When people talk about kids ministry what often gets brought up is the kind of environment that leaders create for the kids. Kids ministry can only be effective if there is a vibrant, exciting, enthusiastic, loud, and fun environment led by a charismatic and energetic leader. The environment must include loud, fast-paced music with fun games, and food. While there is nothing wrong with creating such an environment, and it can and often does enhance kids ministry, if this is the only kind of environment that is created then we as leaders have failed the kids we love so much. Creating clever themes for the classrooms has no effect for the kingdom when the message of the kingdom is absent from the room.
An engaging and fun environment is helpful, but it can only serve a valuable purpose if another kind of environment is in place. From the moment the kids arrive to the moment they leave, the most important kind of environment that leaders can create is a gospel-centered environment. Do we want the kids to have fun? Yes. Do we want them to be energetic and scream, laugh, dance, and sing? Absolutely. But more than anything else, we should desire to point them to Jesus. Our goal as kids ministry leaders must be to take the kids we lead by the hand and show them the Christ who lived, died, and rose for them. Now, I am not talking about just sharing the gospel message when we teach, though that must be present. I am referring to creating an environment that oozes gospel from every wall.
The question then becomes, How can we create a gospel-centered environment? I believe there are at least three keys to creating a gospel-centered environment.
1. A Gospel-Centered Environment Takes Sin Seriously
Most adults in the church speed out of the sanctuary like the road runner from Looney Tunes when kids ministry leaders ask for volunteers. This is mostly due to the fact that kids ministry programs often have little to no disciplinary structure. And any adult who has been around kids knows that kids + no structure = World War 3. This is because sin is not taken seriously in kids ministry. But the gospel cannot be seen if sin is passed over or ignored. When we point out sin in the lives of the kids we serve, we can meaningfully call kids to repentance and faith in the Christ who bore their sin. We are far off-base if we create an environment that either passes over sin or makes kids feel like church is a place where they cannot sin. A gospel-centered environment addresses sin. If we pressure kids to strive for perfection, we point them away from Christ and toward self-righteousness. If we overlook sin, we point kids away from Christ and toward antinomianism (obedience to God is unimportant). A gospel-centered environment takes sin seriously while avoiding both legalism and cheap grace.
2. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Grace in All Things
The gospel of God is all of grace. When we make kids feel like they must look or act a certain way in small group or Sunday School, we are not filling the room with grace, but with works. While calling Christian kids to further holiness is admirable, it must be done so with grace-empowered works. We should create an environment that gives glory to God for all good gifts in the kids’ lives. We must be aware of evidence of grace in the lives of the kids and our own as well. At times it is good to shower kids who have sinned in class with grace by giving them gifts they do not deserve. Filling kids ministries with grace will point them to Jesus. When kids memorize Bible verses or catechism questions, it is important that the leader praise God for the grace of imparting this knowledge, so that spiritual growth is seen as being granted by God. This eliminates the threat of elitism when memorization of truths are tallied. Instead of encouraging kids to brag on themselves when they grow spiritually, a gospel-centered environment causes kids to brag on God as the one who distributes grace.
3. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Unbridled Passion for Jesus
No matter what is being taught and no matter what activities are being performed, leaders in kids ministry must demonstrate their unbridled passion for Jesus. When kids leave a ministry event, they must be blown away with how much the leaders love someone named Jesus. All leaders leave impressions on kids either for good or bad. And kids associate one or two particular things with every leader. How awesome would it be for both consistently attending kids and visiting kids alike to be amazed at how passionate their “church teachers” are about Jesus. What happens when we do this is we show the gospel to be a means to an end. That end is the enjoyment of God in Jesus.
Should we be energetic during games? Sure. Should we dance and sing with the kids when the music is blasting? No doubt. But when we are raising the roof during games and activities, yet reserved when we talk about Jesus or anything about God, we send a clear message: Jesus may be important, but he is not as enjoyable as games and activities. A gospel-centered environment points kids to a Christ who is not only the Savior of sinners, but also the Fountain that is overflowing with joy and satisfaction that surpasses all other joys. Kids ministry leaders, do not be more excited about games than you are about God.
Kids ministry is all about environment. Create an environment that is as fun as it can be. Create an environment that is completely engaging and entertaining. Oh, but in the process do not miss the gospel! Create a gospel-centered environment by taking sin seriously, showing grace in all things, and showing unbridled passion for Jesus.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.