The Future of the Church: It Matters

Where will the future leadership of the Church come from? At what point do we develop leaders? We know that you see the future of the Church differently than those who serve adults. So how do you point to the future with one hand and raise your other in praise as you lead little ones to follow Jesus?

Christie Penner Worden
10 minute read

It was November 2019 when the executive director of the denomination I was working for at the time told me they expected 60% of pastors to retire within the next 10 years. Read the year again. Now fast-forward 3-4 months (depending on where you were when the news took root) and the pandemic became the ministry X-factor of the ages like no other. Over the following 2 years, we would witness and/or experience what has now been dubbed 'The Great Resignation,' a burnout phenomenon from which pastors and church leaders were not exempt.

Ever since that moment almost four years ago, I have grown curious (and concerned) about how (if?) the Church is paying attention to its future leadership: where will it come from? At what point do we develop leaders? Is there an age limit to those the Holy Spirit gifts and calls? Is there a 'pastor costume' in the dress-up trunk for kids to even imagine it as a viable, inspiring, dare I say desirable vocation? And who have we limited from dreaming up such a future simply because they’re not even in the building on Sundays?

Here’s the thing: I know that you know that the future of the Church is unlikely to be determined in the main auditorium on a Sunday. The future of the Church is defined by the discipleship of the children in your kids ministry today. And here is what I’ve learned about you, the ones leading today for the sake of tomorrow’s church:

Our research and development team at RaiseUpFaith began to reveal some things about you in our conversations. This led a teammate to take all the descriptors about you, what we’ve seen and heard, what we’ve learned from the children’s ministry leaders we serve, and what you have told us about your experience in your role, and put them into an AI image generator. If we take what we know about you and what you do and what you care about and stick it in a robot portrait painter, do you want to know what we get? (Stop reading here if you’re not ready to feel seen, loved, and fully affirmed in the work you do.)

We got a leader dressed in full firefighting gear baking a batch of cookies with a group of kids inside a church that was engulfed in flames. I’m going to give you a moment to imagine the scene and let it land.

So how did we get here? We know that you see the future of the Church differently than those who serve adults. We also know that you don’t think kids are just the future: they are the now and not yet—like the Kingdom. You know, the whole 'whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me' thing (Mark 9:37). You get it. You know that what you are doing today to build connections, make space for relationships both with kids and between kids and Jesus has dividends that you may never see. You scatter seeds, pray, water the soil, train gardeners and harvesters, pray some more. You are the workers Jesus declared are needed for the harvest.

We have also learned how lonely it can feel: 'the workers are few' (Matthew 9:35-38). This does not change the value of the work you do. It also doesn’t change the way you feel about the 'more' you wish you could do. Yet you carry on. You do the work faithfully. We also know we aren’t the only ones who see you even when you are working alone in the church basement: Jesus sees you. He thinks what you are doing is the same as what you would do for Him. He loves you deeply, widely, completely, fully.

You are also the first to smell smoke in a burning building because it’s not just your babies you are protecting: it’s all our babies week in and week out. You know how to get out of the building without losing one. And we know you know because you pattern your behavior after the Good Shepherd.

But in the case of this image of KidMin peeps everywhere, I wonder if you feel like the house is on fire and either no one is noticing or even cares? I wonder if what we know about the Church is informed by the way you are building Her in real time, and literally holding Her up, and holding the enemy back, with the praise and worship of tiny humans (Psalm 8:2)? I wonder if anyone has told you that the work you are doing is expanding the Kingdom, taking ground for the King, even if it feels like the floor is falling out from beneath your feet?

You carry on. You believe what you do holds a value that cannot be counted this side of Heaven, and so even if the House is on fire, you will use the heat, you will use the glow of the Light of the World to bake cookies, roast marshmallows, tell stories, and gather around, expectant that the King is in the room and He will not waste a moment. Even when no one else hears the crackle of the flames, and even if He does not rescue you from the furnace, you will serve no other. Because tomorrow’s Church is today’s kids, and you serve the Chief Architect.

