By Sue Jakes. Jacob is only four years old, but his mother struggles to love him. His temperament is indifferent at best, and when he does not get his way, his tantrum is so embarrassing she is brought to tears. Even the people in her church do not like him. One Sunday the school teacher quit rather than deal with Jacob each week.
Lauren is bored with church and Sunday school. She has heard all the stories before in her Christian school. None of her best friends go to her church, so Sunday school is not only boring, but it also has no social appeal for her. Her parents will not let her stay at home and they fight about her attitude every Sunday morning.
Daniel has a learning disability. School is difficult enough for him, but now at 10 years of age, his parents have decided to go to church. He dreads the humiliation of a room full of kids every Sunday morning who know all the answers. No matter how hard he tries to understand this Jesus stuff, it makes no sense to him.
Our churches are filled with Jacobs, Laurens, and Daniels. The names may be different but these scenarios are all too common in the body of Christ today. How do we develop a children’s ministry program that will address these kinds of problems? What is the answer? More paid staff? More puppets, games and music? More programs and activities?In the end, all three of these children need to see Jesus. They need to see him in the teacher. They need to see him in the taught Word. They need to see him in the other students. They need to see him in the whole body of Christ. If we develop our children’s ministry philosophy and strategies around this simple truth…Show them Jesus…what we do in the church could radically change.
Teachers who model Christ and his covenant are a necessity. Most churches recruit teachers by placing yearly ads in the newsletter or bulletin that “beg” for anyone who will do it. A one year commitment seems to be the best we can expect from anyone these days, and many times this commitment is from a team of rotating teachers. Does this system show our children Jesus? In his name, Emmanuel, we have the covenant promise, “I will be with you.” We are trying to teach our children to believe this message while we model something entirely different. “We will be with you for a year when it is our turn to be there.” The last time I looked, the Sunday school teacher I had at four years old was still teaching four year-olds at my home church. That message speaks louder than any words I ever heard. ” I will be with you” is a message worth modeling.
This generation is crying out for mentors and leaders and friends who will understand that children are great blessings from the Lord. To love, teach, and befriend them is a life-long calling for the parents, grandparents, older siblings, and all other covenant family members. Mathew 18 shows us all a Jesus who is indignant when the disciples thought for a moment that he did not have time for the children. The tithing of our time should begin with the loving instruction of our children…as we rise up, as we sit down, as we walk along the way. (Deuteronomy 6)
At the foundation of any children’s ministry should be the prayer that God will turn the hearts of the Fathers toward the children. Pray for a ministry team who will be there, not for a year, but for a life. A congregation who desires to know, love, and serve their children is the bottom line need for any thriving children’s ministry.
What then do we teach? Mistake number two in many churches is that, after begging for “anyone” to do it, any curriculum will do. The children’s market is flooded with fun curriculum that anyone can use to plan a class on the way to church. Children are not only worth teaching, they are worth teaching well. Permeating the Sunday school mindset is the idea that volunteers should not have to put much time into this effort. Teaching the truth to the next generation deserves all the time it takes to do it well. We should not only train our children’s teachers in the Reformed faith, but also put curriculum in their hands, which is always reinforcing what our church believes. Does it matter with little children? This is the age where it matters most.
I just recently read a 3rd grade lesson on Cain and Abel. It appeared in a curriculum published by one of our nation’s largest Christian publishers. The aim of the lesson was “When you are corrected you should have a good attitude.” As reformed Christians we do not believe that the Cain and Abel story is about fostering a good attitude. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abel believed the promise and by faith, even though he is dead, he still speaks. From Genesis to Revelation, the scripture is about God’s promise to redeem his people. That redemption, the very promise that Abel believed by faith, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. When our children are in Sunday school, Bible club, Vacation Bible school, or any other ministry of our church, this must be the message…what God has done, is doing, and will do to redeem his people through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
It is disturbing how many times I have heard testimonies of late life conversions from people reared in churches where they never heard the gospel. It is even more disturbing when I hear a teenager tell me that they just cannot “be” a Christian because it is just too hard. The idea of belonging to a covenant family through God’s choosing and electing grace has never registered in their minds. Are our children hearing the true gospel? We must be training our teachers regularly to insure that they not only study and understand God’s Word, but also correctly communicate it.
