Saturday, December 29, 2012

Four things children's ministry has taught me

For about eight months now I've been blessed (and challenged) with the opportunity to care for and teach two truly wonderful classes of preschoolers in Sunday School at my church. If this comes as a surprise to those of you who know me to be a generally quiet, serious, hyper-analytical INTJ type, know that I continue to be surprised by my love for children's ministry every week. Even though I am just about the only teacher with no formal education whatsoever in working with kids, even though I often feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, I always look forward to spending another Sunday morning with them.

This all reminds me of what Jesus had to say (that was recorded) about children in Mark 10:13-16:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
 To simply read this passage and conclude something like, "Look how loving Jesus is, He welcomed and blessed the little children when his disciples were turning them away!" is insufficient. Jesus makes some really challenging (here italicized) statements. To such [those like little children] the kingdom of God belongs. And, in fact, only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child will attain it. Jesus seems to be saying that there is something about children that is worth taking note of and even imitating that is necessary for our life in Christ.

And here the idea of how the words of the Bible underdetermine its meaning comes into play. Jesus says that we have to be like children in our faith, but doesn't specify exactly how. What are we to make of His words, then? Of course He didn't mean we should be extremely selfish, throw tantrums whenever we don't get what we want, or be as simple as children in our thinking even in adulthood. We are told to have a childlike, not childish, faith. From my very limited ministry at Hope, here are some non-encompassing things I think kids "get" about life that adults tend to forget.

Kids know what they want.

This one sounds like a bit of a no-brainer. What I'm getting at is the common idea of kids being "innocent"--but of course, this isn't entirely true, as any parent (or maybe older sibling) can attest. What I mean is that kids (at least, the younger kids I work with) don't seem to have developed the complex web of hidden issues, conflicting desires, constraining obligations, or long-hidden afflictions that adults are so frequently burdened under. Everything is on (or near) the surface. If one of my students is having a bad day, they don't bury it or put on any masks; it shows in their faces, their actions, their reluctance to play with others. If he or she is happy and excited to be there, that is easy to tell as well. Kids are transparent with themselves and others in a way that adults are not, and I think that's just fantastic.

Kids know their limits. (And aren't afraid to ask for help)

This is probably especially true of younger kids, for whom there are still many things they can't do for themselves. What continues to make an impression on me is the candor they always have when asking for help.  For example, at ages 3 and 4, my students are still in various stages of learning to write their names. If they can write their name on whatever craft we're doing that day, they give it their best shot (and I always act impressed, because I always am). If they can't, they ask a teacher to do it--no shame or reluctance felt, or needed.

Our present culture places high values on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, to the point where asking for help becomes unthinkable. People (myself included) can spend years trying to deal with their problems without telling another soul, thinking they can "handle it". Knowing when to ask for help is an extremely valuable skill to have, and kids are real pros at it.

Kids know how to trust.

This is partly hearsay and partly what I've seen from kids getting dropped off and picked up, but I believe 3 to 4 is right around the age when children see their dads as supermen who are all the coolest dads ever, can do no wrong, and serve as great sources of security. (And if something happens to break this trust--like an abusive or absent father--the effects can last a lifetime) Of course, they grow out of this as they realize that dads, like the rest of us, are only human, that they aren't perfect or all-powerful or (in many cases) the coolest people ever. The transition from seeing your dad as this almost mythical figure to seeing him as a peer is one that I'm still navigating, to a degree.

But part of the good news of Christianity is that we have another Father, one who really is perfect, all-powerful, and completely worthy of the trust we placed in our human fathers as children. This is easy to forget because His parenting style is more extreme than anything we get in human relationships: sometimes far harder and more difficult than anything we experienced with our human father, sometimes softer and more loving than anything we ever dreamed. Donald Miller describes the challenge of this in his book Father Fiction:
Another thing I noticed in Jesus's [the Lord's] prayer is that he submitted to God: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven," Jesus says. And I don't think Jesus was saying God was a control freak, trying to make himself feel powerful. He could do that by smashing atoms together if he wanted; rather, in asking us to submit it seemed to me Jesus was saying, Look, you are going to want to do things your way, but your way isn't the best for you. Trust me, I know what you need. Jesus said this outright in his lead-in to the prayer: he said our Father in heaven knows what we need before we even ask him.
God our Father in Heaven isn't always the father we want, but always the one we need if we are willing to submit our wants and trust Him. I think this trust, when lived out, will look surprisingly like a child's total trust in their dad.

Kids know how to accept grace.

Getting back to what I said about kids knowing their limits: our culture of self-sufficiency and responsibility also makes it very difficult to accept grace; that is, favor that we didn't earn and can't claim responsibility for in any way. Of course, it being the Christmas season, you might think that everyone just loves gifts, but even behind Christmas there can be a lot of obligation, of trying to "prove" to people that you love them by spending money on them. Our sense of guilt when we get a great gift from someone we didn't buy anything for or, on the flip side, the entitlement of convincing ourselves that we "deserved" that gift somehow and were right to receive it, both go to show the real difficulty we have in accepting true grace.

You get the pattern; I think dealing with grace is something we tend to forget how to do as we get older. Of course kids are susceptible to entitlement (becoming "spoiled"), but I don't think that's where they start off. Kids are used to being provided for simply because they can't provide for themselves. Now that I'm an adult I always feel a bit awkward when I go out to eat with my parents and they pick up the bill, but when I was younger this was just business as usual. When we realize that there are things we can never provide or earn for ourselves--like justification of our lives before God--the correct response is childlike faith, not shame at not being able to earn them or attempting to justify our receiving them. No matter how mature, rich, or powerful we become in life, we are always going to be like needy children before Almighty God.

One last thing I've been learning that doesn't fit into the "Kids know _____" rubric is the difficulty of trusting God with the spiritual development of others. When I look back at my own life, I see how no one person, not even my parents, could have steered me onto the path God has led me down to knowing Him. While this does take some of the pressure off teaching Sunday school, it's also humbling to know how little a difference I can make on my own, and believing that God can make something real and powerful out of my meager contributions to these kids' lives has helped build my own trust in Him.

At this point I'm a bit pessimistic about asking for comments and discussions on my posts, but of course my picture of "receiving the kingdom of God like a child" is far from complete. So I simply leave you with the question; what does "childlike faith" mean to you?


  1. David! I am so encouraged by your post. I love to hear about how God is not only using you in working with the kids at Hope, but transforming your thinking. God is good in all His ways and plans. We are thankful for your willingness and devotion to these little hearts!
    Katie K.

  2. Perceptive post David. I love the way you soak in all you can from these little ones. Hope that God blesses you as you continue to serve in this way.