Reopening and Re-Engaging Our Churches in the Mission (Part 3)
Engaging kids and students may have been the most challenging aspect of ministry during the Covid season. When everything shifted online, kids wired for participation and activity were stuck in front of screens Monday through Friday, then again on Sunday morning. Digital fatigue set in and every family was stretched thin. Some gave up altogether.
It’s always been harder to do ministry for kids and teenagers. Now, as we begin to reopen and re-engage, we’re all searching for the winning formula to get kids and their families back to church.
REOPENING AND RE-ENGAGING OUR KIDS AND STUDENTS
In Part 1 of this series, Amy and I interviewed lead pastor John Kenney and executive pastor Sarah McDonald from Quest Church to hear their church’s story about trying to re-engage people in serving. In Part 2, I interviewed lead pastor Matt Manning from Crossroads Church to unpack the intentional strategic shifts they’ve made over the last several months to re-engage people in their church.
This week, I was joined by Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy from Orange to discuss what made kids ministry during Covid so uniquely difficult and what we can learn from it. If we’re honest, a lot of our strategies for engaging kids and students pre-Covid weren’t working, so if we really want to go all-in on the next generation, it’s going to require some pretty big priority shifts. And if we’re going to help kids and students grow their faith, we really need to figure out how to engage and equip parents.
Although Reggie and Kristen shared some hard truths, I think you’ll leave the conversation encouraged and empowered to dream big for your kids and student ministry. We discussed:
- Engaging “Sunday at home” vs. “Sunday at church” parents
- Redefining your win for kids and student ministry (attendance isn’t enough)
- Why the post-Covid world is the perfect opportunity to take more risks than ever before
- 4 key shifts you need to make in your kids and student ministry—and one action step you should take now
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. As life shifted online in the spring of 2020, nearly every church found that ministry to kids and students became incredibly difficult. And now, as we re-emerged for the pandemic, many leaders are beginning to wonder if the strategies they were using prior to COVID were the right ones for this generation. Today on the podcast, Tony shares a conversation with Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy from Orange on how churches are beginning to re-engage with kids and students after the pandemic. If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe to get the podcast show notes. Each week you’ll get resources to go along with that week’s conversation, our leader conversation guide and access to the podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy as we start today’s conversation.
Well, we’re in the middle of this series on re-engaging the church. And today we’re going to focus on re-engaging kids and students, and Tony, based on my conversations with church leaders over the last number of months, this may have been the most challenging aspect of ministry during the COVID season. And maybe it’s obvious, but Tony, why do you think that was?
Amy, I think the biggest challenge around this is, I mean, for a long, long time, churches have been creating programs for kids and students in their churches, and then COVID hit, and we realized, oh goodness, everything that we used to do to engage kids and students was shut down, and ministry shifted online, but the problem was kids and students didn’t want to spend more time online because Monday through Friday they were spending their entire days online. And so that pivot from physical in the church gatherings for kids and students to moving those types of ministries online, it just did not work. And we heard that time and time again from the churches that we were serving over the last number of months. What I think this did, though, is it highlighted the need for a shift in strategy that we need to make if we’re going to help our kids and students grow their faith. And rather than focusing on ministry programs for kids and students, we really need to figure out how we’re going to engage and equip their parents.
Right. And they’ve been talking about that for a long time in many of the family ministries that I’ve worked with. Well, with that introduction on today’s topic, Tony, tell us about who you interviewed for today’s episode to help us think about how we can re-engage kids and students, well, and their parents, right?
That’s right. Well, I decided I’m going to go to the expert. I’ve known Reggie Joiner for a number of years. You may be familiar with his ministry. Reggie is the founder and CEO of Orange. It’s a nonprofit organization. Their sole purpose is to influence those who influence the next generation. And I was joined by Kristen Ivy. Kristen is now the president of Orange, and it was a great conversation. It was a very full conversation. We’re going to share some of the highlights in today’s episode of that full conversation. And then after the interview, I’d like to come back and talk about some of the practical, next steps that you can take in this season, as you’re not only trying to re-engage kids and students, but maybe more importantly, re-engage their parents.
