From Joel Comiskey’s book, Children in Cell Ministry (chapter 10), 2015
When people try something new, they rarely get things right the first or second time—and often mistakes are still made after three or four more attempts. In fact, human beings grow and mature through trial and error. The key is to learn from mistakes and not to allow discouragement to take control. Proverbs 24:16 says, “For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.”
John Maxwell wrote a book called Failing Forward, which is an appropriate title for those prioritizing children in cell ministry (note 1). Maxwell’s book is a reminder that failure is the back door to success, and God will use mistakes to teach and perfect.
You will make mistakes with children in cell ministry. You will have to adjust. Just don’t make the mistake of failing to try to work through the mistakes. God only asks us to move forward. He can’t use us if we’re passive. We only learn and grow as we go forward with a willingness to make and overcome our mistakes. Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote an excellent book called Boundaries. They write,
God’s grace covers failure, but it cannot make up for passivity. We have to do our part. The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try. Trying, failing, and trying again is called learning. Failing to try will have no good result; evil will triumph. God expresses his opinion toward passivity in Hebrews 10:38-39: “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” . . . Passive shrinking back is intolerable to God, and when we understand how destructive it is to the soul, we can see why God does not tolerate it (note 2).
As you read this chapter, you might identify with some of the mistakes made in children’s ministry. Here are a few:
Not Prioritizing a Child’s Spiritual Condition
Given the tender and sweet character of children, people adopt a loving and condescending attitude. This is fine as long as a child’s spiritual needs are given high priority. In other words, one of the biggest mistakes is to not take the child’s spiritual condition seriously (note 3). Each child has particular needs that we should try to meet.
Children’s cells shouldn’t be turned into a game. Children have spiritual needs equivalent to those of adults. Their main need is to know Jesus. It is a real spiritual battle—the one that has to be fought for the salvation of children. It involves prayer, teaching of the Word of God, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Children, like adults, have powerful testimonies of salvation and use of their spiritual gifts. I heard of a group leader who asked for prayer for a friend who had a migraine headache. She asked one of the children to pray for her. “Dear Lord Jesus,” prayed the child, “please take away her headache, take away the pain, and don’t let her die.” Everybody laughed and began to explain to the child that one did not die from a migraine headache! The next day the leader telephoned to inquire how the migraine headache was. “Haven’t you heard?” came the reply, “It wasn’t a migraine, it was meningitis.” And she did not die! (note 4) Simple faith so often eludes adults, while children don’t have the same obstacles.
Repentance, the new birth, and experiences of encounter with God also occur in children. But because they are children, there is the risk of minimizing those experiences, or to not give them their rightful importance.
The fact that they are children does not mean that their prayers, songs, and tears have no legitimacy. Maybe they can’t articulate their experiences theologically like an adult, but that does not diminish their authenticity. Remember that Jesus placed children as a model.
Because children often speak in imaginative language, adults don’t listen to what’s behind their “ramblings.” Because the kids have no life experience to speak of, their notion of how the world operates can range pretty far out in left field. We need to remember that children are often dreaming of a distant future that will change many times before they become older. Yet, we do need to listen to them and affirm their dreams and visions (note 5). We need to take them seriously and prepare them as disciples, like we would anyone else.
Not Taking the Discipleship Process Seriously
When a child has been born again, he or she should be nurtured and mentored. His or her desire to be baptized and partake of the Lord’s supper should be taken seriously. All of their faith experiences are as real as that of adults. Children need to be prepared to walk with God on a daily basis. It’s easy to ignore that children, like adults, need to practice the presence of God and the spiritual disciplines. Ivy Beckwith writes,
Many of the traditional spiritual disciplines can be practiced meaningfully by children. . . I think one of the important things about practicing meditation, and teaching our kids to practice meditation, is that it has to be done in quiet. We live in a very noisy world, and our kids are rarely quiet or in quiet. It’s impossible to hear God’s voice and reflect on it in noisy environments. I think there are some adults out there who don’t think kids can or want to “do” silence. Well, they can do silence, and enjoy it when it is offered to them (note 6).
Ralph Neighbour has concluded that the greatest pitfall facing the cell church movement is its failure to disciple children and form cells for children between the ages of five and thirteen. He writes, “Seventy-nine years ago as a five-year old child, I accepted Jesus as my Lord sitting on my father’s lap. It has amazed me to meet Christian workers who think we do not need to focus on harvesting children” (note 7). He goes on to say,
Our tendency is to develop home cells for young people and adults, relegating the children during cell meetings to baby sitters or viewing television. George Barna’s research shows that what a person believes at age 13 is pretty much what that person will continue to believe throughout his or her lifetime. Children between the ages of 5 and 13 have a 32 percent probability of accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior. That likelihood drops to 4 percent for teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, and ticks back up to 6 percent for adults older than 18 (note 8).
