The book of Proverbs makes this observation: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Prov. 22:6, NRSV). In his book Transforming Your Children Into Spiritual Champions, George Barna presents research that confirms this timeless principle. That research indicates that a person’s lifelong behaviors and beliefs are generally developed when they are young—particularly before their teenage years. More specifically, Barna notes the following:
- A person’s moral foundations are generally in place by age 9. After that age, most people simply refine their views.
- A person’s response to Jesus (and the gospel concerning his life, death and resurrection) is usually determined before age 18. For most Americans, the response is set by age 12.
- A person’s spiritual beliefs are set in place when they are preteens. Those beliefs include the nature of God, the existence of Satan, the reliability of the Bible, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, the means of gaining God’s favor, and the influence of spiritual forces in a person’s life. The book notes:
In essence, what you believe by the time you are 13 is what you will die believing. Of course, there are many individuals who go through life-changing experiences in which their beliefs are altered, or instances in which a concentrated body of religious teaching changes one or more core beliefs. However, most people’s minds are made up and they believe they know what they need to know spiritually by age 13. Their focus in absorbing religious teaching after that age is to gain reassurance and confirmation of their existing beliefs rather than to glean new insights that will redefine their foundations.
- Adult church leaders usually had significant involvement in the church when they were children. Thus, those who will become the church’s leaders 20 years from now are probably active in children’s church programs today.
This research should be a wake-up call for all parents of children and for the church at large. The spiritual education of our children must be a top priority—with parents and the church working in partnership.
The most important role in this partnership is that of the parents. This was underscored in a survey of 10,000 young Christians who were asked to identify the influences in their lives that helped them deepen their commitment to Christ. While they listed such influences as friends, church youth leaders and personal struggles, by far the most significant influence was that of their parents.
Because parents are the strongest influence in a child’s life, the church must support and otherwise partner with parents in ministering to children. Barna notes:
In situations where children became mature Christians we usually found a symbiotic partnership between their parents and their church…. The church encouraged parents to prioritize the spiritual development of their children and worked hard to equip them for that challenge. Parents, for their part, raised their children in the context of a faith-based community that provided security, belonging, spiritual and moral education, and accountability. Neither the parents nor the church could have done it alone.
Barna adds that it’s not the size or diversity of the church’s children’s ministry programs that are the most important factors in the church’s success in helping parents nurture their children’s spiritual development. Rather, he notes that
The most important resource…was the amazing amount of prayer for children and parents…. Some money is required to see serious life change happen, but the more important resource is the commitment of adults to the spiritual wholeness of the children—which means sacrificing some of the emphasis upon the ministry to adults.
The issue is one of priorities. We must put ministry to children at the top of our list of priorities in our homes and our congregations. If we don’t, we’re robbing our children of their greatest opportunity to develop a lifelong, saving relationship with their Savior and Lord. If we don’t, we’re missing out on the most significant opportunity we have to multiply lifelong disciples of Jesus. If we don’t, we’re failing to follow Jesus’ command to minister to the “least of these.” We simply must emphasize ministry to the children of our members and other children within the reach of our membership.
Barna’s personal view of children’s ministry was altered by his research. He writes:
Since I became a Christian two decades ago, I have always accepted the dominant notion: the most important ministry is that conducted among adults. But the overwhelming evidence we have seen of the huge impact in the lives of kids and the relatively limited changes in the lives of adults has completely revolutionized my view of ministry. I have concluded that children are the single most important population group for the church to focus upon. Many churches may not go that far, but I do hope that they will at least consider the research findings and place a greater emphasis upon children. Such a shift in priorities could well bring about the spiritual renaissance that many church leaders have long been praying for.
Our views concerning children’s ministry are being more clearly focused. Though we have always valued children, we seek to be more active and effective in ministering to them and to their parents. We want to encourage and equip the parents of children and the children’s ministry leaders and workers. Let us partner together to reach the next generation for Christ.
Author: Ted Johnston