Reggie, Kristen, it’s good to have you with us today. And here’s why I invited you. You’re working with, I imagine, thousands of churches around the world as it relates to engaging parents, families, kids, students. And this is what I’ve heard talking to churches in the last number of months is as we’ve worked through COVID, they have had more success trying to keep adults engaged at the church and lots of challenge around engaging kids and students. I’m just wondering is this normal? Are we okay? Is the patient okay, I guess? Is this what you’re hearing too from other churches?
That really resonates, Tony. I think we could list a lot of reasons for that. Kids are just wired for participation, for activity. There’s a different kind of involvement, engagement that happens with kids. And so that is a little bit challenging when everything shifts to digital. You’ve also got families who went to digital classrooms, digital learning. There was just a digital fatigue, if we’re honest, that made it really challenging to continue and go like, yeah, we want one more day online as a family with our children. And then you layer on top of that just the stress that every family was under when they have young children to go how are we going to participate in another digital experience? And then from the church side, you know, it’s easier to program for adults who are sort of maybe more in a pattern of listening to content as their primary way of engaging with ministry. So, yeah, I think it’s been a really challenging year for family ministry.
Which I think our response to that would be our response even before COVID, which would be sure, it’s always easier to put adults in a room and speak to them. It’s always been harder to do ministry for kids and teenagers. That’s why your best talent should be put in those spaces. And that’s why your budget should reflect that because what’s the faith of the next generation worth? I mean, at the end of the day, yes, it’s going to be harder to engage kids and teenagers, but there are some churches coming out of this who are saying, we’re turning on kids and students as fast as we can, because we want to make sure we don’t lose them in this window of time. Especially as you think about middle schoolers and high schoolers and teenagers, because they are social creatures and they want to be connected and they want to be together. So I think you’re right, the low hanging fruit get the adults back in a room and building, but we we’ve always been, you know us, we’ve always been that group who said, let’s not make big church, the most important thing. Let’s make discipling kids and teenagers the most important thing. And let’s figure out what that looks like, and it is changing. And we need to make sure that we recognize that this isn’t going to be the same going forward, but it has, like you’ve already alluded to, Some amazing opportunities. So.
That’s right. Well, let’s jump there. I mean, certainly this last season has been very disruptive for churches, but I think it’s also created some new opportunities for churches to reach and minister to families. So as churches think specifically about equipping and resourcing parents, what comes to mind for you on the other side of COVID?
The first thing that comes to my mind is it’s going to be both/and moving forward. I keep reflecting on the fact that a lot of the parents of preschoolers right now, and maybe even some rising elementary school, are the millennials that there’ve been so many church studies on the millennials when they were in youth group. And now those are the parents in our ministries. And one characteristic of that demographic is that they are wired for choice. They don’t want one way to participate in church. They’re not going to look for one way to parent their kids or one way to participate with their family in ministry either. And so COVID gave us this unique opportunity to experiment, to risk, to fail at something new. And I think that’s exactly what’s needed right now if it comes to engaging millennial families with children to say, we have to provide more options than ever before, both digital and physical, both large and small. We just have to be thinking about more than one way for a family to participate.
And there’s something else that I want to allude to that Kristen said when she used the word engaged, because that is a principle we talk about a lot as an organization. How do we engage every family and the every of every family or every parent is an important piece. And I’ll say this because in all the innovations that we need to do to engage them back, we have to admit something. There has to be an acknowledgement. We have to all own the fact that before COVID ever happened, we were losing influence with parents and families around the country. What COVID did is COVID exposed that there was already a problem. And now families who have been out of church for a year going, I’ve been out for a year. I’m not sure that it made the difference I wish it had made. So why am I coming back? And you put into that context, what I would consider to be a trust crisis and Kristen has championed this with parents and families too, because families all over our country, you know, in light of politics, in light of racism, in light of all the issues that are happening, you’re going, do I really want to be a part of an organization or an institution that seems like they’re fueling those issues, not resolving those issues? So even as we push at the innovations, those innovations without rebuilding trust, aren’t going to make the difference they need to make, so woven into our innovations, which I love what Kristen is doing with the team, woven into those innovations have to be language changes, focus changes, priority changes that say to parents and families, this is how we feel like we need to hand your kids and teenagers and your family a version of faith that looks different than what it even did before COVID.
That’s good. All right. What I want to do is kind of break down into the different age groups, cause my sense would be maybe the approach, the strategy, might need to look a little bit different. So let’s focus first on children. What are some of the best practices you’re seeing in churches as they try to re-engage children and their parents?
