01 Changing Landscapes

Changing Landscapes


The world has experienced a technological upheaval unlike anything in previous human history. There are people living today who remember the advent of television, who can now tuck a smartphone into their pocket that contains more computing power than all the Allied forces in World War II.

Over the past century, the rate of technological advance has increased exponentially—and with that increase, social opportunities and dilemmas tethered to tech have also multiplied.

Parents and ministry leaders today face many of the same challenges as past generations. How do we help children grow into thriving, productive adults? How do we help them steer away from destructive influences and toward their truest and most rooted selves? How do we encourage them to choose a genuine faith in Jesus for themselves?

Ubiquitous tech and media haven’t created many problems; rather, they have amplified—often dramatically—old pressures. Distraction, pornography, bullying and information addiction are all ancient problems. But when the world can fit in your pocket, they become all but inescapable.

Children feel these pressures keenly. Rates of youth anxiety, depression and suicide are climbing sharply2, just more evidence that the childhood years are no longer a refuge from the pressures of the world as they once were.

What governs the media lives of Christian kids? What dangers and opportunities do parents perceive in the remarkable innovations of the past few decades? What are their pain points as they try to pass on faith to their children? In this chapter, we examine the trends affecting engaged Christian families and their relationship to the changing landscape of technology.

Top Parenting Struggles

Engaged Christian parents rank the following issues among their top three struggles when it comes to guiding their children’s spiritual formation.

Top Parenting Struggles



A few groups of parents express more concern than others when it comes to these issues–including some whose children consume 16 or more hours of entertainment media per week.

Some Struggle More

Changing Childhood

By Beth Cunningham

Imagination allows children to learn creativity. Sadly, we’re seeing fewer children who are truly imaginative because all they’ve ever experienced is being told what to do to be entertained. Children need boredom and nonscheduled time. If their time outside school is packed with activities like music, dance and sports, they won’t have the opportunity to learn how to get along with their peers and resolve conflict.

Our culture of always-on, always-connected busyness is shrinking the space we need to cultivate imagination. This is a challenge for today’s parents, because other parents are always encouraging them to sign their kids up for something. But our kids need downtime— time left to just play. Otherwise, we tell our children to go outside to play, and they return in two minutes, knock on the door and say, “I don’t have anything to do. I don’t know what to do.” And they truly don’t, because we haven’t allowed them the practice a child needs to become imaginative.

Children today are being exposed to mature materials and topics at a younger age than they used to be, due to tech use. For example, it’s not uncommon for a nineor ten-year-old in our ministry to be much more aware of pop culture than children her same age 10 years ago.

We also notice elementary school children experiencing more anxiety. Years ago, similar levels of anxiety weren’t appearing until kids were in middle or high school. But today, many younger children are expressing worry, from relational stress to bad financial situations at home to their parents’ conflicted relationships.

Our church works to create a safe space for children who are carrying burdens they aren’t prepared for. They need to share what’s going on in their hearts. We create time for them to talk in their small groups at the end of the service and write down on prayer cards how we can be praying for them. Articulation helps—letting them feel heard by caring adults.

Younger parents want community. They long to relate to their tribe. As a ministry, we want to tap into that need for community and provide opportunities for it to grow. One way we’ve encouraged that is through the formation of supper clubs with groups of 10 parents. That less-formal relational connection meets a deep felt need that parents share.


Beth CunninghamBETH CUNNINGHAM is a children’s pastor at Church of the Highlands in Alabama, which ministers to preschool to fifth grade children across 18 campuses. She has served on church staff for more than 20 years. She is married to Shon and they have two children.

Available for Connection

By Hettie Brittz

The way our children’s brains are primed for outright enslavement to the online world is hair-raising. In a real sense, we now have to compete spiritually with the input from online sources. We have to figure out how to cut through the noise.

Children now have access to more belief systems, more opinions and more voices than ever before. In the past, though there may have been a few lone voices sending different messages, for the most part parents’ voices could be strengthened by what a pastor and a few teachers were saying. Now that has flipped. Most of the voices coming to children are through social media and online activity, and often they don’t agree with what parents and churches are communicating. At ages six, seven and eight, kids simply cannot distinguish between these different voices. They don’t have the objectivity to judge which voices are worth listening to and which are not.

