Yesterday, about 80 folks from The City Church and the Fort Worth community banded together in three locations for a tri-annual “SERVE” day. For all involved, it’s a day of giving back, serving others, and “seeking the welfare of our city.” For those involved who follow Jesus, it’s reflecting the idea that “the son of man came to serve, not to be served,” and is a physical reflection of the restoring work God has done in our hearts.
Among the folks at each SERVE site were many kids: as young as 18 months; as “old” as 4th grade. Amidst the painting, cleaning, planting, constructing, chopping, fixing, and other –ing’s, we had wondered what to do with our kids. To be fair, one site did have childcare for the youngest of the young: one of the practical realities is that the best place kids under 18 months or so, is in a specific environment where they can play and have fun together, while freeing up their parents to SERVE.
Honestly, we didn’t know how this would work: we brought balls and frisbees; we wondered if every site would need designated “childcare.” We also wondered if we’d only be able to simulate serving for our kids: we brought tiny plastic shovels and rakes and watering cans, in case we needed to make a spot for the kids to go plant flowers, or dig a garden, or something specific, but “less real” than the tasks at hand. But we didn’t need the toys or distractions. From much younger than we thought, our kids got involved, and every site had activities that enabled them to actually participate in serving others!
Kids picked up branches that had been cut.
Kids planted flowers, and loved getting dirty as they made the flowerbeds.
Kids got supplies for grown-up’s – they’re great little “runners.”
Kids helped paint. Yes, we went back and painted over it, and yes a few had to be deep-cleaned afterward. But they got to be actively involved in the colors that went on the ground or the walls, depending on the site.
Kids chalked an outline of the world – this was my favorite element to see: at one of our sites, we painted both global and US maps on the playground of an impoverished school. After we taped the template to the concrete, we had to chalk the outline of each country/state (see below for final product). Guess who did nearly all the chalking? Our 18-month-old through nine-year-old SERVE participants!
And more: kids were involved, on some level, with nearly every activity that we did yesterday.
And along the way, parents and other grown-up’s would ask our kids why we were doing what we were doing. We would pray with our kids, and would pray together for the kids at the school we were serving. We would remind them that we’re serving because Jesus first served us; we bless others because Jesus first blessed us. And while there’s no way that some were old enough to “get it,” others did. Maybe for the first time, kids got to actually participate in “the reconciliation of all things” – not just with their heads or hearts, but with their dirty, paint-covered little hands.
Bottom line, three concepts stood out:
- Kids can serve, from a much younger age than we expect: they’re part of the family; they’re part of the family activity. This is a truth that we’ve affirmed as a church for months – but SERVE tested our functional belief and practice of that concept. My kid surprised me. But as I washed her chalk-covered face (and maybe mouth?!), I thanked God for the chance he gave her, and prayed that one day she would fully understand why we did what we did.
- Kids can serve, in nearly any project: we simply need to be intentional about creating space for it, and putting aside our over-protection and over-efficiency and actually letting them participate. They might get a little cut, or soil a shirt, and it might take a bit more work or “fixes” on our part – but those minor inconveniences fade in comparison to the chance to hands-on teach our kids about serving others.
- Kids can serve, even if they don’t fully get what’s going on: older kids at our SERVE sites understood that we were blessing folks who didn’t have as much as we did. I want them to “get” that! They grasped the fact that Jesus restores our hearts, and reconciles the world, and so we display that in any way we can. I want them to “get” that! On the other hand, my 20-month-old had no idea what she was doing. But as we continue to invest in the school where she chalked a map, we can take her to the playground one day and let her know that, even before she knew it, she was serving and blessing others. I want her to “get,” and God willing, one day she will.
Kids in the Family of God
One of the biggest questions in the broader “missional communities” conversation is how to engage kids well. The City Church has been working out this concept for over two years, and certainly don’t have everything figured out. But there are a few things that have become clear over these years that seem to be worth sharing, as we raise kids in the family of God.
