Meet four ministries with extraordinary service projects that reach people in need — AND their own kids.
We all want the kids in our children’s ministries to cultivate thankful hearts. Yet that can be incredibly difficult in a culture that’s telling them they should need more, want more, and demand more. Preteens spend $51 billion a year on their own from gifts and allowances — and all kids have a great deal of say about the additional $170 billion that’s spent on them, according to Alloy Media & Marketing, an umbrella organization for various youth marketing groups. Advertisers know the power kids have in the market, so they intentionally hammer home the “me first” mentality of our gotta-have-it culture. And this generation of kids has experienced amazing technological advances and has been conditioned to believe that the newest is better.
So much of what the children in our ministries are hearing is in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching that “the first will be last.” So how can we swim against the tidal wave of culture and instill an attitude of gratitude and service into today’s kids? We do it by giving them meaningful, creative ways to experience the wonder of impactive service. Four churches across the nation have done just that by developing extraordinary service projects that reach people in need–and their own kids.
The Power of Prayer
At Southpoint Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida, what began as a prayer ministry to teach kids to strategically pray for the nations ended up with kids sponsoring an entire South African orphanage. Kim Bogart, the children’s director for the past eight years, says it’s a passion of hers to establish a “house of prayer” in her children’s ministry. The kids in her ministry did just that by praying for specific nations. That led to them seeking permission from Christian publishers to send used curriculum to a program in South Africa, where Bogart had connected with a missionary.
The prayer ministry in turn spurred a fundraising campaign. Kids took M&M Offerings each week — they ate the candy in M&M’s candy containers and then filled them during the week with silver coins.
“When we told this missionary we were going to support him in South Africa, I’m sure he was saying, ‘Oh, great, it’ll cost more to send the materials to me than she’s going to make,'” Bogart says. “He was astounded that our children’s department was funneling thousands of dollars his way.” Bogart even promised to dye her hair pink if the children could raise $3,000 in a three-week period. They did (Bogart kept her promise).
The village where the orphanage is located had been practicing a Christianity that was mixed with bigamy and ancestor worship. “There was no pure gospel there, and when we sent over that curriculum, we had no idea whether or not it would bear fruit,” Bogart says.
But it did. Bogart’s congregation members have since taken four trips to the South African orphanage and have helped them purchase a stove, carpeting, clothes, blankets, and school supplies, among other items. The children at the orphanage used the curriculum the ministry kids had sent — and prayed over. This was especially poignant to Bogart and the rest of the congregation group, which ranged in age from 12-year-olds up to great-grandparents.
“I believe that families that serve together are stronger families,” she says, “and if we want to make a lasting impact through service programs for the world and in the hearts of our children, we should start with strategic prayer in which we can feel a glimpse of how God views his creation.”
An Eye Overseas
The children at the First United Methodist Church in Paris, Tennessee, chose a project that would help children on the other side of the world. They collected a mile of pennies that they then donated to the Kissy Eye Clinic in Sierra Leone, which provides basic care for acute eye infections and diseases.
Their inspiration was the post-resurrection story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus encountered two men on the seven-mile journey; however, they didn’t recognize him. When they reached the village and broke bread together, their eyes were opened and they realized they’d been with Jesus. They wanted to make this event very real for their congregation.
“This seemed like a meaningful way to teach the children a lesson in sharing that they could understand,” says teacher Elyse Bell. “A realistic goal for our small class was to begin by collecting one mile of pennies.”
The children of the church now celebrate the Penny Trail once every three months, beginning at the altar in their Sunday school room and laying down pennies, end to end, across the room, down the hall, down the stairs, and as far as they will extend. A mile of pennies equals about $844.80. Bell’s kids have now raised more than $1,000, or about 11/5 miles of pennies.
Bell was part of a volunteer mission team that delivered the money personally to the Kissy Eye Clinic in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
A Halloween Redemption
E.C. Cunningham, children’s pastor at Salem Baptist Church, a megachurch of 25,000 members on the south side of Chicago, was looking for a way to reinforce a sermon he’d preached in children’s church about Halloween and what it was really about. What he came up with — Reverse the Curse — has brought children into the ministry and demonstrated to the surrounding neighborhood that the church cares for it.
About 125 kids went out and rang doorbells on trick-or-treat night in teams led by adults. While some of the kids dressed up in costumes (Cunningham dictated no occult-themed costumes), others wore regular clothing.
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“People thought we were going to say, ‘Trick or treat,’ but we said, ‘Here’s a treat for you,’ ” Cunningham says. The teams handed out bags of candy, tracts that tied into Halloween and delivered Jesus’ message, and other trinkets. The first 100 houses found a Bible in their packets. “People asked, ‘You guys don’t want any candy?’ and we said, ‘No, we want to give back to you,’ ” says Cunningham.
A group of 20 young men were outdoors playing football when they saw the teams of kids heading toward them.
“We handed them each a bag,” says Cunningham, “and they asked, ‘Are you guys serious? I can’t believe this.’ ”
The teams headed back to church and performed a play for hundreds of neighborhood kids they’d invited previously — and for many of the football players who’d followed the children back to their church. The play was a takeoff on the Harry Potter books — written by Cunningham — only the main character finds himself in Churchville, where magic doesn’t work, only faith.
“We got a real influx of children into our program because of this event, and a lot of people entered into a relationship with Jesus,” Cunningham says.
A Mind to Work
Kids in the preteen program at First Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, saw the older, high school kids going on exciting mission trips and having tons of fun. Preteen associate Pam Holman decided to give her kids a taste of what they’d be experiencing when they got older-while beginning to cultivate a servant heart in them — by forming Preteen 3:17 Mission Camp, based on Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.”
Holman put together a local work week where children ages 10 to 12 did missions and work experiences in the mornings and a fun activity in the afternoons over four days. The kids arrived at church at 9 a.m. each morning for devotions and instructions, went to their work assignment for the rest of the morning, ate a sack lunch, and then headed out for a fun activity until their parents arrived at 4 p.m.
“Kids this age are so capable,” Holman says. “You just need to give them direction.”
The children worked at Mission Lubbock, a food pantry, where they helped fill orders, played with small children while their parents shopped, and did landscaping chores. They worked at a large area food bank sorting, categorizing, and organizing supplies. They cleaned and did chores for a local Ronald McDonald House — where the families of critically ill children can stay while their kids receive treatment. They went on a prayer walk and prayer drive through a low-income section of the city, where the children went into area schools (Holman received prior permission to do so) and prayed at the doors of the teachers who’d soon be working there — or with teachers who happened to be there.
“The kids learned that you don’t have to pray with your eyes shut — you need to look around and see what the needs are,” Holman says.
About 25 kids participated in the camp. “It was a wonderful experience for the kids,” says Holman, “but also for the parents — they talked and talked and talked about how excited their kids were.” There was no cost for the camp, other than the kids paying for their own afternoon fun activities, which ranged from swimming to putt-putt golf.
Holman says her goal for the camp was getting kids to look outside themselves. “It’s really ‘all about me’ in this age group,” she says. “But when you get them plugged in, they can’t wait to help and do things, and they really do enjoy helping others.”
Children may not be automatically born with servant hearts. But the desire to serve is easily planted by others who model servant behavior by their actions. Once kids grab hold of the idea, they are often the catalyst for change within a congregation.
Holman was so excited by what her kids did at their mission camp that she wrote about the week and presented it to her church council. “I’m so proud of our preteens,” she says, “and I wanted our church council to know what they’d done and that we asked God to use our efforts to touch someone for him.”
The author Valerie Van Kooten is a writer and serves in children’s ministry in Pella, Iowa.