The survival of the church depends on our children. They may justly be A recognized as our greatest resource. Yet, too often, we give them only token support. Often they seem to be at the end of our line of thinking as we think of nurturing or as we plan evangelistic outreaches, church nurture, and programming.
Coming from the perspective of children's ministry in the local congregation, I am often grieved at our lack of passion for our youngsters. Granted, when they become teenagers we suddenly panic, throwing at them all the money, time, resources, and imagination we can muster in an urgent attempt to "hold" them as they suddenly strike puberty, fearing that during the teenage years they will exit church fellowship.
Could it be that some of the pressure we feel during the teen years and some of the tendency to exit that they show is due to the fact that less was done for them than could have been done while they were younger? What about showing the same degree of urgency when children are small as when they reach their teen years?
The church needs to be involved in actively using available resources to initiate programs that will build children's ministries into a formidable force in the local congregation. Church organization, corporate and local, needs to provide innovative resources and ideas that can be implemented in the local congregation.
In addition to these very important resources, the most telling influence comes from the members themselves. How mature members relate to youngsters will forever imprint upon children's brains their interpretation of the character of Jesus. Their weekly or daily interaction with church members will give the children an impression of "church" that will carry into adulthood.
Receiving the right imprints
Recently, I watched a National Geographic documentary about zebras. One of the most interesting observations was about the foals. When a mare is about to give birth, she moves to the edge of the herd not too far because there is safety in numbers but enough distance to make sure that she is in charge of the situation. After the baby is born, it must immediately get up and walk. Its survival depends upon this. But survival also depends upon another equally important factor. When the baby stands, the mother makes sure that it sees only her stripes for the first 15 minutes. Apparently, baby zebra brains imprint the stripes of the mother into their brain's "hard drive." Since every zebra has different stripes, it is vital that the baby have the imprint of its mother. If it looks at another zebra which is not the mother and imprints those stripe patterns, the baby could die because it will be confused as to where to look for its source of food and protection. In the first minutes of life, imprinting the correct stripes could make the difference between survival and disaster. The mother circles and shields the baby from other curious zebras who want to look over the newborn because she knows that her baby must see nothing but her stripes.
As church members we need to learn from the zebras making sure our children receive the right imprints early so that they will remember these throughout their lives. Spiritual survival during the turmoil of the teenage years may depend upon the correct imprinting when they are young.
Spending time with the little ones may not seem to some to be as important or stimulating as the "mental exercise" of discussing great theological issues and doctrines with adults. But in many ways interacting with children can be even more rewarding. Imitation is still the greatest form of flattery. The greatest compliment I ever received was a little girl who remarked, "When I grow up I want to be a pastor just like you!" And, in the years since, her life has developed in such a way that there is a good possibility she will someday be a pastor.
As leaders in congregations, we have the burden and responsibility to place before the people the necessity of positively ministering to our children. We need to make sure the members receive proper training so they know how to relate to these precious kids so that church services and other programs leave positive lasting impressions of Jesus, His local church, and the people who present the programs. Teachers, facilitators, and mentors stand in the place of Jesus to these little ones. Unfortunately, many members are well-meaning, but boring. Too often, others have been known to use children as a sounding board for their own agendas. Such encounters may be quickly forgotten by adults, but they tend to be remembered by children.
Last week two Junior youngsters were visiting in our home. Remarking about their Sabbath School class that morning, one boy exclaimed that it was the best class he had ever been to. I asked what made it "the best." Eyes sparkling, he replied, "Oh, we got to do things! Not just sitting and being talked to." He then proceeded to tell me all the activities, one by one, that the children had participated in with the organizer. "She did everything we did and it was so much fun!"
Children's Ministries can provide valuable resources and training, but the key is to have people to implement these programs who are themselves teachable in the tender art of molding characters. Children have a "sixth sense." They can quickly cut through the phony piety. They can sense in a moment if we really love them. And, they will put that impression into their own little hard drives and retrieve it over and over in years to come.
Reaching the children at their level
A few weeks ago my husband and I listened to the narrator of the children's story during our worship service. The story was told in adult words, not children's. He played to a sense of humor that went right over the children's heads but was subtly caught by the mature members of the congregation who laughed at all the appropriate times. And, the story went on and on and on for 15 minutes! Adding to all this, I heard a comment after the service about how we take so much time out of the worship service for these kids, and they don't even appreciate it, and that's obvious because they were tickling and teasing each other, running back to their parents, and climbing up and down the platform stairs while the story was being told. It was obvious neither the storyteller nor the commentator realized where much of the fault lay. At the 14-minute mark, even I was having strong urges to pester my husband, scribble on the bulletin, run to the bathroom, or do about anything to get it over with! I was again reminded of my friend Cheryl Retzer's sage advice, "Remember that children can only listen one minute for every year of their age!" Thus, a four-year-old can only attentively listen to a four-minute story!
Children do not come to church with guarantees. Even when we do everything"right" they still have the free, God-given choice just as anyone else does. And they may choose paths that leave us grieving for them. It is important to remember that when they do "jump overboard" we can be there to help them back in.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of snorkeling off the great Bunaken Reef in beautiful Manado, Indonesia. We rowed out to the reef in a very narrow, small, canoe-like boat. Jumping into the ocean was really easy I simply fell out of the canoe, put on my snorkeling tube, mask, and fins and swam away. After a glorious morning of seeing massive coral, unusual fish, and other magnificent sights, however, I was hungry and tired and wanted to climb back into the "canoe" and get back to shore. Despite the beautiful ocean, I was tired. I needed the rest and safety of the shore. However, getting back into that "boat" was another matter entirely. I pulled and climbed and attempted maneuvers that surely could have won me first prize in a "funniest videos" competition. I can't tell you how many times I had one leg and arm almost into the boat, but the sea seemed to hold me like a magnet. The other two people in the boat did not seem at all thrilled that I was sloshing water all over them and precariously tipping the boat, jeopardizing their own safety.
Finally, it dawned on them that I might need some help getting back into what I had so eagerly and easily forsaken. With their strong arms I was instantly retrieved. Telling about it later, we relived the moments and had a good laugh. But then we sobered as we applied the incident to our church young people. It is so easy for them to jump "out" of the church, but without the strong arms of love and forgiveness reaching out to them, and hearts willing to forget their past, they might not make it back in. Their struggle may make us uncomfortable as we observe it from our secure position. Many of their antics during this time may well so unnerve us that we forget we could reach out rather than sit and watch critically as they struggle.
Jesus gave us serious encouragement and even warning when it comes to ministering to His little ones. He does not measure human value by weight, and these tiny ones are the jewels of His kingdom. Isn't it important that our church resources, talent, and time be spent in correctly polishing them for His kingdom?