It used to make me angry: Why doesn’t anyone understand? What are they not seeing? How do they not get the significance of kids ministry? Why do I have to run an entire micro church inside a big church without all the support and budget the adults get? And then I realized, I get to do this work. Those who don’t get it are simply missing out. I don’t need them to understand for the calling to be good, the work to be valuable, and the truth to hold fast: kids matter to God and so they matter to me.

And in the words of a dear friend: don’t hear what I’m not saying. I believe the Church does care about kids. They have seen your décor and spectacular VBS events, your Christmas pageants and Easter Egg-stravaganzas. They have also seen you praying blessings over children, sitting with a struggling parent, and baptizing a child who came to know Jesus as a part of your church family. But I think sometimes the onlookers forget to tell you that they care because they are in awe of what you do, how you do it, and your seemingly limitless energy to do it again next week. And friends, they don’t know you’re tired or need help unless you say so.

So, let’s get real. I know you’re tired. It’s a lot and can be difficult and draining. I know that you are surrounded by flames. I want you to feel seen and loved. What can we do to help you, so that you don’t get burnt? How do you point to the future with one hand and raise your other in praise as you lead little ones to follow Jesus?

We serve the God who provides: there is enough for this day, and on Fridays, enough for two days if we are obedient (Exodus 16:4-5). Our culture would have us believe that scarcity is afoot and amassing everything we could possibly need ever is how we know we will survive (e.g., toilet paper in 2020). But our God meets our needs. He takes care of His own. And there is enough for everyone in the Kingdom. There is enough. That’s different than wealth or abundance or perceived need. That’s the beauty of God’s economy: it requires that everyone has enough (so our scales may need to be adjusted).

If God will meet our needs according to His plan and His purposes, I wonder what we are doing between Sundays that He hasn’t asked us to do? Phil Vischer says 'The impact that God has planned for us does not occur when we are pursuing impact. It occurs when we are pursuing God… The most important thing I do is not the work I do for God. The most important thing I do is make God the most important thing.' (The Failure of Dreams: Good Works and God's Love)

Life happens between Sundays. What if God wants to show up every day in between according to how He made you to do His will in all that you do? What if you did less Sunday from Monday to Saturday, and lived as the Church in all the places and spaces of your life? What if the work you do for God isn’t the most important thing? And what if the future Church looks different than what you’re doing now?

We know from research (The Deloitte Global 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey) that GenZ and Millennial parents care deeply about climate change, the safety of children, mental health and wellbeing, and the cost-of-living crisis. We also know that none of those make great sermon series but are at the heart of the people and people are the Church. And those people, those who have kids in your halls, they care about these things and wonder if you do, too. They can get a great sermon on countless platforms. Can they get the support, inspiration, and equipping they’re looking for, for their kids, and with their kids from you? They want your support. They crave community. I believe what they’re looking for is the Church.

We have seen the statistics. We know about attendance. We see you working so hard to provide for the families in your communities. Have you asked them what they need, even when it feels like the House is on fire? Because regardless of what the research says, know this, friend: The Church is God’s plan for His kids and His plans are always good. It is a Plan A that needs no Plan B, but it may require you to build differently, do less, ask questions, be available to linger longer, even begin again.

You and I both know that God means what He says and says what He means, and He says in 1 Peter 2:9 that “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” So let me encourage you to enjoy the glow of that light. Keep going. Keep lighting up the Church with your enthusiasm, belief, faith, hope, love, mercy, joy, and presence. Because he did not call you into the light to make your life hard; He called you to make you holy.

It matters. What you do and how you do it matters. But more than all of that: you matter. We see you. We love you, and we are so, so grateful for you. Light up the world like the House is on fire and may the glow draw kids from every corner of community to your halls and declare that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, now and forever, amen. Because they are the Church. They are our future now, and not yet.

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