I absolutely believe the medium influences the message. But I also see that the biggest difference is the person facilitating the learning experience. To a child, if Miss Sandy at my church loves me and is happy to see me when I arrive in class, then she can put a black-and-white sheet of paper in front of me any day of the week and I will engage with it. I experience something with my teacher that is very real—more real than the stranger on my iPad.

Yes, our material is important. We need it to be engaging and to communicate all the right foundational truths to guide children in forming their concept of God. But it’s the people, the facilitators in children’s learning, that are key. Often, kids are on their devices because of a lack of emotional connectedness with their parents. It’s our unavailability and busyness as parents and educators that make them default to the easy stimulation of a screen. There are very few kids who will remain engaged to a screen if an adult is ready to connect, play, listen or do a fun activity with them. Sadly, all too often we grown-ups are simply not available.


Hettie BrittzHETTIE BRITTZ is developer of the Evergreen Parenting Course and heads a group of more than 200 facilitators in eight countries who use the course to help families. She is married to the Gospel singer and music producer Louis Brittz, and they have three children.

Media in Family Life

Barna asked parents to estimate the number of hours per week their child engages in different activities. There are outliers on both ends of the scale, but here are the median reported number of hours for each activity among engaged Christian families:

  • Spend time with family in conversation or play: 10 (hours / week)
  • Use media for entertainment: 8
  • Read books: 3
  • Participate in extracurricular activities: 3
  • Attend church activities: 3
  • Search for info online on any device: 2
  • Socialize with other children in person: 1

Parents in this study are significantly below national averages reported elsewhere when it comes to the number of hours they say their children use media for entertainment. For example, family education nonprofit Common Sense Media pegs average hours among kids ages 8 to 12 at six per day.3 Since children this age tend not to be under constant supervision, some parents may not realize how much media their child is consuming. It’s also quite possible that some engaged Christians are more vigilant than the U.S. average when it comes to their child’s entertainment consumption.

Regardless of how many hours their children spend on various devices, researchers wanted to understand how engaged Christian parents perceive the impact of media on their child’s faith formation. Barna asked parents to rank a variety of issues according to how great a struggle it is for their parenting and discipleship efforts. (The infographic above examines the areas where parents say they struggle most.) Analysts call those who rank at least two media issues among their top three struggles “media-stressed parents.” (Media issues include inappropriate internet searches, digital content such as YouTube and Netflix, video games and social media.)

One-third of engaged Christian parents is media-stressed (34%). As we might expect, given that younger children are less likely to have unmediated access to entertainment media, media-stressed parents are somewhat more apt to have older children (57% ages 10–12 vs. 43% ages 6–9). It follows, then, that older parents— who are more likely than parents in their 20s to have older, plugged-in kids— would likewise be more prone to this kind of anxiety. And in fact parents 50 and older are more apt to be media-stressed (43%) than parents 24–34 (29%). Again, this may be due in part to their children’s ages, but another factor could be greater discomfort or limited facility with new technologies. Young parents are digital natives themselves and often adopt and adapt to new devices, apps and content without much trouble. But such ease is less likely the case with parents over 50; older parents may need coaching and guidance to stay informed about their child’s media consumption. There is an opportunity here for churches to partner with faithful-but-uncertain parents.

Media-stressed parents are more likely to say their child uses 16 or more hours of entertainment per week. Barna describes this group of kids as “media-engaged.” Thirty-five percent of media-stressed parents report their child is mediaengaged, compared to one-quarter of parents who are not media stressed (26%).

Further, parents who do not rank any media issues among their top struggles (41% of all engaged Christian parents) are more likely than those who are mediastressed to say their child takes in just six or fewer hours of entertainment per week (48% vs. 37%). In sum, there is at least some correlation between a parent’s media stress level and their child’s volume of entertainment consumption.

