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The Great Ministry Myth: Why Fun and Games Won’t Lead to Lifelong Faith (and titles like these)

I want you to read this blog post. Because I think the message incredibly important. But I’ve learned if I don’t have a catchy title, people don’t click on the link and read the content. And I was stuck. So I plugged my post into ChatGPT and asked it to give me an irresistible title. Here’s what it came up with:

  • “Why Your Children’s Ministry Is Failing (And What You Can Do About It)”
  • “The Shocking Truth About Discipleship: It’s Not About Curriculum or Programs”
  • “Are You Making Disciples or Just Entertaining Kids? The Disturbing Reality of Children’s Ministry”
  • “The Great Ministry Myth: Why Fun and Games Won’t Lead to Lifelong Faith”
  • “Breaking Free from the Sunday School Mentality: How to Make Disciples That Last”

I find these titles interesting if only because this artificial intelligence seems to get it… but do we?

The other day, I was blessed to have a wonderful conversation with a new Children’s Coordinator in India. His brand-new role was to oversee the ministry to about 1,200 children in several churches in a large area. This was essentially the first time this particular denomination had tried to build a ministry like this and he basically asked, “How do I start a children’s ministry?” He had a laundry list of ideas – curriculum and programs that he could possibly use, resources he might need – a lot like the original birthday list that my son put together.

So, I asked him a simple question: “What is your goal?” 

Over the last few years of working in children, youth, and family ministry, I’ve heard lots of goals articulated like “Make the Sunday school hour the best hour of the week!”

I have come to the conclusion that the only goal we should have in any ministry, no matter what age it is aimed at, is to make disciples.  Disciples that are on a journey of lifelong faith formation as followers of Jesus.

Here’s the thing: A lot of the things on our list, things we think we need, we actually don’t need. Things like curriculum and programs and crafts and fun activities and missions trips and lock-ins and family movie nights and VBS. Those things are all tools we can use, but they are not what we actually need. We can make disciples without any of those things!

But there are some things we actually DO need if we are going to make disciples who are on a lifelong journey of faith formation. Non-negotiables. Essential things. Not tools to help us reach the goal, but things actually necessary for the completion of the goal. However, it is often these things that can take a backseat as we focus on the tools rather than the goal.


In 2017, Dr. Richard Ross, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked that question. Specifically, he states, “The issue really is not: How is our youth group doing today? Instead, the core question is: How will our youth group be doing for a lifetime?” (Source).  In answering that question, he proposed three needs that must be met for the goal of making disciples to be achieved. He based those three needs directly on Scripture consistent with the best current research concerning teenagers who follow Jesus for a lifetime.

  1. Parents/Caregivers who adore Jesus, love the church, and are actively on mission.
  2. An integrated community of believers where old and young interact in relationships and worship.
  3. A Bible-drenched peer group who actively live out the gospel together.

Ross calls it “ministry in thirds” and he encourages ministry budgets to reflect equal attention to all three as pillars of lifelong discipleship. Why?

Because these things are needed to reach the goal of making disciples. They are necessary. They aren’t icing on the cake or options you can add to enhance the main thing. They are the main thing.

That leaves us with a couple of important questions we must ask ourselves.

  • First, are these the main discipleship pillars in our ministry? Are they even there at all?
  • Second, if these are not the main things, what are? What gets our time, energy, attention, and money?
  • Third, have the tools that we use become the goal rather than a means to reach the goal?
  • And finally, most importantly, what in fact is our goal? Or more accurately, what are the results we are looking for? More people in our programs? More kids at our events? The biggest turnout? The coolest stage design? The coolest youth group? The most young families?

In the case of ministry to children, youth, and families, our goal and our results should be one and the same – making disciples. Helping people of all ages and stages to better follow Jesus together.

If we start with the results and work our way back to what we need to put in place and then consider what tools we can use to get there, we may find that our ministry looks far different than it does today. Our measurements of success may change and our markers of growth might be altered. We may take a much much longer view on faith formation and a much much deeper view of community. But if the results look like lifelong disciples, we have most certainly hit our goal.

The last few years have been hard on our churches and in many cases, our community has experienced significant disruption. If that’s been your experience, consider downloading the Connect Generations Ministry Assessment tool from ReFocus Ministry. It offers churches the opportunity to identify the bridges and barriers to discipleship and mentorship in their community. Connect Generations is a research-based self-assessment that can be done by a church in less than a week that offers specific insight into the barriers and bridges to connect generations. And it includes a personalized chart with identifiable strengths and weaknesses as well as a FREE follow-up coaching session to create a plan for the future.

About the Author

Christina Embree is the founder and director of ReFocus Ministry. She holds a masters in ministry focused on Children, Youth, and Family Ministry and is completing her doctoral degree in spiritual formation with a focus on age segregation and intergenerational ministry. In addition to coaching churches of multiple denominations and traditions all around the globe, Christina serves as the Minister of Generational Discipleship for the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ and as a pastor at Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky.

Christina is widely recognized as a speaker and author in the areas of generational discipleship, intergenerational ministry, and family ministry. As the mother of three children, she is familiar with the challenges of faith at home and pastoral ministry. She along with her husband Luke share a love for the church, their community, and the global work of peace and restoration through Jesus.


  • John Nixdorf
    Posted April 20, 2023 at 2:32 pm

    Assess the long-term impact of your children’s and youth ministries by tracking down “graduates” of your programs. Not just the stars that went to Bible college and are now missionaries, as many of them as you can. How are they doing? Faithful Christians, nominal Churchians, bitter atheists, etc.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 15, 2023 at 4:15 pm

      There are plenty of studies that look at the longevity of church attendance and faith affiliation. I would suggest Barna Resarch, Pew Research, Lifeway Research, etc. Most tend to do as you suggested (look at those who left church or changed faith affiliations) but a few such as the research at Fuller Youth Institute look at those who remained. Both viewpoints offer valuable and needed insights.

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