Find out what it means to minister to kids in a post-9/11 world. Helping today’s children walk in God’s light takes more than church programs and fancy special events.
Throughout Scripture we’re called to come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. But helping today’s children walk in God’s light takes more than church programs and fancy special events. To truly know God, children must first know themselves and how they fit in a sometimes-terrifying world.
In a TV special that took viewers on a musical journey through the top 100 movie tunes of all time, short film clips played in reverse order as the audience eagerly waited to hear the #1 favorite song throughout movie history. The honor went to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung by Judy Garland in the beloved The Wizard of Oz.
Viewers must’ve breathed a collective sigh. Who among us doesn’t want to believe that “what is unseen is really true”?
A child’s world is filled with dreams fueled by a vivid imagination. Childhood is a time of wonder. It’s a gift to prepare us for a lifelong faith in a Divine Being who created everything seen and unseen. The writer of Hebrews said it this way, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But how do we nurture that kind of faith in a world that seems to hide the reality of God? How can a child come to know God when faith is a mystery that even adults don’t fully comprehend? How can they have hope in God’s wonderful promise when the reality around them is often grim and scary?
Do We Accidentally Hide God From Kids?
The search for God in a dark world can take children down a shadowy path. What’s even scarier is that if we’re not careful, those of us who try to light their way can unintentionally be part of the darkness.
- We hide God from children by using boring lessons and worship services where they can’t understand the message.
- When we make kids feel bad about themselves through careless words or actions we don’t allow them to see God’s true character.
- We fail to guard against a busy, stressed-out lifestyle, and we blind children to the order and peacefulness of God.
- Children see God as less relevant to their daily experiences because we glamorize an image-driven culture.
- We hide God when children ask probing questions, and we give them simple answers instead of sharing our struggles.
Ministering to Kids in a Post-9/11 World: Into the Light
Throughout Scripture we’re called to come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; 1 Peter 2:9). Helping children walk in God’s light takes more than church programs and fancy special events. To truly know God, children must first know themselves. How? By building honest relationships with others, hopefully in homes and communities of faith.
For the Christian, faith is founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who gives us our faith story. John H. Westerhoff III, author of Will Our Children Have Faith?, writes, “Unless the story is known, understood, owned, and lived we and our children will not have Christian faith.”
Conversations are Essential
Westerhoff explains that nurture alone won’t make a child Christian. Conversion is essential. “Conversion, I believe, is best understood as this radical turning from ‘faith given’ (through nurture) to ‘faith owned’ [through authentic Christian living].”
I recall that Jake was 8 years old during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. A normally gentle child, his reaction to the events was deeply angry. In the middle of an adult conversation about the tragedy, Jake yelled out, “Those people [terrorists] hate God!” At the time, I prayed for wisdom to respond to Jake in a way that would help him embrace our faith story. “They may hate God, Jake,” I said, “but God loves them. He loves them just the same as he loves you and me. So as God’s family we must pray for the terrorists.” Jake gave me one of those looks children have when they’re thinking, Are you for real? As we continued to talk, Jake’s attitude softened and we had a meaningful conversation about the terrible things happening. Later, he prayed that he might be more like God.
Dorothy’s story was shaped by the colorful friends she met on the road to see the Wizard. She met a scarecrow who needed a brain, a tin man who needed a heart, and a lion who needed courage. All three found what they longed for in their friendships and helped Dorothy discover that “there’s no place like home.”
Today’s children need the same things Dorothy’s friends needed: knowledge of God, a heart after God, and courage to live God’s story on earth. Jesus said it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). Christian education must speak to these three elements if children are to reach their eternal home.
A Knowledge of God
Children are blessed with a natural sense of curiosity about their world. When caring adults talk about our Creator with awe and respect, a child’s desire to know him grows. Romans 10:17 says, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
God’s message is also revealed to children through our faith rituals, such as marriage, christening, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Advent, and Lent. In these rituals children behold God’s Spirit in the memorable events of their lives. Even ancient practices, such as the examen, can help a child talk to God about their day.
“For more than two years at my church, we have been practicing the examen,” writes author Ivy Beckwith. “At the end of our sessions, we sit in a circle on the floor with a candle in the center of the circle. I’m amazed at the way the children respond…sharing…quite remarkable things about the good and bad taking place in their lives. Each week we explain…how God is involved and central to both the good things and bad things that happen in our lives.” Rituals can draw children into their own Bible search for answers.
To build a solid foundation, write the editors of Parents’ Guide to the Spiritual Growth of Children, we must “encourage kids to start searching the Scriptures for themselves, challenge them to find out on their own what the Bible says about a situation they’re facing—a rocky friendship, for instance, or a decision about how to spend some money. If they get stuck, help them out. When they’re done, ask them to share what they found.”
