This is a unique moment for you to walk alongside parents as they disciple their kids to know and love the Lord and His church.
By Marissa Postell
We all know what happened in spring 2020 when COVID-19 made its debut in the United States, causing schools and offices to suddenly pivot to virtual environments, anxieties to rise, and words like “quarantine,” “social distancing,” and “mask mandate,” to enter our vocabularies in full force. While responses to the pandemic have varied since those early days, people’s lives were undeniably affected by COVID, and the long-term effects of that may still take time to reveal themselves.
As people began to realize COVID was going to impact more than just those initial two weeks of quarantines to “slow the spread,” they began to talk about a “new normal.” But while most of us have an understanding of what “normal” was before COVID, there are some who may not—our children.
Whether they were born after the pandemic began or were young when shutdowns were put in place, our children have spent formative years in our homes, and now they have to learn what a “new normal” is without first having a solid understanding of an “old normal.”
This is true in many aspects of their lives, but it’s particularly true when it comes to understanding church—the embodied gathering of believers. In this moment, pastors and church leaders have a unique opportunity to walk alongside parents as they disciple their kids to know and love the Lord and His church.
The embodied church
The church is the body of Christ, and we see that most clearly when the church gathers in its embodied form. When we gather as brothers and sisters in Christ, we see the body of Christ is made up of many parts designed for many purposes, united under one head—the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12). And in the practice of gathering every week, we better understand what the church is—what it was created to be. According to Lifeway’s Levels of Biblical Learning®, “the church is more than a building; it is Christians who gather to worship and serve God.”
“You and I are the first representations of Jesus and the Bible that kids experience,” says Landry Holmes, manager of Lifeway Kids ministry publishing. “We represent an unseen Jesus to literal-minded children and the Bible to kids who can’t read.”“We represent an unseen Jesus to literal-minded children and the Bible to kids who can’t read.” — @lrholmes Click To Tweet
But when the practice of gathering screeched to a halt, children missed formative days for solidifying their understanding of what the church truly is.
“The younger the child, the less he or she understands the abstract idea of the church as a group of people rather than a particular place,” Holmes says. “If we don’t meet physically, kids will have a more difficult time understanding that the church is a group of believers who physically gather for worship and Christian service.”
Jason Thacker, chair of research in technology ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says he has been intentional about telling his children they’re going to “watch church” because he doesn’t want them to assume being the church simply means watching what’s happening on the TV.
“I want them to know about the body of Christ and the embodiment of humanity and the importance of that—physically being with one another to be able to actually bear one another’s burdens,” Thacker says.
He says the way we talk about and engage with the church shapes our understanding of the church. What might our habits subtly or unintentionally communicate about the church to our children?
“Do we want to communicate that church is just another video to watch in the age of unlimited YouTube videos?” Thacker asks. “Do we want to communicate to our children that’s what the church really is or even give the impression that may be all it is?”
Jared Kennedy, editor for The Gospel Coalition and author of several resources for church leaders, parents, and children, says kids look to screens for two things: performance and entertainment. But Jesus offers the opposite of these things, and the church isn’t about performance or entertainment.
“First, [Christianity] confronts our performance mentality. Communion with God is not something we earn or perform for. But because of Christ’s perfect obedience and substitutionary death, we’re offered peace with God as a gift of grace,” Kennedy says. “Second, when we believe, we’re placed into a new family that doesn’t revolve around us—our performance or our entertainment. Instead, we’re called to love God and follow Christ’s example by sacrificially serving His people (Romans 12:1–2).”
So the embodied church helps kids know and love Christ and His bride and the character of God in a particular and unique way.
Challenges of the digital church experience
Digital ministry was challenging enough for adults in the initial days of COVID as they tried to figure out Zoom and other technologies. But it was also challenging for kids. What if they didn’t have a device from which they could join a Zoom call at the same time as Mom and Dad? How difficult is it for a child to sit in front of a screen and stay engaged with a teacher when there are other distractions happening all around the house—not to mention the fact many of them had been looking at screens all week for school and entertainment? And what about the need for kids to have both a teacher on the screen and parental supervision in the home? Despite the challenges, digital ministry for kids throughout COVID wasn’t all bad.
“What marked success for churches teaching kids the gospel online were not leaders who are good on screen or the use of professional video equipment, but rather the continued interactions with familiar faces, followed up with family Bible time suggestions,” Holmes says. “It goes back to the concept of relationships—teachers with a vibrant relationship with Jesus developing relationships with kids in order to introduce them to their own relationship with Jesus.”
Kids who engaged with the church digitally still learned about the Bible, even if in their pajamas. They still learned about Jesus, even if Mom was yelling in the background asking what they wanted for breakfast. And the deeper the relationships that could be formed in this creative environment, the greater the discipleship impact.
Challenges of the embodied church experience
For some families, the online format worked well and relieved them of many challenges that accompany physically attending church. Going to church is hard. Getting yourself out the door on a Sunday morning can be challenging enough, but getting your whole slew of kids out the door can seem like an insurmountable task some days. Going to church is hard for parents, but it’s also hard for kids. Meal times. Nap schedule. Social interactions. It’s all just a little bit … off … on Sundays.
