Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Role of Prayer in Children's Ministry

“'If you never ask, the answer is always no.'”

So starts an excellent article written by Steve May in his Monday Memo blog from his website, About Sunday. Steve continues:

"The person who made this statement recently was talking to marketers about closing the sale. It got my attention because it also applies to our prayer life.

"James said, 'You do not have because you do not ask God.'” (James 4:2)

"More and more I see asklessness as the root of our problems. James also said that we don’t receive sometimes because we ask with the wrong motives … but I’m convinced that the first part of the equation is a bigger problem for a good many of us.

"The best way to solve this problem is with a pen, a paper, and some time spent in solitude.

"Write down the things in your life that you have been dealing with on your own, that you have (inexplicably) neglected to pray about, and make a decision to bring these matters before the throne once a day until they’re resolved.

"You and I both know from history that it works. Why then we go through seasons of asklessness is a mystery for the ages."

So, let me ask you, children's ministry worker, what do you want to see happen in your children's ministry department in the next year? Parents and grandparents, how do you want to see your children and grandchildren grow in their faith in God over the next year?

Now my next question:

Have you prayed about it?

"Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:8)."

Friday, December 03, 2010

Class Divisions in the Smaller Church

One kindergarten student. One first grader who comes only occasionally. Then there is one fourth grader. Two fifth graders. One sixth grader and two eighth graders.

You look at your fingers on which you've been tallying the roster of children attending your Sunday School, then glance in despair at the curriculum catalogue in front of you. How can you follow the guidelines of the curriculum with this hodge-podge of kids? Your heart breaks for that first grader. No wonder she comes so seldom. Every time she comes, you put her in with the fourth, fifth and sixth grade kids and her inability to read and use a pair of scissors slows everyone down.

What class divisions should a small church use?

Some promote the multi-age classroom. One room schoolhouses did it successfully all the time a century ago; why can't the small church too?

We don't really know how successful the one-room schoolhouse was. Schools and parents did it out of necessity for the same reasons a small church must group kids together - not enough children and not enough teachers. You do what you must do, making it work the best you can. If you must have a one room approach, here is how you can make your teaching more effective:

Use older students as helpers. Older children can set out snack, take younger children to the bathroom or perform skits with you.

Use the learning center approach. Younger children can do an art project while older students do Bible research. You can help the younger children while the older children work independently or you can have a helper/apprentice work with the younger children while you work with the older children.

Choose activities that appeal to all ages. I've watched kids of all ages enjoy such activities as singing, carving pumpkins, dying Easter eggs and blowing bubbles. Older kids enjoy adding more complex details to the activities they loved when they were younger.

Think outside the box. I like the age divisions Rosann Englebretson and Marlene LaFever suggest for small churches in their book, "Reach Everyone You Teach," published by College Press.

Birth through two year olds - Toddlers and Twos
Three through six year olds - Pre-K and First Grade
Seven to ten year olds - Second through Fifth Grade
Middle/High Schoolers

Your first graders will feel like big kids with the little ones and won't have to struggle with the daunting task of reading like they would if they were with the older kids. Likewise, your sixth graders will enjoy being part of the youth group. Most schools across the nation are putting sixth graders with the seventh and eighth graders; why shouldn't the church? As your church grows, the group I would divide first are your Middle School and High School group.

Regardless of age classification, identify the unique needs of the children that attend your church. Let go of what you've "always done" or the way "everyone else does it;" instead, sculpt your classes to meet the learning needs of the children you serve. Your desire to meet their needs and give them the personal attention they crave and deserve will in the long run be far more effective.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Helping Children Weather the Storms of Church Conflict

Several times over the course of our ministry, my husband and I have witnessed church members argue or gossip about church issues in front of an open classroom door. Those times have left marks on our hearts like unwanted tattoos, for we know how such talk can leave even greater destruction in the spiritual future of the children who overhear the harsh, ugly talk.

Church conflict is never pleasant for anyone. In the case of when a minister is forced to leave, the conflict can set a church back for decades. I know more than a handful of people who have a minimal faith in Christ, but steer clear of associating with a church because they observed upheaval in their childhood church at an impressionable age.

Church conflict, while destructive and inevitable because church members are still sinful human beings learning how to set their minds on things above, can be minimized if a congregation is willing to follow the pattern of the Scriptures. When church conflict occurs, the church must be united on at least this important front - to protect the faith of the children. Here's how you can do it:

1. Shield the children from gossip and disagreements. So many times, I've seen adults talk about church problems in front of a classroom of children as if the children are deaf. Other times, I've heard volunteers explode in anger at each other in the middle of a class session. Children hear and understand more than we think. Our negative talk about people they hold as role models infuses their spirits with negative emotions they are ill equipped to handle. They may then lash out at those adults, not even understanding why.

Absolutely avoid talking about church problems in front of children. if someone does start to gossip or vent, have the courage to say, “Please don’t talk about this in front of the children.” According to Jesus’ directives in Matthew 18:15-17, church conflict should be kept as self contained as possible. It is more essential to secure the long-term faith of your children than to keep the short term peace with another adult by remaining silent or getting sucked into a destructive conversation.

2. Pray for discernment and wisdom. If the children do hear or do need to know that a volunteer or minister is leaving, pray to know what to say, how much to say, and for discernment of how the church conflict is affecting your child. God will give you wisdom (James 1:5,6).

3. Be honest if the conflict blows into public knowledge or your children are directly impacted. When my husband was summarily dismissed from one congregation, our girls couldn’t help overhearing the angry hurt voices of the over twenty people who streamed through our house during the next week. We decided it was better for them to hear the truth from us rather than a one-sided story from others. We also coached them on how to handle comments from schoolmates and church people they encountered around town.

Honesty, however, is giving a full picture, the positive as well as the negative. In each conversation, we tried to leave the girls with feelings of compassion for others, hope for the church and faith in our future. At your child’s level, share how you see God working through the conflict. My girls were awed when we told them an e-mail listserv representing another denomination was praying for our family.

4. Be objective. I struggled against spewing my own feelings in front of my daughters. While I needed to be open about the situation, I realized I had to distinguish between the facts and my opinions. I also needed to follow Paul’s advice not to allow “unwholesome talk” to come out of my mouth, but only what would build others up (Ephesians 4:29). That included encouraging my children and building others up in their sight. I learned through Colossians 4:6 to speak graciously about the people who had hurt us.

5. Use the conflict to teach spiritual truths. This is a prime opportunity to teach children about forgiveness, anger management, faithfulness to God no matter what the cost, and about spiritual warfare.

Several days after the dismissal from our church, my older daughter flared at the situation. “How could the church leaders do this to us?” I told her about the concept of spiritual warfare found in Ephesians 6:11. “Satan does not want the church to succeed and grow. He will do anything he can to thwart growth and destroy congregations. It’s our job, through Christ, to not let him get the best of us.” I knew my words had struck home when, several hours later, she designed a computer-generated graphic of Ephesians 6:11 and quietly hung it on the refrigerator. Months later, when she overheard two woman arguing before a church meeting, she whispered to me, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . .”

How serious is this? Church upheaval, with a few misguided conversations, can shipwreck a lifetime of teaching. As children's ministry workers, we're not merely teaching bible stories to our children. We're not just teaching ethical standards. We are teaching them about the transformational power of Jesus Christ to save and change lives. We teach by verbally sharing that message and by living it.

Think of a heat t-shirt transfer. Just as the heat of the iron softens the glue and makes the transfer adhere to the fabric, the trials of church conflict offer you the opportunity to make the message of the gospel stick to the spirits of the children you teach. Make it real, make it objective, share your confidence that in spite of all, God is over all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Storytelling for Preschoolers

"Tell me another story!" The four-year-old boy before me bounced on the balls of his feet.

I lay my stuffed dog I had dubbed as Ulfilas in my lap. My goodness, I didn't think my Early Church historical story about Ulfilas the Goth who brought Christianity to the Germanic tribes in the fourth century A.D. was that exciting. I love the early stories of how passionate Christians through the power of God spread the gospel from the epicenters of Rome and Jerusalem. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in Early Church History, listening to Dr. James North of the Cincinnati Christian University make history come alive through his vivid retelling of historical accounts. But was I crazy? Telling early church history to a four-year-old? Venturing where angels fear to tread, I plunged into my favorite, the story of St. Patrick, escaped slave who returned to his homeland of Ireland to evangelize his own people.

My enthralled listener begged again, "Tell me another story."

Preschoolers are a tough group of children to teach. The older I get, the more exhausted I feel. Their nonstop energy and their short attention span demand constant teacher attention. Sadly, I've seen too many preschool Sunday School classes and worship hours turn into glorified babysitting services because, let's face it, you have to have planned a different activity for every five minutes of class time. Also, teachers are unsure how much this age can learn since they aren't old enough to read.

Yet, my impromptu story time reminded me how this age group loves a good story. Storytelling is something anyone can do. Know your story well enough to not have to look at the Bible, put a bit of dramatic excitement in your voice, add a few sound effects, and you are in business. If ad libbing isn't your style, your local Christian bookstore sells inexpensive paperback bible story books you can use for talking points.

