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Handle With Care?

Larry Shallenberger


The Solution:

Teach Jesus-Centered Truth
The gospels are filled with powerful accounts of Jesus defying our moral categories. He snubs the good and religious people for an opportunity to dine with known sinners. Jesus is even accused of having too good a time with these people (see Luke 7:34). Our Savior enjoyed broken people without being changed by them.

Through Jesus' example, we can start a conversation with children about what it's like to love and accept their friends and classmates without picking up habits that displease God. We can teach children to be confident while building friendships and inviting others to church. We can teach them to be like Jesus in an age-appropriate manner.

Problem #3:

We're Afraid
I help teach a weekly Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class at my church. We've held the free course for more than a year and have attracted a variety of participants-middle-aged men, teenagers, medical students, and more. Some are Christ-followers; more are not. I love the class because it offers the potential for faith conversations with an eclectic group.

I was disturbed after one class, though, when Eric told me he intended to fight at an upcoming cage match. (Our state recently legalized MMA fighting.) Eric just graduated from high school and doesn't have a real plan for what's next. When I offered to help him fill out financial aid forms for school, he thanked me but then changed the topic back to his cage fight.

I think his fight is a bad idea for several reasons. Our class isn't a training camp or even a real school. To have a chance in the cage, Eric must train four hours a day. Also, MMA is, well, dangerous, with fewer regulations than other sports. My fatherly instinct doesn't want to see Eric get seriously hurt as he figures out what he wants to do with his life.

I think we minister to children a lot like I'm training Eric. I'm willing to teach him all the pieces of the game-the striking, the redneck jiu jitsu, and the clinch-but I don't want him to actually use those tools in a real-life situation. I suspect that we parents and children's ministers fall into the same trap. We talk about loving people who think differently from us and about sharing our faith in a conversational manner. But deep down, we're worried about our kids ever trying that. Someone might get hurt!

The Solution:
Trust the God Who Commissions
We must accept that life is messy, and we can't hide our children from all its dangers. However, we must also remember that we serve a loving God whose plan doesn't include wantonly discarding our kids to save the lost. God isn't asking us to place children in situations they aren't ready to handle. On the other hand, he is inviting kids to imitate his love that reaches out and extends to people who don't yet know him. When we encourage and train children to share their faith, we help them understand the heart of God, who sent his only Son to save them.

God seems to be testing me even as I write this article. Amy is pulling out of the driveway with our two youngest boys, heading to a picnic hosted by an openly unchristian couple. Amy knows the wife from a former job, and the husband describes himself as a Satanist. Gulp. One evening over dinner after our wives excused themselves to the powder room, the Satanist and I were left together at a table to find common ground. He informed me that when the neighborhood Christians discovered their religion, they immediately forbade their children from playing with their kids.

It was an awkward moment. I confessed that we Christians often tend to be driven by fear, which sometimes comes off as meanness. Right now, I'm feeling a bit apprehensive as thoughts race through my mind. But God is reminding me that he loves this couple's children as much as he loves mine. Perhaps through this picnic and our children's friendship, this family will take a step toward a loving God they haven't yet met.

Larry Shallenberger is the next generation pastor at Grace Church in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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