Kids in the Church Gathering
“They’re distracting.” “It’s over their head.” “He can’t sit still for that long.” “She doesn’t know what that word means.”
These are among the tons of reasons for not involving kids in the gathering of God’s people. Some excuses are legitimate; some are logical. Others aren’t. But as The City Church has played out the idea of kids being involved in the family of God for the past two years, one of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned is that while it might be a little less convenient for parents at times, the opportunity to involve our kids in the all-church gathering, from as early an age as logical, far outweighs adults' desire to be comfortable.
Here’s what one mom posted last month, after sitting next to her daughter on a typical Sunday morning:
Daughter: Mama the weeds are getting really tall in (our elderly neighbor's) yard. Me: Yep, they are. Daughter: We're supposed to be on the lookout for brokenness, right? Me: Yes, we are. Do you think those weeds represent brokenness? Daughter: Yeah. Me: What should we do when we find brokenness in the world? Daughter: Try to help. Maybe we should go over and pull those weeds for them. Me: Maybe we should So grateful for kids joining us in worship on Sunday AM. We haven't said a word to her about what's been discussed...this is all from listening while coloring during the sermon.
This is from a first-grader, from a sermon on Leviticus! If she can get that conversation, from that text, surely we see one example of not giving our kids enough credit, in assuming our teaching is too far “above them”!
Here's the point: children can understand the gospel - and many deep concepts - from a much younger age than we give them credit for.
Keeping children with adults is not a new concept. “Sunday School” and age-level ministry only became the norm in the 1950’s. For the first 1900+ years of the Christian faith, the church was one body, one family. And throughout the Bible, children are always present in the gathering of God’s people. 1 John, Ephesians, and Colossians all contain exhortations directly to children, alongside adults. And in Deuteronomy 31, "little ones" are specifically mentioned and were expected to participate in readings of the Hebrew Law - the same is seen in Psalms, Joshua, the Old Testament Prophets, and beyond. And of course in Mark 10, Jesus' famous words instructed his disciples to involve children in the ministry that was happening, despite their disruption and 'inconvenience.'
Did the kids “get” all of what was going on? Did they understand every nuance? Could they carry out everything to the extent that adults could? In the Bible and in most of history, probably not. But in both history and in our own corporate experience, the common experience of a gathering gives parents a shared basis, unified teaching, and common language for discipling their kids.
The most common image of the church in the New Testament is one of “family” – so in our church, our gatherings reflect a large gathering of an extended family, as parents, students, and children older than preschool gather together. We all celebrate God through singing and creed; as we celebrate God’s word through preaching and reading scripture; as we celebrate Jesus through giving and receiving communion; as we celebrate God’s work as we share stories of grace in our lives and our cities.
Bottom line, we aim for a "well-balanced" approach, but as a principle, we believe children should join the gathering of God’s people at as young as is logical:
- Parents carry out biblical training of their children by modeling behavior with them. Research provides a glimpse into post-high-school church dropout rates, at least partially based on the transition from the high-energy kid and student experience to “big church.” But if that’s the “church gathering experience” from much younger, we can help turn this trend around. In the all-church gathering, kids get to see dad praying, mom singing, the community of believers sharing faith, scripture, and communion together. I'll go into this more later, but the Bible is clear: parents are the primary disciples of your kids. Parents don’t just “tell their kids about God and church”; they model for their kids; they lead their kids; they participate with their kids. They experience gathered worship together: this picture of “the church coming together” will be normative for the rest of their lives.
- We do create a separate space for kids younger than kindergarten – but only for part of the gathering time. We include children from as early an age as logical. We do consider the fact that at their youngest age, kids can’t/won’t pick up on the elements we try to teach and model in our gathering. And for those families, one of the greatest ways to bless parents is to think of KidCity like the "kids table" at your family’s Thanksgiving meal: youngsters sit there for the meal but otherwise engage with the rest of the family. So newborns through kindergarteners start the gathering in KidCity, which is by volunteers from a different missional community each week, who lead kids in stories and activities. Kids remain there until after the sermon each week, so parents and older kids can engage well. But even these youngest folks in the church family are brought in for closing songs, communion, giving, and announcements. These are sometimes carried out in competition with crying babies, but it’s worth it so that children’s earliest memories include the meaningful activity of the gathered church family.
