Thursday, September 18, 2008

Children's Ministry New Testament Style

I belong to a church whose foundation is built on adhering to New Testament Christianity. That means we try to practice what Christians in the New Testament practiced. “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent” is one of our great slogans. That gives a lot of latitude. The Bible allows for cultural differences in regard to method but there are certain principles and practices that are clearly defined in Scripture and that we try to emulate.

So what does this have to do with children’s ministry? As I conduct children’s ministry programs and write for other children’s ministry leaders, the main question I ask myself is, “How would the Apostle Paul organize a children’s ministry program in the local church? What issues would he see as important?” Now, before you tell me that children’s ministry is never mentioned in the New Testament, I think there are some overarching principles that we can consider:

1. The role of parents. The one command given directly to children is “Children, obey your parents (Eph. 6:1).” The New Testament assumes that the responsibility for spiritual nurture of a child lies with the parents so if a child obeys their parents, they’ll get that spiritual training at home. Some of you might immediately say, “But that’s not the world we live in today. So many of our children come from unchurched families or the parents themselves need teaching.” True. I’ll get to that next. But we have used that excuse for too long. There are parents who are faithful Christians, who do know the tenets of our faith who too often rely solely on the church for what their child learns about God. I like the guidelines in Deuternomy 6:4-9, that parents should weave the teaching of biblical principles into every part of their lives; at the beginning of the day, at the end, in the house, outside the house. Wherever you go, you are teaching your child about God. Your child cannot build a life of faith based on two hours of training Sunday morning.

Children’s programs do fit into this, for the parent is still in control and directing the religious education of their child. Parents should be actively involved in the children’s ministry by knowing what is being taught, supporting and encouraging the teachers, and standing up for the teachers to their children. It’s a parent’s responsibility to see that children attend, not to let the child make the decision or to sway the parent with grumbling as to whether they are going to go. The Bible says, “Let us not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10;25).” When we take our children to church, we are instilling within them the importance of gathering with other believers to keep our faith strong. I like what one friend said to her kids. “Sunday morning, we get up, we put on our socks, we go to church. That’s just what our family does.” I assure you, that family put on more than their socks in the morning, but her point is clear. Going to church is as much a part of what they did as putting on a pair of socks. “It’s just what we do.”

But what about those kids from unchurched families?

2. The role of the church. Paul does address the issue of children from unbelieving or divided families, more by example than command. Acts 16 tells about Timothy, the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. You can count on Timothy not getting any spiritual training from his dad! So what did Paul do? He took Timothy under wing. He became like a father to him. He helped Timothy become more accepted by the Jewish community by having him circumcised, something a Jewish father would have made sure was done for his son. He mentored Timothy and treated him like an apprentice, taking Timothy with him on his mission trips. He stayed in touch with Timothy through his two letters to him.

We need to build relationships with kids. Teaching them one hour a week is not enough. We need to be willing to enfold them into the church family. Become a spiritual parent to them. Sit with them in church. Ask them how their week is going. Listen to them. Make sure they are getting the proper training and are living the life God has called them to live. And like Paul with Timothy we need to keep in touch with them beyond their childhood years.

I came from a divided home like Timothy. Gene became my church dad. He built my confidence, gave me opportunities to serve God and encouraged me. I felt so ashamed the day he held me accountable for missing church for a March of Dimes walk-a-thon, then for being swayed by the March of Dimes organizers to lie about how many miles I had actually walked. He forced me to be honest, something a dad should do. But that failure on my part did not break his relationship with me. He took me to my first football game, invited me to family events and arranged for me to play the piano for a senior citizen’s apartment complex. All the time, I was observing how he and his family lived their faith, an example I needed to see. Years and miles later, I’m still in touch with him.

If a child doesn’t have a parent who will guide them in their faith, church members can become that parent to them, by teaching them, living the example of a Christian life before them and inviting them to walk with you through your faith journey, through service projects, mission trips and every day aspects of your life so that they can see Jesus in you, the hope of glory.

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