The Importance of Small

Have you ever noticed how here in the United States we’re fascinated by everything big? Stores don’t just offer sales anymore; they’re COLOSSAL sales—GIGANTIC deals with HUGE savings. Sodas are sold in BIG GULP cups. Beanbag chairs are now called BIG JOE CHAIRS. We shop at BIG LOTS. (But then, who would want to go to a Little Lots store?) Boys dream of playing in the BIG LEAGUES.

Even in the church we get carried away with the concept of BIG. Ministries are prized for the breadth of their impact. Pastors seem to be ranked by the size of their congregations. Outreaches are rated by the numbers of people who come to Christ. Church vitality is measured by the number of baptisms and new converts. But is big always better—is this what God values?

Recently I was reading in the gospels, pondering Jesus’ ministry focus. In Luke 8, I was struck by how He purposefully left a thriving outreach to large crowds and crossed the Sea of Galilee to change the life of one—a demon-possessed man. Why leave a highly impactful ministry for one crazed person? Why choose the small over the big? It makes no sense until you look at the heart of God.

Jesus demonstrates in this story how God loves and values every single person. Everyone He’s created is made in His image and deemed worthy of receiving His provision of salvation. While sizeable numbers may matter to us, each heart is what matters to God. Jesus chose to abandon the bigger ministry we read about in Luke 8 to impact the life of just one man, which tells us that He values “small.”

One of the smallest ministries in our church—caring for those with special needs—is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart. We provide one-on-one buddies, who come alongside children with special abilities. In doing so, we also give their parents a much-needed break to find spiritual refreshment.

We don’t serve a lot of children, but what we do is impactful. As we lovingly care for each child, we are also blessing their parents, siblings, and the extended family. We are also sending a message that God loves and values each person, regardless of ability.

Some of our families have been unable to attend church for years due to their child’s health demands. But this small but faithful ministry is creating a safe place for these families to minister and be ministered to.

Some day in heaven I would love to hear the stories of the lives changed by the testimony of that former demoniac. My guess is that small ministries are not so small after all.

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.

 

Shh

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?

Helping Parents Win

Recently, several big storms rolled through my town with lots of thunder and lightning. They frightened my youngest son, Daniel, producing some traumatic emotions in him.

As I listened to my husband comfort Daniel as he tucked him into bed amid the loud booms and rain hitting the window, I sat in awe. Instead of the usual platitudes we sometimes share, “It will be OK” and “It’s nothing to worry about . . .”, my husband took the opportunity to point Daniel back to God and His creativity and power, sharing how strong and mighty Jesus is.  

It was a small but important opportunity to point Daniel to Jesus amid the circumstances of daily life. I also wondered how many parents miss opportunities like this, not because of a lack of desire but because they just don’t know how. I’m beginning to see that this is an area where we as children’s ministry workers have an awesome responsibility and opportunity to help parents develop their children’s spiritual lives.

On average, a child will participate in our Sunday-morning lesson environment for about 40 hours annually. By contrast, parents have an estimated 3,000 hours with their children each year—approximately 8 hours a day.

Clearly, parents have the most opportunity to make the greatest impact in their children’s spiritual lives. But although many parents want to, they don’t know how to provide that direction. So I’m attempting to shift some of my Sunday morning lesson-plan focus for children onto how I can support their parents. I want to provide a springboard for them to talk with their kids about God throughout the week, readying them to point to Him during the little moments of daily life.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Orange Conference in Atlanta, where I sit in a breakout entitled “When Parent’s Win,” led by Mike Clear, director of Children’s Strategy at the reThink Group.

Mike reminded us that parent’s “will never really believe they matter to us [children’s ministry leaders] if they don’t really matter to us. So let’s be for every parent.”

For too long, parents have not been a part of my children’s ministry strategy. So I’m beginning to ask myself and pray through the following questions.

I don’t have answers to all these questions yet, but I’m looking forward to working through them and wrestling with the tension of priorities they bring to my children’s ministry.

How are you doing in partnering with parents? I’d love to start a conversation and share ideas with you on this topic. Feel free to comment on this blog post or on the cmalliancekids’ Facebook page to keep this conversation going.