You don't have to wait for Sunday morning and you don't have to be an official teacher either. My student was a boy I babysat in the church nursery while his mother attended a funeral. Another time, I regaled a child with a story in a restaurant where a number of church members gathered for lunch after worship services and his grandmother looked on in grateful relief. Anyone can engage a child with a story, whether you are a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a babysitter or a fellow customer in a line at Wal-mart.

You don't have to know a lot of stories. Choose three or four stories that are your favorites. I am known for my retelling of Naaman the Leper (2 Kings 5:1-18) and the Woman with a little bit of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7). Those two stories are my trademarks. What are yours? Choose your personal favorite stories then practice them until you can tell them well. Go into your bathroom, close the door and practice the stories in front of the mirror. True confession: another way I've practiced is to wait till the family is out of the house, then I've practice my stories in front of the dog. Being a Welsh Corgi, she is notorious for cocking her head at anything I say. If I can get through my story without giggling at her, I've got it nailed.

Finally, you don't always have to use stories from the Bible to share your Christian faith with a child. I gather stories from church history. I've told my girls stories that show our family's Christian heritage like the story about Great -Grandma traveling from Ohio to Arizona in 1920 on a train with four small children and a sick husband, fearing she would be a widow by the time she reached that strange land. I can hardly wait to tell my grandchildren about the time when my four year old daughter prayed for a sale on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and God answered her prayer in a significant way.

Recently I heard a Holocaust survivor say, "You should put as much in your head as you can because they can't take away from you what is in your head." If you fill your head with the great stories of the Bible and of your Christian heritage, you will have that with you always. When you give a child a story, you do not lose it; instead, you find it again and it becomes more embedded in your mind.

As Paul told Timothy regarding his preaching, "Be prepared in season and out of season." (2 Timothy 4:2). When you have ready-to-serve Bible based stories in your head, you become a teacher in a mobile classroom, for your storybook is with you wherever you go, ready and available to build up and teach the next generation.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Future of Christian Education

Recently my minister-husband and another local minister confessed to each other that the children's ministry in both their churches is "drying up." We continue to hear that our little church is not alone, that children's programs are receding both locally and nationally. Bob Russell, in a compelling article in the Florida Christian College's "Son Life" newsletter, blamed the declining numbers of students interested in the preaching ministry on "the secularization of society, the postmodern mindset that denigrates anything authoritative, the declining number of teens in Christian Service camps and the passive involvement of ministers in the lives of teens." If the trend of shriveling children's ministries continue, the absence of trained and dedicated young people will turn the shortage of preachers into a crisis situation.

We need to raise up a new generation of Christians. The Church has a New Testament mandate to carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally pass on the package of truth we call Christian doctrine. How can we, though, when our classrooms stand empty? I'd like to offer a few suggestions:

1. Start over. This is the tact the two ministers are taking in our community. Sometimes, you need to let go of dying programs and begin again. Our church assessed who we do have and, lo and behold, there are three three-year-olds in our church nursery! We need a class for them. God has been faithful by providing two teachers ready to teach that class. Our goal is to pour ourselves and our faith into these little ones as long as we have them and, hopefully, prayerfully, build our program up from this point.

2. Let go of conventional programming. I used to get so annoyed at people who had, what I called, a "50's mentality," those who believed the way to teach children is to sit them in little chairs, tell a bible story and have them complete a worksheet. These sweet, well-behaved children would come every week with both parents and would placidly listen to everything the teacher said. Those days are long gone.

But I recognize that I am stuck in the 80's, the era of exciting interactive bible stories with lots of activities. Like the 50's mentality, it has its strong points and worked for that generation. But, Christian education experts now recognize, we fell into the temptation of making everything fun and exciting as a means to draw the kids back the follow Sunday. Too often we sacrificed content because we were afraid we would drive the children away. We had to make every lesson more attractive and up-to-date than the last to keep them coming back. Today, no matter how exciting the programs are, how much cutting edge technology we use, no matter how many helium balloons you release in a balloon launch, the kids aren't there. Parents are overwhelmed with activities, so many kids bounce back and forth between two household homes, that church becomes an afterthought if there isn't anything else going on.

Children's ministry workers need to regroup and find new methods to reach the kids. We may even need to let go of the traditional Sunday morning Sunday School and Wednesday evening youth group hours and find new ways to reach the children. I don't have any ready answers. So much depends on your community and your church situation. But I do have one more strategy:

3. Reach out to the parents and grandparents. If the children won't come to the church, let's take the church to the children. Imagine this: let's challenge our core church members to each target a family in their community: a neighbor, friend or adult children. Church members would become involved in that family's life. Attend their ball games. Take cookies over to them. Invite them over for dinner. Remember the kids' birthdays. Offer to babysit the children. Be available in crisis situations. Live the Christian lifestyle vividly in front of that family. And, as the family opens up, start sharing the gospel message. Teach the kids. Read bible stories to them. Tell them you are praying for them. Model Jesus in front of them. Empower the parents to teach their children. According the Deuteronomy 6:6-9, that's the way we should impart Bible doctrine to our children anyway.

This approach will take time. It will take commitment. It won't look very compelling on your church attendance board. Ministers will have to revamp their approach to ground their members in church doctrine well enough so they can confidently go forth and share the gospel message with their neighbors, friends and extended family.

But isn't that what the Great Commission and 2 Timothy 2:2 is all about? In a day when personal communication is defined by Facebook and text messaging, people long for personal contact, someone to care about them. I believe the best way, the only way, to reach today's children is to become personally involved in their family's life so they can see Jesus in us, the hope of Heaven's glory.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Praying for your Children's Ministry Class

It's seven o'clock Sunday morning. As I check my stack of supplies for my Children's Ministry class, I succumb to my well worn temptation to second guess myself. Have I prepared adequately? Have I selected age-appropriate activities? Who will attend my class today? Will it be mostly younger children who need extra time to cut and glue? Will it be the group of older boys who need energy siphoning games before they will settle down to hear the Bible message? How will I meet the challenge of children who have not been taught to respectfully listen to the teacher or who don't have the discipline to follow simple directions? In spite of my preparations, am I ready to answer the convoluted questions of a searching sixth grader or alert enough to pick up on the emotional needs of a new child seeking a haven from home, a respite from the ravages of a dysfunctional family?

Unlike a public school teacher who faces the same group of children each day, I can only begin to predict the crazy quilt patchwork pattern my class will assume this week. The activities that might work for one collection of children might be totally off base for another group of kids. I tense, knowing I will need to adjust and fine tune on the fly, making mental readjustments as I mark my attendance book.

Thus is the journey of any small church teacher. Larger churches have the luxury of age specific classes or at least enough children to even out the difference. If you are a teacher of five or less students per week, you have experienced the changing dynamics of the small class. So what do you do? How do you begin to be prepared.

1. Plan: Have several lesson plan scenarios in your head. Two weeks ago, my class consisted of two first graders. Last week, I had one sixth grader. I taught the same lesson, but I skipped the cutsie cutouts about friends and had my sole student read the Scripture about the friendship of Jonathon and David for himself, covering my white board with the biblical principles he discovered about friends.

2. Pray: You don't know who will be in your class - but God does. You don't know what baggage your children will bring or how much sleep they got the night before or which kids heard their parents fight before church or who is struggling with his need to make your faith his own - but God does. Before you get out of bed Sunday morning, admit to God that you need His help. Say, "Lord, I don't know what will happen today, but You do." Ask Him to help you be ready for whatever comes. Ask Him to fill your head with the activities that will best suit your students' needs. Ask Him for divine opportunities to share His love with those who need an extra expression of it that day. Ask Him to help you cope with the unguarded moments, the surprises, the obstacles.

Try it, just try it. Watch what happens. I think you will be amazed.

Let me know! Let the readers of this column rejoice with you that God does indeed have the power and authority to work through His workers to draw the children closer to Him.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teaching Our Children About Hope

I, along with 1.2 billion people sat transfixed. Each time the small capsule rose out of the narrow hole drilled through hundreds of rocky feet to the dark cavern entrapping thirty-three Chilean miners for 69 days, tears filled my eyes and a smile lined my face. The world watched thirty three miracles rise from what should have been certain, slow, agonizing death. Even after all the kudos for the NASA technology, the hard work ofAmerican engineers, the wisdom and leadership of one Chilean miner and the grit of Sebastian Pinera, the Chilean president who would not give up, the flawless rescue of the miners still seemed incredible.

Why did this story touch our hearts so deeply? Why did so many of us hover close to our televisions with tears in our eyes, cheers on our lips and hope in our hearts? I like what Peter Johnson said on Fox and Friends on October 14th, 2010, "As we agitated, it gave us hope that someone would come for us if we were in the depths."

Let's admit it. Each of us has privately wondered, if I were lost in the mountains, would someone come looking for me? If I lay unconscious on the side of the road, would someone stop or even bother to call 911? If I lost everything through fire or foreclosure, would anyone even care to help me out of my hole?

