Monday, January 26, 2009

The Salvation of an Exceptionl Child

Last week, someone left a comment regarding the salvation of a Down’s Syndrome child.

First of all, I want to applaud the courage and diligence of families and teachers who work with these precious children. You are taught by the Lord to see our children not as the rest of the world sees, to value the gifts unappreciated by the rest of society. God has a plan for these special children, just as He has a plan for each one of us and He uses these special children to teach the rest of us lessons about ourselves, about giving, about the value of life.

I believe Scripture teaches that people come to Christ at an age of accountability. We cannot repent of sin if we don’t know what sin is. Many theological concepts are abstract ideas; a child is basically a concrete thinker until about age nine or ten. If children accept Christ at a younger age, they usually have a very rudimentary understanding. Both my girls accepted Christ at age eight. We had taught them and reviewed with them how someone becomes a Christian since they were six. For both of them, it took a personal recognition that they had done something wrong, they were responsible and that was not the way God wanted them to live.

When dealing with children with learning difficulties, we need to take their learning capabilities into consideration. They may be 14 years old chronologically, yet what is their mental age? Would you expect a mentally disabled child with the mind of a six year old to make decisions and use judgment normally shown in 14 year olds? No.

So, if a child never advances beyond the mentality of a six year old, what happens to their salvation? It’s an agonizing question many parents have asked and even more parents who have lost young children to death have asked as well. Remember, our God is a gracious and merciful God. He cares deeply about the little ones. I believe that God holds these precious children innocent. If a child dies before reaching that age (or mental age of accountability), I believe they will go to Heaven.

If you do discuss salvation with your child, do so in the most simplistic terms, appropriate for his or her mental age level. Answer questions simply. Don’t push salvation. Talk freely and often of Jesus’ love and constant presence. If your child shows signs of rebelliousness, they may be able to then understand the concepts of sin and repentance and the need to follow Jesus. However, analyze the behavior. Are they being rebellious because they are mimicking the behavior of others? Are they doing the actions in ignorance? Are they acting out of frustration and anger at their limitations?

Our special children may surprise us. We think so much in terms of what children understand mentally that we forget to consider what the spirit understands. I love the story of Tim, a savant who plays the piano brilliantly yet probably has the capacity of an eight year old. Tim was playing the piano at a cafeteria for pay. He played only hymns. The manager asked him to play some secular music, that customers were getting tired of all that religious stuff. Tim stood up, shut the piano lid, and said, “If I can’t play for Jesus, I’m not playing at all,” and walked out the door.

So my advice to this mom who is concerned about the salvation of her Down’s syndrome child is this: Be patient. Keep loving your child. Talk about the things he can understand. Heaven and hell are pretty abstract concepts that are tough for most 14 year olds, much more so for a Down’s syndrome child. In time, God will speak to the spirit of your child; in the meantime, God loves your boy very much and in His mercy and graciousness will not let him perish.

Two resources to consider:

“Extraordinary Kids” by Cheri Fuller
“Exceptional Teaching” by Jim Pierson

Also check out the ministry of Joni and Friends. They may have resources on children with Down’s Syndrome.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Treasures of Teaching

Early in his ministry, as recorded in Matthew 13, Jesus started to speak to the crowds in parables. “Whoa, wait a minute!” The twelve disciples found the first available moment to throw up their hands with confusion. “Why are you speaking to the people in parables (v. 10)?”

Without criticizing them for asking, Jesus explained why he was using parables, then revealed the meaning of the parable of the sower. He told another parable. They asked for an interpretation. He explained again. He backtracked a little by adding an introduction to his parables – ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . “ Perhaps he did this to help their brains connect with the fact that he was using the technique of an extended metaphor.

If you notice Jesus’ methodology in the rest of Matthew 13, he continued to share a number of smaller parables, one right after another. What a fantastic teaching technique! He was giving these guys practice in getting the hang of parable interpretation.

Finally, Jesus asked, “Have you understood all these things?” The disciples replied, “Yes.” I put my Bible down at that point. Wasn’t that a little arrogant of those guys? Did they really understand completely? Yet, I guess if I had been drilled over and over and I was finally catching the rhyme and rhythm of a parable, I would have answer “yes” as well. Yet, lurking in the recesses of my mind would be a smudge of uncertainty as to whether I really knew it as well as I should.

I think Jesus understood this because He then made a wonderful comment about teaching: “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52).”

Teachers never stop learning! That’s the best part about teaching!

Years ago, our Sunday School superintendent tried to recruit a new teacher. “I don’t know enough to teach,” the woman said.

“That’s all right,” the older woman replied. “Each week, you will prepare your lesson and you will learn. You will end up learning far more than your students learn.”

That is so true. As teachers teach, they display time honored truths more precious than beloved antiques. Because teachers continue to be learners, they also share the excitement of their own new discoveries in the faith.

The most effective teacher is the teacher who keeps on learning, who keeps studying the lesson, learning more than the students. It’s the teacher who is willing to apply God’s Word to his or her own life in order to be able to share with glowing eyes the following Sunday, “Look what I discovered about Jesus this week.”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Devilish Deal: Compromising the Growth of your Children’s Ministry Program

The legend of Faust tells the story of how the scholar Faust makes a compact with the devil. The devil increases Faust’s knowledge of magic and gives him twenty four years of power and pleasure. After that, Faust’s soul belongs to the devil (Source: Encarta).

No one in children’s ministry would ever do that! Yet, at times we’re so desperate to see our program succeed, to experience growth, to have any kind of children’s ministry at all, that we make compromises that aren’t necessarily God’s will. Unconsciously, innocently, we make deals with the devil for something we believe is a good thing.

