Think of some of the mountaintop moments in your life so far, like the moment you realized you were done with high school, or the day you declared your love for someone and they returned the sentiment, or a wonderful experience while traveling outside your home state. These are all milestones in our life journeys, moments when we achieve something new and celebrate the opportunities that now lie ahead. We celebrate life’s milestones all the time without giving it much thought—birthday parties, driver’s licenses, weddings, baby showers, retirement celebrations. One of the most hopeful and exciting ways to look at life is as a series of milestone achievements. They may not occur in the same order or timing for everyone, and some folks may skip one milestone and double up on another, but they always mark a reason to cheer for one another and a new stage of learning and ability.
I am convinced that structuring family ministry around a series of intentional, meaningful spiritual milestones is the most inclusive and powerful way to lead families in the church, and I aim to convince you of the same. First, I want to lay out exactly what a spiritual milestone is, and then I’ll explain how this sort of ministry structure solves multiple ministry problems churches consistently face.
What is a Spiritual Milestone?
A spiritual milestone is an event that marks and celebrates a new stage of spiritual development related to a physical, cognitive, or social achievement in someone’s life. We are all familiar with developmental expectations for physical or mental growth. We have a general idea of when a baby should walk, when a child should start to read, and when a teenager is ready for keys to the car. What we don’t always realize is that spiritual milestones exist in tandem with these others. Pediatricians hand parent’s fact sheets about their child’s age and stage at their annual checkups; church leaders could do the same for spiritual age and stage expectations!
A classic example of a milestone-based on cognitive development is that of learning to read, which some people achieve in preschool, most in elementary school, and some even later in life. The customary spiritual application of this milestone is the reading of Scripture and other devotional books. To celebrate this milestone, many churches present Bibles to their elementary school children, recognizing that this academic achievement is paralleled by the spiritual milestone of treasuring God’s word. It’s a beautiful recognition, and if your church isn’t on this train yet, hop aboard! This is an easy way to begin.
I offer three different elements of a milestone event in church life:
- A public recognition ceremony
- A tangible symbol for the recipient to keep
- A parent/caregiver education component
In the example of the reading milestone, the public recognition ceremony would consist of calling the young readers and their caregivers forward in worship and celebrating their reading ability. The tangible symbol for the recipient is the Bible itself. The parent/caregiver education component could be a Bible workshop, where parents and their young readers bring their new Bibles and are led in devotional exercises, an overview of Scripture, journaling practices, or testimony from other church leaders about their own use of Bible reading in daily life.
The Value of a Milestones Ministry
I love milestone celebrations for a million different reasons, but I will offer just a few of them here.
Milestones are Inclusive
Anyone who has spent more than a minute in children’s ministry understands that kids develop at different rates and have different needs. Some families baptize their children as infants; others let their child choose when they are ready to take that step. Some kids begin asking questions about sex in Kindergarten; others are blissfully unaware and uninterested into their teen years. Unlike school, which must conform to strict government and academic standards, the church is free to let families opt in to the ministry areas that fit their child’s needs the best.
Milestones can be structured as stage or achievement events, regardless of the age of the participant. A blessing of the backpacks at the beginning of the school year can impact kids in every grade, even the one who is repeating this year. A Kindergartener who reads fluently can receive a Bible alongside a second grader who is just now picking it up and a fourth-grader whose family just moved to the area.
In addition to being age and stage inclusive, milestones are equally inclusive for active and inactive families. Whether you have perfect Sunday school attendance or are primarily a Christmas and Easter family, you are invited to participate in a mission trip milestone or the Intro to Youth Group milestone. I have seen families who haven’t attended for years show up to receive face time with the pastor and celebrate their child in worship. Because the church has agreed to celebrate a common life event, everyone is eligible. Milestones level the playing field and make church a place for everyone.
Milestones Appeal to Parents’ Insecurities
Parents are scared. Most of the time. It is normal for parents to worry that they’re ruining their kids and to feel like failures who don’t know what the next right move might be. These worries are magnified during times of transition, when routines and responsibilities shift and a family system enters an unknown phase. And that is the church’s opportunity.
Lest we forget, we who lead families in the church are powerfully positioned to speak life into families in these anxious moments and to train them to lead faithfully in their homes. Our problem is that we can’t seem to figure out how to get families to listen to us. The answer is to offer to celebrate those times of transition, and when families latch on to that enticement, you introduce teaching at the same time. No parent wants to attend an event marketed as a solution to their problems, because people don’t want to admit they have problems. But offer to have a big worship party to celebrate their middle schooler’s graduation to high school, and insist on a “rehearsal” the day before, where everyone sits down, commiserates about this particularly hazardous stage of life, and then listens to you speak encouragement, love, grace, and life from God’s Word into their weary souls. Milestones are a chance to celebrate, but even more than that, they are an exercise in stealth discipleship.
Milestones are Resilience-Building
For anyone who has experienced trauma and crisis, milestones offer a chance to heal and belong. The tradition of bringing people to the front of the church, praying blessing over them, recognizing their achievements, and sending them home with a symbol of the church’s recognition—a Bible, a cross, a necklace, a jar of oil, a seashell, whatever it is—can provide someone who is hurting a non-threatening way to belong and participate. Milestones are only positive and should never be exclusive. If someone believes they deserve to participate, let them. If someone needs to experience the same milestone ever year, then bless them to do that. Allow these spiritual stepping stones to lead people into abundant lives of faith, regardless of their past or present.
When I pitched my latest book, I actually pitched two different ideas. One was to write the Children & Family Ministry Handbook, which will come out this May and which contains a chapter all about milestones. But the other idea was simply to write a whole book just about milestones, with research into developmental stages and detailed plans for celebrating any type of spiritual rite of passage. So yes, I’m a fan. And I would love to hear the ways you are already celebrating the spiritual growth of the children in your church—and meeting the faith needs of parents in the process.
Let us know in the comments below.
Sarah Flannery is the author of the Children and Family Ministry Handbook. She has led ministries for children and families for the past 15 years, both as a church staff person and a volunteer. After graduating from Asbury University with an English degree, Sarah earned her master's degree in Family Sciences from the University of Kentucky. She currently serves as Assistant Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY, where she leads in children's ministry, supervises other ministry teams, and provides pastoral care to church members. She and her husband, John, parent two boys, Thomas and Jack, and live with an alpha cat named Annabelle and a goldendoodle with zero chill named Ripley. Sarah hopes anyone reading her books will find that in her stories of hit-or-miss ministry experiences, they also can discover new ways to live out their callings to serve and disciple families.