Our children search for hope as well. They ask, "If I'm failing at school, will someone notice? If I'm constantly falling off the educational ladder entrenched in the shifting sands of public school bureaucracy, will someone be there to catch me? If I'm bullied, molested or fall through the cracks of parental neglect, will someone come to my rescue? If I'm trapped in a dysfunctional family among violent adults who wallow in their own self-imposed tombs of addiction where there seems no way out, will someone pull me through a tunnel of hope to the light of success?"

Peter Johnson said, "Hope brings resolve and resolve brings success." As youth workers, we offer hope, we encourage resolve and we can give a blueprint for success. All it takes is believing that our students can be better than they are and pointing them to the One who is the Miracle Worker, Jesus Christ. "For in Him, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)." He is our Hope. Through Him, we and our students can climb out of tombs of despair to changed lives and life beyond.

Thank you, Lord, for using thirty-three miners to remind us that You are worth our hope, that all things are possible through You. Or, as the Chilean miners proclaimed on the t-shirts they wore when they made re-entry, "Gracias, Senor.'

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Problem of Bullying Revisited: Finding Positive Solutions

I find it interesting that in spite of several decades of schools' and colleges' emphasis on tolerance and diversity that the problem of bullying is compounding. Why does bullying continue in spite of supposed zero tolerance policies?

Parents, teachers and children’s ministry workers have the power to stop bullying by not only teaching children that bullying is wrong, but by showing children positive alternatives in how to treat others. Here’s how:

First, teaching respect for others must start in the home. When I hear parents belittle their children in public, I cringe. Don’t those parents realize the lessons they are teaching their children – that they (the children) are worthless and you put down people’s characters when you disagree with their behaviors? Children are great imitators. They will parrot what they are taught. Even secular teachers and administrators agree that bullies are made, not born. Bullies usually have been bullied or mistreated themselves, more likely than not right at home. Hurting people hurt others.

That's a good first step. Other than using this blog to encourage my readers who are parents to respect their children, I can't snap my fingers and make dysfunctional families go away. Only God is in the transformation business and there's gotta be some wanna on the part of individuals who make the choice to continue the dysfunctional cycle within the home. As a teacher and youth worker, what can I do to protect children from hurting each other?

Jesus taught us to love God and love others as ourselves (Mark 12:30,31). As a Sunday School teacher, I’m committed to teaching my students first to love God. Jesus said if we love him, we will obey His commands (John 15:14). Biblical commands include keeping sexual interaction within the marriage relationship as defined by one man and one woman.

I’m also going to teach my students what Jesus meant by loving others as ourselves. That word love is the Greek word, agape, which means looking out for the best interest of others. If I’m looking out for what is best for my neighbor, I’m not going to pick on him, I’m not going to harass him, I’m not going to show disrespect. Instead, I’m going to protect him, hope for the best for him, speak well of him and never give up on him (1 Corinthians 13:7). Each person, no matter who they are, what clothes they wear, what ethnicity they embrace, or what lifestyle they have chosen is important to God - important enough that His Son, Jesus Christ, gave up His life to save them and offer each individual the hope of heaven.

Whether a parent, public school teacher or children’s ministry worker, we all need to be concerned about the epidemic of bullying within our public schools. We need to remember, as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, that the person standing next to us is the closest we will get to God himself, for each human being bears the image of God. Each of us can help the children in our lives learn to be respectful and considerate of the person next to them, to truly love them as God loves – no matter who they are or what they believe.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Problem of Bullying Revisited

Recently Fox News printed an article about anti-gay bullying and national public school efforts to confront this increasing phenomenon. “Gay rights supports insist that any effective anti-bullying program must include specific componants addressing harassment of gay youth,” the article says.

This concerns me on three fronts.

First, anyone who dares to voice their personal opinion against homosexuality could be so easily labeled as a bully. Today I learned that the law considers bullying a felony. Drawn to its logical conclusion, a Christian or anyone who disagrees with the homosexual agenda could be hauled into court and shackled for life with a felonious charge. Just for believing that homosexuality is a sin or destructive behavior could keep an otherwise outstanding young person from getting federal loans, getting a job or buying a car. This would be a direct violation of our freedom of speech and freedom of religion rights as stated in the Bill of Rights. Even now, high school and college students have to keep their mouths tightly closed about their opinions or find something however obscure that they can agree upon about the homosexual agenda so they won’t be labeled as intolerant.

Also, bullying works both ways. What about gays or those who support the homosexual agenda who bully those who hold other opinions? Will teachers turn their heads when young people attack those who are “straight?” You think I’m being extreme? Even thirty years ago, this was occurring on a different issue. A substitute teacher once decided to lay aside the teacher’s lesson plans and involved his class in a values clarification exercise. He drew a line on the floor and asked students to stand on the line based on their opinion about abortion. Most students chose the middle and a few leaned toward the pro-abortion side. No comment was made by teacher or student. When the teacher called on me, I strode to the far right side, for I believed then as I do now that abortion is wrong in any circumstances unless in the case of an obvious tubal pregnancy. Don’t get sidetracked – that is just my opinion. The class, joined by the teacher, erupted in jeers. That should have never happened - no matter what I believed. Will school administrations be willing to protect students from this kind of harassment over the homosexual issue?

Finally, I fear the anti-gay bullying movement will focus more on the issue and less on the behavior. I readily agree that bullying is a growing problem in our schools. As stated above, bullying in any form is wrong, wrong, wrong. Our kids don’t know and are not being taught at home how to be nice and respectful of each other. If kids truly are being unkind and jeering over a student’s sexual orientation, I agree. The school administration should have a no-tolerance stance. Other kids should stand up for the victim, letting their peers know that such disrespect of any human’s appearance, beliefs, or lifestyle choices is unacceptable. If school administrator’s focused on the behavior of bullying in general instead of on the cause, articles targeting specific groups would not even need to be written.

Let’s not lose sight of the main focus. Disrespect is the core issue, not values and opinions.

How parents and teachers can find positive solutions to the problem of bullying will be the focus of my next blog.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Qualifications for a Children's Ministry Worker: What Does It Take To Be A Teacher?

Did you know that . . . .

A duck's quack doesn't echo?

Butterflies taste with their feet?

In ten minutes, a hurricane releases more energy than all the world's nuclear weapons combined?

On average, 100 people choke to death on ball-point pens every year?

On average, people fear spiders more than they do death?

Ninety percent of all New York City cabbies are recently arrived immigrants?

Elephants are the only animals that don't jump?

Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older?

A snail can sleep for three years?

The Main Library at Indiana University sinks one inch every year because, when it was built, engineers failed to take into account the weight of the books that would occupy the building?

And finally,

The electric chair was invented by a dentist?

How many of these did you know? Not many? Oh my! Maybe you shouldn't be a teacher of children if you didn't know some of these important facts.

I'm being highly facetious. Yet so many people, when approached about teaching in children's ministry, make the excuse that they don't know enough. The above quiz should prove that we will never know everything. It isn't how much we know that is important in teaching; it's how much we are willing to learn alongside our students.

As part of my degree program for my first college degree in Home Economics Extension Education, I served a six-week internship in a Cooperative Extension Service Office. One of my jobs was to answer phone questions about food, nutrition, and other home issues. One day, I put the phone on mute, panicked that I didn't know the answer. My supervisor told me these important words: "You don't have to know all the answers; you just have to know where to find the answers."

Yes, you may see others around you who know more than you, who have more experience with children, who seem more gifted in teaching. Yet ability and experience are not the only qualifications in becoming a children's ministry worker; in fact, those job qualifications are far down on God's list. God cares not so much about our ability but about our availability. He looks at the inner heart (1 Samuel 16:7.) He looks at our passion and our relationship with Jesus.

After all, Peter was an uneducated fisherman, yet Jesus chose him to become a key leader in the church.

Teach what you know and be willing to learn what you don't know. Remember, the Holy Spirit is there to be your guide and give you the words you need. Just like God told Moses, "Now therefore go and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say (Exodus 4:12)."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bible Lesson Application

A professor in seminary once described the book of John as a book a child could wade in the shallow end of its simplicity yet a book that theologians could spend a lifetime exploring its depths. As I teach the children that enter my classroom, I discover that so much of biblical truth is just that - simple enough that I can explain its truths to my class yet deep enough that I will mull over the application for days after my lesson.

Yesterday, in junior church, we talked about goodness, one of the fruits of the Spirit. "Good" is such a simple word. Kids know what's good and what's bad, yet still struggle with God's meaning of the word "good." So often I've heard kids tell me the way to obey God is to "be good." One boy I was trying to win to the Lord told me he couldn't accept Jesus' salvation because he wasn't "good enough."

As I pondered my lesson, I had to ask myself if I understood the concept of goodness. Goodness is more than obeying a long list of "don'ts." According to the Greek meaning, goodness is going beyond a duty bound obedience to the rules. Goodness strives for excellence. Goodness seeks to benefit others. Goodness works at making the world a better place, at influencing others to be their best.

Our lesson looked at how Saul showed goodness before Samuel anointed him as king (1 Samuel 9, 10). He obeyed his father without question. He didn't give up the search for the missing donkeys easily. He stopped to think about the concerns of his father. He didn't take advantage of the good graces of the prophet Samuel; instead, he wanted to give Samuel a gift before asking him for a special favor. Most importantly, he was humble in his acceptance of the kingship of Israel.

