Does missions education increase kids' faith development
or does it hinder it? We asked several children's ministers to help
us discover the answer...
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
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
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!
"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
- To see that there's more going on in our world besides what we
see on the news every day.
- To hear the exciting stories of how God is at work in our
- To learn how to pray for others.
- 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.
Best To Furlough
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
Don't overwhelm your children. "I think missions education
[shouldn't be] guilt trips -- not always showing the bleakest
situations. I believe there are great ways to show children what's
going on in the mission field without scaring or horrifying them,"
says Keith. "Although I don't feel that we should candy-coat
everything, there is definitely a need for the restraints of
Make sure your program is age-appropriate in its scope as well
as its tone. "Even young children can learn to serve their family
and friends, but the concept of 'missions' is too abstract for
them," says Pat Verbal, a ministry consultant and the founder of
Ministry to Today's Child in Frisco, Texas. "Preteens can
understand 'missions,' yet need to be busy serving their community,
which builds their character and sets lifelong values."
Distinguish for children what countries missionaries go to for
short or long periods of time. Studying individual countries and
their evangelism history can add reality to faraway places.
Don't communicate that other countries are the only ones in
need. Shallenberger is concerned that missions education can keep
children from reaching out in proximity. "We overly emphasize
foreign missions education, but don't teach kids to be evangelists
in their own schools or to take an interest in service
opportunities in their own town," he says.
Hearing only about overseas missionaries creates the myth that
our country isn't in need of the gospel and that unreached people
live only on distant continents. However, many Christians do live
elsewhere, in areas that missionaries travel to, and many
non-Christians do live in our country.
In an effort to educate children about reaching out to everyone,
Shallenberger's church has set a goal to present children with a
balanced view of personal and overseas missions.
"Our church teaches every adult and child that they're
responsible to be bridge builders," Shallenberger says. "We build a
bridge to God (through spiritual formation), a bridge to the church
(through humble service), and a bridge to the world (through
Both overseas missions and personal evangelism fall under the
umbrella of building the bridge to the world."
Missions education isn't a one-time event. Create ongoing
awareness. Missions education isn't resolved in a school quarter.
How can you keep children interested in a project that has no end?
Break a large missions goal -- such as collecting Christian
literature -- into manageable pieces.
Visuals and guest speakers in the classroom make an impression
on children, but what happens when kids aren't at church?
Johnson says, "Most senior pastors see missions as a churchwide
thing, so we segment the focus in the compartments of our church
rather than in our homes, which are more appropriate places to
grasp the international, long-term focus of missions."
Encourage parents to support the missions projects you're doing
at church by sending home material and creating ways for kids to
share their goals and successes with the rest of the church and at
home. To squash disinterest, explain direct results from your
program's sponsorship immediately and often.
"We also participate in missionary giving projects that children
can understand," says Keith. "We let children write letters,
usually accompanied by pictures, to missionaries in the field. The
Internet gives us a whole new way to communicate with those in the
field...and much quicker responses."
Best To Commission
Ready to start or improve your missions education program?
Follow these suggestions from Larry Shallenberger.
- Start small. Talk to your missions board and pick one
missionary family for your ministry to adopt. While a large church
might be able to support several missionaries, children can't focus
on too many names. Consider having older children correspond with
the children of the missionaries to learn about their lives in the
- Remain balanced. Make sure you provide equal amounts
of opportunities for children to practice service in their
communities and to support overseas missions.
- Stay consistent. Missions education should be a
continuous theme throughout a child's development. "Building
bridges to the world" is a guideline that'll assist children's
spiritual development and can be revisited at different levels
based on a child's age, previous experience, and knowledge.
Who Will Go?
Use this creative object lesson from Nancy Keith to explain
missions to children.
Send one child out of the room (with appropriate supervision).
Give the other children a treat. As you give each child the treat,
say, "God loves you!"
As children enjoy their snack, explain that there's also a treat
for the child who went out of the room.
Ask, "How will the child know about the treat? How could we get
the treat to the child?"
Have the children try yelling, throwing the treat toward the
door, and using any other means. Children will finally conclude
that the only way to get the treat to the child is to take it to
him or her.
Send one child as the "Missionary" to deliver the message and
the treat. Then have both children return to the room.
Discuss how the child wouldn't have known about the treat if the
Missionary had never gone to share.
Read Isaiah 6:2-8. Then ask: "How did Isaiah react
when he had a vision of God? How would you have reacted? Why do you
think Isaiah said what he did in verse 5? How do you think Isaiah
felt after God forgave him of his sins?"
Read Isaiah 6:8 again. Then ask: "Why do you think
Isaiah was willing to go for God? What would you have said if this
had happened to you?"
Discuss with children what it means to be on mission for God at
home, at school, in their community, in their country, and
throughout the world.
Lidonna Beer is a former editor for Children's Ministry