However, it may be valuable to reflect more on how kids spend their screen time than on how much time they spend—whether active or passive, social or isolated, creating or merely consuming. Media issues are not only about the scope or scale of screen time; among other things, they also relate to the issue of peer influence—because, thanks to their mobile devices, kids (especially older ones) bring peers with them everywhere. Different parents have different challenges, but an overall plurality ranks peer influences (35%) and digital content (31%) among their top three struggles.

Changing media behavior may offer young people respite from tough peer situations, but it is unlikely to fix them altogether. The greatest felt need of parents comes back to a “people problem,” one that is familiar to every generation. In the varied and competing pressures of social life, how can young people be encouraged to make healthy and informed choices and relationships?

Unsurprisingly, media-engaged children are more likely than others to engage the Bible through some kind of digital technology, whether by app (37% weekly vs. 27% less engaged children), audio (27% weekly vs. 17%) or video (27% weekly vs. 21%). These data point to opportunities for greater biblical engagement among media-engaged kids and media-stressed parents! After all, these are highly engaged Christians; their faith is much more than nominal. They long for their kids to love Jesus passionately and live lives patterned around faithfulness to the Gospel—but they need the right resources in order to be knowledgeable guides.

Child consumes 16 or more media hours per week, media-stressed vs. not media-stressed parents

Generally speaking, parents of media-engaged children lean more heavily on the church to provide them with stability and resources for their child’s spiritual growth. Media-engaged kids are significantly more likely to attend Christian camp (38% vs. 26% less media) and to attend Sunday school or children’s church (83% vs. 73%). Part of this correlation is likely due to age: Media-engaged kids are usually older. But it’s also possible that some parents whose children are consuming a lot of entertainment media have a sense of urgency to get them into Christian social circles, leaning more heavily on the church to meet faith-formation needs. Parents as well as children need connection and guidance for how to relate to tech and media in a healthy way for their family.

How can the church be a sorely needed guide for parenting children well when it comes to technology? How can parents find the camaraderie and resources they need to make a potent impact on their kids during their formative years?

Developing for Good

A Q&A with Dan Scott

Dan Scott is the director for 252 Kids and 252 Preteen curriculum at Orange. He has worked with kids for over 20 years as a teacher, pastor and communicator. He and his wife, Jenna, have four children.

Childhood Wonder

By Trish McClung

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed children learn better in a social context with the guidance of a more knowledgeable person who can point things out to them. For example, when you’re watching a TV program with a child and say, “Did you see that?” or “Hey, look at that!”, learning is happening in a social setting.

This has profound implications in today’s world of technology, where kids are able to easily look up and acquire vast amounts of information. Just having access to the facts isn’t enough. Kids still need guidance—though it shouldn’t necessarily be heavy handed. But they benefit from our pointing things out and asking, “What do you think about that? What do you understand about that? What does that mean to you? How would you interpret that? Is that something you should avoid?” These kinds of questions can help children not only acquire knowledge, but also refine it.

The awe and wonder of kids is still there and always has been. I saw this when we took our eight-year-old grandson to Egypt. When we flew in and he saw the landscape, he exclaimed, “There it is . . . ancient Cairo!” It was incredible to see the sense of awe on his face.

No matter how tech-savvy children are, that natural sense of wonder is present, and we would be wise to tap into it when we’re teaching them. Kids love to see things they haven’t seen and experienced before. They can still be impressed.


DR. PATRICIA McCLUNGDR. PATRICIA McCLUNG is Professor in Special Education and Chair of Early Childhood, Elementary and Special Education at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. Her interests and research include the attrition of teachers in the field of special education, the use of narrative inquiry in data collection and analysis, and integrative learning. Trish is married to Alan McClung. They have a married adult daughter and two grandchildren.

Parents’ Approaches to Faith Formation

The level of satisfaction that engaged Christian parents feel related to their child’s spiritual formation is quite high overall. Fifty-seven percent feel “very” satisfied. Combining them with the 40 percent who feel “somewhat” satisfied, we find that few parents (just 3%) report being dissatisfied with their child’s spiritual formation. (Of course, parents’ levels of reported satisfaction may or may not be evidence of a child’s actual spiritual health or wellbeing.)

