Walking Out What Is Written Down
Archery. Darts. Golf. Disciple-making. What do these all have in common?
All are pursuits that improve with aim.
I think most people would grant this truth—that we are most successful in ministry when we are clear about our goals. This is why many ministry leaders are careful to take the time to write a mission statement or purpose for their programs on paper.
But what happens after you have them on paper?
For years our children’s ministry program has held as our stated vision that we are to be a place where kids are growing into life-long followers of Jesus. However, it became clear to me that while our vision was helpful, it was only as helpful as it was fully understood. As a team we needed to go deeper. Our aim was too vague. When pushed a little harder, most team members struggled to clearly articulate what being a follower of Jesus really implied. Everyone knew it had to do with being in relationship with Jesus—but if you want to hit a target like a bulls-eye or golf hole, you need to refine your aim. So it is with the discipleship of children.
So in a subsequent training meeting, we dug in deep. What followed was an honest conversation around what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The results were not only clarifying, but they have come to be the direction we now take as our aim.
Followers of Jesus Trust God
We desire to see kids trust God for their salvation, forgiveness, and sanctification. We will create opportunities to ensure that the story of God’s faithfulness is shared, and that kids discover they can trust God to meet all their needs today and for their days ahead.
Followers of Jesus Converse with God
We want kids to learn that prayer is an ongoing conversation with God. We will design our schedule and activities to include ample time and reduced volume so that kids will not only discover about God, but they will actually encounter God through prayer and quiet reflection. We want to model for kids that prayer is about being with God, so we will be mindful to encourage listening prayer, and trust that God will speak.
Followers of Jesus Know God’s Story
We want kids to discover God in the grand narrative of the Bible. We will include in our programming a balance of time for Bible study, Scripture memory work, and practice in retelling God’s story. Our aim is firmly set on introducing this story so we all may encounter God ourselves. We will support the thoughtful process of drawing connections between what we learn about God in the Bible, and how God reveals Himself to us in our own lives.
Followers of Jesus Walk with Others
We want to give our children a way to make lasting relationships and connections with other followers of Jesus. We will create opportunities for kids to be known by others, to worship in our sanctuary, and to be supported by their whole faith family.
Followers of Jesus Make Room for God
We will create a counter-cultural experience for our children, one in which they may taste what it is to observe Sabbath, enjoy some silence as a way to connect with God, and to be challenged to let go of anything that keeps them from Him.
Followers of Jesus Follow God’s Lead
We want children to feel loved and to love abundantly, to be well served and encouraged to serve others selflessly. We will look for ways to show grace as we have been shown grace in Jesus, and we will value and celebrate the genuine faith of young people who follow Jesus with boldness and courage.
This is our aim, and it has been helpful to clearly articulate it with as much detail as we can. More important still has been the way our team has endeavored to walk out what has been written down. Getting the words off the page and into practice is an exciting way to serve.
Where is God setting your course? What is the vision set before you in children’s ministry? I pray that you will be faithful in your call to disciple, patient as God refines your aim, and bold as you follow through on the course before you.
Let the Children Come
But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” —Matthew 19:14 (NLT)
At the heart of the gospel this is the call of Jesus. Let them come! Let the broken, poor, disabled, mistreated come. Let the minorities, the women, the overlooked come. Let the children come. The smallest in society. The most vulnerable. Jesus wants them all to draw near.
I have no doubt that this is your heart’s desire for the kids you serve, too. Strangely, it’s mankind’s tendency to over complicate the simplest of things.
As a child I remember my little heart bowing under the pressure of conformity. By the time I was in upper elementary school, I questioned if I would ever please God. The to do list of memorizing Scripture, reading my Bible, completing Awana books, acting or not acting a certain way, bringing friends to church to get a token, and on and on. It weighed on my shoulders. I knew God loved me, but I wondered if He liked me.
It wasn’t until I was older that I truly found freedom in Jesus. I believed what I’d learned as a child was true, but I had to press in to find the gold of the gospel. It took years to undo the effects of the religious system I grew up with. I was parched for mercy. When I found it, I wept with relief. Then fell in love with Jesus all over again. Rules can never comfort a grieving heart, only Jesus can.
