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Helping Kids Become Mission-Minded

Lidonna Beer

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 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.

Missiology 101

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.

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 packages.

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 age-appropriateness."

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 effective outreach).
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.

  1. 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 field.
  2. Remain balanced. Make sure you provide equal amounts of opportunities for children to practice service in their communities and to support overseas missions.
  3. 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 Magazine.

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