I have recently moved back to western Pennsylvania, more specifically the Beaver Valley which is about seventeen miles from Pittsburgh. During my childhood the steel mills were thriving. The air and rivers were polluted but the economy was great. The only unemployment was during the two week shutdowns of the mills for maintenance. There were many thriving churches of many denominations. Catholicism was the dominant faith at that time. Even today there are many incredible church structures throughout the Pittsburgh area. Unfortunately many are closed and some made into restaurants and bars. It always breaks my heart when I see a former church made into a secular facility.
Since moving back to the area I have been involved with two different denominational churches. If you stood in the back of the churches during services you would see many empty seats and a lot of grey hair folks. Few if any young families were attending. Both had a remnant of a Sunday School but nothing that the children seem to be attracted to. The current situation was not the fault of the current pastors. They sought our help to build a children’s ministry that children loved to come to.
I went prayer walking with one of the pastors. He and I are part of a small group of men who meet for breakfast and Bible study once a week. In our effort to help our pastor friend we decided to prayer walk his town. We would intercede for his town in effort to get people back in his church. The pastor led us through his town. He showed us church buildings that were sold and ready to be made into offices or restaurants. Some of the churches had closed and many were on the verge of closing as there was not enough members to sustain paying the heating bills in the winter months. It was heart breaking. Certainly the recession of the eighties and the current recession changed the demographics of the town, but there were still families with children who needed Jesus!
This is the story of many towns and many churches in America. Many churches have lost their relevance to meet the needs of families and especially children. The values war that we are fighting in our country has deeply affected the church. The economic struggles we are facing in our nation have added stress to families. Television, movies and video games have dominated our children’s attention and time. Divorce and fatherless homes have been another factor for the decline in church attendance. Children split time in custody battles and affect their church attendance. All of these reasons are real but quite simply, most declining churches have lost their value for children and youth. Buildings, trust funds, traditions, etc. Became more important than reaching the next generation.
Elder boards have freaked out at crayon marks on the walls of the sacred Sunday School rooms. They would rather have clean, unused, empty rooms than rooms filled with kids who can make a mess. Budgets are used to enhance already adequate buildings instead of employing and compensating anointed children and youth pastors. Most of the congregation sit in the pews each week not willing to give up one week per month to teach a sunday school class. They feel like “they” will miss something. If they only would read Matthew 10:42! “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (NIV) When you give up and sacrifice your comfort, your talents, your finances, your time to share Jesus’ love with children, you will absolutely be rewarded and those rewards are for now and the life after according to Jesus.
What has caused churches to lose their value for children? Paul warned us of what we would have to wrestle with concerning building God’s Kingdom in Ephesians 6:12. (And children are a part of building God’s Kingdom) “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Paul told us that four forces would resist our efforts to build His Kingdom. Principalities, powers, worldly rulers and spiritual wickedness!
In efforts to develop dynamic and relevant children’s ministries, I come across people who would say, “We have always done it this way!” They were so accustomed to doing things a certain way that they were not willing to change, even if it was not working. This is part of the first force of devilish resistance that Paul talks about is called “principalities”. The Biblical Greek word for “principality” in Ephesians 6:12 is the word “archas”. It is the same word we see in Gospel of John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word “beginning” is the Greek word “archas”. It carries a sense of preeminence. “Who was here first?” or “We have always done it this way”. I believe it is the force behind the generation gaps. Older generations get stuck on doing things the way they know and have experienced and closed to new creative ways of presenting the Gospel. We must always remember that the message of the Gospel never changes but the delivery methods constantly change with time and cultures. Thus the resisting force that does not allow children to use classrooms because of the possibility of crayon marks on the walls. It is good to remember that we are not fighting the elder board or church council. They are our brothers and sisters, we are commanded to love them! We are wrestling with the “archas”!
Have you ever heard the saying “Children must be seen and not heard.”? This is the second force of resistance Paul gives us, powers. The Biblical Greek word here is “exousias”. It is the same word Jesus uses in Matthew 28 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” It is the word “authoriity”. Simply it means, “The right to speak.” It is in operation when church decisions are made leaving out representation from the children’s ministry. The children’s praise and worship it too loud! You might as well face it children are noisy! It does not seem to bother God for He says, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise!” Psalm 8:2. The children in our ministries over the years have prophesied, preached, given words of knowledge and yes, even speak in tongues! If you give them the right (exousias) and opportunity you will be amazed how God will speak through children.
The next resisting force is the “rulers of this world”. The Greek word here is “kosmokratos”. It can be defined as “worldly ways”. It is in the context of using people to get things. It is the force behind debt that causes personal budgets and church budgets to cut back on children’s ministry resources. It is the force that makes even young children demand the Brand Names and hundred dollar athletic shoes. Advertisers focus most of their efforts and ads towards children and youth. Parents exhaust their budgets on Jordan’s, Xbox’s, and whatever else is the current fad for kids and youth. Most people do not budget in their tithes and offerings to the church so church budgets suffer and unfortunately children and youth budgets get hit first.
The last force Paul gives us in Ephesians 6:12 is “spiritual wickedness”. The Greek words for this is “pneumatika tae ponerias”. It is defined as the “Spirit of Malice”. It is the demonic force behind the shootings at Columbine and most recently the killing of little children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. I weep even as I write this. The only way to have any comprehension of this is to understand that there is a devil who hates mankind and maliciously plans these awful events by using troubled souls. These incidents have caused people to question a loving God who would let this happen so they turn away from church. I once heard Pastor Bill Wilson of Metro Ministries say, “Do not take for granted that the children you teach in your kids church today will be here next week!” Pastor Bill ministers in Brooklyn. He has lost children in his kids church from gunshots, abuse, etc. As a children’s pastor working in our kids churches I never could imagine one of my kids being shot or killed. Maybe they would not be back next week because Mom or Dad got offended with the church and left. A visit or phone call could always try to help that situation. It was not until I was outreaching into an inner city community in Hampton, Virginia. Every week we came with our Power Hour Sidewalk Sunday School Ministry. I was watching the local news one evening when they told of a three year old boy who was abused so badly by a mother’s boyfriend that the little child ran out of the home and crawled under a tree and died! I hope stories like this always affect us and drive us to pray, but I never imagined what I heard the next day at the Power Hour. As soon as I arrived the children gathered and asked if I heard about the little boy who died? I told them I saw it on the news. They then informed me that this little boy sat on the front row on the corner of our tarps the week before! I was devastated. Pastor Bill also said, “Live in the urgency!” I try to live in that urgency. It is not a safe world any longer. Two other times in history there was a war to kill kids. When Moses was about to be born and then again when Jesus was about to born. Two delivers were coming and the devil did not know exactly who or where so he just killed children at random. Perhaps once again he is afraid of not only a deliverer but a generation of deliverers. A generation of children who are equipped to take the Gospel and bring salvation and deliverance to their generation.
I believe that these are the forces and demonic influences that have closed the doors on churches and made churches no longer relevant to young families and their children. Perhaps we have focused too much on our programs, our buildings, our dinners, and everything else except prayer. Prayer is the only way to wrestle and win against these Ephesian 6:12 forces. We know that Jesus has given us authority over the devil and any force he can throw at us. This is truth so the only answer to losing the value of reaching children is that we are not praying?
I mentioned the two pastors that we are helping with their children’s ministries. I am happy to say that both church’s children and youth ministries are growing. It is reviving many of the mature folks in the church. I believe with all of their efforts coupled with prayer that they will once again be a relevant force in their communities that will overcome the four forces set on taking down their communities.