Moral Therapeutic Deists. In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith coined that phrase to describe the core religious values held by the vast majority of the next generation of the church in America. Summing up four years of research for the National Study of Youth and Religion, his study gave definition to some of the greatest fears already sensed by thousands of discerning ministers and churches across the evangelical world.

In spite of teenagers’ surprisingly positive interest in matters of religion and active participation in vibrant churches, millions of students “graduating” from our ministries were unable to articulate even the most basic beliefs of the Christian faith. The carefully designed study revealed that young people were emerging from our popular children’s ministries and youth programs with the belief that religion is about doing good and being happy, watched over by a distant and benign Creator whose purpose is largely to help us feel better about ourselves.[1]

For all of the advances and investments in the fields of preschool, children and student ministries in the past thirty years, this wasn’t the desired outcome. Barna research revealed in 2006 the inevitable result of such a shallow foundation: millions of young adults who had been active in evangelical churches as children and teens were now dropping out of church in record numbers as 20-somethings.

Lead researcher Dave Kinnaman noted, “Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school.”[2]

While many churches are still content to ignore these warning signs, there is a growing movement in the evangelical world that is rallying around the conviction that the best path to impacting future generations is actually found in recovering our past – the ancient model of spiritual formation as revealed by the role of the family, as first discovered in the Old Testament and then combined with the power of Christ-fueled community in the New Testament.

Motivated by our own biblical convictions and spurred on by these findings, our church began a new journey in 2005 by capturing a new term for our congregation – “emerging generations.” The first step for us in addressing this issue was to reorganize our discipleship-focused ministries into two teams instead of one. The Emerging Generations team was formed around the concept of synchronizing and aligning all of our age-graded ministries, cradle through college.

This team had two key goals: first, to develop a comprehensive vision for the spiritual formation of our young people that was biblical, intentional and consistent. It is not enough to have great individual preschool, children, student and college ministries. Those ministries should agree on key philosophies of ministry, and serve side-by-side on a weekly basis. The second major goal was to re-engage parents in the disciple-making process of their own children.

During the past three years, our team has been immersed in this experiment. As we have prayed, planned, learned, listened and worked together, we have identified three major areas of focus for that have the greatest potential for lasting influence on the spiritual development of our children and students.

Content What we teach and why.

The last 30 years have seen an explosion in curriculum and Bible study options available to discipleship ministries. Instead of assuming that a particular publisher or line of resources “knows best,” our team has worked strategically to design a “scope and sequence” of key biblical principles that builds from one age-group to the next. We then find or create the resources that best match that approach.

In the preschool years, our goal is a foundational understanding of central biblical concepts, such as “God is love.” In the children’s ministry, we teach transformational principles that help children understand how the gospel message and key biblical values apply to their own personal life. The preteen and middle school years are marked by the quest for identity, so our content is designed to teach our students who they are in Christ and how that sense of self applies to everyday decisions.

High school students are seeking to grasp their purpose in life as they develop the need to personalize their faith. And our college students need to be challenged with a deep understanding of the personal mission that God has called them to fill both in the church and in society. We also are developing ways to connect key messages preached by our senior pastor to our scope and sequence during critical periods throughout the church year, aligning our teaching for maximum impact in both the church and the home settings.[3]

Context Creating intentional ministry environments.

In his book The Present Future, author Reggie McNeil notes that “the community of faith should be an environment where the number one pursuit is the development of human beings created in the image of God and redeemed into his family through Jesus.”[4] We quickly discovered that in the past we had relied on programs or events that kept children and students busy and active, but most of these programs and events did little to foster a relational environment in which we focused on developing true disciples of Jesus Christ and not just the creation of consumers of church programs and services.

We approach our ministry environments through the metaphor of a three-pronged electrical plug. We want our children and students grounded in worship, growing in discipleship and going on mission wherever God leads them.

In our weekend worship services, we encourage intergenerational participation, as children and students need to grasp that they are part of a larger body of believers and they contribute through their worship to this witness. In our weekend and mid-week discipleship venues, we emphasize small group environments with trained leaders facilitating life-on-life biblical discussions with a generation that senses naturally that discipleship is “caught” as much as it is “taught.”

We provide catalyst opportunities for children and students to understand that they are “on mission” with God wherever they go, utilizing an Acts 1:8 framework that exposes our children and students to consistent service opportunities locally, cross-culturally and internationally.

Catalysts Two spiritual influences are better than one.

Research shows that we have on average about 40 hours a year of biblical instruction at church. Parents, by comparison, have over 3,000 hours a year outside of school and work in which they are constantly “teaching” their children something![5] The powerful and timeless message of Deuteronomy 6:4-7 articulated our convictions: if we are going to see a generation “emerge” to love God with all their heart, soul and strength, then we are going to have to re-direct much of our time and energy to equip parents (most of whom were not invested in spiritually by their own parents) about what it meant to “impress” these truths upon the lives of their children.

We launched our Parenting 6.7 ministry that focuses on parents and leaders working together to build “six” characteristics of a child/student who loves God and others through “seven” ministry strategies we have in place to educate, equip, empower and encourage parents to fulfill their biblical calling.[6] Our ministry then concentrates the rest of our energies on equipping other caring adult leaders in our church to create ministry venues and opportunities that support parents in the disciple-making process.

By defining the priorities we say “yes” to as a team, we are intentionally saying “no” to every other agenda and trend that would seek to distract us from our ultimate goal – to partner with parents in a biblical plan to raise up a generation that loves God and loves others. We recognize that the success of any such ministry can’t be measured merely by the number of children and students who are participating in our ministry today, but rather by the number who gain a lasting “impression” from our ministries that following Christ is a lifelong commitment.

Our dream would be that our children and students “emerge” from our ministries voicing their beliefs as clearly as David: “God You have taught me from my youth and I still proclaim your wonderful works. Even when I am old and gray God, do not abandon me. Then I will proclaim Your power to another generation, Your strength to all who are to come” (Psalms 71:17-18).

[1] Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. For a shorter summary see “Compliant but Confused” by Andy Crouch for Christianity Today, April 2005. Available on-line at

[2] “Most Twentysomethings put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” Article available on-line at

[3] For more detail on this concept, see The Big Idea: Focus the Message, Multiply the Impact by Dave Ferguson, John Ferguson and Eric Bramlett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).

[4] McNeil, Reggie. The Present-Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. San Fransisc Jossey-Bass, 2003. Page 91. A close examination of Reggie McNeil’s book The Present Future was critical in helping our team address key questions about the long-term impact of our ministry.

[5] Comments from Reggie Joiner (formerly of NorthPoint Community Church, now with Re:think Ministries) at the Orange Conference in Atlanta, GA May 9, 2007 as part of the seminar “Clearing Up Family Ministry Confusion.” Outline available on-line at

[6] This strategy is outlined and available on request.

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