Satisfaction with Child's Spiritual Formation

What role does a church play in guiding parents in their spiritual formation activities with kids? An important one. When asked where they turn for advice or guidance related to their child’s faith development, “my own upbringing” (66%) ranks about equally with “church leadership” (63%) as a top-two choice.

A parent’s age appears to play a factor in their relationship to church leaders. Looking to ministry leaders for advice is more common among younger parents (69% ages 24–34 and 68% ages 35–39 vs. 60% ages 40–49 and 56% ages 50+). They express a greater need for guidance and mentorship to support their family’s spiritual life—which is unsurprising, as younger parents are likely to have less life experience that is relevant to parenting well. They may also feel more pressure than older adults to “do it right,” which may result in anxiety. Between social media “influencers” who make parenting look easy and glamorous and the ever expanding plethora of parenting resources and styles competing in the marketplace, some young parents need reassurance and coaching to feel they are enough.

Top Two Guidance Givers

Ministry staff, friends and extended family members are just some of the people, in addition to parents, who influence the minds and hearts of kids. So who or what do engaged Christian parents see as key influences guiding their child’s spiritual development? The vast majority of parents fall into one of two categories. Slightly more than half (55%) analysts call “self-guided parents,” who rank their own conversations with their children as most important (87%) or as No. 2 (13%). The remaining 44 percent are “churchguided parents,” ranking their church as No. 1 (84%) or as No. 2 (16%) without putting themselves at the top. Moms and dads of middle-schoolers are significantly more likely than parents with children of other ages to rely on the church (43% vs. 31% who are self-guided).

Listening Into Community

By Bryan Cheney

Kids 6 to 12 experience a deep need for community but wonder how to connect with other kids. Our culture doesn’t emphasize community much any more. Kids used to go play outside in their neighborhoods with other children, but are no longer doing that as much. This matters. Kids come to our services and say they don’t have friends at church, because they don’t know how to make friends. (Of course, technology plays into this, too.)

This lack of community extends to the family, which just makes the ache worse. When many families go out to dinner with their kids, everyone is on their phone. Relational connections that used to exist within families are eroding.

Churches can begin to respond by listening. Our church has a member who designs focus groups for a notable company, and he told us, “Almost any company in the world would pay lots to have access to their end users the way the church does.” We have a great opportunity to hear from families—why not take advantage of that?

We’ve put together focus groups to connect parents who have kids the same ages and make space for them to ask questions. In those groups our church can get a sense for what the real needs are, but can also ask questions in return, like, “What can we do to serve your family? What resources do you need?” Through conversations, we’re building trust. We’ve found that the more we do this, the more engaged parents are and the more credibility we have to speak into their lives. It’s reciprocal.

We use this focus group model with kids, too. Twice a month we provide food and have kids come talk to us for a couple of hours about a given topic, such as friendship. We’ll say, “We want to talk about friendship. What does it mean to you? What works for you?” In response to the first question we ask, kids will usually give us the answer they think we want. But by the third or fourth question, they’ll start providing unbelievably rich answers. Later, kids come up to us and say, “I just thought of something this last week related to friendship” (or whatever topic we’ve been talking about). Not only are we satisfying their need for community, but we’re also keeping them engaged with the topics we’re addressing.


Bryan CheneyBRYAN CHENEY is a Christ-follower, husband, dad and Promiseland Director at Willow Creek Community Church—in that order!

Play & Generation YouTube

A Q&A with Rod Hudnut

Rob Hudnut is one of the most innovative and prolific storytellers in children’s entertainment. For nearly 20 years he created movies and TV series for Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl and many other Mattel characters and brands. Today his company creates original faith-based kids programing. He advises animation studios, toy companies and toy inventors on play-based storytelling.

Intergenerational Community

By Beth Green

Today we sort kids into strict age groups in the classroom and on sports teams. But what seems to be forgotten is the importance of mixed-age groups, including multiple generations. Outside of religious communities, I don’t think there’s much opportunity for children to interact with older people in shared activities. But I see this as a critical element in children’s spiritual formation.

