Using the Tools of Psychology to Study Children’s Ministry

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Drew interviewed California Baptist University psychologist, Erin Smith, to learn about research on children’s ministry. Trained in developmental psychology and religious cognition, Smith is one of a small cadre of scientists using empirical tools to understand and strengthen our ministry to children. Whether you are a lead pastor, children’s pastor, or a volunteer, we hope her many insights will benefit your congregation’s children’s ministry.

Let’s start with your background. What led you to psychology and the research you are doing today?

I wanted to be a judge; I wanted to be the one making the rules. As an undergrad, that dream of pursuing law left me, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. When I took my first psych class, it was fascinating, and it offered some really interesting answers to my questions. Before I graduated, I had a faculty member pull me aside and ask if I’d thought about grad school in psychology. I respected him enough that I started thinking about it.

I decided early on I wanted to pursue developmental psychology. I started at UC Riverside studying media and how children learn from different forms of media, but I was really interested in fantasy and reality. I worked with a professor who had a research program probing religious cognition. They were asking fascinating questions around how we know and how we come to decide what is real. The implications in their research for both religion and science were really important and, in pursuing those questions, I found others that interested me. How do we as people of faith reconcile the scientific story? How do we think about these as complementary ways of understanding what is real and what is true in this world?

Tell us about your faith your journey.

I’m blessed that I grew up in a family where faith was not just a once or twice a year thing, but we were actively involved in our local church. We used to joke that my dad, who was a deacon and an elder, was Mr. Committee. As an adult and now a parent, I can see the sacrifice that he made to be active and present in my life and my sister’s life but also in the life of the church.

We didn’t attend a huge church, but when he passed away about 10 years ago, there were over 1,000 people from the local community at his service. He lived faith, and that’s the kind of model that I grew up with.

When I started asking questions around science and Christian faith—my dad wasn’t a scientist—but he would say, “Well, what do you think? What kinds of evidence can you bring to start to answer that question? If you’re going to come to me with a question you can’t come with an empty head. You need to think about these things so that way we can have a productive conversation.” And he did this in a great spirit of humility and laughter. He modeled how to enter these harder conversations. It’s OK that we don’t have the answers yet. What we can do is chip away at the questions.

You’ve been at Cal Baptist a decade now. How well is the church preparing your students to study science?

My students study psychology because they have a deep heart for people, and they really want to alleviate suffering and promote human flourishing. I love that about my students, but I’m not a counselor or a licensed therapist. I don’t have that background.

My courses are research heavy and so I ask them, if you want to help people, why should you understand human cognition or memory? It’s fun to broaden the scope of what psychology is. If we want to help people, we need a robust understanding of what a human person is and the way they function.

I’ve had students say, “I didn’t realize that psychology was so science-y.” But psychology, when done well, has its roots in empirical questions. How do we best take what we know and leverage it for the benefit of others?

How did you come to study children’s ministry?

I first started collaborating with Robert Crosby and others around the simple—maybe even silly—question: does church matter? Do we need to need to carve out a couple of hours on Sunday morning? Or is it ok to pray with my kids, read the Bible, and then play soccer on Sunday? Does church matter in the long run for our kids’ development?

We decided to look specifically at this idea of social support. That is the word psychologists use to describe when you have somebody to care for you if you need them. There are two types of social support. One is a belief that if you need help, someone will help you; this is perceived support. The other kind of support, received support, is when you need help, and it is provided in a tangible way.

There’s been a lot of research on adults linking the benefits of religious affiliation and religious participation to the benefits of social support. But we haven’t ever asked this question with kids. Is there something about social support specific to a church context? After we’ve kind of accounted for other places where they might receive this support, does it matter how children can relate to God?

Our research has demonstrated that when children experience social support from friends and from other adults at church that are not in their family, there is an increase in pro-social behavior and a decrease in antisocial behavior. Even more, social support impacts how children express their connection to God. We see in research on elementary-aged kids that the experience of connecting to God is mediated through other children and adult volunteers. That is to say, church matters in how children relate to other people that in turn influences how they experience God.

Then we asked: how do churches create circumstances where children experience social support? How do churches help children create relationships that allow them to experience the love of Christ?

Not all churches do this well. There is evidence that a lot of churches struggle to do this for children who have experienced trauma and are expressing behavioral difficulties. These churches want to love these kids, but they don’t always do it in a way that provides social support.

In a large study involving nearly 50 children’s pastors and over 1,000 kids from the Church of the Nazarene we considered three general categories of children’s ministry to see how they did or did not contribute to social support.

One is unstructured play time. This is child-led play with peers and with adults. Another was structured play time, which are staged games or when a leader guides the children in a fun activity. The third category was contemplative reflective practices, which are liturgical, emotional experiences aimed at connecting with God.