Recently, as expressed in this blog, I've been feeling unproductive and at loose ends. I just turned 50, I'm moving my two daughters into their own apartment in three weeks, and I've seen my church's children's ministry fizzle. "What do you want me to do with the rest of my life?" I've cried to the Lord. I thought he would answer me with a roomful of children the next Sunday or a book contract - it didn't even have to be lucrative - just a book contract would do.

Instead, through this lesson, I'm reminded of Paul's admonition to women my age. God wants me to be known for my good deeds. I've raised my children; now it's time to "show hospitality, wash the feet of the saints, help those in trouble and devote [myself] to all kinds of good deeds (1 Timothy 5:10)."

As this verse indicates, doing good is more than just providing a meal to a sick widow. I must remember that goodness is doing what will benefit others. Showing goodness might mean playing ping pong with my eleven year old student while listening to him tell me how he is fighting less with his sister. It might mean refusing to point out to my husband that he is being extra irritable. Would it benefit him or me if I mentioned it? If goodness is going beyond what is my duty, it will mean that when I go with my husband to visit a sick church member in the hospital, I will take an active part in the visit, showing compassion for the heartaches of her past and participating in a loving expression of prayer for her healing.

The fruit of the Spirit result from a joint effort between God and me. I need to work on these character traits but He is the one who enables me to grow them into my life. He gives me opportunities to show them. He uses my efforts for His glory. So, with that in mind, my prayer this week is that the Lord will give me opportunity to do good to others. I think I had better ask Him to open my eyes to what good things I can do! When I see His hand guiding me, I can't take sole credit for my acts of goodness, for I know it is through His guidance that I am able to do good to others.

I think I'm out of breath! All that from a simple Sunday School lesson that I taught to three students! As always Inside the Classroom, the teacher is most likely learning more that students.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Disabled Children in the Church

Recently I heard the following story: A family with two children started attending a church close to their home. The son was deaf, partially blind and had a rare blood disease. Even though the boy was very sick, he was also energetic, creative (read into that what you will!) and fun loving. While they were the only family attending with small children, they thought they were loved and accepted by the other church members. Then one day, a representative of the church came to them and asked them to find another church. "We'll help you out financially any way you need it," the church told the family, "But because your son is so noisy and disruptive, we would appreciate it if you went somewhere else.'

"What's the rest of the story?" my husband asked when I shared this with him.

That IS the story.

Granted, some children are disruptive. Whether physical handicaps, emotional trauma, socio-economic restrictions or more energy than a roadrunner on steroids, some children face tremendous odds that will challenge the comfort levels of a small church, Is motioning the family toward the door an option?

Not according to Jesus! In Mark 10:14, Jesus told his disciples, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these." He goes on to tell his disciples that anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

Jesus gives two good reasons for children in the church. Children need the Kingdom of God. How else will they receive the Kingdom if not through the vehicle God has provided called the Church?. Second, the Church needs children. We need children to teach us how to receive the Kingdom. How will we understand what Jesus meant unless we surround ourselves with children and observe what it is about them that makes them so special to Jesus?

"You don't understand," pew-sitters might moan. "They are SO disruptive. Our little church just can't handle them. You want us to change we do worship just to accommodate them?" A church overwhelmed with a special needs child might stop to think of what it must be like for the parents who deal with the child day in and day out. Are we saying they need to trust the Lord for daily strength and courage to cope with their child's needs when a congregation isn't willing to put up with it for one hour a week?

Think instead of the tremendous blessing a small congregation can be in lifting up a family, encouraging them, carrying part of the load, as Galatians 6;2 tells us to do. Think of other fringe and community people who are watching how the church interacts with someone who is different, watching to see if the church is as loving and accepting as they say they are. If the church enfolded that child and his family to themselves, think of the message of love that would shout to the community.

It can be done as another congregation proved. One Sunday, a pastor noticed a new family in the congregation, a father and two sons. The next Sunday, the mother showed up with the two boys. This pattern alternated for several weeks. One Sunday the pastor asked why they didn't all come together as a family. The parent explained that they had an autistic son at home who hated crowds and was scared of the loud music from the organ.

The pastor said, "Bring him anyway. We'll do what we can to make him comfortable." The family sat in the balcony and left church a few minutes before dismissal. And wouldn't you know it? For some strange reason, the organ didn't work for several Sundays in spite of being tested and working okay mid-week! Soon, the autistic child was taking piano lessons from, guess who? The organist! Last time the resource for this story heard, the boy was starting to play the organ.

If your church is small, children will demand change. A church might have to let loose of some of their sacred cows for the sake of a child. It's worth the sacrifice, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. A child's faith is more rich when it is shaped by adults. If we are going to shape the faith of children in our communities, we need to be willing to give up our time schedules, get down on our creaky, arthritic knees to their level, touch their grimy hands and love them to Jesus.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

What I Learned In Sunday School Today: Building Attendance in Your Children' s Ministry

I had two students in my Junior Church class today. One was a regular attender, a very active, bright young man nearing eleven years old. The other was a middle aged woman with a middle age spread and middle aged gray hair peeking through the deceptive blond tresses - in other words, me.

My teaching partner and I decided to coast awhile before starting our next round of curriculum so that kids can get vacations and summer fun out of the way before school begins. When kids are settling into a routine, we'll start our new curriculum, "Growth Signs," a study of the Fruit of the Spirit, published by the Salvation Army (Click on Other Products on the right side of the webpage).

Meanwhile, I decided to piggy back on the lessons learned from VBS where we used Gospel Light's Son Quest Rainforest material. With my eleven year old student, I could go deeper into the meaning behind one of the parables. My in-depth approach showed me I had some math catch-up to do..

The seed the sower spread fell on four different types of soil. Three out of the four soils showed immediate results but only one out of the four demonstrated any long term effect. According to Jesus' explanation of the parable, as Christian teachers who sow the seed of God's word in the hearts of the children we teach, we're going to have only a twenty-five percent return on our investment. That is both discouraging and reassuring. Discouraging because, as I look at the students who come, I realize that only one in four will carry the Gospel message forward. Reassuring, because if I have a low return, I am not alone. Jesus warned his followers that not everyone will listen to us. In fact, only a third of those will actually replicate themselves. Only one in seven students will turn around and lead someone else to Christ.

My math was wrong. Think of a cantaloupe. One cantaloupe seed - if everything goes well, might produce three or four cantaloupe. It might produce only one cantaloupe. But think of what is inside that one cantaloupe. Seeds!! Lots of seeds. Maybe thirty seeds, maybe sixty, maybe one hundred seeds. And if that one seed produces more than one cantaloupe, there are seeds in each of those cantaloupes too.

If I lead one child to Christ who becomes an active, solid, faithful Christian who dedicates his or her life to winning others to Jesus, through that one child, more people will come to know the Lord than if all the children in my class became Christians but didn't pass on the message. My results aren't 25%! They are thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one hundred-fold. That means 3000%, 6000% or 10,0000%. No wonder Paul said that God is the one responsible for the growth of the seed (1 Corinthians 3:6). Think of it this way. If I have a class of twelve students and three of the twelve become strong Christians (one in four), then one of the three brings 30 people to Christ, another brings 60 to Christ and another brings 100, that means my teaching has produced not twelve Christians but 193 Christians!

Are you following me? We may never see the results of our teaching, not until the judgment at the end of time when God reveals the ripple effect of our commitment, of how many people have come to saving faith in Christ through our influence.

So how will that impact our teaching to children?

First, we won't get discouraged with that one faithful child. Instead of giving up and letting the child sit in Big Church or play in the nursery, we'll pour our heart and soul into that one child because this one child who has faithfully come to church could be The One who will ultimately lead 30, 60 or 100 others to Christ.

Second, we won't aim for numbers. We will especially avoid the temptation to water down or sugar coat our teaching just so that we can increase our attendance. We'll be willing to go deep, to teach the solid truths of Scripture, to be lovingly confrontational if that's what we need to do, knowing from the Scripture, that there will be some initial falling away as people shy away from persecution or are lured by the world's distractions. After all, Jesus' attendance figures went way down in John 6:66. But a few faithful men stayed to listen and ended up turning the world upside down for the Kingdom (John 6:68).

Third, we will look for the fertile soil. We won't waste our time trying to lure those who aren't interested. We'll put our energy into teaching those who will listen. This is tough for small churches. We so want to beg and plead backsliders to please come back. The message I get from Scripture is let them go, don't take it personally, move on to someone else.

Finally, instead of sweating over measurements of success, we'll pray, then leave the results up to God. We'll keep being faithful, no matter what, because we know we will never know the full extent of our influence.

Keep planting seeds. Don't dawdle, watching and waiting for growth. Instead, keep planting. Move on and keep planting the Word of God in the fertile hearts of the children God gives you.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Vacation Bible School: Was It Successful?

This past week, our church combined forces with the church next door to do a Community VBS. Our average attendance for the week - ten. That's right, ten.

