Recently I wrote a fairly hot post on my own blog about what I’ve learned from children’s ministry. Here is the quick summary: in Mark, 10:13-16, Jesus welcomes some children to come to Himself. In doing so, He makes some pretty bold statements about children: “to such belongs the kingdom of God” and “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” It is insufficient to simply conclude that we should care about children because Jesus did. These statements about children and the kingdom of God are challenging. They demand to be understood.
How do we become “such as children” and receive the kingdom of God with childlike, not childish, faith? Here are four things learned from my experience teaching preschoolers in Sunday School that I think kids “get” about the gospel that adults often forget.
1. 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 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 with. 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.
2. 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, with writing their names, which several of my students can’t quite do yet. 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” on their own. Knowing when to ask for help is an extremely valuable skill to have, and kids are real pros at it.
3. Kids know how to trust
I work with kids between the ages 3 and 4, which is right around the age when children see their dads as supermen who are the coolest dads ever, can do no wrong, and their ultimate source 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 imperfect and only human. 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. 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 his or her dad.
4. Kids know how to accept grace
By “grace,” I mean favor that we didn’t earn and can’t claim responsibility for in any way. With the Christmas season and Hope’s somewhat misleadingly-titled “Why I Hate Christmas” sermon series behind us, it’s easy to see how even Christians can mess up grace. But kids are used to being provided for, 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, grace-filled faith, not shame at not being able to earn them or any attempt to justify 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.
Listen up, Men of Hope: the fact is that our gender is severely underrepresented in the world of children’s ministry. Off the top of my head, I can think of a grand total of four men (including myself and Ben Johnson) involved with Hope Kids, plus two or so more in the youth ministry. This compared with dozens of women in the same ministries. Of course it’s great that Hope has so many women with a heart for kids, but I see this imbalance as a big opportunity that men are missing out on. I say this both for the kids’ sake and for yours.
Besides being able to learn the above lessons, children’s ministry is also great practice for parenting. Most of us will be fathers someday, and if you’re like me and don’t have a job as a teacher or older, married siblings, your options for spending time caring for kids are limited. Teaching Sunday school is a great way to fulfill a growing need in our growing church, get valuable practice caring for some wonderful kids (the preschoolers are the best, of course), and come to a fuller understanding of God’s heart for His youngest children.