At church, people still interact across generations. I think that’s what Paul is encouraging in Titus 2 when he encourages older women to spend time with those who are younger. We all grow when these relationships do!


Beth GreenBETH GREEN is a senior fellow in education for Cardus, and formerly program director of Cardus Education. She is also Visiting Professor of Research, Integration and Educational Formation at Tyndale University College in Toronto.

Leading Sensitive Conversations

Every parent and ministry leader knows the pressure related to broaching a tough but necessary topic with a child or teen. Besides subjects that are often surrounded by shame in our culture, such as sex, addiction, pornography and other “unmentionables,” a vast array of topics is presented to young people at increasingly tender ages because of tech access: racism, gender identity, public violence, sexual assault and terrorism, among others.

Do engaged Christian parents want their church’s help addressing these issues with their children? Sometimes.

Overall, nearly nine out of 10 parents (88%) say they want their church involved in some capacity in sensitive conversations with their child. According to children’s and youth ministry leaders Barna interviewed, about one in six parents (17%) expresses reluctance or discomfort when church leaders want to address sensitive topics with young people.

Perhaps counterintuitively, college graduates are more likely than less educated parents to say they want church guidance (94% vs. 84%). This is important for ministry leaders to notice, since it might be tempting to assume that well-educated parents are more equipped to broach these topics. At work here could be what one analyst calls “nuance paralysis”: reluctance to offer simple answers to complex questions. Well-informed parents may need guidance for what kinds of answers are age-appropriate in their complexity and nuance.

Another factor may be a child’s entertainment consumption. Parents of mediaengaged children are less likely to say they want to handle sensitive topics by themselves, without any kind of assistance from their church. They are more likely to want training and resources, and to seek multiple trustworthy voices to contribute to the conversation. But they may also need help to recognize that they are a vital part of guiding their child through hard topics. They can’t simply outsource responsibility to “experts.” Rather, they can grow in their own engagement as part of a team of guides that includes church leaders and mentors.

As we might expect, self-guided parents (who primarily rely on themselves for their child’s spiritual formation) tend to be more confident in their ability to handle tricky conversations on their own. However, they are no more or less likely than church-guided parents to want church-based training for how to have conversations about these topics.

Two-thirds of the church-guided group say they want ministry leaders to address sensitive topics with their children (68% vs. 55% self-guided). On the other hand, three in 10 self-guided parents say they don’t want sensitive issues addressed at church at all and want to handle them entirely on their own (31% vs. 19% church-guided). These findings may indicate potential disagreements about topic choices in children’s or youth programming at church. This is an area where leaders will need to do some digging to find out the dynamics of their specific ministry’s families.

At what age do engaged Christian parents and ministry leaders believe kids are exposed to conversations or material related to sensitive social topics? Here’s a look at what each group says about four fraught and hard-to-talk-about issues that inevitably arise at some point.

When Ministry Leaders & Parents Believe Kids are Exposed to Pornography

The takeaway? When it comes to social issues, parents and ministry leaders are broadly in agreement about the ages young people encounter sensitive content or topics—except when it comes to pornography. Ministry leaders are seeing younger kids exposed to porn, while many parents appear to think such exposure comes much later. (Most studies suggest ministry leaders’ estimates are closer to the mark.4)

What is needed is increased communication between parents and children’s ministry leaders about what topics are pressing and developmentally appropriate for kids today, and who is best poised to lead those conversations. Children are likely to need more than one guide in these areas, and solidarity between multiple adult figures is likely to be an effective solution to ensure that no child misses vital guidance on an important topic of life.

When Ministry Leaders and Parents Believe Kids are Exposed to Anxiety Depression Suicide

Media and personal devices come with a host of benefits—connection with others, access to knowledge, opportunities for play and learning—but parents and children need wise guides to navigate tech so that benefits outweigh potential dangers. Faith leaders can start by initiating honest conversations about the impact of new media on young people. Rather than making mere screen-time reduction the primary goal, intentionality in digital spaces and habits can help Christian families put tech in its proper place.