I heard it all week long. Forty years ago, just our church alone had 150 kids. The church in the large town twenty miles south of us had seventy kids. Years ago, VBS ran for two weeks. The mega-church my daughter attends in Columbus had 600 kids attend VBS.

Some friends of mine say VBS is an outdated, obsolete program. I think that's too broad of a criticism because obviously, from the numbers above, it works for somebody. On the other end of the spectrum, it would be easy for our workers to say, "VBS evidently isn't working for our congregation so maybe we shouldn't have it at all." I'm not satisfied with that answer either because of what I saw happening this week.

Two of the boys who attended come fairly regularly to our church. A few weeks ago, one of them stopped by my backyard, his wrist wrapped in an ace bandage. He had injured himself fighting with his sister. I feigned surprise. "I can't imagine you doing something like that. I thought better of you," I told him. We moved on to other things but at the end, I told him with a gentle smile, "Hey no more fighting with your sister, ok? You can do better." I wondered if I had been too intrusive. When he didn't show up for church the next Sunday, I really worried.

Fast forward to VBS. The story teller was having an argument with God about what constituted a sin, including fighting with a brother or sister. My student, sitting directly in front of me, turned around and looked at me with a deer in the headlights look. How did they know? Normally very talkative, this student sat perfectly still with rapt attention. I could tell the message was getting through.

The night before, I ran into the church, drenched by a sudden cloudburst. My glasses wet, I couldn't see where I was going. I knocked over a fan sitting in the hallway and, without thinking, bent to pick it. My fingers slid in between the wires, getting in the way of the fan blades. The pain was excruciating! We wrapped the most injured finger and, even though I was feeling some shock symptoms, in spite of the suggestion I go home, I pressed on, saying I thought I could go ahead and lead songs. I felt so bad, I thought I was going to pass out or throw up. "Please Lord," I prayed, "give me the strength to keep going." (Yes, I did end up in Urgent Care later that night.)

All the songs that week were the Bible verses set to music, which in my opinion, is a great way to teach memory work. The song that night, based on Matthew 22:37-39 about the two greatest commandments, was particularly a catchy tune and, I could tell, was becoming everyone's favorite. Even though we were small in number, at the very end of the session, the kids spontaneously spilled out into the sanctuary isle, doing the motions with enthusiasm. I pressed my woozy stomach back into submission and decided then; in spite of my injury, in spite of the low numbers, it was worth it all for that moment.

Yes, we need to rethink VBS. We need to decide if this particular program is the best way to use our limited resources. We need to be willing to think outside the box, and, like one of my readers suggested last week, think of different structures into which we can pour a summer outreach program such as a one day, all day VBS program. We need to be more proactive than just a fatalistic resignation to the small numbers, doggedly continuing to do the same thing that obviously is not working.

We need to do this, still keeping in mind that increased numbers is not our goal. If at this moment, this is what God has called us to, this is what we need to do. One of our other memory verses was Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men."

Or, as a wise man once said - I believe it was John Wesley who first coined this phrase - "God has called us to be faithful, not successful." When my time is finished here on earth, I pray that the Lord will find me faithful, whether faithful in hanging in there when the obstacles loomed or being faithful to listen to Him when it was time to change the way I approached ministry.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Outside The Classroom: Thinking Outside the Box

About 4 months ago my sister, Karen asked me if I might write a guest Blog for her sometime. At that time she was looking for ideas for a teacher’s devotional book. I have been out of the teaching loop too long. But I wanted to give my sister a little break and throw some thoughts out for us to ponder. I am not one who has read the latest Christian Ministry books or curriculum but I do have ideas based on my experiences with children, teaching and the word of God.

Let us leave the classroom for now. As people who are called to Children’s Ministry whether paid staff or volunteer, we see the needs of children, wanting them to come to salvation and a growing wisdom and knowledge of God. We also need to see children as a part of the church. If we don’t see them this way neither will they. Seeing children as a segment of the church body with various levels of maturity and spiritual growth will help us as we interact with them. In a small church family this should be easy to manage. A very simple, practical thing that happens every Sunday at our church is the Pastor’s granddaughters collect the used communion cups from everyone. The Pastor says, “Pass your cups to the center isle and our little Usherettes will pick them up.” Those girls feel a sense of belonging

Drawing on the home schooling experience I had with my own children, I used teachable moments. Once we were at the variety store in the summer time and I was helping my son do a price comparison. The clerk said, “Oh, give him a break it’s summertime.” I thought, no it’s life, 24/7. Helping the church family understand and practice teachable moments may or may not be a hurdle in your community of believers. I have the idea that we need to live life together no matter what the age level. We need to be building strong relationships that will last. We need to go through good times and bad together. We need to work out our difficulties and not give up on each other or run away if we get our feelings hurt. In general our lives have become too busy and compartmentalized. We are running here or there and not really getting to know one another. We need to spend time and space together. We need to practice hospitality.

On Sunday our Pastor challenged us with this statement: You have a love for the truth, but do you have a love for one another? It is easy to leave the church when you don’t really have a bond with anyone. My intent was to help us look at interacting with children on a personal level outside the classroom and help them in belonging to the household of faith. We can certainly do this. But children, and people of all levels, will be observing us in our interactions. We are modeling the Christian life. Yes, we are human and make mistakes. What is more humbling than having to say we are sorry and making amends to those we have wronged? The church community needs to practice this. Children of all levels will be taking in what they observe. Love God. Love one another. Love children and they will grow up to love God and love one another.

Judith Coran is a graduate of Intermountain Bible College and has worked in various ministries in the church as a volunteer.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

When Your Ministry Program Falls Apart

In my last post, I said it would be the final edition of my thoughts on Children's Ministry. Thank you to all who have heard the discouragement in my words and have written to encourage me. You are precious people! That post will be the final edition in this blog about children for awhile because I currently have no contact with children and have nothing to draw from to share with you. However, if you are willing to bear with me, I'd like to turn my attention to sharing vignettes from the journey I'm currently on.

We tend to couple creditability with success. You aren't worthy to write a book unless you're an expert on the subject, unless you have a success story to tell of how the principles you are promoting have worked for you. We look in envy at church programs that attract dozens of kids; those are the "successful" programs. A few years back, our national church convention provided a number of workshops that started with "How our church broke the (fill in the number: 200, 500, 1000) barrier." I talked to a number of people that, like me and my husband, were heartsick. We were floundering in our ministries. We had tried all the formulas. We had seen the heartache, the defeat, the brokenness, the struggle. We felt inferior and intimidated. I so want to write a book on "the inner qualities of leadership" but because I don't have a platform or a resume that lists lines of credentials and success stories, I have an idea no publisher would want to give me the time of day. The world - and too often, the Christian world, wants success stories.

Blogs, websites and books abound on how to make your good children's program better. Printed and digital media give us the impression that "I must be the only one" who oversees a shriveling program. Yet I have a hunch that a significant minority exists out there of those who have encountered broken programs, struggling workers, defeated parents, disillusioned teachers, all wondering why God would allow their program to go down the hole, why the Lord of the harvest hasn't answered their pleas for more workers, why God let a child slip away from the inviting arms of the Savior. Perhaps we need to hear more of the wisdom of those who don't have the numbers to stand behind but have prevailed through the struggle.

I don't have any answers on how to make your children's ministry grow; in fact, I'm asking those hard questions myself The only answer I have today is a series of questions God seems to be asking me. In spite of the way our children's ministry looks, will I still be faithful to Him? Not necessarily to a program, but to Him. Will I still worship Him as great and good, a God whose loving-kindness endures forever? Will I still trust Him that He has a plan? Do I believe that He and only He can bring about change? Am I willing to wait, to be patient even though that change may take years and I may never actually see the change take place? Do I believe that God can work all things for good according to His purposes - that God can possibly bring good to a church who has no children running through the halls?

If I am going to be authentic in this column, I must tell you that my answer lies in the words of the father who witnessed the debilitating results of a demon residing within his son when Jesus reminded him that everything is possible for him who believes. (Mk 9:14-29).

"I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief."

May the Lord give each of us the grace we need to carry us through the seemingly impossible situations we face.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Inside the Classroom: Final Edition

This will be the final post for the "Inside the Classroom" blog. Thank you to those few who have faithfully read my column. Your trust in my words is humbling. When I first started this column four years ago, there were no Children's ministry blogs. Now, there are many fine blogs out there full of good ideas and godly advice. I hope they will be a blessing to you.

I have a confession to make. While I have had many years of experience in children's ministry, I am a hypocrite. I have portrayed myself as an expert. Yet the children's ministry at my own church has shriveled into nothing. Yesterday, as one of two teachers left, I had no children in junior church, the Sunday before, one, the Sunday before that, one. I've tried to initiate programs over the last two months that have fizzled. I have tried to motivate people in my church with no success.

I am a failure at children's ministry and I cannot keep writing blog entries giving you advice on how to reach the children around you when I have no success at doing it myself. How can I write a blog on Children's ministry when I have nothing from which to draw?

