Children’s Ministry
for Today’s Church

It is often said, “It is not a matter of are our children being formed, but rather who or what is forming our children?” By the time our children hit adulthood, they’ve been formed by hundreds of influences—teachers, aunts, uncles, coaches, technology, books, pastors, counselors, small group leaders, to name a few—through mentoring, coaching, hands-on-learning, and modeling.

Formation is this messy mash-up of all the little mundane moments that get connected to the highs and lows that build little persons into big persons. It is not a miracle. It is normal. Bit by bit. But it sure does feel like a miracle because the church is not the only one forming our children. In a world that now includes headlines about splinternet, transhumanism, ChatGPT, NFTs, and transgenderism, it is clearer than ever that cultural formation is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to our children. 

Like a bamboo reed standing tall in the wind, the church stands firm on this unifying belief: Making disciples is the central work of the church. When a church community focuses on this craft of disciple making with children, the church is doing the most important work on the planet.

So, where do we start?

Child Discipleship: A Definition

Child discipleship is a process designed to form lasting faith by helping kids belong to God and his kingdom, believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to become like Jesus and walk in his ways through the power of the Holy Spirit.[1] 

Belong represents a highly relational process that is led by loving, caring adults like parents, church leaders, volunteers, teachers, mentors, and the like. When loving, caring adults exude a highly relational sense of belonging, kids tend to sense love and are more open to the gospel and the Bible. Believe is about helping kids discover reality in the truth of the gospel in the Bible. The more a child experiences a culture of rich Scripture engagement, the more likely they are to trust Christ as Savior and grow in their faith. Become is the experiential process of helping children and students know how to participate in the world around them. They need loving, caring adults to help them navigate the rapidly changing culture and to experience God through practicing the ways of Jesus.[2]

Child discipleship is where the mundane meets the majestic, and with goldfish crackers to boot! Sort of like when a child grows an inch—when did that happen? You see it, but you do not see it. When we disciple children, we do our part in the moment by relying upon the power of God’s Word and the work of the Holy Spirit. It is through this partnership that children can respond to the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and mature in their faith. As children follow Jesus over time, the Holy Spirit transforms them through the ongoing, lifetime process of discipleship to become more like him. It is in this partnership between us (disciple makers) and God that the faith of our children is formed.

A Foundation of Scripture

The lasting faith of our children is what we long for. It is what makes our heart pump a little faster. If we want lasting faith in our children, we have got to dig that foundation even deeper. When we do, we fill it not only with a Scripture-rich environment where kids’ lives are saturated with the Bible, but we also give kids the gospel worldview . . . a worldview that is far more satisfying than the empty promises of hyper individualism. What is a biblical worldview? It is a framework of the gospel:

  • Creation – I was made, I know who made me, and I have value and purpose;
  • Fall – I know where sin comes from, I know what is wrong with me, and I know what is wrong with the world;
  • Redemption – I know who paid for my sin, who can save me from my sin, and ultimately save me from the penalty of death; and
  • Restoration – I know who can lead me to abundant life. I know who can change and transform me, and I know one day all will be renewed to a perfect state in Heaven. 

Today’s children need to be engaged in environments that are saturated with the Bible—God’s Word. If we want to increase our effectiveness at discipling children with faith that lasts, we must teach our children the Bible in a way that is Christ-centric and makes the gospel story arch crystal clear, as we saturate our kids’ lives in Bible-rich environments.

A Pathway to Parents

We discovered some interesting insights from parents in our 2022 Barna Group study. A common narrative “about parents” among children’s ministry leaders goes something like this: “I try to get parents engaged in discipling their own kids, but all too often, so many parents are disengaged in the process.” That leads us to ask the question, “Are children’s ministries covering the tough topics that matter to parents?”[3] We found that there were three areas where children’s ministry leaders seem to be ahead of the game in terms of addressing cultural topics. These topics are as follows:

  • Bullying
  • Loneliness
  • Social Media

There are also additional areas where parents believe that children’s ministry should address cultural topics. These topics include the following:

  • Depression
  • Racial Inequality
  • Suicide
  • Self-Harm
  • School Shootings
  • Sexual Identity

Parents are open to more help from the church. There is a tremendous opportunity to discover exactly what the key issues are in your church community and build a bridge to the hearts of parents and children. 

