Strengthen Your Ministry: Study, Study, Study!
If you work with kids, it will happen sooner or later. While teaching a lesson, you you ask the class if they have any questions. Sure enough, one child asks a question that has nothing to do with the lesson.
Not only that; it’s a difficult one to answer quickly. For example: “Where did God come from?”or “Does God love the devil?” Or, “How can Jesus be God and man at the same time?”
And soon, others in the class start raising their hands with additional challenging inquiries.
Fruitful Learning Times
Our initial reaction may be to dismiss these questions because they don’t pertain to the lesson. But while this may be tempting—especially if you’re not sure how to answer—these can be some of the most fruitful learning moments for you and your class.
After all, the reason kids ask hard questions is because they are already thinking about them. Why not try to address them, even if they sidetrack you from the main lesson for a while?
Spend Time Studying
If you are a children’s pastor, or if you regularly teach kids about the Bible, it’s questions like these that remind us of the importance of studying (see 2 Timothy 2:15) to grow in our understanding of God. This can include reading books about theology, doing biblical research, memorizing Scripture—seeking God so we can get to know His will and how to love Him and others, not just to have information to present.
If we adopt an attitude of study to know God and know His will, we will be in a better position to disciple others. If we only study to obtain information for our lessons, that information will not be as impactful as presenting knowledge that has actually affected our hearts. We can’t give out what we don’t have ourselves. Kids can tell when Jesus really means something to us personally versus when we’re just sharing information.
Here are a couple of benefits this type of studying mindset provides to you and your ministry:
Preparation for Hard Questions
Sometimes, we need to be OK spending time studying a subject that may not have much to do with children’s ministry at the moment. For example, I have been struggling with the question of violence in the Old Testament as well as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (For example: How does the New Testament fulfill the Old?) These subjects don’t appear on the surface to have much to do with children’s ministry. Even so, they might have more impact on children’s ministry than we might think initially.
This is what I mean: studying challenging subjects helps me better understand God’s purposes and how to relate to Him. This also helps me as a children’s pastor, as I teach about Him.
I can envision the day when a child will raise his or her hand in class and ask, “Why did God command the Israelites to kill all those people but Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for them?” (If we’re honest, we adults ask this question too.) The easy answer would be to say, “Because God commanded it and we don’t need to question it.” Answers like that sometimes do more harm than good, because we’re not showing respect for a child’s honest inquiry.
Studying difficult subjects like this can better prepare us to have well-informed answers. And we learn about resources we can share with parents, which can help them talk about challenging topics with their kids.
Absorb God’s Word
There are many reasons studying various topics in theology and Bible interpretation can assist us in ministry. But the most important point I want to make is that it is always good for us to know the Bible intimately. I encourage you to find the best way to simply sit down and read and absorb your Bible.
Memorizing Scripture has proven to be tremendous exercise for me. I like to memorize whole chapters and books at a time. Doing so helps me see the big picture and themes throughout a certain book; it helps me to develop perspective. If this sounds interesting to you, start with small books or letters such as Philemon, Titus, or 2 or 3 John. You will be surprised at how memorizing whole letters like these can help you in your understanding of them. Do a google search on Bible memorization apps you can download for help.
For some people though, memorization is difficult. That’s OK. I heard a pastor say once, “We are not all called to memorize but we are all called to meditate upon God’s Word.”
Find whatever method works best for you to absorb God’s Word in your mind and heart. Feed on it; drink from it. God will use it in your life and in the lives of others. And when kids ask difficult questions, you will be better equipped to know where to direct them in the Bible.
Planting Seeds, Both Now and In The Future
These are just a couple of benefits you will receive from adopting a lifestyle of studying and meditating on Scripture. I encourage you to find time in your daily schedule to take on a challenging topic that has been on your mind for a while. You will be surprised at how God can use that in your ministry—now or later.
In your walk with God and in your ministry, adopt St. Anselm’s motto, “Faith seeking understanding.”
Becoming What We Love
It’s wonderful to come across a book that’s so engaging and challenging you can’t put it down! When a book makes you want to stop and change everything you’ve been doing, you want everyone you know to pick up a copy and read it. This is how I felt recently when I read You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith. This book not only changed the way I think about worship; it also changed how I think about discipleship in children’s ministry.
Our Loves Define Us
Smith’s basic premise is that we human beings were made to flourish; we all have a vision in our heads about what a flourishing “good life” looks like. We want to picture things we think will make us happy, content, and free; things that capture our hearts and imaginations, such as pursuing the idols of wealth, power, or status. When we love these rival gods instead of the One for whom we were made, we don’t realize how they are shaping our hearts. Our captive hearts need to be realigned with what is real, true, and good as citizens of God’s Kingdom—the ultimate good and our ultimate hope; our hearts need to be re-formed by the Holy Spirit to understand that following Jesus is the only true life that flourishes.