I am concerned for our youth. They are being hit with more and more twisted messages about diversity, sexual preferences, relativism, evolution. They are knocked down when they try to express any kind of Christian sentiment. More and more children are becoming the victims of divorce, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and immorality and permissiveness in the home. We need strong church programs that will lift them up and empower their parents to teach them God's wisdom. We need bold Christians who are willing to shine brightly with the love of Christ, who are willing to open their arms and enfold the unlovely, unkempt child, reassuring them that there is another way to live and Someone does love them unconditionally. I long to reach these children. Yet I fear they and their families have succumbed to the greatest subterfuge of all - the lure to keep busy with other things so you don't have time for Jesus.

Children are important. Teaching children about Jesus is one of the highest callings we can have. I am saddened to see people so busy that loyalty to children's ministry gets crowded out. All of us, parents and teachers alike, need to prioritize, need to examine what is important in our lives and to have the courage to cut the good so we can focus on the best. The best is Jesus. The best is winning our world to Jesus. The best is equipping children with the tools they need to be a spiritual success in this world. I wish I was a better motivator. I wish I was better at making the Gospel more appealing so kids and their parents would come, hungry for Jesus and realizing the feast we have to offer them. I wish I could share with you what I'm doing wrong so you don't encounter the same pitfalls.

But I don't have solutions and I don't have success stories. Other people do and I pray that God will guide your teaching so that you will draw the little ones to Jesus and you may instill a faith in them that sticks for a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Impact of Missionaries on Your Children

Last Saturday, Heaven gained another one of the faithful. Ivan Martin, a long time missionary to Zimbabwe and a personal family friend, was taken to Glory after a long bout with cancer. The world's loss is Heaven's gain.

We first met Ivan and his wife JoAnn twenty years ago when we ministered to a small church in Colorado. JoAnn's mother was a member of our church and one of the most hospitable women I have ever met. At 80 years old, it was Evelyn's goal to have every church family to her home for Sunday dinner at least once during the year.

We had the privilege of hosting Ivan and JoAnn in our home as well. I still remember sitting around our dining table in our crowded living room, hearing Ivan give a different perspective on the problem and causes of AIDS in Africa. Just a few years later, they sat again at our dining table, this time in the parsonage of our ministry in rural Kansas. I doubt my girls remember much of the visit but they were enthralled with the Martins. The older girl signed up for Ivan's missionary letter and still to this day, both girls ask occasionally, "What do you hear from Ivan and JoAnn?"

If Heaven had an award for outstanding faithfulness, Ivan would be in the running. In spite of the mega-epidemic of AIDS sweeping across, Africa, the Martins stayed on. In spite of out-of-control inflation and political corruption, placing conditions on the country few of us would put up with for more than two seconds, the Martins stayed. Because of the economic conditions, the Martins lived simply, doing without necessities many of us take for granted; to their neighbors they still lived like royalty so theft was always a concern. Still they stayed - at a great price, for one of their daughters was murdered and another fought health issues. When Ivan was diagnosed with cancer, he had to seek treatment in South Africa. Each journey was long and arduous; although not that many miles, on African roads, it took hours. They could have so easily come home to the States citing any of the above as legitimate reasons and no one of us would have blamed them. Instead, they saw these problems as opportunities to display the love of Jesus to those around them.

I'm certain my daughters have an interest in missions and global evangelism today because of exposure to people like Ivan and Joann. I once had a relative who criticized ministers for not trying hard enough to house visiting missionaries with church members, instead, feeling they had to shoulder the burden by themselves. Burden, nothing!! After becoming the wife of a minister and meeting Ivan and Joann, I felt almost greedy for wanting visiting missionaries to stay with us. The influence on my children and the mutual strengthening of our faith, far outweighed any inconvenience it was to feed and house them.

Too often, the church asks visiting missionaries to share their pictures and accounts of their work to adult Sunday School classes and morning worship sermons. Why not instead, ask the missionary to spend time with the children? Let them tell the stories, let them share some ethnic food, let them tell the children why sacrificing your life as you know to live in a foreign land is worth it. That missionary may never know, like I'm sure Ivan never knew about my girls, the potential influence he or she may have in inspiring a new generation of world Christians.

But Heaven will know. And that is all that's needed.

Thanks, Ivan, for sharing your life with us and with the people of Zimbabwe. I hope you are hearing the Lord say about now, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Teaching Children the Power of God

This past week, my daughter stood in Red Square. I mean, the famous Red Square of Moscow, Russia. Red Square, that sits at the foot of the Kremlin palace, former USSR seat of power. Red Square, the scene of May Day military parades that celebrated the rise of the Soviet Revolution in 1917. Red Square - the very words caused a feeling of foreboding in the hearts of American schoolchildren in the 1960's - at least it did in mine.

We were taught to fear the Soviets. Oh, not in so many words. I wasn't privy to hiding under my desk during air raid drills like some children. But I do remember being instructed as to where the nearest air raid shelters were. I remember the once a month testing of the air raid siren system. I remember being given the reason, "Just in case the Russians nuke us." I didn't know what that meant but it was enough to teach me that this was a country to fear, that this country was our enemy and their form of government was not to be trusted.

What a difference a few decades can make. The Communist system is broken. Red Square is no longer the seat of Soviet power. Today, my own child walks the streets of Moscow, studying at one of the city's international universities. If someone had told me when I was ten that my own child would travel to Red Square, I would have found that inconceivable.

I would find that so because what I was taught sounded like such a forever kind of thing. Now I wonder, what if my teachers had believed that someday, Russia would be liberated from the Soviet regime? How then would they have taught us? What would they have told us instead? Would they have painted the evils of the Russian Empire with such a broad brush? Would they have taught us to hope, to love our enemies, to do something that would actually encourage the downfall of an oppressive government system? If the American schoolteacher of the 60's and 70's had taught hope rather than fear, would Communism in the Soviet Block have loosened its vice grip a few years sooner?

We need to teach our children to hope, to persist, to believe that anything is possible, and nothing is forever. We need to teach them that God is more powerful than any evil and no nation is supreme. We need to remind them of Bible verses like Psalm 33:10, "The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples." We need to teach the stories, like Chuck Colson did in his book, "God and Government" how God has personally intervened in the affairs of government, such as in the downfall of Ceausescu, the dictator of Romania, in 1989. We need to teach them to believe that through the power of God, man can change and be better than he was. We need to teach them not to cower in fear, but to stand tall, willing to face the danger, knowing that, while they may be shot at, they can be a part of influencing wrong to turn into right. We have to believe that someday, their legacy may stand where evil and corruption reigns no more. We need to imagine that someday we - and our children - and our children's children - could stand in the Red Squares of our generation.

It depends on what we teach them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Time to Leave the Classroom

My eyes brimmed with tears as the elders of my church laid their hands on my daughter in a sending ceremony before she left for Russia. What I dreaded most happened. As the minister’s wife, I didn’t want to cry in front of my husband’s congregation, yet as her mother, my full heart overflowed, leaking between my eyelids.

Yes, I was anxious about her leaving. Recent terrorist attacks in Moscow pushed my faith in God against a wall, interrogating me for days with one question—did I believe in God’s ability to keep her safe or didn’t I? I would miss her terribly. We are a close family, in contact with each other most every day. Yet, as I explained to her in whispered assurances before the commissioning, my potential tears didn’t mean I didn’t want her to leave. It was the expression of every mother, agonizing over the necessity of letting our children go.

She had wanted to be a missionary ever since the age of ten. For years, she had persistantly talked about the desire to travel overseas. As loving supportive parents, we wisely kept our concerns to ourselves of how this shy, thoughtful child could ever manage leaving home. Time and again she surprised us, going on a short term mission trip to inner city St. Louis, showing no fear in bungee jumping at the Cleveland science museum, and adapting with a quiet finesse to the huge Ohio State University campus. She showed an affinity for language by completing four years of Spanish and four years of French in her high school studies. Wanting a challenge, she decided to minor in Russian. When I first went on a mission trip to serve Eastern European church workers, her eyes glowed with interest, absorbing every detail of my trip.

I was deeply moved at the scene before me. It was as if I stood on holy ground before the Lord. My tears were of joy, of humble thanksgiving for what God had done with her life, with my older daughter’s life as well. Graduating with honors, she had moved only the week previously to another city to prepare to enter optometry school, a dream she also had long cherished. The moment had come for which my husband and I had labored for over twenty years. Like a mama eagle, we had nurtured them, taught them the art of flying, stirred the nest and pushed them out. Now we stood as if on a craggy cliff, watching our offspring soar to new heights. I knew in my heart that this summer was only a stepping stone to even greater possibilities that God had in store for them.

In children's ministry we’re in the business of teaching children to fly. We encourage them to look inside the deep recesses of their beings to discover their dreams, to put their small hands in the hand of the Dream-maker, then to have the faith to step away from the nest and fly. With equal faith, we let them go, knowing that if we cling too tightly to their hands, they won’t be as free to catch the hand of God.

In learning to let my children go, I soar to new heights as well. I discover that I am more of a worrier than I thought, and that I am less in control than I hoped. The words of Philippians 4:6,7, “Do not be anxious about anything but by prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” seem fresh and meaningful, as if the apostle Paul was looking over the shoulder of every fretful parent.