Moving toward more intentional media engagement is a countercultural action. This challenge can be an opportunity to meet our neighbors around a shared felt need to discuss and consider these issues together—not just in our churches, but in our living rooms, schools, community centers, and maybe even in our social media feeds.

Tweens Pull Back

In families with only tweens (10 to 12) and only younger children (6 to 9), * analysts find evidence that older kids pull back from regular Bible engagement. Yet this tween phase is catalytic for faith that lasts.

How often does your child engage with the Bible on their own

Families spend less time engaging with Scripture together as their children reach the tween stage. In particular, discussions about the Bible decline significantly among households with 10- to 12-year-olds, as shown below. However, when multiple children are present in a household, families more commonly engage with the Bible altogether.

Parents also less commonly use resourses–except classes or activities–as kids move into the tween stage.

Do together as a family once a week

Kids’ interest in attending church starts to change. In the early years, children’s interest in attending church grows, but when they hit their tweens, kids shift. As they emerge into their teens, kids seem to split into those who engage more in church and those who lose interest.

Childs interest in attending church

Partnering With Parents

By Brian Dollar

Once kids hit fourth and fifth grades, we’re seeing them grapple with what used to be difficult subjects for seventh and eighth graders. They’re asking tough questions, especially about who they are. This is why I encourage parents to have ageappropriate discussions about sexuality and gender with their children before they reach middle school. Parents can’t assume their kids will simply figure things out. If parents wait until later, their kids will have heard about these issues long before.

The church can help by teaching kids that God purposefully and individually designed them, and that they are his masterpiece. If they’re able to look at their bodies and personalities from that perspective, and understand the value he says they have, they will be able to avoid a lot of the confusion about identity that’s in our society.

Parents want a solid and biblical spiritual experience for their children. Although they may not be able to articulate it, they are also looking for a partner to help train their child in becoming a lifelong follower of Jesus. Certainly some parents understand this better than others, and there are parents who want the church to do it all related to their children’s spiritual development. They seem unwilling to do their part to raise their child to follow Jesus. Those parents need help understanding that, for better or worse, spiritual formation happens first and foremost in the home. They are their children’s primary spiritual leaders, and the church needs to equip them.


Brian DollarBRIAN DOLLAR began in kids’ ministry in 1992. He loves kids, ministry leaders and everything that involves leading children in their spiritual journey. In 1998 he founded High Voltage Kids Ministry Resources, which creates and provides curriculum, music, games, videos and more to churches around the world. Brian and his wife, Cherith, have two children.

Thinking Tech Through

By Yu-Kai Chou

Kids today have never experienced a world without a smartphone. But the key question in my mind is whether kids have guides to help them interpret everything. Games, for example: Some are purely violent, or nothing more than “button mashers.” They don’t spark creativity at all. But other games actually allow for patience, for long-term strategy, for collaboration and many other beneficial things.

But many parents will just take one strategy or another, either saying, “Oh, it’s all good so just do whatever you want” or “Hey, it’s all evil so stay away from all games.” Instead, we should invest time into thinking through the pros and cons of the games they are playing, maybe even play with them to provide that guidance. There will be technology no matter what, so the question is if parents are there to guide the context of how children interpret what they are experiencing.

In the end, I feel optimistic about the future, but I feel for the future generation. For kids who don’t have good support, teachers, parents and churches giving them the right context, there is a lot to be concerned about. There are so many things distracting them. Their mobile devices are talking, the TV is talking to them, the computer is talking to them. It’s so much easier for something negative to reach into their lives, into their hands, into their brains—and so we need to help them lay a solid foundation as who they are and not what they’re holding or seeing.


Yu-Kai ChouYU-KAI CHOU is a pioneer in gamification and behavioral design, and author of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. He has taught at Google, Stanford, LEGO, Tesla, TEDx, and Huawei, among others, and for various governments. He is a Christ-follower and the proud father of twin daughters.

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