What This Means for Kids’ Ministry
So what does this mean for kids’ ministry? To start, it means that leaders need to understand the importance of a child’s heart and imagination.
If you stop and think about it, children from a very young age are mesmerized by movies and TV shows that capture their imaginations. They are transported from this world to another as part of an adventure. They want to be a part of the story. It is the same for adults—many of us also enjoy movies and a good story.
The gospel is the greatest story of all; the best part is that it is not make-believe—it’s reality! As leaders, we need to tell the gospel story in ways that will draw children in and help them realize it is the story of their lives and that they have a part to play.
We need to do more than teach biblical facts (although facts about the Bible and Bible skills are important). We need to teach what God communicates through His Word in ways that will shape and form a child’s heart and imagination. We need to communicate in a way that helps kids see that the “good life” is not about money, power, or status, but it is about being in a right relationship with God. In order to teach this, however, leaders need to be convinced of this truth. We will be unable to draw kids into the greatest story if we are not drawn into it ourselves.
As kids’ hearts and imaginations are formed in light of the reality of the gospel narrative, we will be participating in the work of fulfilling the Great Commission by making them disciples of the good news. We need to help children see the glories of Jesus and that knowing Him is better than any make-believe story out there, which are mere shadows of the ultimate story—the gospel.
Avoiding the Self-focused Gospel
Oprah Winfrey recently delivered a commencement speech at the USC school of journalism, inspiring graduates with this message: “Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.”1 Oprah’s message exemplifies the self-focused culture in which we live. Our children are growing up in a society that tells them to find self-defined happiness through self-expression and self-made success (see 2 Timothy 3:2).
Meanwhile, many of our well meaning kids’ ministries focus their curriculum around godly character traits such as integrity, generosity, self-control, and honesty. Weekly Bible classes include lessons about “being brave like David, wise like Solomon, or forgiving like Jesus.” Whether intended or not, the self-focused message our children hear is that the Bible tells us how to be happy, successful people.
But happiness and success, whether empowered by secular self-expression or biblical lessons in self-improvement, aren’t the reason we’re here. We are here to worship and reflect the triune God, who saved us from the very self we idolize (see Psalm 86:9). Thankfully, we’ve seen a welcome return to a gospel focus in many churches—we’re talking about Jesus more! Many children’s ministries are reading Bible stories in a way that points to Jesus instead of merely promoting improved moral character.
Yet in our excitement to teach kids about Jesus, we must remember that kids can still become self-focused in their understanding of the gospel. Living in our self-centric culture, it’s easy for children to hear the gospel in a way that makes salvation all about “me”: I am special because God saved me, God helps me on my spiritual journey, God has plans for me.
It’s easy for children, just as it is adults, to see God as an important character in their story, rather than discovering their place in His story. It’s easy for their eyes to stay on their own faces, instead of beholding the face of the eternal, infinite, omnipotent, I AM (see Psalm 27:8).
So how do we avoid teaching the self-focused gospel?
We need to point our children away from the worldly focus on self to the character of God.
It’s important to teach kids the great things God has done but also who He is, because in the person and character of God lie all the answers to our life and purpose—to know, love, worship, and reflect the God in whose image we are made. Worshiping and glorifying God starts by understanding how He is completely unlike us in His self-sufficient eternal omniscience. Living out the greatest two commandments—to love God and others (Matthew 22:36–40)—starts by knowing Whom it is we love and by what example we love others.
John Milton famously said that the end of all learning is to know God, and out of that knowledge to love and imitate Him. So let’s teach our kids who God is!
Three practical steps to avoid the self-focused gospel:
- Teach kids who God is—study His attributes. What do our kids think when they hear the word “God”? A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” It’s important to teach children what God is like. They are curious, and we should answer their curiosity with deep truths about God’s character, which is revealed in the Bible. How is God different than us? (He is omniscient, eternal, infinite). (We can exhibit mercy, truthfulness, faithfulness). Children’s hearts are soft soil; their small souls are craving to know the God who made them.
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3, ESV).
