J. Matthew Pinson
On Teaching Children to be Christians
A Look at Matt Markins, The Faith of Our Children: Eight Timely Research Insights for Discipling the Next Generation (D6 Family Ministry, 2023)
Very few are the children’s ministry books that place emphasis on deep biblical and theological teaching. AWANA president Matt Markins’s new book is just that sort of book. It’s a must-read for forging a practical ministry for the theologically minded pastor who wants to see young people continue to confess the faith once delivered to the saints and not simply follow what the sociologist Christian Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
The Faith of Our Children: Eight Timely Research Insights for Discipling the Next Generation, by Matt Markins, president of one of the leading evangelical children’s ministry organizations, is a refreshing addition to the literature on children’s ministry. It’s based on eleven research projects the organization commissioned over the past decade with research groups such as the Barna Group, 5by5 Agency, and Excellence in Giving.
Like other recent children’s ministry books, it emphasizes that waiting until the teenage years to start prioritizing children’s spiritual, worldview, and moral development is a mistake. Yet unlike many books in that genre, this book breaks new ground in that it moves away from attractional and quantitative models of ministry that prioritize numbers of attendees to a missional model that emphasizes Christian truth and formation.
Markins emphasizes that we are now in a “secular age”—we’re all on a mission field—and we must seek to foster countercultural witness shaped by authentic Christian community rooted in deeply biblical ways of thinking and being in the world.
After emphasizing the “goal,” the “desired outcome,” of the church’s work in the faith-formation of children being the “lifelong discipleship of our children” (7), Markins proceeds in part one, which is about “formation,” to discuss three findings from AWANA’s decade of research about the greatest needs of churches in children’s spiritual development.
“The single most catalytic factor to influence the formation of lasting faith in children is loving, caring, adult relationships,” Markins states. Yet this research shows that only 40% of children in churches (ages 5 to 14) have a “meaningful relationship” with an adult (21–22). Children who do have a meaningful relationship with an adult, however, are about two to three times more likely than those who don’t have such a relationship to understand basic biblical and Christian worldview principles, practice spiritual disciplines, and be engaged in the life of the gathered community.
The second factor in lasting faith formation in children is what Markins calls “Bible engagement.” He believes this has been low on the priority list for many evangelicals. While the educational and entertainment establishments were becoming more and more secularized in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, Markins says “the church in the U.S. was simultaneously moving toward a popular-level Bible-Lite Strategy” (32).
What does he mean by “Bible-Lite Strategy”? Essentially, that “strategy” emphasizes moralism without a deep understanding of the gospel and the Christian worldview seen in redemptive history, in the biblical understanding of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration (33).
“Our children are drowning in powerful secular cultural narratives that have formed a storytelling superstructure that’s all about hyper-individualism” (33–34). Yet the trend has been that churches reinforce this individualistic narrative rather than providing children with a biblical counter-narrative.
However, if we “want lasting faith in our children,” Markins stresses that we’ve got to dig that foundation even deeper. When we do, we fill it with not only a Scripture-rich environment where kids’ lives are saturated with the Bible, but we also give them the gospel worldview—a worldview that’s far more satisfying than the empty promises of hyper-individualism” (36).
But a look at practice in churches indicates that while 91% of children in church “study the Bible” at least weekly, only half “learn about a biblical worldview” (41). The Bible-Lite Strategy might teach children morals, but they often “walk away without any sense of origin, understanding of sin, redemption, and salvation, personal relationship with Jesus, or practices of walking in faithfulness to Jesus” (41–42).
The third most important factor in children’s faith formation is the “context of increased secular cultural formation” in which they’re immersed (45). We must not simply “protect” our children from secular culture but must also “prepare” them to be a counter-cultural witness in that culture (46–47).
Markins argues that we’ve been too focused on making children’s ministry “the greatest hour of a child’s week.” He admits that this is a noble goal, yet we’ve been too worried about “production value, the skit we worked on so diligently, or the latest children’s ministry video.” However, what we spend most of our time on is not what leads children to deeper faith. It’s Bible engagement in the context of rich mentoring relationships with adults. Children’s ministry can be “the greatest hour in a child’s week” only when we emphasize “highly relationship, Scripture-rich environments” (49).
Again, this means dealing with Christian worldview issues, addressing areas such as how Christians should view social justice, sexuality, pornography, bullying, loneliness, social media, depression, racism, self-harm and suicide, school shootings, and sexual identity (52–53).
Markins urges church workers who work with children to read more deeply. He recommends books like
- Reappearing Church by Mark Sayers
- A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
- Our Secular Age, edited by Collin Hansen
- The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
- The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer
- Emotionally Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero
These sorts of recommendations are refreshing in the context of our evangelical subculture of fascination with pop culture, shallowness, and “dumbing down” of religion.
After discussing in part one, “Formation,” the three major factors in sustainable faith formation in children—authentic mentoring relationships with adults, deep engagement with the Bible and its worldview, and exegesis of and countercultural witness in the culture—he discusses “Systems” in part two.
