into the lives of the children of this newly formed mish-paw-khaw‘.
And of course, while the bah’ith looks like our modern families, mish-paw-khaw’ looks like church. A gathering of people united together with a common cause. And in the same way that all the members of the original mish-paw-khaw’ recognised their responsibility to communicate the faith to the new generation, so should the members of our congregations. But it is slightly more subtle than that. The Jewish understanding is that the whole community DO communicate. Whether they choose to or not. Not just the children’s team! ALL THE MEMBERS COMMUNICATE. Our attitudes, our passions, our commitments, the way we worship, the way we respond to others, all communicate to the children of mish-paw-khaw’.
Everyone in mish-paw-khaw’ communicate to the children of mish-paw-khaw’ not just the children’s team. So that cantankerous man who sits in the front row who is constantly complaining that we don’t sing enough hymns communicates his frustration into the lives of the boys and girls of that mish-paw-khaw’. At the same time that newly married couple who know that they maybe should be putting in more overtime at work because they could do with the extra money, but instead choose to miss out on extra income for the sake of the worship practice, when they stand in front of the church on Sunday morning, they communicate their love and sacrifice into the boys and girls of the mish-paw-khaw’. None of them are in the children’s teams or in the youth teams, but that doesn’t matter – everyone who is part of mish-paw-khaw’ communicates to the boys and girls of that mish-paw-khaw‘.
To belong to mish-paw-khaw’ is a privilege, but it is a privilege that comes with responsibility.
The Third Dimension – Child Evangelism
So we have two primary areas for the communication of faith, the immediate family and the faith community and both are to impart spiritual knowledge and transmit living faith.
And that works. With varying degrees of success, it travels through most of history. In Jesus’ time, this was the pattern being outworked. The early Christians simply adopted the pattern. It’s a powerful system instituted by God to help us keep God at the centre of our lives and enable us to communicate Him to the next generation. It is certainly very powerful, but it is also very fragile. If one generation miss it, the next is in jeopardy. If two miss it, serious cracks begin to appear. In much of the world over the last 50 years we have relied on the grandparent factor – simply stated, parents didn’t bring their children, but the grandparents who see faith as important did. This cushion disguised the crisis for some time, but in many countries we are now three generations away from the Jesus story in most homes.
The system has broken. But the important thing to realise is that we have been here before. In Britain in the 1700s, in a time of great social upheaval, the church was seriously caught out. Because of huge people movements, and huge population rise, we found ourselves in a position where one parish church could be charged with attempting to serve 200,000 people (this was the case in Nottingham and Sheffield)! The church became dysfunctional. In speaking of the children of that time, the writers of the day stated that church was a place that neither the children nor their ancestors had ever set foot. At least three generations removed.
The pattern was broken and what was needed was a repair strategy. And that’s why we needed a third dimension, the dimension of child evangelism – a strategy to engage with boys and girls whose parents will not bring them to church. Child Evangelism simply defined as the communication of the Jesus story to boys and girls who wouldn’t hear that story in any other way. And so in 1780 the Sunday School movement was born. By 1788 300,000 boys and girls were attending these early children’s projects. By 1830 the adult population of church in Britain had doubled as a result of children growing up and joining the churches that had nurtured them. By 1904 85% of British boys and girls were attached to church and church groups.
But don’t misunderstand. Child Evangelism is a repair strategy, it is not the pattern, it is there to fix the pattern. Allow me to explain this the only way I know how, another story:
John lives several doors from the church. His parents never come to church, but from the age of seven they send John to your kids club, and John really likes it. You try all sorts of interesting and creative ideas to draw in John’s parents, but they are not coming! But John keeps attending. Susie lives about a mile away. Mum brings her every week. Well, more accurately drops her off at the door. Mum is a single mum and she likes the kids club because it gives her some much needed time to herself. She’s been to the church a few times, but says, it’s not for her. But Susie comes. Susie is also seven. Susie didn’t like it at first, but mum was bringing her anyway!! Fortunately now she does. The years go by and they move from kids club to youth group, they’ve also started attending Sunday church. When they are in their mid twenties they start holding hands (25 obviously being the appropriate age for holding hands! 🙂 ) and eventually they marry and have children of their own.
So the big questions. How did we reach John and Susie with the Jesus Story? Through Child Evangelism. We communicated the Jesus story to two children who wouldn’t have heard the Jesus story in any other way. But what about John and Susie’s children. Do we need Child Evangelism. No! Their children will hear about Jesus, the God who does things, in the context of Ba’ith at the kitchen table from John and Susie, and every member of their church, their mish-paw-kah’ will be communicating to them.
The children who are reached, who join our churches, who grow up in our churches, need to understand that their children will be nurtured in the captivating Jesus story in the context of bah’ith (in their own homes) and in mish-paw-khaw’ (their local church), they don’t need Child Evangelism. We need Child Evangelism as a priority at this point in history, but we should believe for the time when all children can be nurtured in the context of bah’ith and mish-paw-khaw, all it would take would be for us to reach one whole generation.
Allow me to repeat that last part – this whole thing takes three generations to break, but only one to repair.
I’d like to suggest to you that at this point in history we need all three dimensions in our local church children’s ministries. We need to work in all three areas, publish in all three areas, and teach about all three areas. If you are a children’s worker and part of the team, you may get the luxury of choosing which dimension to specialise in. If you are a church leader or leader of your kids ministry, you don’t get that luxury. At this point in history our children’s ministry must be in three dimensions.
Revd Dr Mark Griffiths has been at the forefront of ministry to children for several decades and is the author of nine books, the most recent of which, “Changing Lives” was published by Lion Publishing in 2017 and unpacks further the ideas above.