What Makes a Church Successful? Hint: It’s Not About the Adults

Article by Carla Hutson July 6, 2021

Not surprisingly, Dr. George Barna believes children’s ministry is the most important investment you can make in your ministry. What might seem surprising is that it took some hard facts for him to believe it. How did this proponent and evangelist of the current family ministry movement come to feel so strongly about the role children play in the growth of the Church?

Initially, the research group he founded was trying to help church leaders understand the culture so that the leaders could challenge the worldviews people were having and bring to them a biblical mindset. As was the typical model of the Barna Research Group in the early 2000s, George and his staff would come up with a topic or topics to research and then hit the road, giving seminars around the country to present their findings. After exhausting all of their ideas, one of his staff members mentioned they had not yet done any research with ministry to children.

Said George, during a recent interview for the Resilient Disciples Podcast, “I looked at her and I laughed and I said, ‘Why would we?’” But after her suggestion nagged at him, “I got back and I said, ‘Maybe there’s something there, I don’t know. I’ve never even thought about it.’” 

He said the research he and his group subsequently came up with “blew [his] mind.” 

“It’s one of the two or three things I’ve done over the last 40 plus years that has completely revolutionized the way I think about ministry and the way that I think about impact on people’s lives.” 

Packaging the research into the book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, George and his team scheduled seminars around the country. Although they were now sold on the importance of children before age 13 obtaining a biblical worldview, the concept wasn’t easily embraced by the church community. 

“I had so many pastors who were so upset that came up to me and said, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ and I said, ‘Are you listening to what I’m talking about here? This is the single most important thing you can take out of this day!’

“They had the same mindset I had before the research, which is: What do I care about children? Ministry is about adults. Filling a church with adults is success.”

Nearly 20 years later, George is still talking to people about a worldview and helping people understand that worldview develops between the ages of 15 to 18 months and 13 years. Calling it a small window of time in which we can affect a child’s view of themselves and God, he recognizes God can do anything at any time in a person’s life. However, after the age of 13, research shows that unless a person has a “dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit and their lives are re-arranged by God at that time,” they will die with the same worldview they developed before their teens. 

The urgency with which we have to raise resilient disciples is exacerbated, he says, by the decline of Christianity in the U.S. Less than 1% of those in Generation Z – those in middle school and high school – have a biblical worldview. Instead it is a mix of what makes them feel good, what they’re comfortable with and what they think is good for them. Without a future generation of Christians passing on their biblical worldview to their kids, George says “Christianity is on the edge of extinction.”

He admits that sometimes seeing the research is discouraging. 

“Well I’m a human being. … But then a couple of things occurred to me, one of which is I think I’m part of the remnant. And so I can’t really give up. God put me here for such a time as this. I know what he’s called me to do, and it’s not done yet. The other thing that always comes back to me is … I’m gonna have to answer to God for all the things that I did in my life. So what am I gonna say? ‘I know you’re all powerful. I know you can do anything at any time, but I really didn’t think you could turn this around so I kind of gave up.’”

Calling it a hard argument to make with God, George says he desires to be obedient and committed to the calling on his life, to be “responsible to be responsible.”

He hopes people called to minister “have the same mentality” he does about kingdom work, that they see it as a path to growth in themselves and their communities, and that they pray, reflect and do their homework. 

It’s a “transition of recognizing it’s not about adults, it’s really about children,” he said. “It may even come all the way to the point of reshaping the vision for the ministry of the church, and that’s a very pivotal, very fundamental foundational thing to do. But I would encourage pastors to have the courage to do so.”

Listen to the podcast “George Barna: The ‘Single Most Important Investment’ You Can Make in Your Ministry” in its entirety and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode.

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Awana is invested in equipping leaders to reach kids with the Gospel and engage them in lifelong discipleship. As part of that mission, Awana helps churches around the world minister to kids ages 2-18 with biblically based curriculum, resources and events.

An upcoming event, The Child Discipleship Forum, will bring together children’s ministry leaders, senior pastors and parents to collaborate, pray, learn and dialogue about the most critical factors that shape long-term discipleship in children. Among the speakers at the forum will be Wess Stafford, of Compassion International; David Kinnaman, from the Barna Group; Valerie Bell and Matt Markins, of Awana; Ed Stetzer, from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College; Jim Wideman, of The Belonging; and Dr. Denise Muir Kjesbo, of Bethel Seminary. Register to attend online or in person Sept. 16 and 17 in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

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