Profound faith growth radiates from this relationship-based ministry.
It’s a snowball fight at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Entire families are gleefully tossing white balls of paper at each other on which they’ve written their sins. And just as minister to children Danielle Bell had planned, the lesson is clear: no matter how hard they try to get rid of their sin, it’s impossible to get completely free of. It always seems to come back.
In her more than 18 years in children’s ministry, Danielle has become known for her ministry’s success in transforming children’s lives through compelling, experiential lessons such as this one and a continual focus on relationship. Here are some innovative ways Danielle and her team have worked to change lives for children and their families.
Building Faith in Families
All too often families walk into a church and head off in three or four different directions, so once each quarter Danielle leads a whole-family worship experience such as the one in which the snowball fight took place.
Her most recent worship theme was God as the uncreated Creator. As soon as families arrived, they worked together to place 10 events on a timeline as a way to bring home the point that there was no time before God. Next was worship and a short talk, followed by four learning stations where families could: (1) look at four mirrors that have interesting body facts written on them to reflect on how they were fearfully and wonderfully made; (2) do an activity with powder that turned to a solid to emphasize that God holds all things together; (3) lookup Bible verses about how God has no starting point; and (4) make a Lego creation to take home as a reminder of their shared experience. After the worship service, everyone joined in a family meal.
The Best Part
To Danielle, the best part is simply that families are having fun and learning together. “It’s one of my favorite moments to look out and see a kid on her dad’s shoulders worshipping,” she says.
The shared experience also provides an opportunity for families to continue the discussion at home. “Sometime in the car that week,” she says, “the truth we’ve talked about will come up again.”
Another element of her ministry is a two-week gospel class about faith commitment, which parents are required to attend along with their children. The class offers a chance for Danielle to educate and get to know parents and children alike. Here too, Danielle uses lots of experiential object lessons. For example, she pretends Play-Doh is talking to her and telling her what it wants to be. Families consider how foolish it is for the created to tell the Creator what it wants to do or be. After one such class, a dad emailed her. He told her what an effective image the Play-Doh was and how he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Growing Young Disciples
Another event Danielle hosts yearly is “24 Hours 4 Him.” The participants arrive at 6 p.m. Friday and stay until 6 p.m. Saturday. It’s not a lock-in, but an event focused on creating youth disciples. (Children go to bed at scheduled times according to grade.) The event begins and ends with worship, and in between the children engage in Bible study; workshops of their choice including cooking, secret service, or recreation; quiet time; a Silly Rally; and a group service activity.
One key, and sometimes controversial, element of this event is that participants can’t come in and out for extracurricular activities. Experience has taught Danielle that frequent departures and arrivals proved to be a big distraction. It was also a safety issue as volunteers had to be constantly opening and closing the church doors. So now anyone who attends must stay the whole time.
“God deserves our being all in,” says Danielle. “I think it’s a way to teach kids commitment and sacrifice. We can choose, and we choose things other than church a lot.”
Deeply Rooting Relationships
At the heart of these events and others is a deep commitment to relationship with each of the children in her ministry—and even some who aren’t. Take Ellie Knox. Ellie wasn’t even attending Danielle’s church when a friend told Danielle about this fifth-grade girl who was going through a hard time.
Danielle set up weekly appointments with Ellie and suggested they share a journal where they would write back and forth. “I was able to be really honest with her, and I didn’t feel judged,” says Ellie, who found it much easier to write her thoughts down than to express them in person.
Ellie and her family began attending Danielle’s church, and Danielle continued to help Ellie through scary things, such as writing down her fears about going away to camp and then praying over them—and then flushing them down the toilet. When Ellie was ready to make a faith commitment to Jesus later that year, it was Danielle she couldn’t wait to find at church and tell all about it.
The whole process amazed Ellie’s mother, Julie Knox. “Danielle’s just got such a heart for children that she even had a heart for a girl who wasn’t even in her program.”
Danielle and Ellie Today
Ellie is now almost 21 and works with Danielle as a ministry intern. She marvels at the way their relationship turned into a mentorship and a friendship. “Whenever I hung out with her, I never felt like she was doing it because it was a job,” Ellie says. “She just loves kids so much and wants them all to come to Jesus, and she’s willing to do whatever. She does all this stuff that’s not in the typical job description, and she does it with joy.”
Of course, it’s impossible to connect on this level with the 400 or so children in her program, but Danielle does her best to interact individually with as many as possible. One way she does so is drawing a child’s name for a lunch date each week. She also makes a point of having everything ready for activities before they begin, so that once the children arrive, she can pay attention to them.
And she relies on her staff and volunteers to form similar relationships. In fact, Danielle calls her volunteers “investors” to emphasize that their job is not to stay and help for an hour, but to invest in kids’ lives.
One way these adults invest is to be matched with a fifth-grader as a secret prayer partner. The adult pledges to pray for the child (whose identity they know), and the two exchange letters until the end of the year when the identity of the adult is revealed to the child.
Relying on God’s Word
Finally, Danielle emphasizes the importance of teaching her kids to know God’s Word for themselves.
When each first-grader receives a Bible as a gift, Danielle compares it to receiving a kitty or a puppy. As Danielle puts it, “I’m giving you something alive, and you have to take care of it and pay attention to it.”
In the end, she reminds herself, Danielle’s words are not going to transform lives, but God’s words are.
She also advises that while it’s important to have a plan, it’s also essential to hold those plans loosely. This way, God can take over.
“When we let go a little bit and allow him, that’s when he’s able to work,” she says. “Sometimes we get in the way of God transforming lives because it can be scary. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I need to work on getting out of the way.”
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