- It takes intentionality to engage children in the gathering, but it’s biblical and worth it. For full disclosure, there are some weeks where the biblical concept would be inappropriate for elementary kids, so we warn parents ahead of time, and like a “grown-up conversation” in actual families, we occasionally excuse kids from those gatherings to a different room. But most weeks, we go out of our way to make sure kids can engage: we provide activity sheets for children, which some parents use and which others don’t. The sheets help kids bring kids into the different activities of the gathering, with instructions like "Stand and sing when everyone else does: sing loud and have fun as we worship God!" and "During the sermon, draw a picture of something you hear." Whichever pastor-elder preaches does our best to include a kid-level story, or ask a question to kids, or at least include kids in the examples we give as we teach biblical truths to our church family.
Kids in the Community Meeting
“What do we do with the kids?!”
This is the single most-asked question in the world of missional communities. It’s asked at every conference I’ve been to, whether speaking or attending. Every pastor I know who leads a church in this structure, and every parent I know who seeks to live this lifestyle, wants to know the answer.
I don’t think there’s one magic bullet practice. But I do think there’s one vital principle to follow, when considering kids in the community meeting:
Kids are part of the family.
If Jesus hasn’t saved them yet, they’re like every other not-yet-believer in your community. If Jesus has saved them, then they’re likely not much different from the believer who Paul “fed…with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it…” (1 Corinthians 3:2) – their “milk” might just look a little different from an adult who isn’t mature in their faith. But very simply, both need a little extra attention; both need a little extra consideration; both need a little extra unconditional love and understanding. But since they’re part of your family, you don’t reject, ignore, or push aside the less-mature adult – why would you do the same for the less-mature child?
Having children involved in most of our community’s activity has produced great fruit for our communities.
First, it battles idols like comfort and convenience. Would it be easier, less messy, and more efficient, to have adults-only discussion, dinner, or service? Yes. And we love things to be easier, less messy, and more efficient – if we’re honest, most of us would even like our faith to be that way. But God uses kids’ involvement as a practical display the real messiness of living in relationship with him. Kids break down idols, and God has used them to grow folks in patience and service.
Second, as Jesus himself said, “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise” and “I thank you, Father… that you have hidden these things form the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 21:16; 11:25). To realize kids’ joy, to see them relate to parents and other “grown-ups,” to watch them grow, learn, and share, and even to hear their comments, questions, and take on faith has taught our adults, in a few directions: at times it’s reminded us of the simplicity of faith, which many of us have lost. Sometimes it challenges our own faith, as we have to take a few minutes (or days) and find answers to questions they ask. These are just a few examples; there are literally dozens of things our kids have taught us.
Third, it places value on kids’ faith, and shows them that their relationship with God and community is just as real, growing, and vital as their parents’ is. To engage a child’s question, to have someone close to them who isn’t their parent validate their struggle and speak gospel truth into it, and to see adults listen to and engage their own opinion are a few of the most encouraging ways adults can come alongside parents in encouraging kids’ growth. It’s difficult to be challenged by a child, and humbling to be rebuked – biblically! – by a teenager. But engaging them in conversation emboldens their faith and encourages their growth.
Fourth, it’s a massive blessing to parents, to have godly counsel and help! The African proverb is dead-on: “It takes a Village to raise a child.” On many levels, your own child “has to” listen to you. But as your community lives life together, kids learn to respect, obey, do life with, and bless other adults. Other adults help you see patterns in your kids or in your parenting that you don’t. They give you advice on situations you don’t know how to deal with. They practically help by watching your kid for a last-minute date night or emergency. They bolster, exhort, encourage, or challenge your decisions and discipline. This isn’t always easy – and if I’m honest, it’s not always fun. But these things and more will push you and your child toward God. Raising a child in community allows others to speak into your kids, and to come alongside you in raising them.