We must let children judge, question, and even doubt. As they mature, they’ll see that in all things (good or bad) we can grow closer to God.
A Heart After God
How do we nurture faith in the hearts of children? In Hebrews 11:6 we read, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Children understand the concepts of being dependent. They depend on parents and teachers to help them master new skills. Maybe this is part of what it means to have childlike faith—to rely on the guidance of someone wiser and to believe that trust will be worth it. God trains us to be faithful as he is faithful. This is not simple behavior modification, but the radical transformation of a heart after God.
“To be faithful is to be present and patient wherever we find ourselves,” writes Westerhoff, “that is, to neither run nor fight. To be faithful is to open ourselves spiritually to God and to discern what God is trying to do so that we might cooperate.”
Showing Authentic Faith
Do children see this kind of authentic faith in your church community? Beckwith, in her book Postmodern Children’s Ministry, writes, “Communities are places where all of life is shared on some level: the good, the bad, the messy, the shameful, the startling, and the fantastic. It should be the one place where those who are wounded…can come for balm and healing.”
Families attending a large Bible church in Texas experienced a very unusual worship service years ago. At the beginning of the pastor’s sermon, he invited a couple to join him on the platform. As they came forward, he explained that the wife had formerly been the Minister of Music of this church. She had resigned two years ago after admitting that she was involved in an affair.
For the next half hour, she and her husband described their journey from pain to wholeness. They told how their pastor and Christian friends led them to forgive, repent, and be reconciled to one another and their family. This couple’s children told everyone how proud they were of their parents. The church board affirmed their faith in this couple by reinstating the woman as Minister of Music. To end the service, she sang “Amazing Grace” before a tearful congregation.
My grandchildren attended that worship service. They’d moved to Texas three years earlier with my son, who’s a single parent. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve prayed and cried with them, trying to make God real to children whose mother says there is no God. I was grateful that Sunday morning for a dramatic display of faith and the clear message that God is at work in the hearts of people. When I asked our grandchildren what they felt during the service, one replied, “I felt like we’re not alone.”
Create Authentic Moments in Your Church
While your church may not agree with such a public forum, consider Westerhoff’s words: “The church exists for no other reason than to help make and keep human life genuinely human…The church cannot afford to be an institution among institutions.”
What are some ways your church is sharing the “real heart” of the gospel with children?
Give Kids Courage to Live God’s Story
The “yellow brick road” of this generation leads through a postmodern forest, where dangers grab for kids’ very lives. The loving God they sing about in Sunday school seems powerless when they hear of global violence…especially against children. Keeping children busy with good things is okay, but helping them see God in the hard places will give them courage to live out their faith story.
I’ve read James Dobson’s bestseller, When God Doesn’t Make Sense, several times. It’s filled with stories of people who trusted God when there was no good reason to believe. Many were angry with God, yet they decided to trust him with their very souls. Dobson drew two conclusions. First, we can have crises with God or without God — either way, crises will come to the human condition. Secondly, God doesn’t have to explain himself to us — because he is God.
Like adults, countless children have loved God in spite of tragedy. Why did these brave kids choose to trust in a God they couldn’t see? Because they had met God personally. Where? In communities of faith and in worship. Kathleen Chapman, in her book Teaching Kids Authentic Worship, calls worship the glue that makes kids stick to God.
“Practicing authentic biblical worship as God intended produces supernatural adhesive,” Chapman writes. “Simply put, [this] relationship with God generates glue so strong nothing on earth will break its hold.”
God’s yellow brick road leads children to a heavenly home beyond their wildest imaginations, where gates of pearl and streets of gold await them. It’s not over the rainbow, but it’s through faith in the cross of Christ where dreams do come true.
Pat Verbal is an author and founder of Ministry to Today’s Child, a consulting and training ministry.
The Prayer of Examen
[tweetthis]”Yahweh, you examine me and know me” Psalm 139:1.[/tweetthis]
Examen is the daily examination of our glimpses of God and our failures to notice God. This is a great habit to form especially today when kids are bombarded with harsh realities and challenges. Traditionally, examen is done at the end of the day. Two discussion questions make up this reflection.
- What was good? The first question focuses on the positive parts of the day when you were most aware of God’s presence or for which you want to thank God.
- What wasn’t good? The second question focuses on the parts of the day when you felt most separated from God or those actions for which you wish to ask God’s forgiveness.
Examen concludes with prayers of confession, thankfulness, and intercession.