'Children need the church's nurture'
Children's ministry was an unknown field to me when, in the summer of 2002, I became the first director of children's ministry at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. As the mother of two preschoolers and the wife of a university administrator, my primary concern at that time was finding a position in ministry that could be contained within 20 hours per week.
This job matched that need; the fact that it was in the field of children's ministry was secondary to me. I would only be in the job for a year or two at the most anyway, I told myself, until I found something more substantial.
Even as a mother who left full-time pastoral ministry because I valued spending more time with my own young son and daughter, I confess I still held on to a hierarchical view of ministry, in which work with children ranks lower than work with adults. I had internalized the usually unspoken but all-too-commonly held perception that one's value as a pastor is determined by the visibility of the pulpit and the number of adults one serves. In accepting the children's ministry position, I felt I was taking a step down in my career, and I did not want to stay down for long. Surely my education and calling as a Presbyterian minister would soon lead me to a post with higher standing.
Five and a half years later, I continue to serve in children's ministry, and my mind has changed. So have my title - and my hours. I am now the 30-hour-a-week "associate pastor" for children's ministry, because the congregation recognizes my ordination and sees the importance of pastoral ministry to children. Together we have taken Jesus' instruction about welcoming little ones to heart.
'Diverse family structures'
As evangelical churches have known for a long time, when a congregation reaches out to children, it also reaches out to families. Establishing children's ministry as an integral component of congregational life draws new families in, and, if the programs are both creative and theologically sound, families will stay. They will also tell their friends, and soon enough the congregation will grow. In five years, our church has doubled in size, from 400 to 800 members, thanks in part to the viability of our ministry to the youngest members of our church family.
Mainline denominations lost millions of members between 1965 and 1990, and we are still trying to recover. Many strategies have been tried to reach out to new members, from creative promotions like the UCC's "Still Speaking" campaign to inventive, technologically-infused worship and new church starts. Outreach to children needs to be on that list as well.
Yet children's ministry is much more than a proven avenue toward church growth. In this generation of diverse family structures, children need the church's nurture more than ever.
Our congregation, for instance, includes a number of heterosexual and same-sex couples who have adopted children, either internationally or domestically. Some of our families are biracial or binational; a few, from places such as South Korea, Japan or Mexico, speak very little English. Plenty of families are headed by a single parent.
Thirty-five of our children under the age of 10 are being raised by lesbian parents. Some of these children are adopted; some are "donor babies," some have a father and mother who are now divorced.
Yes, we do have our share of heterosexual, Caucasian couples with two children, but the point is that when children come to church they bring a wide range of experiences, and the church needs to offer all of them a clear message that no matter what else they may be labeled, at core they are children of God.
'We have fallen short'
The UCC prides itself on its "extravagant welcome," and on making people feel at home "wherever they are on life's journey." Thus we serve a vital role in speaking God's word to populations that have struggled to find acceptance in other denominations.
But we have fallen short in terms of preparing for and shaping programs that reflect the depth of children's critical need for faith-centered identity formation.
Resources that address issues such as self-understanding when one has been conceived through in vitro fertilization and is growing up in a lesbian household, or experiencing God's presence in a country - and a church - where the dominant language is not your own, or living an integrated life when your parents live in two different places are hard to come by. These are pastoral matters that the church must be ready to help children discuss freely and without judgment.
The church also needs to help children take the centrality of baptismal identity seriously. It's too difficult to do alone. In our culture that exalts good looks, the accumulation of wealth, and being cool by drinking and substance use, following the way of the Suffering Servant can easily slip to the bottom of one's consciousness.
Children feel other kinds of pressures as well. Parents tend to push their children into multiple extracurricular activities, and all things, including tending to one's inner life, become equal. Being a child of God is just like being a soccer player, an honor student or a piano player. Parents want their children to go to church to be "well-rounded," but not necessarily to learn how to connect their Christianity with the things they do during the week.
If we truly want today's children to develop into mature disciples, we must be prepared to risk challenging them - and their parents - to integrate faith in Christ with whatever other interests they pursue.
Children's ministry is more than ministry to children, however. Today's church-going children are challenging all of us to take Christian education more seriously. Children's ministry matters because when we respond to parents' hunger for an accepting spiritual home and pay attention to children's faith formation, churches grow - both numerically and spiritually. Most significantly, however, children's ministry gives the youngest of God's children a chance to speak, and thus they have the power to transform us all. Jesus would hope for nothing less.
The Rev. Susan Steinberg is associate pastor for children's ministries at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina.