Code red! The danger level is code red! That is the way I felt when I read George Barna’s Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions. I want to say that every pastor, every elder, every teacher, every parent, and every adult ought to put down whatever they are reading at present and read this instead. On the book’s jacket, Bill Hybels, pastor of the famous Willow Creek Church said, “Finally! I have been waiting almost thirty years for someone to put into book form what I have known to be true nearly all my ministry life. Children matter!”
This has been the message of Christian Education and Publications during my years as coordinator, and it has increasingly been our challenge and cry to the church. Barna’s conclusion, as the subtitle states, children should be the church’s number one priority. How biblical is that priority? The covenant community is the people of God configured in family, immediate and extended. God has told the covenant community to train the children in his ways, to pass on the faith to the next generation, and to be a witness to the children of the church.
Here in this volume, Barna has done some of the best research, with interpretations, that he has ever done. While I have appreciated Barna’s work, having had an opportunity to read his books and be with him on occasion, I feel this is his most important book. It brings us to the reality that what happens in a child’s life prior to his or her thirteenth birthday will set the stage for the rest of that child’s life unless God the Holy Spirit intervenes.
Barna tells how he came to this priority after a number of years of study and work. The book represents more than five years of gathering and interpreting data relating to children but he also indicates that it is only in the past two years that the conclusion really connected for him. He concludes that less than ten percent of professing Christians having a self-conscious, biblical worldview. Even children that are being brought into the church are not taught a biblical worldview; hence their understanding of Christianity matches that of their parents and teachers.
Barna exposes the myth that adult ministry is where the action is in a local church. That’s what I was told years ago when one of my seminary advisors said, Charles, “Don’t spend so much time with calves, that you forget the cows that give the milk.” Can you believe that myth? Of course you can. Look at your church’s budget. How much of your resources are focused on the children? Barna states, with the accompanying statistics to back his statements, “It was through this standard practice that God opened my mind and heart to ranking ministry to children at the top of the priority list.” He pleads with us that the church’s mission is not to see the children merely as add-ons. He says, “Ultimately, the purpose of this endeavor is to enable the Church to engage in the process of transforming mere children into spiritual champions.
Barna’s chapter on the spiritual health of our children is a stark reminder that the church must recast its mission, Adults, preachers, teachers, and especially parents, must be discipled with what we call a kingdom view of discipleship in order to pass it on to the children. Unless this happens, he says, “their spiritual life is prioritized and nurtured, they will miss out on much of he meaning, purpose, and joy of life.”
We used to say that seventy-five percent of all decisions, especially the decision to be a Christian, happens before a child’s eighteenth birthday. Now the research lowers that to thirteen years of age. I will not begin to list the numerous statistics that make that point, but you will want to read this book carefully and prayerfully. As I went through the highlights of this book with our CEP staff and committee, I was more and more convinced that we are failing to take God’s priorities to heart.
As I began to write this review, I was handed a brochure from a sister denomination delineating its distinctives. The brochure highlighted the denomination’s priority was to evangelize the lost, at home and abroad. Such is definitely a part of the church’s mission. But, I saw no mention of ministry to the rising generations. That may be the position of many of our churches, as well.
The church and its families must come together in a way that equips them to disciple the church’s children, and those not yet part of the church, with a kingdom view of discipleship. Sunday school and youth clubs are part of that process but as Deut. 6 reminds us, it must be at all levels of the children’s lives.
Barna concludes with the challenge, “If we default on our responsibility, we cannot blame those substitutes for making the most of the opportunity.” That is what is happening. By the age fifteen, church dropouts increase significantly. Thirteen years of age ought to be burned into our minds and hearts, as we look at children. Barna has given us excellent information to encourage and challenge us to do whatever we need to do, expend whatever resources we have to spend, in order to make kingdom disciples of our children.