Many, many children don’t know Jesus Christ and need to be evangelized and discipled. We need to labor for them and to recognize that Jesus wants the Church to be a mighty army to evangelize children and adults.
The church’s work with parents is only one side of the equation. The church also has to work directly with the children. Some churches and pastors affirm their responsibility to contribute to the spiritual development of children but fail to back up that affirmation with time, money, and planning. The pastor who spends all of his time with adults or planning adult programs neglects a significant portion of his flock (note 9).
Not Viewing Children as Full Participants of God’s Kingdom
Many tend to view children as receptacles into which the teacher pours knowledge about God and the Bible. It is true that information about God and Scripture is essential to growing a child’s faith. Yet we need to realize that God views children as full participants in his kingdom. Jesus did not say, “Children belong to the kingdom;” he said, “The kingdom belongs to the children” (Luke 18:15-17). They are not merely the Church of tomorrow; they are the Church of today. Adults may be older in earthly years, but their praise and worship is no higher than that of the children. The reality is that in God’s eyes we are all children. We all have a father-child relationship with our Father in heaven.
Seeing children as priests of the living God, just like adults, helps empower their faith. It encourages them to see God working in their own lives. Cell groups for children are excellent vehicles for developing the priesthood of all believers, including the children.
Not Valuing Their Emotional Needs
Many adults trivialize or discount their child’s emotions and even feel justified in doing so, repeating the often used phrase, “They are just children.” Some parents rationalize such indifference with the belief that concerns of children over broken toys or playground politics are petty, especially when compared to adult-size worries about things like job loss, the solvency of one’s marriage, or what to do about national debt. Furthermore, they reason, children can be irrational. John Gottman writes,
Asked how he responds to his daughter’s sadness, one perplexed father answers that he doesn’t respond at all. “You’re talking about a four-year old,” he says. Her feelings of sadness are often “based on lack of understanding of how the world works,” and therefore not worth much in his estimation (note 10).
Such thinking is shortsighted and misguided.
Adults should take children seriously. Those ministering to children should know and care about the little details in the lives of the children under their care. Perhaps an adult notices erratic behavior from the child. The adult needs to inquire and try to do something about it. Children are practically powerless to alter or control the world around them. Wise, sensitive adults understand that children have emotions, needs, problems, and difficult circumstances. If something is happening in the child’s life that an adult can control, then it’s important to try to fix it (note 11).
Leaders of children’s cell groups need to be perceptive and aware of what’s happening both spiritually and emotionally. The authors of The Young Child as Person write,
Each child selects certain things from his environment and makes them his world. A teacher needs to know what a child is including in that world. What activities does the child participate in? Who does the child play with? Who does he avoid? Why? Which children does the child look upon as helpers in his projects? (note 12)
Children’s emotional and spiritual sides are at least as strong as their intellectual lives. They don’t (or can’t) hide from their feelings; so they know all about what it’s like to surrender to forces that transcend their control. Children easily accept that their words are not adequate to describe thoughts and feelings; they know that real worth and importance goes beyond words.
The church often errs by not allowing children to express their feelings. Hearing and helping a child clarify his feelings creates a deeper level of understanding than only catching the verbal content. Sometimes a child’s words do not communicate the true feelings beneath them (note 13). The key is to realize that children have feelings and need to express them and be transparent about their lives. As families disintegrate and as moral standards become lower and lower, it’s essential for cell leaders and teachers to get to know the children, find out about their backgrounds, and then minister accordingly.
Not Equipping the Children’s Workers
It might appear that the church has all the workers necessary, but in almost every case, this is a mirage. There will always be new positions and new opportunities to work with children. A church needs to prepare for the future. The Elim Church is able to care for thousands of children because they have a vision to develop new children’s leaders. Because the harvest of children is so continual, Elim is constantly envisioning and preparing for new leaders; they are constantly preparing to reap the harvest through new children’s workers.
Cell churches don’t allow “just anyone” to lead the children’s cells. Children’s workers need to be trained, screened, and coached. Cell churches ask all members of the church to go through the church-wide equipping, and this is also the requirement of those working with children.
Beyond the basic equipping, those leading children should know how to treat children. They need to learn how to be gentle, kind, and full of patience. Jesus said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:10). God loves children, and those ministering to them must be careful to treat them with love and kindness. A children’s worker should never threaten the child with something like “I’m going to kick you out of the room if you continue.”
