Perhaps the single most frequently asked question I receive with respect to missional communities is “what do we do with our children?”. For this next series, I’m going to focus on answering that question from multiple different angles:
- Why involve your children?
- Kids and the Family Meal
- Kids and LTGs
- Kids and Third Place
- Kids and Demonstrating the Gospel
- Different Ages of Children
Involving Different Aged Kids
In the first post of the series, I talked about why you should involve your children, primarily from applied theology. The rest of the posts will focus on the philosophy and practice of involving children.
For this post, I only have experience thus far in Pre-School and Grade School aged missional community, but will draw off the experience of others for Middle School and High School. What follows are mostly some random and anecdotal thoughts…I’d love for contributions in the comments!
The Challenges of Age-Appropriate Ministry
As a dad, I definitely want the absolute best for my children. As a Christian, I recognize that best is found in obedience to the Word of God. As a pastor and missionary, I find the greatest joy in obedience in a life intentionally submitted to God seeking out those who are far from Him. As a dad, Christian, pastor and missionary with different aged kids, I’m often confused!
The first thing to recognize about kids and missional communities is that every age kid has a different learning style and appropriate things they can handle. If you ask anyone in children’s ministry, they will tell you apart from finding volunteers, the single most difficult part of the job is communicating the truths of God in an age appropriate way.
Bottom line, teaching kids is hard! Life in missional community is no different – it’s hard to know when to involve kids, what to tell them, and how much we should expect. I will say this though – if you aren’t making mistakes, chances are good you aren’t trying very hard!
In my experience, involving pre-schoolers in missional community life more centers around the parents then it is the kids. I’d encourage you to focus attention on caring for the little ones well, teaching them as much as you can from God’s Word (I highly recommend the Jesus Storybook Bible!), and thinking through mission more as adults.
That being said, I think it is a helpful practice to occasionally study the Bible together in community oriented towards children. Use the Jesus Storybook Bible in your discussion with all families involved – you’ll be amazed what you can learn from a 2 year old! Also, it’s a great way to teach families in your community who might not know how to have devotions with their own kids yet.
As a missionary though, little kids are an amazing tool – they can make friends with just about anybody! Pre-schoolers are a great way to connect with people of all ages, and particularly other moms of preschoolers. Those moms are often in the house all day long with only a two year old to talk to, so take any chance you can to schedule play dates!
Grade schoolers, in my opinion, are an American missionaries best friend. The rhythms of life in my neighborhood are primarily oriented around the grade school – we walk to school each morning, the kids are often on good terms with a large number of other kids, activities usually involve the whole family, and you are in close proximity with most people who are there because of the way schools are zoned.
As far as involving grade schoolers in MC life, they also are becoming more independent and able to articulate complex thoughts, they understand motivations, and are generally beginning to form a worldview. There is no better time to open up your life and community than now. I have a friend who says: “You’re parenting your teenager when they are 5 years old”. I want to make sure my teenager understands what the missionary life looks like, and so I involve my grade schooler. He eats with us, he is learning to study the Bible like we do, I often involve him in activities like serving my neighbors, and he’s spending time with other members of our community as well.
I affectionately call middle schoolers “electric chihuahuas”. Middle school is full of opportunity because your kids are still dependent on you to drive them places, but by and large they are beginning to face many adult problems – hormones, identity, drinking, sex, and all kinds of other issues. Additionally, in late grade school and middle school, often cliques begin to form and kids’ friend groups and activities begin to narrow in and focus on a particular group and a particular activity.
Involving kids in MC life at this age means two things: allowing some freedom of choice, but also involving them as much as possible. In my opinion, middle school is a great time to involve your child in the life of a youth ministry where they can hear the same truths you are teaching but from a different voice in their lives. At The Austin Stone, we focus most of our attention in middle school on what we call discipleship communities, which look a lot like Life Transformation Groups. We’re treating the kids as individuals who are responsible for their discipleship, but doing it in the context of a group with leaders who are somewhat older.
With respect to involving them as much as possible, I think there are two haymakers for MC life – the first is actively serving the least of these. Nothing quite kills narcissism like service! One of our MCs at The Stone serves with a ministry that feeds the homeless in our city, and their kids do most of the front line service while they prepare food…it’s been incredibly powerful.
The second is taking them on a mission trip with your family. Some of the best stories I’ve heard for middle schoolers come from a family mission trip. I’d highly recommend that you do it with other families, so the middle schooler has another person to connect with!
In high school, kids are often asserting independence, establishing their own identity, and in many cases self-transporting. They tend to develop a life rhythm of their own at this point! In my experience, the best missional communities with high schoolers are often aimed at helping their kids be effective missionaries in their school. Now is the time for your children to start leading things on their own – cultivating their own missional communities that are trying to live out the practices faithfully amongst a pocket of people.
As far as involvement, I think it’s important to treat high schoolers more and more like adults – full participants in the missional community. Have them share their highs and lows in Family Meal discussions, let them lead out in ways to serve neighbors, and practice Life Transformation Groups with them. As far as Third Place goes, I want to have the house that every high school kid wants to be at, and the most effective parents have thought through creating a home that high schoolers are welcome in and want to be at.
By no means are these exhaustive thoughts…I welcome your feedback and ideas in the comments, especially as it relates to middle schoolers and high schoolers. I hesitate to be prescriptive when it comes to kids and missional communities, because I’ve seen a variety of effective ways of discipling kids and involving them in life together. I do know this though – our children are looking to us as the pattern for life in godliness, and if we don’t teach them to be missionaries, they likely will not become one!
What have you found helpful when it comes to different ages of children in missional community or group life?