Wish List for a Child’s Heart

There are few people I know who are more intentional about every aspect of ministry than my friend Jim Hinkle. I mean seriously some days meetings will last twice as long as necessary because of how much he thinks through every detail, word choice used and the implication of decisions made. But it’s born out of wisdom and his deep love & passion for the local church and how she should love others well. Jim was one of several who sat down and tackled this overwhelming job of creating a discipleship model for Children’s & Youth Ministries. I’m so excited to invite him to our conversation today to share just how they set out to tackle this feat.

It’s an entertaining mental exercise to make a wish list. What would a wish list look like for a remodeled kitchen? How about a new car? What about the ultimate super hero? All of us, at some level, have let our imaginations dream about what could be if we could simply make a list of what we’d like to have in a kitchen, a car, or maybe even a super hero.

But what about our wish list for a child’s heart. What attitudes, skill sets, and perspectives would we put in a wish list if we ask ourselves, “What is our wish list for a child’s heart?”

Making Our Wish Lists
Isn’t that in fact what we are attempting to do when we dream about forming the spiritual lives of the youngest disciples? In the local church, when we sit down to choose curriculum, design a volunteer structure, and look at the physical environment in which children will learn more about Jesus, aren’t we really just making a wish list?

That’s where we found ourselves at the Sycamore View Church (Memphis, TN) several years ago. In an attempt to move beyond the screams of the urgent, we began re-imagining what it could look like if a local church partnered with families and attempted to create one coordinated, intentional discipleship model that followed 1st graders through 12th graders. Instead of the typical “silo-oriented” (elementary does their thing, middle school does their thing, high school does their thing, and we all cheer for each other, but use differing goals and language), we have attempted to develop a discipleship model that transcends the traditional boundaries of student ministries and have one coherent model that has the same goals and language throughout the more formative years of a child’s life.

The “Senior Sunday” Question
For several months, leaders in our children’s and youth ministries began meeting to discuss and dream about this discipleship model. The most helpful question that guided our conversation was, “What do we want our students to look like on Senior Sunday (HS graduation celebration) when they walk across the stage in front of the church?” Obviously, our discussion didn’t center on hair color, physique, or clothing style. Instead, the conversation turned toward a healthy discussion of what kind of people our students were becoming, and how we can equip them for lifelong discipleship.

That question led us to think in terms of spiritual formation (development of the inner life) and whittle down our “wish list” to seven core values that we hope will become part of our students’ DNA, not just while they are in our children’s and youth ministries, but for the rest of their lives. The seven core values we chose were:

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Missional: We desire to live missionally
Developing: We are on a never-ending journey to be formed into the image of Christ
Connected: We are connected in meaningful ways to the church as a whole
Purposeful: We believe that we are made with a purpose
Pursuing: We pursue an authentic relationship with God
Discipled: We need spiritual mentors
Family: We believe God designed the family as the first and best place for discipleship

After we prayerfully came up with our list of core values, we attempted to flesh out what a “Missional” student or a “Purposeful” student might be able to do in terms of living out his or her faith. This next level of development led us to add a skill set to each of the core values. While this is a theoretical model, we know it has to work in real world ministry. For example, the skill set for the core value of “Connected” is the ability to see the value in and interact with multiple generations. We think that skill set or competency is vital for lifelong discipleship. Adding and communicating these skill sets has helped us move beyond theory and into a more practical level.

How The Wish List Happens In Children’s & Youth Ministry
Finally, while we love the idea of creating core values and skill set, we realize that we are completely, utterly, and wholly reliant on God’s power and human free will to actually form a child’s heart into the image of Jesus. While acknowledging that spiritual formation is God’s work, ministers and parents can make this process more or less likely depending on the environment they create and the ministry commitments they choose.

This layer of “ministry commitments” is our final layer of our model. This layer describes what we as leaders of children’s and youth ministry in the local church can do with the influence we have to create a more likely scenario that young hearts will be formed into the image of Jesus. This layer of our model is the “rubber meets the road” area where we program, we calendar, and we plan specific experiences and programs that grow from a deep place of intentional discipleship. For example, one ministry commitment to the core value of “Connected” is to provide opportunities for intergenerational experiences. We can’t force young people to value being connected to the church as a whole, and we cannot magically pass on the ability to see the value in and interact with multiple generations. However, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. We can provide opportunities for students to utilize that will hopefully empower those things to take root. One of the ways we “provide opportunities” is through our summer camp. Our camp is intentionally staffed with a diverse group of adults ranging in age from early 20s to mid 60s. Placing our summer camp staffing under the value of “Connected” has broadened our adults’ understanding of why and how they serve on camp staff. This model has helped them move away from filling a role or being a “warm body”, or serving as a chaperone (my least favorite word in ministry!) and more toward a mentor or “disciplier” or a life guide role for our students. Placing our ministry commitments and our programs/experiences within this model has added depth and intentionality to our overall discipleship process for young people. It also has clarified the vision that we are calling our adult volunteers into and put flesh on the ideas we are calling our students to live out.

Where To Start
If this process is captivating your imagination like it did mine, here are a few tips that might prove helpful:

 

  • Start with the end in mind.
  • Gather stakeholders in children’s AND youth ministry and ask the question, “What will it take for our kids to live as disciples throughout their life?”
  • Don’t rush to program.
  • As the newly developing language takes hold, let old experiences slowly take on new meaning and gradually add news things that get you closer to your goal.
  • Communicate this model. Communicate this model. Communicate this model. Even if it becomes redundant.
  • Find a way to measure how you’re doing. We are attempting to see our effectiveness through “core value assessments” that our students take in 5th , 8th , and 12th grade.

This process might seem daunting & overwhelming but it is one that I promise will be well worth your time & effort. What questions do you still have? What obstacles might you face as you embark on this journey?

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