Those working with children should also be trained in how to deal with sick children. Sick children should not be allowed to join in the activities or even sit by themselves. The church should have a firm policy about not allowing children who appear to be ill to be in the presence of other children. Parents whose children become infected through exposure to other sick classmates are hesitant to bring them back. Those leading cell groups or working with children in the celebration services should be trained to recognize the signs of contagious diseases (note 14).
Not Obtaining the Proper Legal Protection
Churches should not allow the fear of abuse or legal nightmares to hinder them from making disciples of children. On the other hand, they must make sure that they are legally covered and doing everything to protect the children. It is important that churches have the proper insurance coverage and background checks in place. Churches need to make sure that those working with children have been screened properly and are ministering in teams of at least two people.
The pastor and the church need to have in place a child protection policy that is known, and adhered to. It’s good to have a resource person in the church who is aware of the policies and will keep the protection requirements up-to-date.
The pastor is a mandatory reporter of all abuse. Part of this mandatory requirement to report abuse includes:
- never telling a parent before reporting
- never questioning a minor when they tell you something
- affirming them and saying they were right to tell you
Churches must be ready and willing to report all abuse. Even if determined that the workers are not mandated by law to report the abuse, it’s a good idea to do so. This responsibility includes situations in which the abuse occurs in connection with ministry activities or when it happens completely independently of them.
Workers should be trained to know the signs of abuse and be ready to report such abuse. Rarely does abuse happen in the church or in a home cell group. Abusers normally groom their victims by:
- introducing forbidden behavior such as drugs, alcohol, or pornography.
- giving a child money to create a dependency.
- excessive attention to kids; doing one-on-one activity with children.
- earning the trust of overburdened parents under the guise of showing extra concern for a troubled child (note 15).
Again, abuse rarely happens during an official church activity; rather the abuser uses the trust gained during the spiritual activity to lure the child to be alone on another occasion. In these cases, it is very difficult or nearly impossible for ministry leaders to have known about the abusive behavior (note 16).
When abuse is suspected, workers need to report the abuse. Choun and Lawson write, “In most states, health and education professionals are required to report suspicions of child abuse. In some locations, clergy are also required to do so. Failure to report such cases can be punishable by fines, jail terms, or both” (note 17).
Never Alone with a Minor
All church activity should have at least two adults present. Team ministry, in fact, has biblical precedence, since leadership in the New Testament is always plural (note 18). Here are some precautions:
- One adult should never be alone with a child.
- Children’s workers should be qualified to teach the children what is a good touch and a bad touch. In other words, they should be ready to report abuses that they see.
- Don’t allow the child to go to the bathroom alone. Always be on alert for child molesters.
These precautions might include having extra adults on hand to observe and help whenever children are gathered (note 19).
All those working with minors must be checked for their background. Bill Stout writes, “Organizations have also been found negligent if a criminal background check would have turned up a prior record of child abuse, and the checks were not conducted” (note 20).
A policy asking newcomers to your church to wait six months before volunteering in children’s ministry is another proven precaution. This gives you time to get to know the newcomer’s qualifications, and it discourages sexual predators who are only coming to your church for quick access to children (note 21).
Don’t Be Paralyzed by Fear
While the threats of child abuse are real, one grave mistake is being paralyzed by fear, an emotion that Satan and his demons welcome and even generate among churches and children’s workers. The fear of what might happen is often the enemies’ greatest tactic for paralyzing churches and discouraging ministers from discipling the next generation.
It’s a lot like the person who rarely goes outside because of the fear of being murdered on the street. Yes, the media is filled with reports of murders happening every day, but the reality of being a victim is quite different. Murders are very rare when compared to the country’s population and the same is true with child abuse in churches. Yes, it does happen, and churches need to do everything possible to prevent it. But they must not allow themselves to become immobilized by what might happen.
Even though governments and laws are there to protect children, they are not proactively trying to shut down Christian ministries. In fact, most cases where there have been problems, the courts have ruled that an organization cannot be expected to protect its children from bizarre or completely unforeseen types of harm. Bill Stout writes,
In the event of a lawsuit, courts usually ask some variation of this question: Did the organization take reasonable and prudent precautions to protect the child? If the answer is a clear “yes,” then your ministry will not be judged at fault for the injury.”
In other words, the church simply needs to make sure there are legal, reasonable, and prudent safeguards in place. But after putting those safeguards in place, make sure you press ahead with your intentions to disciple the children in cell ministry. The devil likes nothing more than to cause the ministry of the church to grind to a halt. Many pastors feel that they have enough problems in their adult ministry to even think about children’s ministry. And some pastors allow perceived legal fears to hinder them from preparing children to be disciples through cell-based ministry.
