As states continue to lift COVID-19 restrictions and some churches begin meeting in person once more, pastors are tasked with addressing the various questions associated with their people coming back to a physical space of worship. While social distancing and safety measures are at the forefront of congregants’ minds, there are other subjects that have yet to be widely addressed by the U.S. Church—one of those being future plans for children’s ministry.
In the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman discuss the pandemic’s impact on kids’ ministry with Frank and Jessica Bealer. Have churches done a good job keeping children and youth programs running during social distancing? What does the future of kids’ ministry look like as we reenter church? This article takes a look at five things church leaders should keep in mind when it comes to children’s ministry in the current moment. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here or listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.
1. From online offerings to one-on-one engagement, assess the touchpoints of your kids’ ministry
In the days following the federal guidelines issued about social distancing, churches saw a flurry of action as congregations who had not yet had an online presence pivoted to get their weekly services online. Much was being said for adult worship services at the time, but in the weeks following that initial pivot, how have churches changed the way they address youth (junior high or high school) and children’s (5th grade or younger) ministry?
In a recent survey of Barna’s pastor panel, over one in three Protestant pastors says their church hasn’t changed its approach to youth (35%) or children’s (37%) ministry since COVID-19 began. Looking specifically at children’s ministry, one in three churches (34%) now offers digital resources for this age group to use at home, and one-quarter increased their social media presence (26%) or offered online Bible classes or Sunday school for this age group (25%).
For youth ministry, one-on-one engagement through phone calls, texts or video chats has been embraced, with 34 percent of churches having made this change. One in three pastors (31%) also reports that their church offers mid-week gatherings for this age group. One in four churches has set up online Bible classes or Sunday school for youth (26%) and increased their social media presence (25%).
“There have been some parachurch and curriculum organizations that have mobilized their curriculum,” says Frank Bealer (CEO of Phase Family Centers, Chief of Staff at Mountain Lake Church and Executive Director of Leadership at Orange). “Now, resources that really were never intended to go online are suddenly made available [to deliver to kids and students]. This has given permission and an opportunity for children’s and youth pastors to start thinking differently about [engaging with their students digitally].”
2. Equip your kids’ volunteers to check in with parents and children on a systematic basis
For some churches, pivoting to online services for adults was a challenge that claimed center stage for weeks into the pandemic. While solutions for children’s and youth ministry was not an afterthought, many churches have not had the staff power or time to stay engaged with parents and children on a weekly basis, an especially hard truth for families with children 5th grade or younger.
While churches tend to lean more toward sharing digital resources with families of children 5th grade or younger (34%), exactly that same percentage of churches (34%) now offers one-on-one engagement through phone calls, texts or video chats. This pivot not only speaks to the difference age makes in the decisions made for kids’ ministry, it also echoes the necessity for kids’ volunteers who are not church staff to help next gen leaders connect with families and children on a regular basis.
“Probably my favorite thing that has happened [because of COVID-19] is that one-on-one engagement has increased to a whole new level,” notes Jessica Bealer (Author, Speaker & Director of Family Ministry Services at Generis). “We can’t leave any family behind… Every single week, we need to connect on an individual basis with families. Churches who have gone down this pathway have seen such incredible engagement at a new level, which is really exciting.”
Frank adds, “One of the good things that’s come out of that idea of individualized engagement is realizing that if we’re going to do this, now is the time to build the systems and get comfortable with equipping volunteers to be able to [reach out to the kids and families they serve].”
3. Use the current state of engagement as a benchmark for summer programming at your church
Across the board, churches are reporting a decrease in kids’ engagement since making changes to their programs. Only 9 percent of churches report engagement with their children 5th grade or younger has increased, while one in five (21%) says it has stayed the same and 62 percent say it has decreased (36% significantly, 26% somewhat). Similar percentages follow for older children, in junior high or high school; 7 percent report an increase, a quarter (25%) says attendance has remained steady and 60 percent say it has decreased (26% significantly, 34% somewhat).
When looking to the future, pastors continue to choose digital content and resources (33%) as one of the primary ways their church will minister to kids during the summer. Other options include in-person activities (26%) and video calls (22%). Over a quarter of churches (27%) will not offer any of these options for the summer, and 18 percent are unsure of their plans.
Pastors report more offerings for junior high and high school students—in-person activities / events (37%), video call meetups (35%) and digital content and resources (31%). Twenty-seven percent of churches don’t plan to do any of these, and 14 percent are unsure.
4. Consider families with young children and babies in your reopening strategy
Next gen leaders and parents alike may be eager to have kids back in Sunday school, but parents and youth pastors are in for a little bit of a longer wait, even if their church has already or plans to reopen this summer. Over half of churches (52%) say that Sunday school for children 5th grade or younger will not be available this summer, and 43 percent say the same for youth ministry.
“If you are not planning to open your children’s ministry on day one, then you’re going to have children in your auditorium,” comments Jess. “I know that’s going to be uncomfortable for a lot of teaching pastors—you’ll have crying babies, squirming toddlers and kids who ask, ‘Is this over yet?’—so you’ll need to have a plan [for addressing this].”
Jess continues, “I think it would be a great strategy for senior leaders, or someone who’s doing announcements, to simply acknowledge the elephant in the room—which is all of the children—and [remind congregants] that this is a family experience and we’re just glad you’re here.”
5. Provide parents with the resources needed to have honest conversations with their kids
Recent data show that parents, overall, are overwhelmed right now. Pastors report that, based on everything they’ve seen and heard from people in their church, 94 percent of parents run the spectrum from a little overwhelmed (40%) to somewhat (36%) or very (18%) overwhelmed.
Heightened levels of stress and anxiety in parents right now can stem from myriad reasons, including COVID-19, racial tension in the U.S., job loss and a host of other uncertainties—and parents need help. Churches should come alongside parents, not only to ease the burden of everyday life, but also to provide them with resources to help navigate difficult conversations their children about our nation’s present circumstances.
“I’m concerned with the Church’s response,” muses Frank. “I’m concerned that while the Church is doing a good job making announcements and communicating their posture, they’re not always doing a good job of preparing and equipping parents for the conversations that happen late at night or the TikTok video that finally resonates [with their kids].”
“We need to make sure we’re pointing parents continuously to resources that help them navigate these conversations,” concludes Frank. “It’s not enough for us to give a nod to these issues on Sunday morning or to say how we’re adjusting as a church; that doesn’t help parents navigate these conversations at home. If the Church isn’t the source of resources for parents, then they’ll go [elsewhere] and that may not give them the best answer to help their kids navigate trauma, stress and these overwhelming circumstances.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 1,950 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–May 18, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020