Are Children a Barrier or Blessing for Missional Communities?

Missional Communities are a beautiful mess, especially when they have kids! I remember the first Missional Community (MC) that my wife and I led. We had a diverse group consisting of college students, singles, married couples, and lots and lots of kids. I remember one time we took a photo in our backyard. It looked like we were running a pre-k program every Thursday night. Not only were my wife and I trying to plan and prepare for our community's meeting every week, but we also found that we needed to dedicate and intentionally build in planning time for the children. Week in and week out, we'd have 10-14 kiddos at our house. We quickly learned that it was a beautiful mess—one that called us to steward well the responsibility of having children in our groups. In talking with others leading or participating in MCs, one thing has become apparent—trying to meaningfully incorporate children into the life of a community on mission is relatively new territory. I've seen the church build momentum with this in large corporate gatherings, which is a beautiful evidence of grace upon the church. However, the church must shift focus and begin building similar systems and rhythms for the children in our groups. For most missional communities, the extent that children participate is coming with their parents, usually destroying the host's home, enjoying unlimited lasagna and cookies, watching a movie, and then leaving at the end of the night. For children under 3, that's not bad. We want them to enjoy their time. That doesn’t mean they can’t digest basic ideas, songs, and stories about Jesus, but we shouldn’t drowned toddlers under 3 with theology.

My focus, in this article, is missional communities with children 3 and up, especially those with children 6 and up. Why? Because developmentally, children between 3-6 can start learning basic concepts building to more advanced concepts as they approach 6. They're learning to learn and are able to do things like sit for longer periods of time and be attentive to instruction. Kiddos 6 and above have clearly learned the "learning to learn" skills to be successful with just that, learning! One final comment on developmental appropriateness; not all children develop at a typical rate. There are lots of kiddos in each and every community that require special attention and have specific learning styles. That said, keep in mind that we'll have to be flexible as we plan for the group at large, knowing that we'll have to adjust instruction and teaching for certain learners that are wonderfully different.

Intentional Incorporation

What would it look like to intentionally incorporate children? First, we must instruct and teach them at their level each and every week—whether you're taking the concepts that the whole MC is learning and making it developmentally appropriate for children, or whether your lesson planning new concepts altogether. The idea is that we're intentional and we're planning. In addition to planning lessons and units of teaching, we want to engage the kiddos in community by encouraging the sharing of their hearts, the confessing of their sins, and by sharing the good news of the rich grace that more than covers their iniquities. If we do one thing well with our kiddos, let's teach them the concept of grace. Let's teach them how sweet it is and the cost that was paid for their sins. Not only will our children grow in grace, but also they'll learn to lead well in a generation that truly needs it. You want revival beyond us and our generation, focus on the children in your groups.

Luke 18 helps us understand why we should do this well. In Luke 18, Jesus encounters a group of children. Essentially, we know that Jesus calls the children to him yet let's look deeper. I'm going to make an assumption in examining this passage as to Jesus' heart in calling the children to himself. As opposed to saying, "Hold up kids! I'm not sure you know this, but I'm Jesus, you know, the Son of God. I'm busy preaching and teaching. You'll have to come back later." Was that Jesus' heart and attitude towards the kiddos? Did he take himself so seriously that he sent the children on their way? Absolutely not! He calls them to himself. That's an example for us leaders. You might be thinking “I’ve never turned away the kiddos during MC,” yet in your heart, I’m sure you’ve felt like they're getting in the way. You've probably felt like putting them in a room for the sake of peace and quiet. The heart there is what we're aiming for and where I want to focus. As opposed to viewing children as a barrier, let's view them as a blessingYes, it's chaotic. Yes, it can drive us crazy. But, despite that, let's model graciousness in our families and groups towards our children. After all, what must God think of our messy lives? The Father looks down and extends grace, rather than becoming irritated with us.

Deuteronomy 11:18-20 also supports this rationale. Moses gives a clear command for us to teach "these things" to our children. When? Where? While we're sitting at home, walking along the way, and in every part of our life. It's very casual, yet important. This passage gives the sense that teaching our children is to be done on a regular basis, both informally and continually. If we're called to do this so informally in our homes, that's all the more reason to better steward a structured time like MC.

Practical Recommendations

So how should we do this well from a practical standpoint? I want to be pragmatic and practical in this section. How are we going to do this well? Remember, these are recommendations and should be modified to fit the context of your MC and its participants.

  • Ask for volunteers. Volunteers can make the MC more life giving for the families participating. I'd encourage the MC to look for an individual within the church that can serve each week. We had a faithful servant in our missional community that loved our kiddos. We loved her and demonstrated our appreciation for her in tangible ways. She loved when we gifted her the ESV Study Bible. It was a little gesture to show our appreciation of her commitment. A good volunteer can make the group more engaging for the parents participating.
  • Provide Direction. A good way the church can serve these volunteers is by providing support in the way of lesson planning and strategic vision and direction. This can be done by a paid Children’s Director or by partners in the church that are gifted in working with children. Remember, it takes a village.
  • Plan. Plan ahead for the kiddos that are there. Putting them into informal "clusters" will help you keep the expectations appropriate for each respective grouping.
  • Kiddos under 3 need to have a good time. Cookies, cake, toys they like, and other special activities (Play-Doh, bubbles, etc.) will keep them engaged and loving the weekly rhythm of MC, which is worth its weight in gold. Parents will tell you—they're thrilled if they can meaningfully participate in MC because their under 3 kiddo enjoys being there. Gold I tell you.
  • Kiddos between 3-6 can start to learn Scripture and enjoy the stories found in a good kids Bible. We recommend the The Jesus Storybook Bible. We love that the main Hero in the Story is Jesus and that's what we'd love for kiddos in this cluster to start learning. Jesus is the main character and all of Scripture points to him. It's our job to model a love of Scripture and an excitement for what’s found within the Book.
  • Kiddos 6 and up may also like the Action Bible. It's with this group that you can expect more (sharing their hearts, confessing sin, understanding and applying grace, praying for one another, etc.)
  • Look for leaders within this cluster. My sons are 6 and 8, and by God's grace, they're good leaders. They have 2 little sisters so they've had lots of opportunities to practice leading as tough and tender boys. I’ve also met lots of little girls that are firm and enjoy “mothering.” These kiddos will be the best helpers in the group; they can support the volunteer in reading to the younger children or playing games with them. This also gives us the opportunity to build them up as they embrace responsibility. Find leaders and equip them just like you would their parents!
  • Have a rough schedule planned out but be flexible. The most successful leaders are agile, especially when you’re working with children.
  • Work Together. Make sure there's gracious collaboration between the volunteers and family. The volunteer is not going to be perfect nor will they know the children as well as the parents. There's a learning curve involved but collaboration is important.
  • Pray with and for all the children regularly—it's vital!

What Works for Your MC

In light of the different directions you could take, I’d encourage you to prayerfully consider what might work for your MC. Ultimately, we want our children in the church to grow up knowing what it looks and feels like to have authentic community. If we can accomplish this, the ripple will be far beyond anything we can ever measure. Lives will be changed and the gospel will move forward. We must take and win this territory. It's untouched and ripe for the picking. Jesus says in Luke 10 that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Let's cultivate what's needed from an early age to raise up laborers for the kingdom of God. They're right there in our groups, you know, the ones reaching for the cookies.

Rob Fattal serves as CEO and BCBA in high-touch boutique firms providing educational services to children. He started his career as a credentialed teacher and served in both the public school system and at the university level. He and his wife have 4 kiddos of their own and have led and coached MCs and MC leaders. Ultimately, they love the church and hope to serve it well.