Children by nature operate in concrete principles and need structure. Spiritual disciplines are a good place to start with them. Sometimes though, we forget they are capable of wonder and surprising spiritual understanding. They can handle hard questions. They need to know they are wanted and valued. To all of their needs Jesus says, “Come.”
It’s so important that we make sure the programs and structures of our ministries never keep children, or anyone, from simply coming to Jesus.
I love that the original disciples weren’t actually believers when they began following Jesus. They just came when He called, and walked with Him. It was in following that they became believers.
How can we help our kids become followers right where they are? First by giving them access to the heart of God. Relationship is where it’s at. As they learn the principles of Scripture, and hear the practical difference those truths have made in our lives, a connection with those truths can be made. Perhaps faith will become real as they hear how much we need Jesus ourselves.
Our culture seems to have moved away from an apprentice, storytelling style, and become a lecturing, classroom format. The beauty of relating to Jesus can get lost if we’re not careful. But life change happens best in relationship. That’s true of kids as well as adults.
Second, we can remember that if we focus more on external obedience and performance we will have kids that grow into adults who conform, not necessarily ones that have been transformed. There’s a huge difference. We do not want people in our church to merely conform their behavior to fit the set expectations of a system or a distant god.
We want people who are in relationship with Jesus, who have experienced His mercy so deeply they are compelled to allow him access to every area of their lives. People who long for truth, who hunger for what’s right, who see themselves in humility, and whose actions are an overflow of gratitude to Jesus.
That process starts early and takes great care. It is easy to focus on changing behavior. It is far more complex, time consuming, and messy to focus on the heart. But the only way true discipleship happens is when the heart and the mind are both engaged. We can’t neglect one in favor of the other.
The kids you serve may or may not remember each lesson you teach, but they will remember you. They will remember if you were a living example of the gospel. They will remember if you loved them. They will remember if you brought them to Jesus, or if expectations and rules kept them at a distance. Offer your kids access to your heart and to Jesus. People obey what they love.
I don’t know how your summer went. But with four young children at home, mine seemed filled with endless amounts of verbal repetition. Whether it was “put your shoes away,” “clean up your toys,” “brush your teeth,” or “stop hitting your brother,” almost every phrase I uttered to my kids needed to be repeated multiple times, to multiple children—all day, every day.
But what I forgot in the midst of the mind-numbing repetition was that for children, repetition can be one of the main ways they learn. Most of the time I feel frustrated when I’m explaining something to my child—for the fifth time. Yet for them, the light of understanding often is just beginning to dawn.
One night at dinner the idea that I needed to keep talking about Jesus—on repeat—hit home for my husband and me. It was one of the rare dinners this summer where all my kids were seated and eating. My 10-year-old son began to ask questions about God, loving people, and getting to heaven. This was was shortly after the hate-filled incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the world wasn’t making a lot of sense to him. What ensued was a conversation filled with love as we explained how God loves us, but that the world is sinful and that is why Jesus needed to come.
We talked AGAIN about the need for each person to make a decision to follow Jesus and accept His forgiveness. It is then, with the Holy Spirit’s help, that we are truly able to love all people. We had discussed this before. But for my seven-year-old daughter listening in, her face lit up like it was new information; she was visibly processing, asking questions.
After dinner and the normal chaos that quickly resumed, my husband and I stood together and thanked God for the prompting to talk to our kids often about Him. We were reminded of the verses in Deuteronomy 6:6−7(NLT):
And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up (emphasis mine).
God knew that we adults would need to consistently pass our faith on to the next generation. It isn’t enough to believe it ourselves and hope that our kids pick it up. We need to actively tell it to them—again and again.
In my children’s ministry and as a parent, I find that it is easy to fall into the thinking that I’ve already covered a topic and explained it thoroughly. But when it comes to making sure our kids know Jesus loves them, forgives them, and wants to be their friend forever, I need to make sure that I am on constant repeat. Because we never know when that truth will finally make sense and take hold in their hearts as it did for my seven-year-old daughter that night at the dinner table.
Will you join me in telling the kids in our lives how much Jesus loves them at every opportunity?
I noticed him the very first day at camp. He sat to my right as I spoke to the kids. He sat alone and was in a fairly isolated spot on the floor. As a seasoned camp speaker I’ve learned to ignore a lot of things when I’m speaking. This little guy with a mohawk seemed to hear his own music. While I was speaking he would slowly rotate his arms around his head as if conducting his own music. Every now and then he would twitch. He was not disruptive but he was noticed, by me.
