From 1979 to the early 2000s, God brought great growth to the Chinese church. During this period of revival and growth, the Spirit provided a bountiful harvest of tens of thousands who came to Christ. However, throughout this time, our primary focus was on adults, not children and teenagers. The church, believing that Christ's return was imminent, focused its attention on evangelizing adults. As both the church and as parents, we lacked an understanding of the importance of reaching the next generation. We have also been hindered by placing the academic development of our children and teenagers above their spiritual growth. As the years passed, the Spirit began to speak to many of us that we needed to begin ministering to the next generation, to preserve the harvest of our children, lest they fall away.
Let us look at the situation of children and teenagers in our churches today. I believe this will greatly influence the future of the church in China. This paper draws on the experiences of those serving as children and youth workers in the Chinese church as well as those who support them on the ground.
Three Statements on Emerging Realities and Models
First, over the last five years, ministry to children and youth has begun although in some locations, it has existed even longer. Many churches now provide some type of learning environment for children apart from the adult congregation on Sundays. Some churches have more established children and youth ministry programs that have matured over recent years. They offer age-appropriate Sunday school classes from as early as kindergarten to middle school and youth classes for high school. A few churches even have separate youth fellowships that meet outside of Sunday services for middle and high school students with experienced and dedicated (specialized) youth leaders. Many other churches, restricted by space and resources, are only able to provide one class for all age levels (elementary to high school). Some churches are yet unable to provide the resources to start a separate ministry for their children and youth. While the situation and needs vary from church to church and region to region, the emerging growth of children and youth ministry demonstrates the tremendous change and development of the church in China over just a short period of time.
Second, we have not developed a mature philosophy of ministry to the next generation. We lack consensus on how we should minister to children and teenagers, and our philosophy and practice are not integrated. Rather than seeing the next generation as a stewardship responsibility or evangelism and discipleship opportunity, we see them as a risk and a burden. This philosophy is also hindered by the emphasis our families place on their children's academic success. We acknowledge the external pressures exerted on a child: to study hard every day, to enter a prestigious university, to get a high paying and respectable job, to "succeed." The demands placed on this child (who is most likely the family's only child) are very high. We acknowledge that the entire family's future is often dependent on the future of this one child, but if we neglect the spiritual nurture of our children, we risk helping them gain the whole world while losing their souls.
We have forgotten the Spirit's teaching in Deuteronomy that one of the primary responsibilities of the people of God is to nurture the next generation and to continue the line of faith unbroken.
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).
The command to disciple the next generation was given with the greatest command, to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength as a logical obligation of the greatest command.
What is children and youth ministry? What does it mean to teach them God's Word? When we teach our children and youth to discover, engage and live out God's Word, not only are their lives won for Christ but the entire body of Christ is strengthened and blessed. Conversely, when we do not, we risk losing them as followers of Christ, and we risk the future of our churches.
Third, as churches have begun to see a need for children and youth ministry programs, there has been growth in new and innovative strategies, programs, and curriculum. In the past few years we have seen more children's curriculum made available for churches and summer camps along with discipleship material. While we see evangelism materials for children and youth being developed, most of this increase is restricted to children's materials. Availability of quality youth materials is growing much more slowly. The rapid growth of Internet access and mobile phone capability in China has, however, provided an explosion of available digital ministry materials. We are also seeing God raise up Chinese leaders to take ownership and create materials and programs native to the Chinese church.
First, this new emerging ministry needs stability. Youth workers should develop deep trusting relationships with parents and children to insure healthy discipleship. These types of relationships take time and commitment to develop. While they are important in any pastoral relationship, regardless of age or maturity, they are especially foundational for children and youth. Unlike other ministry responsibilities, we should be slow to rotate youth or children's workers from one responsibility to another. Rather, these workers need time to develop emerging models and practices, to build trust with youth and parents and to gain an understanding of how to disciple the next generation.
According to a recent research study, released by the non-profit organization OneHope, titled "The Spiritual State of the World's Children," teens are influenced by many sources outside the home. In this study, teens (Christian and non-Christian) cited the following as having a lot or some influence over their thoughts and actions: 52% responded information from the Internet, 54% indigenous faith, 54% movies, 55% textbooks. In addition, 48% responded that they do not consider their faith important to them. By providing healthy relationships between youth workers, parents and children, we can better ensure our children and teens are learning from positive role models and influences.
Second, this new emerging ministry needs support from church leaders, members and parents. In research, children and youth workers describe feeling separated and unsupported by the church. Some church leaders may not view children and youth ministry as a high priority. Others may see the need and make the effort, but because of their lack of familiarity with this type of ministry, they lack awareness about how to support it. Because the concept of children and youth ministry is still very new to the church, the workers often remain detached from the church. The physical and visible separation of "Sunday school" from adult fellowship can contribute to the mis-perception that discipling the next generation is separate from the normal work of the church. This simply is not true. Research tells us that workers often feel ignored by church leaders; many lack any spiritual guidance or financial support. They describe feeling demoralized at the lack of recognition and support from the church body. As 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there should be no schism in the body of Christ; all members should grow together in respect and love. As God has called us to teach our faith to the next generation, we must support the calling of these workers in the same way we would support other ministries of the church. To neglect these laborers is to neglect a great harvest and the future of our churches.