Understanding This Cultural Age

We are no longer living in a quasi-majority-Christian-culture. Today’s kids need to be protected but also prepared by God’s agents of formation—the church and the home. This preparation begins in childhood, in age-appropriate ways. If we wait until they are in their teen years to begin preparing them to navigate “today’s Babylon,” we have waited far too long. We must embody a missionary mindset as we raise and disciple kids in today’s world. As disciples of Jesus, they are going to look, act, and talk differently. Like the men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what to do, let us prepare our children to bend and flex, but not break, under the weight of culture.[iv]

How do we better understand the times to know what to do?

  1. Insight – We need to gain additional insight as to how the dominant cultures are forming our children, why it is important, and what we can do about it. Insight helps us understand the why, and it takes away the intimidating mystique of something that otherwise might seem daunting. Here is a list of resources that have been incredibly helpful in gaining insight in the area of cultural formation:
  • Listen to This Cultural Moment podcast (start with Season 1, Episode 1)
  • Attend the Child Discipleship Forum
  • Read Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture or A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World Will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders by Mark Sayers
  1. Equipping – Insight is the starting point, but you need to know what to do with these key insights to bring about change. Here are a few key resources you may find helpful:
  • Read Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church by Valerie Bell, Mike Handler, and Matt Markins
  • Read The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer
  • Read Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation by Pete Scazzero
  1. Practice – practice is taking insight + equipping → and putting it into action. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
  • Start with a discussion with your team on “how do we biblically help children and families who are being formed by the issues of our day?” Do this with your children’s ministry team, with a group of parents, or with your small group. Discussion is always a great place to begin. Dialogue and conversation give everyone a chance to express what is in their heart and mind as well as to ask questions and to wrestle with complex issues as a group.
  • Pray together with your team and with groups of parents. Just as discussion opens the relational dialogue, channel these questions and anxieties toward the one who can handle them—God. Wrestle with God over these issues. Talk to him. Plead with him to give you the wisdom you need that comes from him. Contend for the children within and beyond your ministry and home. This is your most important work.

Kids need a running start. They need to be prepared. We cannot wait until high school; they will be far more likely to get pummeled by the never-ending waves of secularism. When this happens, many young people fall beneath the waves of culture and never resurface to the faith. 

As I breathe in the weight of the moment, I also exhale with the words of Jesus in John 16:33 where he says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Jesus is going to build his church . . . and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

[1] Matt Markins, The Faith of Our Children: Eight Timely Research Insights for Discipling the Next Generation (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2023), 14.

[2] Valerie Bell, Matt Markins, and Mike Handler, Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church (St. Charles, IL: Awana, 2020), 170–171.

[3] Research Project Seven, 42.

[iv] First Chronicles 12:32, “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command” (ESV).

Matt Markins

Matt Markins

President and CEO of Awana

Matt serves as the President and CEO of Awana, a global leader in child discipleship. As a leading researcher in child discipleship and children’s ministry, Matt has commissioned nine research projects since 2013, including a Barna Group study called Children’s Ministry in a New Reality. He is co-author of three books, most notably RESILIENT: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church. He is also the co-founder of the Child Discipleship Forum and D6 Conference. Matt appreciates art and carpentry, enjoys travel and long breakfasts with his wife, Katie. Matt and Katie have been involved in children’s ministry for more than 25 years and spend their time in Nashville with their two sons.

Melanie Hester

Melanie Hester

Director of Discipleship Engagement, Awana

Melanie Hester serves as the director of discipleship engagement at Awana. A passionate disciple maker of children, her own faith is deeply impacted by the 4- and 5- year-olds she teaches each week at her local church. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and most recently became an executive leadership coach to help children’s ministry leaders implement effective discipleship strategies into their churches. She is a wife and mom, a lover of craft coffee, and an avid shopper at Trader Joe’s.

Awana is a 501(c)(3) global nonprofit that equips leaders to disciple over 6.4 million children weekly in 135 countries. You can find discipleship tools for the church and home at and

As published in the May 2024 issue of the White Wing Messenger.