I learned a long time ago that kids rarely look like they are listening and yet most often they are listening. The little guy in my audience gave absolutely no indication that he was listening let alone comprehending anything I was saying. I’ve also learned not to judge a person’s story by their behavior. I knew he had a story and I wondered….
This girl shared her story with me halfway through the week. With her permission I shared some if it on Instagram:
“I started doing Marijuana with my cousins when I was 7. On the Res everyone did drugs, it’s different there. I would deliver drugs to my aunt but I didn’t know the package was drugs. I just thought she wanted to see me, but no. I’ve been in about 200 foster homes. The parent I’m closest to is my dad but now he’s in prison for life and doesn’t want me. My mom is in prison too and she doesn’t want me either. At age 10 I started doing hardcore drugs. I didn’t know it wasn’t ok. I didn’t know it could harm you. Then I started going to church and was told God loved me no matter what and my back story didn’t change God’s love. I was sent here to camp as a punishment and it worked (I hate that my foster parents were right!). I started a relationship with Jesus last night. I feel happy, I feel different. I want to do good things now.”
This 12 year old broke me as she told me her story this morning. I mean broke me. Puddle on the floor. Her favorite word is Emmanuel “because it means God’s always with me. Always.” She’s been clean from drugs and cutting for 2 months. God is doing a new thing in her.
One of our counselors shared his story of God’s redemptive work in his life yesterday morning and it connected with her story and God used it. Leaders, please don’t ever forget to share your stage and give others a space to share their story. It is so not about us.
I grabbed this little one’s face, looked her in the eye and blessed her. Not because it was comfortable or easy but because God told me to do it. “I bless you for your bravery, I bless you for sharing your story. May you know deep in your soul that you are loved and never alone. May you never forget that God has redeemed you and called you by name. I bless you as you begin to see God weave beauty out of your messy story. You are worthwhile and you are loved.” And then she went inside and Miss Mel had a very messy breakdown.
Through the course of her sharing her story I put together that her little brother was also at camp and that her brother was my little mohawk kid. She rushed to assure me, “he’s had it a lot easier than me. He’s only 9 and he’s only been in two foster homes.” She told me he had recently been diagnosed with autism. Before she shared some of her story with the camp the next morning. I asked her if her brother would be ok with her sharing. She told me he wouldn’t understand any of it.
I kept my eye on that little mohawk kid. I learned his name and watched him interact (or not interact) with other kids. There was no question he had some difficulties. His speech seemed to be severely limited. I actually never heard him talk. I knew that although his sister thought he had had it easier he had been significantly affected by his home life and present abandonment. Of course, my heart broke.
Towards the end of camp he came up to me while we were swimming and we “talked” briefly. He floated in his life jacket and just beamed at me. He seemed content to just be near me. Of course, he stole my heart.
The last day of camp kids were sharing what God had taught them that week. I had a long line of kids up front sharing. I did a double take when Little Mohawk was at the end of the line. I went through 20 kids and in the back of my head I wondered how I was going to handle him. I knew he couldn’t talk and I wasn’t sure why he was up front. He was the last kid to go and I treated him the same way I had every other kid. I said his name and asked him, “what’s God been teaching you this week?”. I held my breath as he smiled at me and his mouth struggled to form words. It seemed the whole camp held their breath because there was silence until he burst out with the word, “love!”. It wasn’t entirely clear but everyone could identify the word. I repeated “love” and he smiled and bobbed his head at me. Without prompting the entire group did a little gasp and started cheering and clapping for him. He smiled until I thought his face would break.
As he walked off stage I took a minute to compose myself. When I turned back around he had grabbed his stuff and moved to sit in the very middle of the room surrounded by kids. And he kept smiling.
I had to leave camp right after that last chapel. Kids were high fiving and hugging me goodbye. Little Mohawk came up to me still smiling. I opened my arms and he dove in and gave me a huge hug. I hugged him back and held my tears.
As I drove away from that camp tears ran down my face as I thought of Little Mohawk. As I praised the God of miracles. As I marveled over moments like that. As I whispered to Jesus, “could I please do this forever?”.
To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory. Isaiah 61:3
originally posted on melissajmacdonald.com