Markins laments that the “systems” of evangelical children’s ministry over the past generation “have invested significantly in an attractional model of ministry that focuses on numerical growth but does significantly less to form deepening faith. We spend massive amounts of time, money, energy, and human capacity on making our weekend experiences and special events more entertaining and fun, but we find ourselves wondering if it’s just more entertaining cultural noise” (61).
He cogently argues that we must move from these outmoded systems to more authentic systems that are rooted deeply in the Christian wisdom and practice taught and modeled in Holy Scripture. “As painful as this reality may be, the data is showing us in the West that our systems may be incongruent with our goal of forming lasting faith in our children” (61). He discusses four areas in which “systems” of faith formation in children must shift.
Markins’s research shows that “the way children’s ministry leaders spend our time does not match our desired objectives” (65). Parents and church leaders are too entertainment-driven in the way we spend our time, the ways we structure our lives. Church workers who engage in children’s ministry are too busy. Even professional children’s workers spend too much time on busy work and administration, not enough on building relationships, mentoring, teaching biblical truth, and equipping parents to do these things.
Markins’s research shows definitively that parental involvement is most important in a child’s spiritual development. Yet only about one-fourth of professional children’s ministry leaders spend six hours or more a week on equipping parents to form the faith of their children and to create an environment saturated in a scriptural vision of the world. The greatest priority for churches is to equip parents, he stresses, and congregations must work to recalibrate their systems to this end.
Chapter 6, entitled “Fun,” is perhaps the most countercultural (and even controversial) chapter in the book. Markins quips that “when it comes to having fun,” evangelicals are “outperforming our own expectations” (81).
It’s not that children shouldn’t have fun, Markins stresses. But he asks, “Have we unknowingly given entertainment and relevance too much priority in our kids’ ministry?” (81). His answer is yes. Again, he’s not against children having fun! He’s just, I think rightly, suggesting that we’ve made entertainment and cultural relevance the primary, driving factors in ministering to youth and children. Yet we haven’t looked critically enough at the value-laden assumptions behind entertainment and cultural relevance.
Increasingly, studies show that the attractional model is failing. Yet “it is what we do best.” So it’s the ministry model we keep pushing (82).
Markins argues that this outmoded ministry model most churches are still using, which prioritizes entertainment and cultural relevance, is the least relevant for ministry in our increasingly secularized and post-Christian culture. Our dumbing down of our religion is simply not equipping the children in our congregations to have Christian faith deeply formed in them so that they can be countercultural witnesses to Christ in a post-Christian cultural setting.
A persistent theme in the AWANA’s research is that parents are the “primary influence” on children’s spiritual development but are “less engaged in discipling them.” The answer to this, Markins argues, is for churches to partner with parents in a way that “equips them to disciple their kids based on their capacities and capabilities” (89).
He discusses four kinds of parents when it comes to the spiritual development of their children: “higher-capacity” ones, those who engage in “occasional” discipling, “less-engaged” ones, and “not-gonna-happen” parents (90).
Markins stresses the need for churches to move away from an emphasis on programming and events to an emphasis on discipleship in the context of the church and the family. This will involve partnering with parents to move them to the next level of engagement in their children’s spiritual development. And when a child “lives in a ‘not-gonna-happen’ parental environment,” congregations must engage in “maximizing every discipleship moment possible” (91).
Children’s ministry leaders tend to blame the lack of parental involvement in church and children’s spiritual lives, while parents tend to blame the church and ministry leaders, citing the lack of a sense of belonging at the church by their children (92). Interestingly, 90% of children’s ministry leaders ranked parental involvement as crucial to a child’s faith formation (90%), whereas only 68% of parents believed this (93).
Another difficulty is that most ministry leaders think “equipping parents” merely means providing resources to parents. Markins insists that a shift to a mindset of “relational, discipling, mentoring, training, and equipping.” (97)
Because of secularization, the church must learn to function more in a “Babylon” context than a “Jerusalem” context, Markins insists. Thus, church leaders and parents must embrace “a type of formation that runs counter to the ways of this world” (101).
The book argues that one of the most obvious results of the research AWANA has undertaken is that church leaders don’t know how to track and evaluate success in whether their ministry has resulted in more children growing to become genuine disciples. So they tend to fall back on numbers—mainly attendance—as the measure of success.
Yet Markins insists that not only Holy Scripture but also cutting-edge research shows that the metrics we must measure for success in children’s ministry are tied to the following outcomes:
- Belong, which is about highly relational discipleship and mentoring by adult
- Believe, which is about learning the Bible and its worldview
- Become, which is about teaching children to practice the spiritual disciplines, live Christian lives, and “navigate a changing culture” from the vantage point of deep biblical truth and authentic Christian community (110).
Prioritizing numerical, quantitative metrics rather than spiritual metrics results in practices that are ultimately unproductive. It results in methods that don’t emphasize equipping children to grow up to be people who belong to the Christian community, believe the biblical worldview, and become holy people who can engage their culture counterculturally, helping others belong, believe and become.
The Faith of Our Children is a wake-up call for church leaders. It’s based on the latest research, but it’s rooted in biblical wisdom. If churches engage in the paradigm shift it calls for, they will be better equipped to produce sustainable faith in children—and more biblically faithful in doing so.