And there’s no denying COVID brought with it a new set of challenges for kids when it comes to the embodied church experience. Now, as COVID fades on the horizon, many families have established new routines—either of watching or engaging with church digitally or doing something entirely different on Sunday mornings.Kids ministry is lagging behind other ministries’ return in this late-COVID world. Click To Tweet
According to a spring 2022 study from Lifeway Research, churches remain more hesitant to resume all activities for children compared to programming for teenagers or adults. Although 86% of churches who had kids ministry activities before the pandemic say they’ve restarted at least some activities in person, 22% still say they’re only doing some of their kids’ activities in person. And the average U.S. Protestant church is seeing 64% of kids participating compared to pre-pandemic attendance. Kids ministry is lagging behind other ministries’ return in this late-COVID world.
Affected by disabilities
Perhaps some families haven’t returned to church since COVID because they have a family member who is considered “high-risk” or is affected by a disability. For those who were fully engaged in the church prior to COVID but still haven’t returned to church, Tiffany McCullough, special needs minister at Brentwood Baptist Church, says digital ministry isn’t what has been most meaningful to them. It’s the embodied church—even from a distance—that has meant the most to them.
McCullough says it’s the tangible, personal acts that matter most to these families. Children with special needs often have a difficult time engaging with digital ministries. And it’s challenging for parents with kids affected by disabilities to be a part of digital ministry themselves without the childcare that would normally be provided in an in-person experience. So McCullough and her team have found ways to build and maintain relationships with kids and families throughout the pandemic—gifting them a Publix gift card, leaving poinsettias on the porch at Christmas and waving to the family, tying balloons on the mailbox on the child’s birthday and waving through the window.
“They don’t need a seven-point Bible lesson with take-home questions, because they don’t even have time to do that,” McCullough said. “What they value is respite and care for their child. They could care less about what you’re offering them online. For special needs families, the way to their heart is caring for their child or adult child that has been impacted by a disability so they can be refreshed, so they can go and worship together, so they can go be in a life group, so they can go serve.”
As much as you want families and kids to return to experience the embodied church, there are those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to return to that in-person environment. While they may continue to engage digitally, it’s the relationships within the body of Christ that most make them feel known, loved, and connected.
So, what do churches do moving forward? How do we serve families and kids—whether they return in person or not?
First, churches must recognize both the embodied church and the digital church meet some needs people face today. Although the two can be in tension at times, they can also work together for the betterment of the body of Christ.
“I believe we need to move past the endless ‘physical versus online’ arguments and start advancing on both fronts to share the church with the world,” said Phil Cooke, co-founder and president of Cooke Media Group.We need to move past the endless "physical versus online" arguments and start advancing on both fronts to share the church with the world. — @PhilCooke Click To Tweet
There are people on your pews and on your livestream who need to hear the gospel. There are people in your classrooms and on your Zoom calls who are longing for community. And there are people online and in person who need to be counseled in the truth. People are present both online and in person. And where there are people, there’s a mission field.
“It’s time the church realized it’s not about how we want to engage them; it’s about how they want to engage us,” Cooke said. “However people choose to engage with our worship, prayer, Bible reading, and teaching, I want it to be life-changing. We should strive to make [both] experiences powerful and meaningful.”
But that doesn’t mean technology is a substitute for the gathering of the local church, and Thacker says he doesn’t believe it should be.
“[Technology] can be a great teaching conduit. It can be a way that we can communicate, connect, and learn,” Thacker said. “But I don’t think it’s a replacement or a substitute.”
Hands and feet of Christ
Thacker says technology can and should be used to augment or expand the reach of the church, especially in terms of missiological application. But not everything can be digitally replicated.
McCullough says this is also true for families affected by disabilities. The “accessible to everyone” live stream of a church service isn’t everything these families are looking for. They are looking to experience the hands and feet of Jesus showing up for them in their circumstances and in their needs.
“Hands down, we have to provide care and respite,” McCullough said. “And through doing that, we are the hands and feet of Jesus to them.”
And when the church shows up—even in small ways—to live out their calling as the hands and feet of Jesus, you never know who’s watching.
The testimony of the embodied church
“Last year, my nine-year-old son went through a stage of questioning why he should put his faith in Christ,” said Aaron Wilson, internal communications manager at Lifeway Research.
Wilson welcomed his son Abel’s questions and began reading some kid’s apologetics books with him as well as having regular discussions around the topic. But seeing the church exist as the body of Christ was one of the greatest testimonies for Abel.
For Abel, preference for the in-person church experience over watching online services isn’t just about seeing his friends or being able to focus on what the teacher was saying—although those are factors for him.
“It just shows how Christianity is important—that hundreds of people in our church come every Sunday to be with other believers and worship and learn about Christ,” Abel said. “Seeing all the people participating and worshiping Jesus helped show me that Jesus is real and there is a purpose to following Christ.”“Seeing all the people participating and worshiping Jesus helped show me that Jesus is real and there is a purpose to following Christ.” — 11-year-old Abel Click To Tweet
As he stood with the embodied church, Abel was able to experience what it meant to be the body of Christ.
“Now obviously, truth isn’t based on popularity or turn-out, but I found it interesting how the intentional gathering of Christians made an impression on him,” Wilson said. “I’m thankful for all those who, in simply ‘showing up for church,’ unknowingly served as a testimony for my son.”
Demonstration of Christ
Despite technological advances and all the ways technology can be used to expand the reach of the gospel, it is limited. Christians still need the embodied church. And yes, being the embodied church includes showing up on Sunday mornings for corporate worship, but it’s not limited to that. You can be the embodied church even for those who have not returned to church services. And as kids grow in their understanding of what the church is, they will get a clearer picture of who Christ is and how He works.
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.