We are right now, we’re in spaces with ministries, and one of the hardest questions is what’s working? And if we’re being fully transparent, I do feel like it’s difficult for anybody to say right now what is working definitively, because what’s working for us right now is this opportunity to risk, to try something new and to fail at it. And I don’t think that we need to rush too quickly past this window of time of experimentation and you know, lean in and go tell us who has it dialed in? Tell us who’s got the winning formula. There may not be a winning formula right now because we’re all in the lab. And that might be where we need to sit for a while and just go, keep trying something new, keep risking something different. And I know that we’re all ready to know what’s working, but if we’re being completely honest, it feels a little bit early to say, somebody’s got a brand new model that’s cracked the code.
And you live in this space all the time, Tony. I mean, you do consultant work with churches all over the country. And there is a contextualization that is unique for spaces and regions and styles that require people to understand the community around them. And what are they doing to rebuild trust with the community around them? And I think that when it comes to the experimentation and permission idea, we had leaders, which has been interesting, who have tried to get permission to experiment and do things before COVID. And now they’re decision makers or elders or pastors are going, whatever you think, you have permission. Go try some things. And here’s what we believe. We believe, yes, there are going to be people coming back to church. Parents are coming back, kids are coming back. You will have a number of families that are going to be in your doors, and you’re going to keep doing that programming. But while you turn that back on, you’ve got to learn how to dial another dial at the same time that is going to be imperative if you’re going to redefine your success beyond what we call as the Sunday at church experience. We’ve drawn a line of distinction between Sunday at home parents and Sunday at church parents. And we love to talk about this because there are parents who were Sunday at home parents before COVID. There are parents after COVID, who are going to shift to become Sunday at home parents. There are parents who are Sunday at church parents who are there most of the time. But if we’re honest, even some of the Sunday at church parents, half the month were Sunday at home parents. So we can’t ignore the Sunday at home issue. And we’ve got to ask the question, how are we going to help those parents participate in our strategy? And the goal would be for every church to sit around as a team and go, how can we expand our definition of success to include families who may never come to our church on Sunday morning?
It starts by measuring beyond attendance. And we’ve said this for years. I mean, if you’ve been in ministry, you’ve heard, you know, we’ve got to do more than measure attendance. But when we ask the question, why do we want a family to attend? Why do we want them to participate? Why do we want them to engage? When we get at the why behind it, that’s what we need to start measuring. Whatever your answer is to the why is where your measurements should fall on your metrics for wins. So why do you want a family to engage? You want them to be able to pass on an everyday faith to their child, and you want that to be a faith that becomes personalized in a way where they carry it forward for the rest of their life. Well, if that’s your goal, then it’s fairly shallow. And we always say this, we all agree to just think about coming to a program. So how can we take this opportunity and start practicing things that will take a family and say, how can we support that family to participate in faith conversations Monday through Friday? How do we resource that family for faith conversations in the ballpark? How do we resource that family for faith conversations when they’re driving down the road, and going back to the Deuteronomy six model that we’ve really talked about for, you know, forever, how do you talk about faith in the morning when you wake up, when you drive down the road, when you sit down to eat together? How do we inspire families? Reggie already mentioned a trust crisis, but we also have the cynicism that’s coming into our every day, everywhere we look. How can we inspire and provide hope and help families have that sense of life into their everyday moments? And those things may happen beyond just Sunday morning attendance. They might happen through, you know, churches that are starting YouTube channels, churches that are starting podcasts, even short podcasts. I know we have one ministry that started just a five minute a day podcast that gets into the ears of parents to say, we want to inspire and provide hope and encourage you to have these kind of conversations every single day. Those are the kinds of things that we probably can’t turn off as we move back into the regular Sunday morning experiences.
