When I observe children’s ministry news articles, workshop titles, podcast episodes and conference themes, I see a list of repeating topics. The conversations tend to range from child developmental stages and pedagogy to curriculum and last-minute solutions for Sunday morning. I find these conversations to be an interesting juxtaposition to the national and global headlines at the intersection of children and cultural formation.
With just a nominal scan of the major headlines, one can observe that today’s child lives in a world where the issues of the day are no longer “out there,” but rather are pressing down on children with tremendous pressure. This phenomenon isn’t like something we observe in a sterile Netflix documentary; it’s personal—we experience it in our own homes, schools and churches. Our children are being asked to tread water in a sea of tumultuous cultural formation where issues such as navigating screen technology and social media, parental neglect, the ever-changing dynamics of family, and the redefinition of human sexuality and gender are pounding young people in a volley of unending waves.
When I’m honest with myself, deep down inside I find myself kicking and screaming at times. I just want to go back to 1998 when the big conversation of the day was the release of the latest VeggieTales® DVD, the upcoming short-term mission trip or how to make children’s ministry the greatest hour of a child’s week. Nostalgia is funny like that. It tricks me into thinking that the answer is to go back. You and I both know the world doesn’t work that way. Time ticks in one direction.
Over the past decade I’ve experienced agonizing pain over this juxtaposition of:
A) what we tend to talk about in our children’s ministry circles and
B) what discussions are emanating from the dominant cultural forces that shape our children.
It’s not that our discussions (curriculum, check-in systems, volunteers, creative programming, etc.) are not important; they are necessary conversations. While we are having the same sorts of conversations about an old map, however, the world is blueprinting a brand-new map. This new map is unlike anything the world has ever seen — a world where a child can choose their own gender while not even consulting a parent.
So how did we arrive at this new map? And are we prepared? The world’s new map is the culture in which today’s child now lives, and this culture is designed to form expressive individualists. With elements on the map such as mobile screens, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and an under-prepared (or even disengaged) parent — a whole new terrain has been forged. And it’s not only producing childhood confusion, but also emotional isolation, persistent anxiety and a variety of mental-health conditions. It’s in this uncharted portion of the world’s new map that the transgender revolution has sprung up seemingly like a new city overnight. This new city that has come to life so rapidly is going to require dialogue, prayer, wisdom and collaboration. So how do we go from where we are today to where we need to be for the sake of forming child disciples of Jesus Christ in today’s world?
When Covid-19 first hit with full force and the Church was gifted the opportunity to reflect and evaluate, our team came across Dr. Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In his book Dr. Trueman traces how we arrived at this unique cultural moment where transgenderism is considered to be normative by the secular culture. My fellow cofounder of the Child Discipleship Forum Mike Handler and I collaborated with a way to make Dr. Trueman’s message more accessible to the children’s ministry community.
We partnered with Dr. Trueman to produce this three-part mini-documentary-style video for leaders like you. In this beautiful and compelling 38-minute video, Dr. Trueman not only boils down his 500-page book into bite-sized thoughts; he also moves into practical application for children’s ministry leaders, pastors and parents.
Allow me to make three practical recommendations:
- Watch the video yourself. Spend time praying and reflecting.
- Watch it with your team. Discuss, pray and process together.
- Equip Parents with this free resource. Consider the way that works best for your church community (an in-person event, an online event or an email you pass along to them). Be sure to give them space to process, discuss, ask questions and pray.
As a member of the children’s ministry community for over 20 years, if there is one thing I’ve learned about leaders like you, it’s that your creativity, grit and faithfulness is winsome. You just seem to find ways to “get stuff done!” and for that you are admired. Along the way, however, we must also carve out time and space for dialogue, collaboration and prayer about making child disciples in the new world. We must pray and learn more about how to form resilient disciples in our secular age. We have a saying at Awana that goes like this: “We are centered on the Gospel and rooted in the Scriptures, and we will never move one inch off of the Bible.” I pray that as you navigate the new world you will stay rooted in biblical faithfulness and are as wise as the Men of Issachar; may you be men and women who understand the times and know just what to do.
Matt Markins serves as the President and CEO of Awana, a global leader in child discipleship. As a leading researcher in child discipleship and children’s ministry, Matt has commissioned nine research projects since 2013, including a study conducted by Barna Group called, Children’s Ministry in a New Reality. He’s a board member at large for the National Association of Evangelicals and is the coauthor of three books, most notably RESILIENT: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. He’s also the cofounder of the Child Discipleship Forum and D6 Conference. Matt and his wife, Katie, have been involved in children’s ministry for more than 25 years. They spend their time in Nashville with their two sons.