What we found is that structured playtime didn’t do anything in terms of creating social support. If the goal of children’s ministry is to create socially supportive relationships, then we should favor unstructured play and contemplative reflective practices which allow children to connect emotionally and interpersonally with their peers and adult ministry volunteers.

What does effective unstructured play look like?

It’s just good developmental play. As a developmental psychologist and parent, it is hard for an adult to get down to a child’s level of play. It often involves a lot of rote repetition. My son right now is really into cars, so there’s a lot of throwing a car off the bed to see how it lands, like for 30 minutes. He needs a large enough sample size so that he can have real evidence, right?

When adults join in unstructured play, and they don’t prioritize what they want to be doing with their time, that communicates something to a child. It goes beyond words and shapes processes that will determine how the child thinks about their own worth for years to come.

When adults in a ministry meet children where they’re at and ask, “What do you want to play? How can I play by your rules?” that might not feel very spiritual, but it’s actually deeply spiritual and formative for these kids in ways they may never be able to articulate.

We see practices like these across a variety of children’s ministries. It’s not always “sexy children’s ministry.” There is no flash-boom-bang or razzle-dazzle to it. It not “fun them into Jesus.” But providing this social support is the thing that we have found makes children learn to love Jesus.

Is there any connection here to specific curriculum or models of children’s ministry?

We did not study a particular curriculum. There is some empirical evidence supporting a Montessori-type model like Godly Play. But we also saw this social support in churches not using Godly Play. In following their instincts about spiritual disciplines, they created developmentally appropriate opportunities for their expression of support.

So, for example, in one church, after a time of worship and small groups with three to five kids shared and prayed for one another, they had a time where the kids picked a station. One might be art, another journaling, and third where there was a lit candle and they’d kneel in God’s presence. One feature of this ministry was that when parents came to pick up their kids, they weren’t allowed in the room. The kids were released when the kids were finished. They wouldn’t interrupt the stations just because the adult service was finished. In doing so, they created fertile ground for the movement of the Holy Spirit.

What are some best practices you have found in children’s ministry?

I want to be careful to not be too prescriptive. There are certain underlying psychological principles that are important in forming children in a way that is consistent with the mission of the church. But those principles can manifest in multiple ways, and some will need to be in a way that is organic to the ministry. So, there is not one right way to do children ministry from a psychological perspective.

That being said, in recent years, our research has explored how church ministries can create places that support children who’ve experienced trauma. These are very much children that the church has a heart for, a desire to offer healing so that they can meet Jesus.

So, here are a couple of principles of what we call trauma-Informed children’s ministry.

Trauma-informed practices make children feel safe; they prioritize both physical and emotional safety. We have this assumption that all kids like loud and like chaos. But not all kids do, and so we need to have safe spaces for children. It might be a separate quiet room or simply a corner that is set aside from loud, active play. Another way to cultivate safety is a ritual around locking a door. This indicates that the gathering area is a safe space where people can’t just come in and take you.

Secondly, trauma-informed ministries help children feel regulated. This is important for children who’ve experienced trauma but also kids who didn’t sleep well or have a good breakfast or are having a hard time in a relationship. They often express behavioral issues that are really a cry for help when they don’t yet know how to self-regulate. It’s important to actually practice self-regulation. Everyone can do breathing exercises together as we prepare to sit and learn. This practice can be used in a quiet space when a particular child is having trouble.

Cookie breathing is one option. Have kids imagine you just pulled their favorite type of cookie out of the oven. You want them to smell it, so you’re going to breathe in really deep. But it’s too hot. You can’t eat it yet, so you have to breathe out to try to cool that cookie down. You need to do that a couple of times to cool the cookie and so the child is calm enough for a conversation.

A third value of trauma-informed ministries is that they make children feel valued. How you do that can vary, but it includes respect for the child in a way that gives them some sense of control. Children spend a lot of time being told what to do; they often don’t get any choice. Whenever we can offer reasonable choices within the boundaries of what’s appropriate, we offer them a sense of autonomy. Autonomy communicates respect and value.

In instances where you can’t offer a real choice, you might acknowledge: “This is a thing we need to do; this is why we need to do that; are you OK with this right now? I want you on my side because there isn’t a choice I can give you, but I can at least explain to you why that’s the case.” That in and of itself shows a great deal of respect for the child in a way that communicates their value.

Lastly, trauma-informed ministries do a lot in small groups of three to five people. If you have a large ministry, you’re going to need a lot of volunteers, folks that know the children’s names and will be able to ask, “Hey, I prayed for that test you had in school last week, how’d that go?”

How do you get enough of the right type of volunteers to do trauma-informed children’s ministry?

You can’t do trauma-informed ministry by yourself as a children’s pastor. The children’s pastors we interviewed who had the most robust, socially supportive ministries described their first order of ministry effort as their volunteers. Yes, they are there to serve the kids, but they first serve the volunteers so that the volunteers can serve the kids.