And we all know that a lot of churches don’t have to change because as long as the right critical mass shows up in a building on a Sunday morning, that’s enough success for them to keep the lights on. And COVID actually pushed the question, are you really helping people win? And when you start wrestling with the question, what does a win look like for the family? And we’ve only defined that when as attending our church, what we’re really saying is we want you to help us win. And we’re helping you win by helping us win by showing up on Sunday morning. And the problem with that is our generation of kids and teenagers are being discipled digitally. There are voices of agnosticism, voices of atheism, voices that they’re being bombarded with every day that are discipling the way they think, the way they see themselves, their sense of belonging, their sense of purpose. And if we think getting them to attend something once a week will undo or redo or compete with those voices, then we’re not understanding the future. The future has to be what Kristen is suggesting, a merge of the right kind of technology and the right kind of leadership and faith and the relationships that exist for kids and teenagers with other adults in their spaces and lives are going to become more important in the context of this. Because getting in a real room with leaders, we’re not saying that should go away. It shouldn’t, but there will be a digital reinforcement as well as the physical proximity. And those things are going to be, I think, more important going forward as it relates to discipleship. But the point is, we’ve got to figure out how to put all that together in the same space. And a lot of people are doing it well. It’s just going to continue to be redefined.
That’s good. All right. Kristin and Reggie, I’ve really appreciated the dialogue today. Any final thoughts for church leaders as they’re trying to navigate this unique season for us as churches, trying to figure out how do we re-engage our kids, our students, our parents? Any final thoughts?
The only final thoughts that I have are to stick with it. One of the things that we are hearing, you know, there’s a lot of ministries who did go through layoffs. There are a lot of ministries who had to make some pretty strong changes. It’s been a very hard year for a lot of people in ministry. But if you are called to this, you know, and if you’ve been in ministry and you’re doing ministry and you know it’s where your heart and your passion is, don’t give up. This is not the season to give up. It’s the season, like you said in the beginning, where we get to try new things. We have more permission than ever before, more opportunity than ever before. Take the risks. If you’ve got to make some changes, make some changes. But just don’t feel like ministry is over for you in this season. And I do feel like, especially in light of political tension, like you mentioned, Reggie, and racial tension, and there’s such a draw to despair, to cynicism, to just go, I don’t even know if this is for me anymore. And I think when we sense that, that’s where I want to lean in and go, no we’re here for this great calling. And you’re alongside of a lot of incredible leaders who are really doing remarkable work. And sometimes we don’t see it online. We don’t hear about it in the news. We don’t see it on social media. So we might think, you know, the churches, you know, maybe there’s all negative thoughts that come to our mind, but there are incredible church leaders doing remarkable work, and it’s worth participating alongside of each other to continue this great calling of working to give a generation hope. This generation needs hope like never before. And that’s what the light of the church can do if we’ll just stick with it.
I would agree. I think I had an agnostic professor in college that taught me history. And one particular day, I remember as a college student, they were all complaining about Christians and the church. And it became this weird moment because I was scared people in the room were going to find out what I did, because I was in my twenties, but I was still doing ministry. It was my youth ministry years. And when it got really heated and some students started standing up saying, the church should just go away and the church doesn’t help anybody. I remember the agnostic professor stopped the conversation and he said, you guys do know if the church went away, it would be like turning the lights off. And I think what I would say to everyone listening to this is when Jesus said, you’re the light of the world. I think he was implying that for you as a leader to be in this space at this time, when it’s pretty dark in a lot of places in this culture and in our world right now, you were selected and chosen to be a part of this unique period of time for a reason. So please lean into that. And if you can’t do what you did in a normal way, it doesn’t mean like we said earlier, that why you were doing it has changed at all. So figure out practically speaking, what it would look like for you to be a light with a parent who will never come to your church, and build a relationship with a family so you can learn how to turn lights on for a population that will not see the church the same way. Or learn how to be a light in a space in your community so that when you start reorganizing your church and re-innovating, you recognize that there are lessons to be learned in this that will change how the church is the church for the next 10 years, because all of us have been saying. You’ve been saying it, Tony. We have felt it. Organizations, before COVID ever hit, the church needs to radically shift and change in some spaces. Well, now’s the time. Let’s do it.
Tony, there were lots of great insights in that conversation. What stood out to you?
