How Linear Thinking Limits Long-Term Growth

Jun 30, 2020

We are such linear creatures.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but I have a very limited working knowledge of time, which, by default, is generally measured in terms of my own lifespan. When I was 21, for instance, 35 was middle-aged. It was ancient! I imagined every 35-year-old out there must be getting knee replacement surgeries and denture fittings. Now that I’m 35, however, I have a little better perspective, though I am having some knee trouble and 21-year-olds do look like babies to me. The point is, my view of time is linear, and, obviously, relative. Yours probably is too.

Most things in life, however, are cyclical.

Babies grow into children who grow into teenagers who grow into young adults who marry and have babies (Who then age into middle-aged people who complain about their knees). The church is the same way. It’s cyclical. (Though, the church doesn’t have knees.)

Let me give you an example. Have you ever met (or been, be honest) a lead pastor who is looking for a silver bullet to save the youth program at his church– “There are only two kids, mine.” The (5-hour/week) youth pastor just isn’t passionate. The youth space is great, I installed the projector from the old sanctuary in there myself, it almost runs all three colors. I just don’t know what to do anymore. How can I help my youth pastor find teenagers?” But then, when you try asking about the lackluster children’s ministry complete with star charts and flannel graphs, he says, “Our children’s ministry is fine, we’re up to 20 kids in there! It’s the youth ministry that needs work!”

In generalities, here is how children’s programming typically breaks down. The Children’s Ministry equals 20% of the Worshipping Population. Of that, 20% is usually Nursery, 30% Preschool, and 50% Elementary. In our scenario above, with 20 children, that averages to 4 little ones in nursery, 6 in preschool, and 10 in elementary. Let’s say this church includes Kindergarten in preschool just to keep our math easy. This means that at the end of the year, if all goes well, we will have two 5th graders moving into youth. That’s best-case scenario. And that’s great if your congregation has 100 people on a Sunday. It is! But if you’re running 250, two 5th graders aren’t equating to that youth explosion the pastor is looking for.

Do you see what I’m saying here?

It probably seemed obvious, inconsequential when I started with, “Babies grow into children who grow into teenagers,” but if you don’t understand where teenagers come from, you will always be scratching your head when they don’t show up on Sundays. Here’s another big one churches ignore ALL THE TIME.

Where do babies come from?

No, I’m serious. Have you ever had a bubble in your nursery and thought in a panic, “Where are all the babies?!” Well, I’ll tell you, and most of you are not going to like it.

Young adults.

The single most under-resourced ministry of every church that I have ever worked with is this age group. I know you want them to assimilate into the broader church culture. I do. But they aren’t. And this is a HUGE PROBLEM because THIS is where babies come from.

And this is the difficulty with linear thinking, do you see it? If you think of the lifespan of your church as linear, it probably begins and ends with you.

When your children are little, you want your church to have a vibrant preschool ministry, complete with mom’s morning out programs and small groups that offer childcare. When you have teenagers, you want your church to have an active youth ministry that your kids WANT to be a part of– Not one where you have to force them to go by threat of taking away their phone chargers. When you are an empty nester, you want your church to offer small groups that work with your schedule, messages that speak to your situation in life, and music that suits your preferences. Then, you are perplexed when you can’t get your young adult children interested in the middle-aged ministry of your church.

The fact is, the focus of your church has to apply to every age group because the mission of the Gospel applies to every age group. Friends, if we are doing this thing right, there are people at every life stage engaging in our church at any given time. When we make our timeline linear instead of cyclical, we put the focus on one stage of life, our stage of life, instead of realizing that each stage of life leads into every other. They don’t call it the circle of life for nothing!

And this is why it’s so important that we plant churches in every community with strong children’s ministries. Not only because we want every child to have a church, but because we want every lifespan to have access to a church. Though a circle has no obvious starting point, you can’t go wrong with a great children’s ministry. When you build a great children’s ministry, families will come. It’s like we children’s pastors’ little gift to you. Families come in and we will say, “Here, Lead Pastor. Please babysit these adults for an hour while we disciple their children.” 

The point is, they’ll hand us their babies, and their babies will grow into children who grow into teenagers who grow into young adults who marry and have babies… And, in 50 years, you will probably have retired, but the church will be just getting started.

Brandi Kirkland is the Kids Lead Influencer at Lifepointe, a multi-site church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Church systems and strategy are her very favorite thing, and she loves writing about them and living them out every single day. 

Brandi Kirkland

Kids Lead Influencer, Lifepointe Church - Raleigh, NC