Third, our models remain underdeveloped, traditional, and naïve. Most churches are still unequipped with proper ministries for their children and youth that not only teach them biblical knowledge and literacy, but also provide answers and practical models on how to live as Christians and deal with the issues facing them today. Our models remain this way because we have not involved our children and youth in the body of the church. We need to train them to be disciple makers, making them responsible actors and participants in the church. We must also provide them opportunities that train and equip them for this active participation in the church.
Because teenagers are not involved in the church and are unequipped to be disciple makers, they are losing hope for their future. According to the same recent study, 63% of teens in China (Christian and non-Christian) do not express a desire for a clear purpose in life. Fifty-three percent disagree that they will be happy in their marriages, and 47% responded that they have had suicidal thoughts. The church teaches sound biblical knowledge and principles, but it must be better equipped to demonstrate how to practically live out these principles. The church must ask itself how it can not only teach God's Word, but how to engage with, model and live out God's Word in a way that results in life transformation. Most would agree that children and youth have been present in church for a long time, but few can demonstrate how these children and youth have experienced life transformation. Without this life change, we cannot change other people and we cannot positively influence society.
This leads to the fourth, growing challenge facing children and youth ministry in the Chinese church. The church must recognize that children and youth ministry plays a vital role in developing a healthy society with proper moral direction. The same study shows that 75% of teens in China (Christian and non-Christian) cannot recall a time when religious beliefs have changed their behavior; 58% of teens do not believe spiritual development is necessary for leading a satisfying life; 60% believe that lying is sometimes necessary and 59% believe that bending the rules is okay; 44% believe that breaking the law is okay if it does not hurt anyone. Clearly our children and youth are facing questions on what it means to live a loving and moral life through faith. These same children and teenagers will decide the future moral direction of China. The church remains the greatest hope for providing moral direction in a society that is crying out from confusion and pain. If the church can position itself to address the causes of these attitudes and behaviors, it will demonstrate how it can be a part of future social transformation. However, to do so, it must not only be aware of what issues our children and youth are facing but also listen to them and provide relevant, contemporary solutions suitable for them. The challenge for the church is to show how it provides moral direction for society and how hope and faith in God alone can deliver us from brokenness.
Consequences If We Fail
First, if we fail to minister to our children and youth we will fail to establish churches in the emerging urban centers. China is experiencing the largest migration and fastest development growth in the history of the world. Urbanization is drawing families, their children and youth to growing cities in search of jobs, education and a futureand these urban centers are the future of the Chinese church. However, this urbanizationalong with globalizationis putting churches and families under considerable strain. As cities are growing rapidly, urban churches are also experiencing growth, but most of this growth is among the adult population. We saw the Spirit move in the church starting over thirty years ago, but during those years, what have we done to preserve the harvest? Rural churches that experienced massive growth in adult believers twenty, thirty or more years ago are beginning to see their church attendance decrease and age. Our children and youth are the future of our churches, and we must minister to them because this is the most likely time in their lives that they will accept Christ. If we miss this window, what will the future of our churches look like? We risk becoming a "one generation church"; we risk our chance to turn this nation into a nation for God. We are becoming an ageing church (老龄化教会).
Second, Christian families will suffer as the next generation leaves the faith. Children and youth will be shaped, not by their families and church communities, but by growing, empty, secular dreams of materialism, universalism and self-servitude. Children and youth who grew up in proximity to faith, but who were never taught how to practice and live it will gradually turn away from faith. We will lose them to other influences. Families will remain divided between believer and unbeliever. We must ask ourselves, if we are not raising our children and youth for the church of Christ, what then are we raising them for?
Three Actions You Can Take to Preserve the Harvest
First, invest in a dedicated children and youth worker, pledging them full-time support for at least three to four years. A three to four year window allows the worker to focus solely on pursuing and discerning his/her calling from God. Only then can workers develop and hone skills necessary to work in the ministry, build strong relationships with the children and youth and develop healthy working relationships with other church workers and church leaders. We must allow and empower workers who are blessed with the gift to minister and mentor children and youth to stay in these roles long-term.
Second, make children and youth an essential part of the church family in the preaching, by developing a biblical theology of multi-generational faith and by allowing youth to serve in youth service or by leading worship (Deut. 6). Members of the church leadership should acknowledge the role of children and youth ministries as equal parts of the body of Christ and support and acknowledge the work of children and youth workers as vital to the church. Actively involve the youth ministry in church decisions, seek out opportunities to provide further training to youth workers and create opportunities for the whole church body to regularly witness what the children and youth ministries are doing.
Third, adopt innovative, relevant, and contextualized (本地化) ministry programs for your children and youth that make them a partner in the gospel, not an outsider that is sent away to a separate class. Acknowledge the spiritual capacity of children and youth and their ability to be disciples and disciple makers by creating opportunities for them, based on their needs and interests, to practice their faith with their parents, friends, church community and the community outside of the church (1 Tim. 4:12). Include ministry opportunities that directly ask about and answer the contemporary concerns they are living with. Allow children and youth workers a visible role in church administration and leadership. Provide regular opportunities for children and youth to participate in, and even lead, portions of worship and services. As a congregation and church leadership, make it an essential mission of the church to minister not just to this adult generation, but also to generations to come.
Yuenadan lives and works in Mainland China with an extensive range of local church fellowships and specialized organizations to develop their children and youth ministries. This paper has drawn on interviews conducted by the writer with local people working in these ministries in today's China as well as experience from... View Full Bio