Why Understanding Every Life Stage is More Important than You Think
For the past ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with church leaders who work with kids and teenagers. Whether we’re at a student camp, or at a conference, or sitting down to dinner, the conversations tend to focus on the same shared challenges. Maybe some of these resonate with you.
Parents just don’t get it.
Chances are some of the parents you connect with don’t always use the resources you give them. Maybe they don’t all show up to the events that you plan. Maybe some of the parents you talk to even struggle to transition their role as their kids move from one age group to the next.
Staff don’t get each other.
Let’s be honest here. We would never say this out loud in mixed-ministry company, but maybe it seems like preschool leaders don’t understand theology. They just sing silly songs, or middle school pastors just play a lot of dumb games, or the high school pastor . . . well, where is the high school pastor? I’m sure you like each other, but if you aren’t sure about the value of each ministry, it’s hard to get on the same page.
Small group leaders don’t know what they don’t know.
On the one hand, small group leaders can be your best mode of discipleship. Just think about how Jesus discipled the twelve. But your leaders aren’t Jesus, and the disciples weren’t third grade boys. How can you help cast vision when those you are trying to reach are a little more energetic, less focused, and occasionally so off-topic?
Weekly environments aren’t strategic.
You can’t control much in ministry, but you can control your messaging strategy. What is the best curriculum to use? How do you customize and contextualize it? Should you write your own? Are videos helpful? Every leader wants to know how to be theologically responsible with the limited time they have. But most aren’t sure how to implement a comprehensive strategy that works from preschool through college.
You fail to engage parents through transitions.
We’ve all lived through Promotion Sunday. It’s hard enough just to recruit a sufficient number of leaders, reassign rooms, communicate the changes, and plan for the chaos. But every year some families just don’t make the transition. What can we do to bridge the gap for not only kids and teenagers but for the whole family.
If any of these struggles seem familiar, one thing I know for certain is this: You Are Not Alone.
About three years ago we started working on a project to address some of these situations. It started because we think there is a better way to . . .
- keep families through transition.
- make teaching strategic.
- train small group leaders to connect.
- align staff so they respect each other.
- help ministry leaders and parents win with their kids at every life stage.
The goal is to help every child and every teenager develop an authentic faith. We want them to trust Jesus in a way that transforms how they love God, themselves, and others.
When we say every child or teenager, we mean from birth through graduation and even into the first years after high school. In each life stage, a person is being shaped in a way that will never happen again.
That’s why we started the Phase Project. The word PHASE is the key word. We define a phase as a timeframe in a kid’s life when you can leverage distinctive opportunities to influence their future.
Kids are growing at an unbelievable pace. Every year they are changing mentally, physically, relationally, culturally, emotionally, and morally. That’s why secular companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to research their audience. It’s why educators spend four years studying child development before they enter the classroom. It’s why there are specialists who focus on children and adolescents in every field of medicine.
When you understand phases, it changes your approach.
This is also true for ministry. If you want to impact a child’s lifelong faith, you need to know more than just theology. You need to know child development as well.
When you understand phases, it changes how you value each other as a staff.
Understanding phases reveals, for example, how preschool ministry lays a foundation that is significant and theological. You can know that the presence of consistent leaders in that age group will prove to them that the world can be trusted, and that the church can be trusted, and that ultimately God can be trusted.
Understanding phases helps explain why faith concepts need to be conveyed in concrete terms for elementary-age kids who aren’t thinking in metaphors.
Understanding phases gives an explanation for why games re-engage the mind of a middle school kid in the throes of adolescent crisis. Or the reason your high school pastor spends time away from your church campus in order to be at the local school. You can know that fun will be the bridge that tears down walls, builds trust, and makes it possible to lead a student to a deeper and more personal faith.
When you understand phases, it changes how you partner with families at critical transitions.
You will see that transitions aren’t just about moving kids from a classroom on hall A to a classroom on hall B. Transitions are about a family which is moving into a new phase of life.
Around the age of ten, for example, a child is transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking. Things are fundamentally changing for a parent as they relate to their child. Parents at this stage may feel confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated. When you understand the changes taking place between phases, you begin to view transitions as more than just a time to reorganize groups. You see these transitions as a unique opportunity to lean into parents to help them re-engage with their child in a significant way.
When you understand phases, it changes how you teach from preschool through college.
What happens at every phase is critical. But it’s not critical to teach all of the information at every phase along the way. What is most helpful for a preschooler to understand isn’t what’s most helpful for a middle schooler. There are some things you don’t need to teach in children’s ministry, because it will have a greater impact once they are in middle school.
You begin to ask yourself this question: Are we causing them to learn what is most relevant and most essential for this life stage? A life stage mindset in ministry means that you will develop a scope and cycle that works not only strategically for a particular age group but also across the age groups.
When you understand phases, it changes how you train leaders who work with different ages.
You have to hand your leaders information in bite-sized pieces so they can have a better picture of their role. This will create a common ground for how leaders relate not only with kids and teenagers but also with parents. And it will help set realistic expectations for the role each adult has to play in the life of a kid or teenager.
When you understand phases, it changes how you equip parents.
Ministry leaders are agreeing more and more that partnering with parents is the most effective strategy when it comes to influencing the faith of the next generation. While partnering with parents has become a common value, it’s also been a common struggle to engage parents at the level leaders desire.
One reason parents may not engage with us may be that we have not fully supported them. Parents have a responsibility to influence their child’s faith, but they also feel the weight of caring for their child’s health, education, emotional development, safety, and relationships.
This may be the most compelling reason we believe that understanding life stages is essential to effective ministry. If you want to be effective at partnering with parents, you need to do more than help them understand your weekly message.
What if partnering with parents really means that you exist to support them more than they exist to support you? At every life stage, you have a new opportunity to help a parent …
- understand the phase and recognize what is changing.
- leverage the phase through practical strategies.
- celebrate the phase at unique milestones.
- navigate the phase by anticipating potential roadblocks.
We are only three years into our own formal journey to understand more about the phases of a kid’s life, but it has already given us new insight into how we lead families.
The more you understand life stages, the more complete your approach to ministry can be. You are able to connect better as a team, more effectively train volunteers, develop a more comprehensive messaging strategy, and most importantly engage families.
Kristen Ivy is the executive director of messaging for Orange and the director of the phase project. She has her B.A. in education and M.Div., is married to Matt Ivy and mother of 3 kids. She’s also the co-author with Reggie Joiner of It’s Just a Phase, So Don’t Miss It. Justaphase.com