For many years the focus of children’s ministry has been on engaging the Bible in new and inviting ways. We’ve looked for curriculum resources that have bright engaging illustrations, multi-sensory ways of learning, and easy to follow instructions for the teachers. As educators shepherding these programs, we’ve focused time in recruitment and training of volunteers, collection and creation of materials, and encouragement to families to send their children to us for one or two hours a week for their religious education. Our aim for this model of children’s ministry is to hand down the essence of our beliefs to the next generation and some would say to train children in the life rules that they are to follow for their moral decision making over a lifetime.
Now these are worthy and historic goals for a Christian education program with children, but there is an inherent problem in limiting our teaching of children to this model. The problem is that no matter how well grounded our ministry with children is in developmental theory and brain research, in the latest teaching models, and resources, it will fall short, because it is only an approximation of a relationship with God, taught in the abstract in a classroom. In essence we have become like the disciples, keeping the children from contact with the real Jesus, because they may not be old enough to understand God’s message or because they may be noisy and distracting. How does one keep from being a stumbling block to the faith of children? There are many ways to answer that question: a) through inclusion in the worship experience of the congregation, b) through resourcing of families to carry out religious education in their daily lives at home, and c) to get out of the classroom and into hands-on ministry with others in the name of Christ. It is this latter answer that we will explore here.
What we’re really talking about is mission, one of our activities as a congregation, but one from which we often exclude children. There are reasons for this. Many of the agencies with whom churches partner do not welcome children for safety reasons or because of the nature of their clients. Sometimes our reasoning has to do with how we view children as incomplete in need of our help and protection.1 Yet, our Christian heritage gives us other ways to view children as well, such as fully human images of God. So there are a number of stumbling blocks to overcome if we are to involve children fully in local and global mission.
Why is this important? Perhaps the weightiest reason I can give is that we often see the face of Jesus in those we serve. If we desire to change our aims of children’s ministry to be less informational and more transformational, this is an important reason for doing mission. Children are often more frequently engaging in service learning in their schooling, but what sets the church apart in its use of mission is the ability to frame these acts in the language of our faith and to engage them across the generations, so that children see this as a lifelong way of following Christ into the world.
Each engagement with local and global mission should include a time of preparation, not just with the logistics of the service to be done, but linking this engagement with the Bible, with the history of the church reaching out to others, and with practices of prayer and sustenance that keep God at the forefront of the mission activity. There should also be intentional times after the mission activity to reflect upon and share the learning that has taken place. We often forget this aspect as we move on to the next program or activity of the church, but this is critical, particularly for children, who tend to process events in smaller chunks over a longer period of time. Think about your own durable childhood memories as an example.
Mission opportunities for children have often been limited to the collecting of objects for the unseen others who will use them. These may include non-perishable food drives, school supplies, clothing, and toys before Christmas. Sometimes children will also be involved with sending care packages to college students or gifts for older adults who are unable physically to attend church. These latter collections have more potential to be transformational moments, because children may actually meet the recipients, and hear their faith stories, but this meeting is usually far removed from the actual collection time. What children need in order to see Jesus are face-to-face encounters with the people they serve.
Where does one start for these types of mission activities? One could begin with the mission activities in which the congregation is already engaged. This may mean asking the mission committee simply to think about where children might actively engage with their families in the ongoing work of the church. If the church houses a weekday school this may be another place that a partnership around mission may form. Another place to look is in the community that immediately surrounds the congregation. What are the needs here and how can children be actively involved? With the growth of technology more possibilities open up for local and global mission encounters. Could you set up a Skype call with a global mission partnership that your church has formed? Are there immigrant churches near you that match the global partnerships that your church has engaged in abroad?
There are a number of educators with whom you can speak about their experiences in educating for local and global mission. Linda Steber at Davidson College Presbyterian Church has done notable work in post-mission trip reflection. Heather Ferguson at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill has conducted local intergenerational mission teams through the pre-engagement, mission, and post-reflection cycle. Who are the mentors in your area that you can call upon to help you remove the stumbling blocks to engagement with local and global mission for disciples of all hand sizes, even the smallest?
For More Ideas:
Beckwith, Ivy. Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children through Story, Ritual, and Relationship. Baker Books, 2010.
Local Atlanta site for children and mission: www.pebbletossers.com
1See “The Dignity and Complexity of Children: Constructing Christian Theologies of Childhood” by Marcia Bunge (in Yust, et. al. Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) for more ways the church has historically viewed children.
Kathy Dawson is a certified Christian educator and pastor in the PC (USA). Currently she serves on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary in the area of Christian education. She is also leading a hands-on intergenerational mission event for the pre-conference portion of this year’s APCE Annual Conference.