True, children’s ministry takes sacrifices. In order to have a successful children’ s ministry, both the church at large and individuals will need to compromise time, energy, and resources that would normally go to other programs. The church might get a little noisier, some workers might not get to as many adult worship services as they’d like, and some people in the pew might feel a bit of loss of control as the halls of the church teem with energetic children.

But sometimes, we want growth so badly, we inadvertently let go of other things we say we value. What are you willing to forgo in order to have that successful children’s ministry? Is the cost too great? I’ve learned the hard way that some of the following aren’t worth the sacrifice:

1. Doctrine. Of course not, you might say. But how many times do we water down the gospel message so kids will keep coming? Coupled with this is our entire spiritual emphasis. Do we replace the spiritual activities with food and fun just so the kids will keep coming? Yes, I know that fellowship can be a great time of building relationships with kids. Yet we always need to keep our eye on the purpose for which we exist, always being on our guard to keep from slipping into an all-fun atmosphere. The temptation toprovide activities that will keep them coming is like the slow oozing, sucking trap of quicksand; it can happen slowly and more subtly than you think.

2. Discipline and accountability: When someone questions what is happening in the youth program, have you heard the defense, “Oh, but the kids are having so much fun,” or “But we’re having decisions and new visitors every week” or “You don’t want to be too hard on the kids; it will undermine the love and acceptance we’re trying to teach them.” Church leaders bite their lips, hating to knock success. Yet accountability is extremely important. Your youth leaders need to be liable to someone, the elders, a youth ministry team, or the pastor. This includes accountability for finances, discipline, boundaries in use of church facilities, recruitment standards, and curriculum. Ministry is not a Lone Ranger mentality. It’s a team effort among many people and all team players to know and have a say in what is happening. To protect ourselves spiritually and fiscally, we need to be accountable to someone.

3. Direction: Small churches especially have problems with this one. So desperate for volunteers and new students, we let the personal enthusiasm of a new worker carry us away, then we turn our heads so we don’t see the oncoming train wreck. Every ministry program needs a plan. What do you hope to accomplish? How are you going to get there? What can you afford? Who is going to be in charge? What will be most effective for your community? No program in the church can exist for very long solely on the personality of a charismatic leader. You need to have a plan, supported with prayer.

4. Discernment: God’s word gives direction on choosing leaders. I believe that a children’ ministry director or youth leader are two of the key positions in the church and therefore, are subject to the same qualifications as listed for elders and deacons given in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. A youth leader should know how to manage his own children, should be well thought of in the community, should be self controlled and equipped to teach the doctrines of the faith. Just because we’re desperate for a youth worker does not give us permission to set aside these qualifications. If we do, we’re compromising our program and it will never be fully effective as God intends it to be.

You see, God cares more that we do ministry right than He cares about the growth of the program. If we follow His word and do ministry His way, He will bring the increase.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

American Foreign Policy and Classroom Discipline

In her book, “Condi: The Condoleeza Rice Story,” Antonia Felix explains Secretary Rice’s description of one difference between liberals and conservatives that I had never heard before but that makes sense to me. In the area of foreign policy, conservatives are realists and liberals are idealists. Realists recognize that a nation will fight when its national self interest is threatened; that it is in the best interest of our nation to stand firm and to uphold our moral values when they are threatened by a show of power from another nation. Idealists believe that the best chance for peace lies in cooperation. In other words, realists want to meet power with power; idealists want to sit down and “talk about it,” assuming that the other side is also interested in “talking about it.”

What does this have to do with children’s ministry? I see the same opposing views from children’s ministry workers. Part of our job in teaching children is to recognize sources of authority, that God is ultimately in charge of our lives. But children and youth, just like the rest of us sinful creatures, want to be in control. Power, as one of Dr. Rice’s favorite authors explained, is the “control of man over man.”

Does that mean any misbehavior can be couched in terms of a power struggle: adult vs. child? Actually, children misbehave in your classroom for one of several reasons: 1) They’re tired and cranky and need their basic physical needs met, 2) they are wanting attention and don’t know appropriate ways to get it. 3) their inexperience causes them to make poor choices, or 4) they are in rebellion mode and want to be in control of their own lives.

Too often over the past fifty years, the church has been seen as a legalistic rules oriented institution. I’ve heard stories of people who felt like the church tried to push a religion of rules on them. I’ve seen teachers act with harsh words, displaying the attitude of “Let’s shape them up.”

Yet I’ve also seen the extreme of the compassion and cooperation model. This attitude projects that any discipline will demoralize the children’s self-esteem. Sadly, the right to discipline has been stripped away from our public schools in the interest of not damaging children’s self image. Parents, teachers and youth workers alike think that we should be able to “just talk about it” and the child will accept our ideology.

The results? A different kind of tyranny. Students become disrespectful, out of control and destructive because they know no one will touch them. They end up controlling us.

So what’s the answer when we face a power struggle with children within the church? Like the political realist, we must stand firm and protect the best interests of God’s Kingdom. We must not allow anything to undermine the values we hold dear as expressed in the Bible. We must teach our children about justice and proper models of authority.

We can learn from the idealists too. We need to show compassion. We need to make sure we don’t automatically label infraction as a power struggle but take the time to understand other reasons for the errant behavior. We must look at our own motives: do we want the children to behave in a certain way because we are trying to teach them how to live holy lives or because we’re on a power kick and it jives us when children follow our lead?

The Bible, our Sourcebook for all that we do in children’s ministry, has a pithy five word phrase for how we need to help our children and each other grow up so that we accept Christ as the Head, the one ultimately in charge of our lives: “ . . .speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).” We don’t speak harshly but we do teach and stand by the authority of Jesus Christ, teaching with patience, gentleness and diligence.

God always did have the best idea.