October 18, 2013
Friday Five: Larry Fowler
Developing a heart ministry and asking “How often do they come?”
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Larry Fowler.
Larry Fowler has been in children’s ministry for over 30 years and is currently the executive director of global networking for Awana and KidzMatter. Larry is also the author of Rock Solid Children’s Ministry.
Today we chat with Larry about a transformed heart ministry, the significant “one”, and “How often do they come?”
Larry, you have been ministering to children a long time (30+ years); what is the essence of effective children's ministry?
Well—the word "effective" implies a measure, and children's ministries in churches are measured a lot of different ways. I look at it through the lens of Scripture: “If we were to minister to kids according to what the Bible says, what would it look like?” You see, I believe that Scripture needs to drive the core of how we minister to children.
From the Scriptural perspective, I believe that the essence is, “Children’s ministry must impact the heart of a child.” Bible knowledge is not enough; practical application is not enough; relevance is not enough. Why? Because in nearly every instance where spiritual training of children is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word “heart” is nearby. The classic passage concerning instruction of children in Deuteronomy 6 is prefaced by this: “These words which I command you today are to be in your hearts.” At its essence, children’s ministry must be heart ministry.
Your newest book talks about seven principles of effective children's ministry, and they are all based on Scripture. So give me an example—what would change if we used Scripture as the designer?
If we did children's ministry according to Scripture, then parents would be primarily responsible for their child's spiritual growth, and we would assist them, not the other way around. Parental spiritual leadership is pretty much on everyone’s radar right now. A concept that ministry leaders aren’t thinking about is what I call the significant “one”. Jesus, in Matthew 18, repeats the word “one” in this passage about children: don’t offend one, don’t despise one, and don’t lose one. Individuals were always important to Jesus, and if we are not careful, we can minister to groups of children and think we are doing okay, when in fact we are not.
If every single child is significant, and we are concerned that we don’t offend or despise or lose one, then our registration and recordkeeping processes will not only be used to see who comes but are used as tools to follow up with those who stop coming. Our structure will provide opportunities for our teachers and leaders to develop deep relationships with children (they come for the fun, but they stay because of a relationship). And we will train our volunteers to have a shepherd’s mindset toward every child they minister to.
What is the biggest directional error that you see in children’s ministry that you’d like to correct?
I love to help correct a wrong target—or desired outcome. Some children's ministries want to see Bible knowledge developed, others focus on practical application, and still others place a high value on cultural relevance. I believe each of these is helpful and good—but each one is also inadequate. Children can excel at Scripture knowledge or mimic godly behavior, and have little heart change. I believe a transformed heart is a far better target—and a more biblical one.
Targeting the heart necessitates recruiting for long-term impact and structuring for deep relationships. It means intentional mentoring practices, transparency in leadership, and consistent messaging and repetition in curriculum. Whether in evangelism or discipleship, our children’s ministry compass must always return to pointing at the Biblical true north—the heart of a child.
Researchers tell us a large majority of Christians made their salvation decision as a child. Why do you think that adult conversions often generate greater fanfare in the church than a child coming to Christ?
When an adult comes to Christ we see the transformative power of the gospel, such as—a new believer’s addiction to alcohol is broken, or a broken marriage is repaired (Romans 1:16). We see the change. With children, we don't see the dramatic transformation—but of course it is the same gospel power. It is helpful to understand that God’s life-changing power is revealed in a different way, a way that receives less attention: it is a preventive power, instead of the transformative power that we see in adults.
My father-in-law grew up in a very poor, difficult home because of the alcoholism of his father. He was invited to church by a neighbor and accepted Christ as a young boy. When he made that decision there was little visible transformation, but the preventative power of the gospel began to work in him. It prevented him from repeating the sins of his father. He established a new legacy through a Christian home. He raised a godly family so that now even great-grandchildren are following Jesus—because of the preventative power of the gospel. In church, we often see and celebrate the transformative power, but fail to acknowledge or celebrate the preventative power.
What question isn't being asked today about children’s ministry that should be?
“How often do they come?”
Whatever the size of the church most pastors ask, “How many did we have on Sunday?” But asking that question alone leaves the pastor with inadequate information. The pastor needs to ask “How often do they come?” The answer to this question can transform the church’s ministry approach. This answer is sobering at a minimum, even alarming—especially with multiple-service churches. One large church I work with revealed its children attend 1.6 times a month. Another children’s pastor told me, “We used to say we wanted children’s ministry to be the best hour of a child’s week; now we are faced with trying to make it the best hour of a child’s month.”
Another mega-church I work with had well over a thousand children attending on weekends, and thought they were doing great. But when they asked this question, they found that 80% of their children attended less than 50% of the time, and attended inconsistent service times. This inconsistency meant few and superficial friendships with teachers and leaders.
Churches can have great programming, yet minimal impact because of the one single factor revealed by asking, “How often do they come?” The issues raised by this one question causes churches to completely reconfigure what they are doing with kids. If you are brave enough to ask it for your church, it will do the same for you.
Daniel Darling is vice-president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.