"The optimal discipleship trajectory for relational children’s ministry is clear – children are formed into disciples of Jesus when a loving community of Christ followers love them and model for them what it means to follow Jesus.”
This quote captures many of the themes that Dan Lovaglia explores in his book Relational Children’s Ministry, which aims to turn children’s ministry leaders into ‘lifelong disciple makers’. With extensive experience in parish ministry, Lovaglia now works as a consultant and leadership coach for Slingshot Group, who support churches by helping to build healthy and effective ministry teams. Lovaglia's passion for this is evident, as throughout the book he challenges us to shift the focus of our children’s ministry from fun and knowledge-sharing, to journeys of discipleship.
Lovaglia is an author-practitioner, sharing first-hand experiences from his own family of two sons and his own childhood, as well as his years in parish ministry. He questions the success of running the usual programs and turns to Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28 to reshape the question to focus on discipleship. Lovaglia argues that the missing characteristic in children’s ministry is intentional Christ-centred relationships.
As Lovaglia writes to an American audience, I found his style and some of his metaphors cloud rather than clarify his point. The landscape of children’s and youth ministry that he is speaking into is different from the Australian context, yet the strategies and ideas he is arguing for are not as foreign to our churches as they might seem. His insights offer a new perspective on issues many Australian practitioners are already wrestling with, such as how to partner with parents, and how to foster relationships across the generations.
Lovaglia starts with recognising the pressure points and difficulties common in children’s ministry, whilst also identifying the common “scapegoats” that are blamed for poor results. These scapegoats include insufficient resources, timid parenting, unsupportive church leadership, and cultural changes. One “pressure point” familiar in our context is fatigued leaders. Often it’s a battle to have enough leaders, let alone find people who are motivated and capable. After a time, even the most passionate leaders can lose the joy of serving others. Lovaglia writes: “Children’s ministries frequently burn out volunteers by not placing them in meaningful roles with clear commitments”. This is a helpful reminder that we need to give leaders a clear understanding of their role and equip them to do it.
The second part of the book is devoted to exploring relational discipleship, where leaders share and model a life of following Jesus. Lovaglia has his own "five life-giving invitations" that characterise children’s ministry, including the needs to establish "unconventional community", to "wrestle together with messy faith" and to "model Christ’s life-transforming mission". There are many examples and stories of what this has looked like in Lovaglia’s life and ministry.
For me, the greatest contribution of this book is the many helpful insights and practical suggestions which accompany Lovaglia’s overall focus on discipleship. Three helpful points I will remember from this book:
It takes a disciple to make a disciple. Although this is a paraphrase of American Minister and Author A.W. Tozer, it also captures much of Lovaglia’s argument for leaders to share their own stories of faith, discuss Jesus in the "unscripted" moments of life, and to have a focus on whole church community.
Align your children’s ministry with the larger vision of the church. Lovaglia shares that his church was "confident the church mission was well grounded in biblical truth". However, "what was not clear was how children’s ministry fitted into that mission". These are helpful questions to consider in regard to our own churches. Do changes need to be made?
Change your perspective when it comes to partnering with parents. Instead of an "us and them" mentality between leaders and parents, Lovaglia suggests building stronger "bridges" between church and home: characterised by encouragement, equipping and engagement.
I would recommend Lovaglia’s Relational Children’s Ministry as a readable and thought-provoking book for all who serve in children’s ministry teams. His suggestions are helpful for churches of all shapes and sizes. Many Australian churches are already thinking about ministry in terms of discipleship and relational growth across the whole church, and this book could provide a few more prompts in the right direction.
Lovaglia’s Relational Children’s Ministry is now available from Harper Collins Australia.