An inquisitive visiting parent once asked me a good question during the holiday season, “I can tell that you have a strong children’s ministry just by the number of children involved, but what can you tell me about the depth of your ministry? How do you evaluate what is happening with children from the perspective of spiritual development?”
Well, no doubt this lady fell into the realm of being a precocious parent if there ever was one, and in the next two minutes of “winging it,” I gave some sort of vague, generalized answer that I hoped would be satisfying to her. But I knew it wasn’t really, and I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t have a better answer to give her.
So the next month I took the question up with my Children’s Ministry Team (CMT). “How do we know how effectively and how deeply our ministry is working in the lives of our children? And if we don’t know, how can we effectively measure those particular things?”
Of course, we tend to greatly overestimate the effect of our ministries, i.e. until we realize that one of our own children, who we thought was singing the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” was thinking in her mind that she was singing “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.”
Maybe we have some work to do …
Ways to Evaluate What’s Happening
Measure through levels of participation. We gain some sense of our ministries’ effectiveness through measuring levels of active involvement. For example, you might expect that the minimal level of involvement is expressed in the participation of children who accompany their parents who are participating in worship. But then children who participate in an additional Sunday School experience might be on an involvement level that is a bit deeper. Many of us make assumptions about children based on their involvement levels, and we also make assumptions about our ministries based on the participation at these various involvement levels without really defining what those levels are. That is a dangerous thing and may mean nothing more than the fact that we have a whole chorus of children singing “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.” But it’s a start.
Measure through milestone proficiencies. While there are no “standardized tests” for church children, there are other ways that we can measure their depth of experience. One is by incorporating milestone proficiencies into their curriculum. For a very simple example let’s take the Lord’s Prayer, which most churches incorporate somewhere into their church life. Ask the question, “At what age would we want every child to know the Lord’s Prayer?” If the answer is that you want each child to know the Lord’s Prayer by age five, then you can identify a spot in the four-year-old curriculum that you would want the Lord’s Prayer to be taught. Or you might ask, “At what age would we want our children to know the Apostles Creed?” or “When would we want our children to know the books of the Bible?” And while this is a much more complex question, you might even ask “By what age would we hope our children/youth have made a profession of faith?” There are many more questions to ask. The good thing is that your own CMT can address this and conclude where God is leading your church and ministry as they work with God’s precious children.
Answers to all of these questions will vary from one tradition to another and from one church to another, but it is very important that you not simply assume that these milestones are being met by some sort of spiritual osmosis if you are not addressing them through curriculum planning.
Measure through effective transitions. Another way of evaluating is by examining how well your ministry is receiving and passing off children as they enter and age out of your ministry. As classes of children enter your ministry, are the groups growing or dwindling? And as they enter youth ministry, have you prepared them well with strong proficiencies and encouragement as they ready for this next big step? Some comparisons with leaders of age-adjacent departments might give you valuable feedback about how your ministry is doing.
Make Sure to Pay Attention to…
… seeing each child clearly. Each individual is different, each comes at their own level of spiritual maturity, each comes with his or her own needs, each comes at a different level of feeling loved, affirmed, and accepted. Helping children to attain certain milestone proficiencies does not mean that we do less to fully engage them in loving relationship. As much as they need to know about the Bible, they first need to know that their ministry leaders love them and, through healthy, loving human relationships, that God loves them.
… taking child development principles into account. In developing milestone proficiency targets, ministry leaders must take developmental principles into account, for instance, recognizing that concrete examples are critically important for younger children and that abstract concepts will only be appropriate for older elementary children at best. See Jim Fowler’s Stages of Faith for a thorough discussion of age appropriate concepts.
… encouraging children at all stages of spiritual development. Some children will, of course, reach milestone proficiencies more quickly than others, but all must be equally encouraged and affirmed. The last thing we would want to happen would be that in the course of evaluating and improving our ministries we might discourage or, even worse, injure a youngster who is looking to us to tell them the story of Jesus, the one who took children upon his knee and blessed them.
No, there aren’t any children’s ministry standardized tests, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot evaluate our ministries or assess the spiritual progress of our children. It just takes a little time, thought, and prayer, as well as the determination to do what it takes to be the ministries that God has called us to be and do.
If you want to talk more about milestone proficiencies as measurable markers, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to bat some ideas around with you!