- Encourage kids to read the Bible, looking for “clues” about who God is. Help kids understand that the Bible not only teaches us how to live, but through His Word, both written and incarnate, God tells us about Himself! Once, they’ve learned the attributes of God, help them look for those attributes in each story or lesson. God has revealed to us some of who He is, and we have the privilege of with His Spirit to guide us.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13, ESV)
- Teach kids to praise God when they pray. So often children learn to pray by asking God for what they want and then thanking God for what He gives. Praise and adoration is easy to leave out, perhaps in part because our kids haven’t yet experienced or understood the multi-faceted nature of who it is they are praying to. When kids learn the character of God, they can learn to thank God for more than just His gifts; they have reason to praise Him for who He is!
“Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 113:1, ESV)
The important role we have as children and youth ministries workers:
Holocaust activist and survivor Corrie Ten Boom famously said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God you’ll be at rest.” Children and youth ministry workers are uniquely positioned to point the hearts of children away from the world, beyond themselves, to the soul filling gospel and character of God.
Lydia is the author of The Attributes of God. The Attributes of God for kids is a devotional or curriculum resource for kids ages 4-11. With 64 full color pages, this bright, engaging book walks through 10 unique and 11 moral attributes of God’s character. http://attributesofgodforkids.com/
Does anyone else notice that the voices of our culture are getting louder? I don’t mean the message. I mean the voices. The voices are loud. They are strong. Sometimes filled with high-octane, celebratory energy. More often they are angry and disagreeable. The intense volume of voices sets some alarm bells off for me, because our children are exposed to more media than ever before. Although I have no hard evidence to support my claim, I will say it all the same, because I believe common sense accepts my conclusion—voices are getting louder.
When my children were little there was a new cartoon show featuring a character with a knapsack, a map, a multi-ethnic worldview, and an adventurous spirit. I should have loved this character, but I could not enjoy the show at all. To my ears it sounded like the main character was yelling. All. The. Time. Oh, how I longed for the dulcet and calming voice of that friendly neighbor, Fred Rogers.
When I first began children’s ministry it was at summer camp. I was told I was a natural fit. I had a clear, strong voice that commanded attention and that kids would follow. This voice was every camp director’s dream. It is true that when working with large numbers of kids I still bring out that loud, rallying voice from time to time. But, oh, how I long to work more frequently at engaging kids with a hushed, quiet, yet inspiring voice.
In a culture that puts loud voices on TV programs, YouTube clips, and even in church leadership positions, I wonder—how do we help kids learn to listen to the still small voice of God? It is a worthy question given our “louder is better” social environment. I wonder upon this today, and invite your wondering too. This is what I am pondering:
1) Redeeming Quiet Time. Spend enough time in children’s programming and you will come to observe a noticeable absence of quiet times. The logic, I suppose, has been that a busy kid is a happy kid—and I agree. While I in no way bring criticism toward well-programmed children, I do desire to see us redeem the notion of quiet time. Quiet time is too often focused on making kids be quiet. What would it look like if instead quiet time was redeemed to be a time when kids are invited to become extraordinary listeners? Passionate intercessors? Deep thinkers? Filled with questions? Imagining what God imagines? Quiet time can be highly effective in building a dynamic children’s program, but it will never happen accidentally. Quiet time will require explanation, invitation, and freedom for experimentation.
2) Increasing Dynamic Range. It is all too tempting to hop on board the loud voices train. As a trained musician, I became aware that one of the best ways to highlight a crescendo (getting louder) is to precede it with a decrescendo (getting softer). This is the effective employment of dynamics. So too in our children’s programming, I wonder what it looks like to increase our dynamic range? We are likely already good at making loud voices louder. How are we doing at the other dynamic settings? Are big, compelling presentations countered with moderate volume group dialogue? Are quieter exchanges made easier to enter into with silent contemplation? What is your current dynamic range? What would it take to widen the range? My guess is the most opportunities to expand exist toward quiet and silent times.
3) Expect God to Speak. I will only speak for me, but if I’m honest, I often find these quiet times a challenge because of my doubts that God will speak, or move, or in anyway honor the efforts of kids to engage in this counter-cultural activity of silence. To this I have only one reflection to offer: God is so much bigger than my doubts. Time after time these opportunities result in genuine spiritual encounters that the kids are eager to share about. I will add that time after time there are also kids that feel nothing but frustrated by the exercise. Still I am encouraged in my faith as I hear what God is actively working out in the lives of those who are learning to expect His presence. These gentle engagements are worth any temporary discomfort in trying something unfamiliar. God speaks all the time. How are we shaping kids to expect to hear His voice?
It just may be that wrestling with these ideas will help shape how a generation draws near to God in intimacy and with expectant hearts. How do we foster opportunities for children of all ages to encounter truth that comes quietly, insight that comes calmly, direction that comes in silent spaces? Shh. Let us listen together. Quietly. What is the Lord saying?