There are a number of things that stood out to me, but let me highlight some of the things that really, I think, grabbed my attention and really caused me to start to think again about how we’re engaging kids and students and their parents. First of all, this concept of bringing our best for kids and students and their parents. I mean, usually we’re thinking about the adults and the adult environments, and that gets our attention. And honestly it gets our best talent, many times, in the church. But I think we have to prioritize how we’re investing our people resources, our financial resources in the next generation if we are going to be a church for the next generation. So number one is just bringing our best for the next generation. Secondly, we need to provide options for parents. I mean, this is one of the battles that we have in today’s culture is people aren’t setting aside Sunday morning for church any longer. And so, because of that, if we’re going to engage the next generations and then equip and resource their parents, we need to provide more options to engage families. And that needs to include both options in our church buildings, in physical gatherings and online. The third thing that stood out to me as needing to empower our next generation team to take some risks. And the reason why, Amy, I think this is so important in this season is it’s pretty easy to just drift back to our pre-COVID ministry strategies, but particularly in this area, we just need to acknowledge that playbook wasn’t working before COVID. And somehow we need to shift our strategies to engage the next generation. If we’re going to be reaching and engaging young adults and young parents, we need to take some risks, we need to try some new things, and this is the perfect season to be doing that. And we can be empowering those folks that are either on staff or in key volunteer leadership roles with our next gen ministries to begin to take some of those risks. And let’s let them fail, but let’s in that then discover some new opportunities, especially as we’re trying to engage young adults and young parents. And then the fourth thing that stood out to me and I alluded to this before the interview, Amy, is I do think we need to redefine the win. The win, I think, is about passing on everyday faith to our kids rather than the win being getting kids and students to show up at church. I mean, I want my kids to have a vibrant, everyday faith. I want them to be thinking about Jesus and making decisions, wise choices, based on their faith Monday through Friday, not just on Sunday morning. But so much of our focus in ministry has been about getting kids and students to show up on Sunday morning. And so, as a result of that, I think one of the key takeaways from this conversation is just learning, how are we going to redefine the win so the focus is on growing faith rather than getting kids and students just to show up?
Yeah, we say it all the time. If we can clarify the win first, get clarity on what success looks like, then we can, we can try some new strategies, right? And like you said, fail forward and try something else if it’s not working. But that’s how we generate new ideas and find new results. And I love that win, too. Well, during this series, Tony, you’ve been helping us think about one next step that we need to consider if we’re going to re-engage the church. So on this topic, when it comes to re-engaging kids and students, what’s the one next step you think we need to take?
Yeah, so let me just piggyback on what I just was talking about a moment ago, Amy. I think the one next step that every church needs to take in this season is to shift our mindset when it comes to how we engage and how we minister to the next generation. And rather than the priority being creating programs at church for kids and students, we need to shift the priority to engaging and equipping their parents to shape the faith of their kids. And so, as a first step, and this sounds very basic, but I think it’s actually very challenging first step, I think as a church leaders or next generation ministry leaders, we need to build a relationship with a parent who’s not in our church, and we need to ask them questions and listen about the parenting questions they’re asking, the parenting challenges they’re facing, asking them how they would describe their relationship with their kids today, ask them about what their desires are for their children. And based on those responses also, trying to find out from them, how could someone best help them to win as a parent today? And my suspicion is, if we are intentional about building that type of relationship and asking those types of questions, on the other side of those conversations, on the other side of that relationship building are going to be fresh ideas about the risks we might need to be taking to change our strategies going forward as we’re engaging the next generation, our kids, our students, and the parents that are connected to the church. And if you have questions about what might those strategy pivots look like, I really would encourage you to get on the Orange website, connect with their team. They have many great resources and coaching to help you make this type of shift in your ministry as well.
That’s really good. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, again, Amy, this has been a fun podcast series about how we’re going to re-engage the church in this season on the other side of COVID, but we are also offering a free webinar for your team on July 20th. The full focus of that hour-long webinar will be re-engaging the church. I’ve invited a panel of church leaders from various regions to come and give voice to the unique challenges they’re facing and the best practices they’re discovering in this season. So if you want to join with your team, again, it’s free. You can go to theunstuckgroup.com/webinar. And let me just say it again. We all recognize it. There are no experts in this season. So because of that, we need to hear from you. We need to hear what you’re learning as you re-engage your church. So if you wouldn’t mind, just take a moment, send us a note on Facebook or Twitter, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to pass along your experience and wisdom to other church leaders as we all figure out together how we’re going to navigate this unique season.
Thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, we would love to have you and your team join us for the upcoming round table webinar on re-engaging our church in this new season. We’re inviting you to join us in a few of our ministry friends for a candid conversation about the challenges and successes that they’re experiencing as they reopen and re-engage their churches in the mission. To sign up, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/webinars. At The Unstuck Group, we’re working everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches with coaching and planning that focus them on vision, strategy and action. And if that’s a need in your church, we’d love to talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.