Last Sabbath, I was enjoying a conversation with my friend Linda about children’s ministry. She had been thinking about Vacation Bible School and considering some other ways her fairly small church could effectively reach out to the children in the community. In the course of our conversation, a very important topic came up: the tendency of many activities — children’s ministry included — to segregate families.
Being a mother of four children myself, this issue has come up for me more times than I can remember over the last couple decades. I strongly believe it is an issue we must deal with, so I am going to do my best to share my views with you; then I hope you will take a moment to comment at the end of the post.
Why segregate families in children’s ministry
First of all, let’s look at some of the reasons why many people feel families should be segregated in children’s ministry. We must first acknowledge that the title itself sounds a bit exclusive: children’s ministry. Ministry to children. It seems to exclude adults and perhaps even older teens right off the bat.
Many parents and children’s ministry workers feel like it should.
The single biggest argument I have heard in favor of segregating families is that there are classes geared specifically for various age-groups at church. Which is usually true.
In age-specific classes, we have the advantage of being able to laser-target our teaching methods to most effectively reach a large group of children with a most important message.
Another argument is that some parents tend to over-dictate their child. You have heard the term “helicopter parenting“? I personally feel it is an over-used term, but it is true that some parents have a hard time allowing their children the opportunity to have a voice or will of their own; others cannot stand to ever let their child temporarily fail and so limit them incredibly. (There are some siblings — especially older ones — that fall into these traps, as well.)
But… and this is very important: just because a class says it is for so-and-so or such-and-such-age does not always make it the best choice for a child.
Why not segregate families in children’s ministry
There are many conservative Christians who strongly believe that the existence of children’s ministry is destroying the church. Obviously, I am not one of them.
I do, however, believe that the church’s ways of conducting children’s ministry probably does have a lot to do with the low level of spirituality we see among Christians in general. There are many variables involved in that, but let’s look at the reasons against segregating families into age groups.
I would have to say the single largest argument against splitting up families for church activities is the fact that God gave children their parents as special guardians of their well-being. That includes physically, mentally — and spiritually.
When you habitually separate a guardian from their special trust, you are asking for trouble.
The other argument is in regards to siblings. Have you ever noticed how a family who has a healthy attitude towards each other wants to be together? They enjoy each other’s company and have learned to strengthen and encourage each other.
I know a lot of people disagree with me on the importance of this close bond, but I stand firm on my beliefs. God made families to work as a unit.
Many times, the benefits of a child having the companionship of their sibling will far outweigh the benefits of having each sibling in their own age-specific class.
What about Vacation Bible School?
Even Hasten Home’s Vacation Bible School materials have specific activities and worksheets created for the various age-groups in Vacation Bible School. So you know I obviously believe there is an advantage to having age-specific divisions at VBS.
The question that needs to be answered is, How strict should these age divisions be?
All of our decisions must prayerfully aim for that goal.
Here is how I deal with the age-divisions at Vacation Bible School:
- First of all, I do implement them. We have three classes: Junior, Primary, and Kindies. In a very small VBS, you might only have two: Primary-Junior and Kindies.
- Secondly, we suggest that the children will probably most enjoy the classes geared for their age group, but…
If siblings think they would prefer to be together in one class, we let them try. Whether the older joins the younger or vice-versa will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. It does not really matter a whole lot. We also let them know that if they change their mind later, that is okay, too.
The children will learn best when they are comfortable. Often once they have spent a little time at Vacation Bible School, they meet some of the other children and make some new friends. They may see the things their age-group is doing and think it sounds more fun than being in the sibling’s class — but it should really be their personal decision, made with the aid of the parents, if possible.
Finally, we encourage parents to stay! Many choose not to. They think of Vacation Bible School as not only spiritual food for their children, but as a break for themselves. And that’s okay.
But other parents want to be involved in the teaching of their children. They need to know that what is being taught in word and in deed at Vacation Bible School lines up with the values of the home.
If possible, give the parents that choose to stay some job. The same goes for an older sibling in a young classroom. Enlist their helping hands. Many are very happy to be involved in this way.
Sure, we may encounter the occasional “helicopter parent” or “helicopter sibling.” But the Lord will give us grace to deal with that as it arises. Just be cautious that you do not interfere in a healthy situation that simply differs from your own ideas on parenting.
Should children’s ministry segregate families?
Children’s ministry should be a complement to parents’ work at home for the salvation of their children. Parents are the first guardians and guides. At Vacation Bible School, we must stand ready to adjust for their choices regarding what the best ways are to fulfill that role.
We are encouragers. Our first job is leading the children to Jesus. And strengthening family ties through Vacation Bible School will only hasten the goal!