Churches that don't invest more in discipleship-oriented children’s ministries will be “standing on a burning platform,” warned Matt Markins, head of the child discipleship organization Awana.
For most people, their worldview formation is "largely fixed" by age 13, according to findings conducted by the research organization Barna Group. That's why Markins believes strongly that worldview formation is not "a youth group conversation" for when youth are in high school, but rather “this is a child formation conversation” and a “canary in the coal mine."
“The Church looks to the canary in the coal mine as the high school dropout rate [when] students walk away from the Church after high school. But the purpose of the canary in the coal mine isn't the moment the canary falls over, it’s what deadly gas led to that and where did it come from?” Markins told CP ahead of Awana's Child Discipleship Forum held from Sept. 22-23 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Some 500 people are expected to attend the two-day event that will include presentations on research conducted by Awana and the Barna Group. It will also feature speakers including Transformation Church Pastor Derwin Gray, apologist and academic Rebecca McLaughlin, Barna Group CEO David Kinnaman, Grove City College professor Carl Trueman, theologian Ray Ortlund, and many others.
"If we're looking at age 18 as the deadline, we're actually looking at the wrong deadline," Markins said. "It's not 18, it's 13, because the Barna Group said worldview formation is set by then. Churches really need to be investing in children, because it’s what we're doing with the 8-year-olds that is forming what's going to become the 13-year-olds.”
Another research finding Markins found significant was how 39% of children reported having at least one adult at their church apart from their parents who “knows them, loves them and cares for them.”
Markins told CP that these children, compared to those who did not report having at least one caring adult at church, fared better on matters like “Bible engagement,” “serving in the church,” feeling like “they belong to the church,” and continuing “to follow Christ in the years ahead.”
“There's no comparison between the children who have another adult engaging with them compared to the children who don't," he added.
"So, what's the point to pastors and leaders? If you cultivate a culture at your church where kids are known, loved, and cared for by other loving, caring adults who are engaging with them, you're going to ... develop children who become teenagers, students, and young adults who have lasting faith."
Markins’ remarks came days before the second Awana Child Discipleship Forum on Thursday. The first forum was held last year at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, near Nashville.
The Awana leader said last year’s event was “more of a kickoff, beginning the conversation” centered on the question: “How do we help the Church move from children's ministry to child discipleship?”
For the upcoming forum, the focus will be on “old map” children’s ministry versus “new map” children’s ministry, and how churches can move from one to the other.
Markins defined the old map as focusing more on growing numbers of members and being “attractional,” while the new map is centered on discipleship and being “more formational.”
"How do we form lasting faith in kids?” Markins asked. “What is it that the Church does that leads to lasting faith in kids and how do we build around that?”
Markins told CP that he hopes attendees walk away with the knowledge that “we're standing on a burning platform” if churches “keep doing children's ministry as we've been doing it the last couple of decades.”
"If we continue to look at children's ministry as only through the lens of entertainment and attractionalism — how do we bring more people to our church — we're not going to form them prior to the age of 13 to be resilient disciples in a post-Christian culture," he said.
"We want to build a pathway to a better future. But if we don't make the decision to move in that direction, at some point the Church in the West is going to realize we're standing on a burning platform, and we've got to move toward formational or discipleship ministry with children."
Founded in 1950, Awana is a children’s ministry organization that boasts programming that reaches millions of children at an estimated 68,000 churches in more than 130 countries.
The name Awana derives from the phrase “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed,” which alludes to 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”