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Some friends of mine say VBS is an outdated, obsolete program.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."