In our current research, we’re running workshops on training volunteers in these principles of trauma-informed ministries. One of the things that’s been interesting is that some volunteers have said, “I had no idea. I want to be here every Sunday for these kids.” It changes the script from work to ministry.

Working with so-called problem kids, kids who are demonstrating difficult behaviors, is exhausting. Johnny just wouldn’t sit still and then Susie hit him. That doesn’t feel like ministry. It’s work, right? But when you understand that these are behavioral expressions of some underlying need, it’s different. Susie is telling you, “I’m feeling dysregulated, but I’m seven. I don’t know how to say that, so I’m going to hit somebody. I’m feeling like I’m not valued. I’m getting no choice in this. I’m just being shuffled from one activity to the next. So, what am I going to do? I’m going to hit someone or lay down and have some civil disobedience here on the floor.”

Changing the script can promote volunteer investment, so that they know the importance of caring for this child who keeps hitting other kids or the child who won’t sit still or lays on the ground and refuses to participate. Volunteers are trying to heal a hurt so that children can make the choices that will enable the Holy Spirit to do the work that the Holy Spirit does. We’re not just babysitting kids; we’re doing God’s work and helping lift kids to a place where they can meet the Holy Spirit. It’s critical for volunteers to catch that vision.

How do you get the right people? There may be better answers to this question, and I suspect research would bear out that the right people are those who have a heart for kids and who are willing to learn. When you have that kind of desire for learning, then the whole ministry can be elevated.

Our experimental work in churches in Latin America showed that when we train volunteers in these leadership relational principles, the atmosphere of these churches changes 180 degrees. We will never build these social support environments perfectly, but we don’t need to do it perfectly. We just need to be faithful to the call that God has given us.

What advice do you have for the children’s ministry leader who has six well-behaved kids and one Johnny or Susie?

There’s a couple of layers to that question which I love.

There’s what do you do this Sunday as this happens. In the moment, you must have a good filter about the importance of the child’s behavior. What I mean by that is: let’s say the kids are doing some activity, and they’re supposed to be creating a particular craft. Then you have that one kid who’s just not going to do that craft. They’re going to do whatever it is they want to do. Is that causing them harm? Is it causing others harm? Is it interfering with what you are trying to do? You need to ask: how important is it for me get them on task?

You might encourage them to do the task at hand, but if they won’t, that should be OK. What’s more important is to give them the relational space they need so that they feel heard and respected. Now that might be different if you are trying to teach a lesson and you have a kid who keeps running up to the front and to draw on the board. In that circumstance, it’s helpful to try to redirect them. Is there a way that you could intentionally incorporate them into what you are doing? Or is there someone who can come alongside them, maybe take them for a walk or help them get their wiggles out, so they can come back, sit, and engage?

It’s important to clarify what the expectations are and to recognize that not all kids show up to church able to meet those expectations. Part of our role is the developmental scaffolding of their capacities to do the things that we’re asking them to do to be a part of this thing we call church.

If possible, each Sunday morning might include a volunteer who can redirect children who are having a problem. They can address behavior that we can’t let go or otherwise redirect.

This leads to a structural issue that we need to address. So often children’s ministry is like leftovers in the church. Barna just released a study that showed that parents and pastors think children’s ministry is really important. At the same time, it’s also really under resourced. In some churches, it is an afterthought, and in others it lacks clear, intentional purpose within the church’s broader ministry vision.

To change this, the lead pastor and members of the congregation need to see that children’s ministry is not babysitting while adults get their spiritual meal. Change involves intentional, strategic communication for the church: We don’t have enough volunteers for our children’s ministry, and we’re not looking for warm bodies to fill this space. We’re looking for people who want to develop their spiritual disciplines and practices while contributing to the body of Christ.

A church might need to think: what is the systemic problem that is either causing volunteer turnover or preventing individuals from being willing to serve? Then, those issues need addressing.

You haven’t said much about the place of children in worship with the grown-ups. What does your research have to say about that?

One of our earlier studies probed the effect on social support when children worshipped with their parents versus when they were separated. One of the unique features of a church context relative to sports or school is that it’s uniquely intergenerational. While we haven’t fully fleshed this out, my intuition informed by our data suggests this community of worship is really important.

We might resist it because the kids are going to be bored or the parents are going to be distracted. There is something to be said for creating spaces where parents can exist without worrying about their little humans running around. There is also something deeply formative about children seeing their parents as part of a broader community—raising their hands in worship, either literally or metaphorically—seeing a bigger story that includes them. There’s a lot of value in that.

What else does the research on children’s ministry have to offer to leaders and volunteers in children’s ministry?