You will make mistakes. You will face obstacles. But you will also prepare the next generation of ministers, provide a steady flow of leadership in your church, and tap into the most willing and ready group of people in the church—the children.
Training, material, or legal exactitude should never be a substitute for dependence on Jesus through prayer. The reality is that children’s ministry is spiritual warfare. Satan and his demonic following would prefer that the church not prioritize children. The enemy of our souls does not want to see children formed by the Spirit of God. If the church is not praying, the battle will be too fierce, the devil will deceive too readily. We must not forget the importance of prayer. It’s all important.
The best remedy against fear and the best way to motivate people to get in involved in cell ministry is through prayer. In fact, the first and foremost solution to the transformation of the church and the development of children is prayer—a humble, radical crying out to God for help. Commitment to prayer allows us to rely on God himself for wisdom and direction. It teaches us to depend on him to discover the best way to develop children or get the parents involved.
Paul wrote the Colossian epistle at the end of his life, and it’s noteworthy that one of his final exhortations was about prayer. He said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2). The Greek word for devote literally means to attend constantly. To illustrate his point, Paul uses the example of Epaphras, “. . . who is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12). Epaphras labored fervently and constantly for the believers in Colossae. We must continually cry out, “Lord, make us like Epaphras!”
Only through dedicated prayer will parents be willing to carve out time in their busy schedules and prioritize the development of their own children. Commitment to prayer is the arsenal that God has given to his entire body of believers. And it’s the most important weapon God has given the Church to win souls and make disciples.
Churches—charismatic or not—that prioritize prayer realize that only God can make disciples of the next generation. It’s a myth to rely on books, techniques, or even experience in developing children. Only God can provide sustained growth and protection.
This book is all about prioritizing those who don’t have a voice or power in the decision making at the church level. Because prioritizing children through cell ministry is not the norm, it works best among a group of people committed to God’s supernatural power that comes through prayer. Only through prayer can the church break down cultural resistance and live New Testament lifestyles in community with one another. Only through prayer and an emphasis on spirituality will members be willing to dedicate volunteer time to prepare the future generation now.
True success in cell groups and cell churches comes from God. The secret is not the cell structure, the cell order, or the cell pastor—it is the blessing of the almighty God upon the congregation. God spoke to Jeremiah saying, “But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” (Jer. 9:24). Those who lead children and develop the next generation need to possess the essential characteristic of dependence on God, along with the knowledge and practice of diligent prayer. Other leadership characteristics can help, but spirituality is the chief requirement.
- John Maxwell, Failing Forward (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007), pp. 224.
- Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 99–100.
- Mario Vega, “Mistakes When Working with Children’s Cells,” blog post on Joel Comiskey Group on October 24, 2013.
- Daphne Kirk, Reconnecting the Generations (Suffolk, Great Britain: Kevin Mayhew Ltd., 2001), p. 23.
- Dr. Paul Warren and Dr. Frank Minirth, Things That Go Bump in The Night (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), p.152.
- Ivy Beckwith, Formational Children’s Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2010), pp. 105-107.
- Ralph Neighbour, “Avoiding Pitfalls in Children’s Ministry,” blogpost on October 20, 2013 on Joel Comiskey Group.
- Robert J. Choun and Michael S. Lawson, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Children’s Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 24.
- John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (New York, NY: Fireside, 1997), p. 55.
- Dr. Paul Warren and Dr. Frank Minirth, Things That Go Bump in The Night, p. 78.
- Martha Snyder, Ross Snyder, Ross Snyder, Jr., The Young Child as Person (New York, NY: Human Science Press, 1980), p. 101.
- Ibid, p. 152.
- Robert J. Choun and Michael S. Lawson, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Children’s Ministry, p. 187.
- Bill Stout, “Safety and Liability in Children’s Ministry,” Children’s Ministry that Works! (Loveland, Colorado: Group, 2002), p. 40.
- Ibid, p. 41.
- Robert J. Choun and Michael S. Lawson, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Children’s Ministry, p. 54.
- The norm in the early church was to have a team of leaders over house churches. Paul, for example, told the leaders of the Ephesian church that the Holy Spirit had made them “overseers” of the flock (Acts 20:28). When writing to the church at Philippi, Paul greeted the congregation and, separately, the “overseers” (Phil. 1:1). When he wrote to Titus, Paul directed the appointment of elders, whom he also identified with the functions of “overseer” (Tit. 1:5-7). Whether they are designated as a “body of elders” (1 Tim. 4:14) or simply as “elders,” this form of leadership was always exercised by a group of people rather than by one single individual (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).
- Bill Stout, p. 44.
- Ibid, p. 41.
- Ibid, p. 38.
- Ibid, p. 41.