Finally, kids in community provide practical discipleship for those who don’t yet have ‘em! Parents-to-be, newly-weds, and even college-aged men – many of whom had no idea what to do with children of any age – are now miles ahead when God blesses them with their own kids, because they’ve learned how to interact with, lead, get a laugh from – and even change diapers, and discipline! – the kids in our missional community. This provides much laughter for the rest of us, and has provided a mess or two as well. But on a deeper level, they’re being discipled in what it means to be a parent, or a parent of “the next age,” through hands-on practice instead of a parenting book or class. That’s life-on-life discipleship!
Bottom line, we see kids as part of the family, so we engage them in as much of the community’s activity as is logical.
While this varies a bit by small group, here are some “best practices” we encourage leaders to develop, as we engage kids in community well:
- From about first grade up, kids should be involved in all the activity of the community. You may remember from the previous post of this series, this is the same age we bring kids into the Sunday gatherings of the church. So it makes sense that at this age, kids participate in the life of the community – with the obvious exceptions of things like wine nights, conversations on more risqué topics, events after bedtime, etc. But in serving, in biblical discussion, in prayer and requests, in giving, in loving neighbors, in dinners and hanging out, in mission, and in most everything else, we involve kids, age elementary and older, into everything that the rest of the community does. They understand, interact with, and have great thoughts on far more than we often give them credit for.
- We only separate kids younger than first grade for periods of actual discussion. Our communities see each other many times a month. But in the times they meet to discuss scripture or other deeper things, older kids stay involved, but we do send babies and preschoolers into another room. But it’s just for that period of the meeting: we eat together, we pray together, we talk about life together, we plan mission and activities together. So in reality, youngsters are only separate for 30-45 minutes during those meetings. We find it best to simply rotate through the adults in the community, where one (or maybe two) at a time spend time with the kids. That way, it’s not always on the parents, and each adult is likely with the kids every six to 16 weeks. And in our community, we simply remind adults that every activity our Village does is worship: biblical discussion is no more godly than caring well for each others’ children. Leading kids in both playtime and spiritual conversation is a blessing and a service, on many levels.
- It takes intentionality to engage kids well, no matter what age they are.This is honestly why most folks don’t include kids in their communities: it takes time and effort in advance, and patience and flexibility in the moment.
- We intentionally engage kids in conversation – this is especially easy before and during our meals together: if we all share a glimpse of grace we saw that week, so do the kids. If we’re discussing our day, they jump in too. And so on.
- We intentionally engage kids in prayers and personal encouragement: they have real issues, struggles, fears, and concerns. It takes time, and it takes seeing others – and even seeing dad and mom – be honest about their imperfections, but eventually they’ll start sharing their own.
- For older kids who are involved in biblical discussion, leaders intentionally draw them out: “what do you think?” or “what would you do?,” followed by an affirming comment, does wonders to a kid’s spiritual thinking. At times, we’ll ask them to read the passage. And at times, we’ll ask them to comment on someone else’s issue: “what do you think [your mom’s friend] should do in that situation?”
- For younger kids, who aren’t involved in the discussion, we provide intentional activities: Every week, Nicole our KidCity Deacon, resources each missional community with a few simple but meaningful questions and an activity, song, story, etc, to assist the adult in engaging the children well during the community meeting.
Ben Connelly lives in Fort Worth, TX, with his wife and daughter (with another on the way this fall). He started The City Church in 2010, which exists across the Fort Worth area as "a family of communities on mission, for the glory of God and the good of our cities," and lives on mission by teaching in the communications department at TCU. Ben sits on the board of a few city-focused organizations, equips folks in life, faith, and mission across the country, and writes at benconnelly.net. Twitter @connellyben