The unfortunate reality is that there’s not a lot of scientists in this space though there are a lot of practitioners who are committed to trying to improve children’s ministry.

It’s true that most leaders and volunteers working with children in church do this because they love people, and they love God. Even among ministries that from a developmental perspective might be lacking, they minister with a heart that desires to serve God. But if their intuitions are wrong, we can end up with ways of doing things that are ineffective.

Those of us on the science side are a very small group of individuals who ask these questions using empirical yardsticks to measure what works. We investigate our practices to make empirically-informed decisions around how best to organize our ministry. This is not to replace the work of the Holy Spirit but to create conditions that we know create opportunities for the Holy Spirit to work.

What are some good resources you would recommend that measure with empirical yardsticks?

My colleague, Robert Crosby, and his wife, Lori, a licensed play therapist wrote the book on trauma-informed children’s ministry. Much of what I have mentioned here is in their book. It’s incredibly accessible and I commend it to anyone interested in thinking more robustly about children in the church.

There is also our website, Reach Hurting Kids, where information will be available as we continue to develop resources for training children’s ministry workers.

We currently have a team in Southern California and Tennessee that are doing consultations with children’s ministries. We are working on an online curriculum as well. Church pastors who are interested in seeing whether they might be able to participate in some of the beta-versions of our training (for research) could email us at We hope around this time next year we will have some more empirically informed answers around training churches in effective children’s ministry. I hope Science for the Church will help us share them broadly.

Relationships are core to our work at Science for the Church. You have told us how important relationships are in forming our children to know and follow Jesus. Any further thoughts on why this is so?

One of the things that I think is interesting about children is they are not little adults. Research is clear that they’re not just smaller versions of us. So, if we engage with them the way that we might engage with a colleague at work, we’re missing something fundamental about the way they operate. At the same time, they are not aliens either. They are not fundamentally so dissimilar from us that we can’t understand how to engage with them.

While children do think differently about the world, they also offer an interesting case study about how we communicate love. As we get to adulthood, we often want to over intellectualize things, and we say, “I communicate love by doing this and that. I say these words, and I read that book and I know this thing.” But when we kind of back up the developmental clock and look at kids, we see that love is just as much an embodied interaction in a relational space.

Even when we cover it up and rationalize it in adulthood, that doesn’t go away. For this reason, there’s value in thinking about what formation looks like for our 10-year-olds. They cry for the same experiences our adult hearts crave.

We can have all the right thinking in our minds, but if we haven’t figured out how to live it in an embodied way that pours out of our gut, then we’re missing something. That’s the default mode for children. They only learn to intellectualize and rationalize things as they become adults. It’s helpful for our own spiritual development but also for us as a community of believers to ask these questions: What does it mean to be formed? Is formation mostly about the correct knowledge transfer? If so, let’s speed up some artificial intelligence so I can just download the chip right into my brain. Or is formation something more fundamental and less easily articulated, more emotional and connective?

Of course, my research and other research on human nature would suggest the latter. In spiritual formation for kids, oftentimes the things that can lead to the kind of formation we seek look rather unspiritual. Consider a volunteer playing video games with a kid. For a kid, that says, “Wow, this volunteer loves me, and she sees me because when we play, I can knock her out, and she still talks about what a great hit that was.” We might think that’s not spiritual, and it has no place in church, but actually that volunteer has communicated all sorts of nonverbal statements about this child’s value and their connection in the broader Body of Christ. At church, this child can be met right where they are.

As we wrap up, let me ask you about the impact of children’s ministry on our kids when they go off to college. How does children’s ministry contribute (or not) to the exodus of young people from our churches?

That’s such a good, important, and complicated question. I’ve been thinking: what does it look like to have a church that isn’t trying to create a parallel universe to the real world. And what would it look like if the church was less about entertainment?

Let me explain how children’s ministry can create a parallel culture. Consider a party: you can go to this one here or one at the church, right? If it’s just a parallel universe, what happens when they leave home and go off to college? They will find parties of the sort we have been trying to keep them from. But now, well, they’re fun. It’s a place to find great people and do crazy things. The college party now fills the exact thing that church had been doing because the using the “parallel party system” to learn to love Jesus failed.

We need to make sure that children’s ministry does not stay at the level of entertainment, enticing them to return because, wow, it’s fun and flashy. They should come because there is something different about this space, something sacred, something rare with an authenticity that our culture needs. We all want this authenticity, starting in childhood, and children’s ministry should be about creating places where we are real with each other in a context of loving relationships.

As adults, we are not always at church because we want to be. We are there for others. We show up faithfully to ask the Spirit to do something in us for the benefit of the body of Christ.

Church is not just about entertainment or filling these surface level needs and desires. It’s about something that my heart is crying for—belonging to an authentic community. Children’s ministry should be one of the first places where we start to sketch a pathway of what a life like that would look like.

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