The model and message of a child’s team of teachers needs to be constantly reinforced by the whole body of Christ. The congregation must consider the vow taken at covenant baptisms as seriously as the parents do. When that begins to happen every member of the congregation will be able to give testimony of their personal ministry to the covenant children in their local church. You do not have to teach Sunday school to know and serve the children in your church. However, if you do not know and serve them in some capacity, you need to search your heart before taking the baptismal vow again. Praying for the children and their families is a great place to begin the faithful keeping of this vow.
What kind of child are we trying to produce? What does a disciple of Christ look like? When Jesus was twelve years old, in the Jewish tradition he was taken to the temple. This happened at twelve, not because he had learned how to behave in synagogue, but because he was ready to participate in study, dialogue and worship. He had become a man. We are losing many of our covenant children between 12 and 20 because we are asking them to wait. The youth ministry mindset in many churches is that we will continue to teach them and if they are bored, we will entertain them to keep them coming. Twelve year olds want to serve. They will continue to learn, but they will learn best in the context of ministry. Our ministry needs to be showing, teaching and allowing children to serve at the youngest age possible.
One of the nation’s largest evangelical ministries published some interesting statistics a few years ago. After surveying the involvement of their membership it was found that new members need to “own” a ministry and have seven significant relationships in the body within six months of joining or they would eventually leave the church. If they did not leave they were on the peripheral edge of the membership and were very difficult to find and engage in ministry. To “own” a ministry meant to be involved in such a way that you could not miss a Sunday without being “missed”. You are needed at church. The significant relationships are not about good friends with whom you have many things in common. They are significant because they are your leaders and mentors who hold you accountable, or you are the leader or mentor holding them close.
Our children are no different. When they become young men and women, they need to own a ministry in our congregation. Helping with the nursery, children’s church, or preschool Sunday school, designing and putting up bulletin boards, singing in the choir, writing to missionaries – these are just a few of the service areas that ten to twenty-year olds can do quite well. In these kinds of ministries they also develop those significant relationships. Four-year olds in children’s church look up to them and adults on the missions committee lead them into a more active involvement as the assign special tasks to them. Our children, we must use them or lose them.
This vision for children and youth in our churches is hindered by one thing. We, the older generation, are choosing to spend our time and energy elsewhere. We do not have time to teach, mentor, or get to know the children in our own body. In the new millennium, time is considered the greatest commodity or treasure. To truly turn our hearts toward our children (Malachi 4:6, Luke 1:17), we must put our treasure, our time, into the next generation, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
I find myself hoping that someone else in my congregation has time for Jacob, and Lauren, and Daniel. But as I pray for them, the Lord calls me to receive them in his name, and by doing so I have received him. Jacob needs someone to be with him every Sunday to keep him on task – a mentor, a friend. Lauren needs an older woman to take her as an assistant in Sunday school or children’s church – a mentor, a friend. Daniel needs a Christian family to include him and his family in their life as they learn what it means to follow Jesus – mentors, friends. This is true discipleship and it is the fulfillment of the Great Commission in the most precise and accurate way. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) To show them Jesus is to be with them.
In a culture that is too busy to know, find and do what is eternal, Jesus has called us to go and makes disciples. It begins at birth, at baptism. The Christian Education Committee of the Presbyterian Church in America has a strategic plan to equip you and your church in making disciples. Our training and resource focus for the last four years has been to reach the millennial generation. It is a focus that we will not compromise until our Lord returns. Let us help your local church raise up a generation that will love and serve Christ – a generation who has seen Jesus.
Questions for discussion:
1. How much emphasis does our leadership place on the children’s’ ministry? Why do you say that?
2. Do we have a general plan for starting with the youngest in making disciples? What is it?
3. Because the attitude of the leadership is an example, how excited are our people regarding our church’s ministry to the younger generation?
4. Do we experience difficulty in recruiting teachers and helpers in our children and youth ministries? If so, why?
5. What specific things can we identify that our church does to demonstrate our love and care for the young people?