I hope I wear bare spots in my carpet this summer. I also hope I experience inside the classroom of my prayer closet a deeper appreciation for God’s brand of peace. Like my children, I hope to soar to new heights in my relationship with my God and in my ability to trust Him with every detail of my life. Perhaps then, I will be even better equipped to teach other children how to fly.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Promoting Growth in Your Children's Ministry Program

How do you attract kids to your children’s ministry program and keep them coming back? How do you build the excitement enough that they beg mom and dad to bring them to church week after week? Wouldn’t that be a dream fulfilled, music to every worker’s ears? “Mom, I don’t want to go to T-Ball practice! Puhhh-lease, can I go to youth group tonight instead?” How do you make it happen?

Is it by creating an engaging environment? Sounds exciting but not lasting. And we really don't want our program built on externals, do we? Is there something more?

What about exciting programming with the latest multi-media power points and sound bytes? Sounds appealing but you’ll need to always keep them pumped with the latest and greatest technology to keep up with the competition. Can you afford it?

Riveting dramatic bible stories? We’re getting there but I’m feeling rather exhausted by all the hype.

The best way to attract your kids to Jesus is simple, inexpensive, adaptable to any size program – and biblical . It’s found in Mark 12:30,31 “Love the Lord your God with all your heat and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”

It’s that simple. Love Jesus. Let your students see that you love Jesus.

And love the children. Just love your children.


Show personal interest in each child. Be free with the one-arm hugs. Ask them about their lives, their families, their dogs. Pray for them and let them know you are praying for them. As far as specifics, before each session, ask the Lord, “How can I love my children today? Show me, Lord, who needs your love and how I can show it."

Find ways to help your children’s ministry team love each other. Encourage them to show love toward each other. You can express love by vocally encouraging your fellow workers, letting mishaps and misunderstanding go, praying for each other and caring for each other inside and outside the classroom. You think the kids don't notice when worker relationships are strained. Wrong! They do.

Help the children learn to love each other. Remind them that church is like a second family, that you take care of each other, show interest in each other and stand up for each other. Create opportunities for them to learn how to love each other and love those outside your classroom. Instead of competitive games, plan cooperative games. Plan service projects and mission collections such as gathering spare change for your local Pregnancy Support Center.

In a society that is self focused and self indulgent, our children are longing to be included and accepted. Your genuine compassion and kindness will stand out as different from the way they are treated in the other segments of their lives. The song really is true. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bible Teaching: The Power of the Holy Spirit

Recently, a church member called me with a question about the Bible. "Where is the story about Elijah on Mt Carmel?" she asked. I gave her the reference from 1 Kings 18. Then she explained the reason for her question. Her sixteen-year-old grandson, Johnny, had asked his mom where the story was, for he wanted to read the story for himself. Her curiosity piqued, his mom asked him if he had heard the story recently. No, Johnny explained, he recalled hearing the Bible story many years before, wondered where it was in the Bible, and now wanted to read the story for himself.

I love to hear stories like this! It's a perfect example of how the Holy Spirit works. Jesus told his disciples, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:26)." What a tremendous help the Holy Spirit became as he enabled these men to inscribe on paper the words that would become the New Testament. The Holy Spirit continues to work in the hearts and minds of believers, reminding them of what they had heard. It's a promise that gives me, a lowly Sunday School teacher, hope that, even though it doesn't seem like my students are listening to me on a particular day, the Holy Spirit will bring to their memory the words of Scripture they have heard through my teaching days, months, even years later.

That's not all. Isaiah 55:10,11 says, "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." One of our highest goals as teachers should be to motivate our students to study God's Word for themselves. Be assured that God's Word will work within the minds of our students, even years later to convict them of sin and righteousness, to convince them, like Johnnie, of the power of God and to challenge them to seek Him and know Him for themselves.

On my most discouraging days, when I feel like I'm speaking into the haze of too little sleep and the hyperactivity of a high sugar breakfast, when it seems my kids care more about what's for snacks than about my awesome memory verse game, I can be confident that God through His Spirit is more powerful than I am and He will make sure His word reaches into the recesses of my students' souls where it needs to reach. "The word of God is living and active," says the writer of Hebrews. "Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thought and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

So let's be bold about presenting the word of God! Let's give God's Holy Spirit something to work with! As teachers, let's promise ourselves we will never shy away from proclaiming God's truth, quoting His word, being prepared "in season and out of season" like Paul admonished Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). Even though we may never know the end results, even though we may never hear that our students picked up a Bible years later to find for themselves where that story was located in the Bible, let's give it all we've got.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Grabbing the Teachable Moment

On Mary 5, 2010, a California high school assistant principal sent five students home for wearing t-shirts bearing an emblem of the American flag because they provoked the school's Hispanic population of students by wearing the shirts on the Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo..

I liked a Fox News commentator's take on the fiasco. Mary Katherine Ham noted on the "O'Reilly Factor" that this would have been a prime opportunity for teachers and administrators to teach the lessons of tolerance. Tolerance and diversity are big buzz words on high school and college campuses so why couldn't teachers sit students down and explain that while they respect the students' zeal and exuberance in displaying their cultural heritage, this is a time to respect, tolerate and celebrate other people's uniqueness and differences as well. Ham was expressing the concept of "the teachable moment."

Quite often on this forum, I have supported the philosophy that everything we do in the classroom needs to be directed toward the goals we have for that day. Snacks, bulletin boards, the music you play, the coloring pages you distribute should all focus on your specific content for that day. If you are teaching a story about Joseph forgiving his brothers,, you don't pass out coloring pages of baby Moses or let the kids watch a Veggie Tales video about Jonah and the whale. The lesson you present is like a well coordinated wrapped package, a tastefully decorated room or the perfect accessorized outfit; everything fits the lesson schematic. Children's ministry workers don't have the luxury of time for a mix n-match approach to Bible learning.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Some days, your kids may not be ready to hear about forgiveness. Because of what is happening in their lives, they may need to be reassured of the love of God or the need to stand firm against the temptations of the world they encounter "out there." You may need to drop your well laid plans to grab a teachable moment.

Jesus did this quite often. An argument among his disciples precipitated a lesson on humility (Mk 9:33-41). The disruption of mothers bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus turned into a moment to teach about faith and attitudes toward the Kingdom of God (Mk 10:13-16). A hungry group of disciples too impatient to wait for lunch turned into a lesson for the Pharisees about the true meaning of Sabbath rest (Mt 12:1-8).

Plan your lesson so that each part fits into the whole, yet have the flexibility to pause your lesson plans to grab those teachable moments. A tornado warning could be the perfect time to teach about God's power as shown through creation and how that same power can protect us from harm. A disruptive student may be an opportunity to teach about forbearance, grace and forgiveness. A class conflict, such as the California Cinco de Mayo misunderstanding, can be a time to teach about how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, each unique yet each special to God. Spilled paint may be the perfect moment to teach about grace by holding a child close and saying calmly. "It's ok. Let's clean up this mess together."

You won't need to deviate much from your plans. Sometimes all it takes is one or two wise sentences, a quoted reminder from the Bible or a simple hug of forgiveness from you. As a preacher at my home church when I was a teenager said to me, "Use every opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord." That includes even the disruptive moments.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parental Involvement and Mother's Day

Teaching resource Internet sites are quickly gearing up for the next big holiday - Mother's Day. This week, you'll find all kinds of craft ideas that kids can make Inside the Classroom for their mother. Here are some suggestions:

Ministry to Children: http://ministry-to-children.com/video-mothers-projcets/
Family Fun: http://familyfun.go.com/mothers-day/mothers-day-ideas-854863/
Danielle's Place: http://www.daniellesplace.com/html/mothersday.html

One of my guiding principles in teaching is to make sure everything I do fits my overall mission in children's ministry and my specific learning goals. It's wonderful to get kids involved in making gifts for their moms - but ask yourself, why are you doing this other than to honor your moms? How can you help your students grow in their faith and knowledge about Jesus by making a Mother's Day craft? Better yet, how can you extend your ministry beyond the child to the entire family using Mother's Day as your implement?

Recently, my teaching partner and I have become separately convicted of our need to involve the parents. I've been reading the book, Building Faith at Home by Mark Holman. My partner was impressed one day by 1 Corinthians 3:6: "(Paul speaking) I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." Before church one Sunday, we shared our mutual convictions, that we need to work more in tandem with parents in helping children grow in their faith. Our ultimate goal should be to see families living out their faith daily in their home life. (Guess what passage of Scripture the minister mentioned later on that day in his sermon!!)

This year, we are using Mother's Day to involve our moms. We've planned a Mother's Day tea for them, inviting them to join us during our Children's church hour. We've spent the two weeks before Mother's Day making invitations, party favors, verse cards and gifts. Two days before The Day, the older boys will help me set up tables and chairs. As we work, we have asked the children how their families are helping them know about Jesus and we are helping them write thank you cards to Mom, specifically thanking their mothers for the role they have played in building their faith. (One is already done and it will make one certain mother cry!) At the tea, we'll take a moment to share I Corinthians 3:6, emphasizing to the moms that we consider our work to be a team effort in partnership with them and to encourage them to pray with their kids, read the Bible with them and to be bold in talking about faith issues with their children.

