Christian publishers and retail stores join forces to connect families, churches, and educators with faith-formation resources and experiences.

Not so long ago, children started the first day of school with new pencils, notebooks, and erasers. Today, students use tablet computers to do their homework. But that’s not the only way in which children’s education—and specifically children’s ministry—is changing.

As the church’s needs shift, Christian publishers know they need to approach content development differently, from board books to vacation Bible school. Recognizing, understanding, and responding to the trends in children’s education are key to reaching the next generation for Christ.

FACING THE NUMBERS

According to Group Publishing’s 2016 State of Children’s Ministry Survey, children’s ministry is rapidly changing. More than 55 percent of those surveyed report that, unlike 30 years ago, families only attend church twice a month, making it difficult for children’s pastors to build relationships with the kids and with the parents. Complicating matters is the fact only half of those pastors are working with a plan outlining the theological concepts they want to teach children before middle school.

While all the respondents believed that the children graduating their program had a solid biblical foundation, recent statistics show that as these kids get older, they aren’t sticking with the faith. The 2015 State of Theology study by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research found that when asked to respond to a series of statements related to Christian doctrine, young people between the ages of 18 and 34 consistently held heretical views at a higher percentage than older respondents.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a high percentage of younger millennials are religious “nones”—those people who say they are atheists or agnostics—while an increasing share of older millennials are also identifying as “nones.”

And most telling, Group also discovered the majority of participating churches that reported they are growing also have a spiritual-development plan in place for their children. Conversely, nearly 60 percent of responding churches that are in decline have no such plan.

If the children in church today might disconnect in the next few years, then investment in children’s ministry and the creation of significant resources become even more important.

PROVIDING RESOURCES

With a wealth of information a click away, some might wonder where—and how—kids are learning about God. Peggy Schaefer, VP and associate publisher at WorthyKids/Ideals, thinks children still receive spiritual formation where they always have—church, family, and school. “But the methods of delivery have expanded,” she says.

According to Carla Barnhill, senior director of product development and product design at Sparkhouse, children are getting their spiritual development through their experiences and relationships.

“At Sparkhouse, we think of children as inherently spiritual beings created in the image of God. So, they’re learning about God from birth,” she says. “They’re learning about God when they form loving attachments, as they discover the world, as they develop the relational skills to show love and care for others.”

She also says the home and the local church are crucial parts of a child’s faith formation. “Children do best when they’re surrounded by caring adults and peers who love and encourage them throughout their lives. When that community is connected to faith, the impact can be life-changing.”

Charity Kauffman, a former children’s ministry director and the current children’s ministry managing editor at Group Publishing, believes natural places to learn about faith remain the home and the church.

“As a children’s pastor, I wanted to create an environment for kids to learn to love and follow Jesus. I wanted to encourage and equip parents to create home environments that helped the whole family grow in friendship with Jesus,” she says.

Equipping churches and families has always been a cornerstone of Christian retail. By staying on top of education trends, publishers and retailers can have a significant kingdom impact.

“We pay attention to reviews, to retailer feedback, to parent feedback. And of course, the market is always willing to tell us whether it likes something once it’s in the stores,” says Schaeffer.

“Part of our development process is to run everything past a team of external reviewers who check the theology, the pedagogy, the practicality, the age-appropriateness. All of that helps us put out products we truly believe in,” Barnhill explains. “And when we find out something isn’t working the way we hoped it would, we try again. But every product we’re developing right now was born out of a ministry need, not a product need.”

When Kauffman worked in a church, she “needed Christian publishers and retail stores to provide resources that made spiritual formation accessible to kids, parents, and volunteer leaders. I needed resources that resonated with diverse kids and families and helped me reach and retain kids and families in my community that were new to church.”

In her position at Group, Kauffman is helping produce the quality resources she once needed—and she knows the Christian retail market well: Her parents own Friendship Bookstore in Burnham, Pennsylvania.

SUPPORTING THE CHURCH

As churches biblically train children, the Christian products industry can come alongside them by discovering their needs and meeting them.

Kauffman’s parents’ bookstore, for example, hosts a VBS preview every year, which smaller, local churches appreciate.

“We realized that churches need help picturing how resources can be implemented in their own contexts,” she says. “They needed to be in a room with other VBS directors so they can be encouraged and meet other people who share the same passion and responsibilities that they do. They needed a chance to connect and learn from each other.”

In addition, when Kauffman worked at the store, she noticed that some churches needed her “to help them steer different age levels in the same direction. Small churches that lacked children’s ministry leadership often made curriculum choices based on individual teachers’ preferences. They needed me to point them to resources that would unify teachers and help them embrace an intentional spiritual-formation strategy. They also needed to think outside of classroom walls and into families’ living rooms.”

Schaeffer believes that “our job is to come alongside the traditional educational resources to create material that approaches the content in a different manner.”

Barnhill takes a 30,000-foot view of children’s education. “So often Christian resources treat faith like a package of content that needs to be delivered by a certain age and in a certain form. But faith formation is a life-long process. So we can support the family and the church by equipping both with resources that allow children to explore the world, to ask questions, to be curious, to be wrong, to figure out what their faith means for them in the caring context of a family and a church that loves them unconditionally.

“We only need to look at the research on millennials and the church to see that handing over doctrine without equipping children and teenagers how to grapple with it and make it their own has been a huge failure,” she adds. “Let’s invite them into a journey of faith and commit to walking it with them with grace and understanding.”

Learn more about the effect of technology on children’s learning and product development at cbaonline.org/machines.

—Lora Schrock