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The children enthusiastically gathered for the closing program of vacation Bible school. Today they'd learn which team had won the weeklong missions offering contest.

The VBS director excitedly announced that the blue team had beaten the green team! The winners were given special fast-food coupons. And the other team?

They got nothing -- or so they thought.

One little girl said in the car on the way home, "We're the losers!" And her mother quickly replied, "No, you aren't! You all won! You all helped to send money to a mission in South America to build a radio tower. Everyone wins that way!"

It was a weak attempt to remedy the negative messages that had already been sent.

Why is it that children's ministers, who are typically passionate about missions education, sometimes send the wrong messages about missions? It could be that while they understand the powerful opportunity to give children a vision for what God is doing in the world, they're not sure how to capture the opportunity.

Does current missions education increase kids' faith development or does it hinder it? We talked to several children's ministers to discover the answer to this question.

Let's make sure we're speaking the same language here. By "missions education," we mean the informative activities to help kids know what God's people are doing around the world to share the gospel. Making missions education a strong component of your ministry may be more valuable than you realize, but there are caveats you need to know to ensure that value.

Dispel the idea that children are "junior Christians." "I think we often discount children and what they're capable of, but when they become Christians they have everything everyone else does," says Nancy Keith, interim children's director in Richmond, Virginia. "They aren't junior Christians; they have full standing before God."

Second John 1:4 says, "It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us." Kids need to understand that they're "on mission" right now. Give kids hands-on opportunities for missions and you'll allow them to be messengers for Christ.

Involving children in missions through your church has a direct impact on how active they'll remain as adults. Keith says, "In the average Christian church, we train people from a very early age to sit still and let others do the ministry. After 20 to 25 years of this process, we then turn around and tell them, 'Get up! Minister! Serve!'

"Children who learn to sit still in church will sit still when they're adults," says Keith, "but children who learn to serve will continue to do so into adulthood."

To create lifelong Christians who know the impact they can have, we must use missions education as an exercise in servanthood -- not as something that happens somewhere else. Involving children at every age makes the transition to leadership a natural one.

Larry Shallenberger, a children's pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania, leads his children to support his church's short-term mission trips to Haiti. The children raise money to purchase radios for adults to give to Haitians. Shallenberger says, "By partnering with our adult mission program, our children gain a sense that they can contribute to 'big church.' "

Teach children to use their spiritual gifts. "Missions education is a part of the process. Just as elementary schools have career days to help children understand where their talents and abilities fit in, missions education is just another way to show kids where they might be used," says Keith.

Children can pray for others: missionaries, their families, and the church's effort to spread the good news. Such prayer can open children's eyes to vocational opportunities. By learning the exciting news of how God is at work in our world, children will know that positive things are happening and there's a need for their skills in many parts of the church. While some children may be able to find a niche in serving fairly easily, creatively design ways for all kids to be involved in missions.

"Think fun, think exciting, think service. Look for ways your children can get actively involved in missions by giving of themselves," says Keith.

Open children's hearts to others' needs. Keith lists four key reasons that missions education is important to children's faith development.

1. To see that there's more going on in our world besides what we see on the news every day.

2. To hear the exciting stories of how God is at work in our world.

3. To learn how to pray for others.

4. To learn how to give.

Hebrews 13:16 reminds us of the call to serve: "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." Missions education is a practical way to show children how God wants us to live out his Word.

Be aware that some presentations of missions can undermine missions education's benefits. There are messages and motivations that should be tailored to kids so that missions can be a rewarding rather than a belabored experience. Here's what missions education should not be.

It's not about the money. Keith Johnson, the former director of children's ministries for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the current national field services manager for Group Publishing, says that giving an offering to an adult-oriented project that's then never seen discourages kids. Missions education that focuses on the money raised rather than the impact of the money derails children from learning about the true purpose of giving. Asking children to be fund-raisers may seem like an active role, but it can emphasize a limited approach to missions.

"We teach kids to make the burden of evangelism go away simply by throwing money at it," adds Shallenberger.

Johnson also believes we need a little "intellectual honesty" with kids. Explain to children that we send money and not goods in some instances because of the customs duty placed on foreign packages.

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