I've never done this before. I've never heard of anyone else doing it either. With any new venture, it might be rough the first year. Still, it's one step in our efforts to involve the parents, to show them what we are doing in our children's ministry and to encourage them to build on what we are doing throughout the week in their own homes.

How can you use Mother's Day to build the faith of the families you serve?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Effective Teaching

More than anything else in my teaching Inside the Classroom, I want to be an effective teacher. I want to see results. I want to see the "Ahha" look on my student's faces. I want to hear exclamations of delight over discoveries. Most of all, I want to see changed lives, lives that stay faithful to Jesus for a lifetime propelling them straight into the eternal bliss of Heaven.

An overabundance of resource exist to help children's ministry workers become effective teachers. We have more and better resources available to us now than in any other period of history. There's published curriculum with more ideas than you can ever use in a single session. There's whiz bang state-of-the-art multi-media presentations that will have your kids' eyes glued to the front of the stage. All kinds of tips and creative ideas are tucked into the recesses of the Internet. Then there are a growing number of blogs that will give you all kinds of advice on how you can be more effective in your teaching.

Yet my answer on how to become an effective teacher starts from one simple verse in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:17 says, "so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Oh yeah! I want to be thoroughly equipped! I want to be prepared for everything that gets thrown my way. I want my work to be good work.

The verse before, a familiar one to Bible students, tells us how: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). In the previous verses, Paul tells Timothy to continue in what he has learned, namely growing in his knowledge of the Scriptures "which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (v.15)."

The first step, a giant step at that, in becoming an effective teacher is to become thoroughly familiar with God's word, the Bible. It is our Source-book. It has the content we need to teach. We cannot be satisfied with curriculum guides alone, for they are just that - guides. God's word has four purposes: 1)teaching, or showing us the way to go, 2) rebuking, explaining how we got off track (the biblical term is 'sin.') 3) correcting, or showing us how to get back on track, and 4) training in righteousness, or telling us how to stay in track.

According to Paul, we cannot depend solely on what we learned about the Bible as children. We can't even rest on our laurels if we've been to Bible college. The study of God's Word is a continuing process, a lifelong pursuit, a daily activity. We will be effective teachers if we commit ourselves to faithful, consistent study of the Word of God.

I love those "God moments" when a child asks a question that has nothing to do with the lesson in my curriculum guide, but it speaks directly to something I've read in my personal study in the past week. I wouldn't have been ready to give a good answer if I hadn't equipped myself! Then there are the times that my lesson will dovetail my personal devotion time or the passage for my ladies' bible study will fit with what I teach the children. Two weeks ago, my teaching partner shared a verse she had been mulling over to encourage me in my teaching. She and I sat together in church that morning and guess what verse the minister referred to? We looked at each other, mouths open, eyes glowing as we reveled in the God-moment. Those moments can only happen, however, when we get into the Word for ourselves.

As a teacher:
How much time do you spend studying the actual passage on which your lesson is based?
Do you have a time of daily Bible reading?
How much do you interact with what you have read - do you incorporate your reading into your prayer time, memorize any verses or spend time mulling over and meditating what you have read, applying it to specific situations in your life?

If we don't study the Word of God, the Holy Spirit won't have a well-spring from which to draw. But if we do immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, letting it seep into our very being, it will flow out of us into our teaching. Then we will be thoroughly equipped for every good work inside and outside the classroom.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Classroom Management: Discipline or Redirection?

After two months of teaching Sunday School, I still had knots in my stomach every time I entered my classroom. Controlling my class was my greatest fear. How could I make this lively group of first, second and third graders sit down and listen to me?

It was the era when the time out corner was the MO of child discipline. Dennis the Menace ensconced in his corner clutching his teddy bear was etched on the mental disciplinary action plan of every teacher and parent. As a new teacher, I kept the corners of my classroom swept clean, ready for occupancy.

I don't even remember what horrible infraction those poor boys did that day to incur my wrath. First one, then another, and finally a third trudged to the designated corner at which my accusing finger pointed. I looked at the two remaining girls. "I have one corner left," I announced. "Who's it going to be?"

You could have heard an eraser wipe chalk off a blackboard.

I told this story recently to a friend. "Would you do things differently today?" she asked. No doubt! First I probably would have laughed at whatever goofiness those boys decided to do. Now, I have the experience to keep kids busy so they don't get into trouble. Finally, I've learned how to "redirect" kids so the issue never blows up into an issue.

In a church setting, our hands are tied as to how much discipline we can meter out to our kids. Parents are all too ready to hit the panic button if you dare make their child unhappy in your class. Unlike a public school, attendance is voluntary at church and a child and their parent can vote with their feet out the door never to return. We can't let public opinion deter us from doing right but as teachers, we also need to work hard to find other ways to control errant behavior before we get tough.

Redirection works best with preschoolers. Sometimes all it takes to get a disruptive child to stop taking toys from others, playing with toys when he should be listening or picking on his neighbor is to get him busy doing something else. But this works well with older kids too. If a child is too full of energy to settle down to your planned activity, refocus that energy into letting him be your helper. If your group squirms and wiggles, flailing arms like a demented octopus during story time, they are probably bored more than intentionally disobedient. Make your story more interactive. Have the rowdiest child help you with hand motions. Get the kids to act out the story.

If the chemistry between two children is as explosive as a warm, well shaken can of Coke, redirect one of the children to another group or another side of the table. Don't say anything about the misbehavior. Instead, put your hand on the shoulder of one child and say, "Why don't you come over here with me? Let's see if we can work on this word puzzle (or whatever project you are doing) together?"

A year ago, I had a child in my class who put capital letters on the term free spirit. No matter how I tried to involve him, he was intent on doing his own thing. I almost reinstated the Time Out Chair when he screamed in the middle of prayer, "He touched me!" referring to the boy next to him. Unfortunately, or fortunately, parents were starting to arrive. The next time he came, as he and the other boy started to roll their eyeballs at each other, I called my Free Spirit over to me. "I need a partner to stand by me," I invited, encircling him with my arm. I expected him to resist; instead, all through the prayer, he nestled against my side.

My prayer partner's reaction reminded me that often discipline problems occur not because we have bad kids, but because we have kids who are crying out for love, attention and activity. By redirecting their attention, we give our kids what they need most and we don't lose precious moments by stopping the teaching clock to reprimand the offending child.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

God's Part in Lesson Planning

Easter and Christmas Sundays are exciting times in children's ministry. Of all times, that's the Sunday to have a children's program and to make it your best. Your lesson is predictable - the Christmas story for Christmas and the story of Jesus' resurrection for Easter. The challenge, however, is to present those well known and time worn stories in a fresh and meaningful way to a part of your audience who has heard it all before without leaving out important details for those who haven't.

I decided to put a new twist on my Easter lesson. While I was confident my group knew very well of Jesus' death and resurrection, I didn't think they were familiar with the story of Moses and the Passover. I was sure they had never been taught the connection between the sacrificial lamb at Passover and Jesus' sacrificial death in our behalf. I planned to show the clip from the Disney movie, "The Prince of Egypt" that covered the account of the ten plagues culminating in the Angel of Death passing over the blood-stained door frames of the Israelites to kill the first-born of the Egyptians. Then I planned to have the children draw the scene of an Israelite family eating dinner while standing, framed by door portals outlined in red markers. They would turn their papers over and draw a picture of themselves with the frame of a red cross arching over them. I would explain that just as a lamb had to die in order to save the Israelites from the Angel of Death, Jesus had to die to take our place so we could have eternal life. We would finish the lesson by making homemade Communion bread.

Was I presenting too much too quickly, I wondered. Would they understand the backdrop of the ten plagues and the need for the Israelites to be freed from slavery enough to then make the connection to Jesus' death for our salvation? I prayed that God would help me explain everything simply yet in enough detail so my children would understand.

God was a step ahead of me! He knew my children's needs even before I prayed. As I turned on the DVD, several children said, "Is this 'Ten Commandments?' We watched that last night." One girl told how they were watching 'The Prince of Egypt' in school as part of a unit on Egypt. (Catch that! In the public school! Kudos to that teacher!) The small clip I showed acted as reinforcement to what the kids had already seen without being boring or repetitious. They were with me the rest of the lesson. To put the crowning touch on the morning, an elder showed up with Communion for the teachers and baptized students just as I finished explaining about Christ's sacrificial death. The timing was God-orchestrated.

As you prepare your lessons for the children you teach, you have no idea what they have seen and heard in the past week. But God does. Even now, He is preparing their hearts to hear the lesson you will teach next. A crisis might happen in their lives that makes them long for something more in life. A movie, a song, something a classmate or schoolteacher says might dovetail perfectly with your coming lesson. Parents might allude to a scriptural principle that you repeat, giving that necessary reinforcement.

God's Word says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3, 4)." This week, pray specifically that God will till the soil in your students' heart, that they might be ready to add to their knowledge (2 Peter 1:5). Pray that He will bring situations, other people, and yes, even movies, across your children's paths that will make them hungry for God's word, ready to learn what you have to teach, and equipped to make the connection from knowledge to action. He can do it. I know He can.