In 2003 I was with 500 missionaries and their children at a conference in Budapest, Hungary, I asked many of them how we can help children not serving on the mission field embrace missions. I hoped for many clever ideas I could share in this column. That’s not what I got.
Although some spoke highly of church-hosted children’s missions festivals and the value of hanging world maps on the wall and flags from countries around the world in the sanctuary, most offered the same advice: build children up in the Gospel so they have big hearts for God and His kingdom and regularly and naturally share about missionaries and their varied roles and purposes.
That makes sense, doesn’t it? Like adults, when children mature in their faith and love God deeply, their concern for lost people will grow and they will be motivated to talk about God and their relationship with Jesus. And, that’s at the core of missions. But, that’s not all missionaries do. I often explain that any obedient, maturing Christian who wants people to come to faith in Christ can serve God on the mission field. (This is true locally, in the workplace, at home with unsaved relatives, and abroad in a foreign land. They’re all mission fields.)
Teaching children important truth about God is obviously essential. What are the children in your church learning about Him? Do they gain a rather complete view of Him or is the same information taught year after year? Is the content important and relevant for their age? Understandable? Tied in to missions somehow? Proven true with illustrations from scripture, their own lives, and from missionaries? For example, do they learn from scripture that God wants us to pray and that He answers our prayers? Do they learn of missionaries’ needs and then pray specifically for them? Do they then learn through emails from the field how God answered their prayers? Such teaching and experiences can lead children to pray faithfully!
Helping children identify and believe in their strengths is also essential. Do children know their strengths, that their loving God chose them on purpose with purpose, and that they can use them to build God’s Kingdom? Do they understand that when they give those strengths back to God for His service, their corner of the world and beyond can be changed. For example, I was “Chatty Kathy” as a young child. When I realized I should give God all the words in me that He had given me in the first place, my life was transformed and Celebrate Kids, Inc. was born. Imagine children you know accomplishing great things for God. Then pray for them!
After speaking in a church about the value of children and learning, a 9-year-old girl came up to me grinning from ear to ear. She emphatically stated, “I’m going to be a missionary when I’m older.” I learned that she knew some Spanish and had learned in her church about all the places she could use it to win people to Christ. I didn’t think it was possible for her grin to fill more of her face, but it did as she exclaimed, “I’m going to learn lots more Spanish!” Since hope for the future motivates us to invest in our present opportunities, this girl is highly motivated, energized, and focused.
Adults who influence children need to be missions-minded and mature in their faith. Do they understand the Gospel well enough to answer children’s questions and disciple them? Is their joy contagious? Do they ache for lost people and do they respond obediently when God asks them to share their faith with others? Are their hearts so big for God and His kingdom that they’re interested in and supportive of missions? Do they strive to understand what God is doing around the world? Do they take time to become familiar with missionaries supported by their church? Do they then enjoy sharing these understandings with children?
Including current and historical information about missionaries during teacher training can help children embrace missions at a young age. Teachers should also be taught how to connect their curriculum’s content to missions/missionaries so these topics are naturally brought up during children’s church, Sunday school classes, and midweek clubs.
Helping teachers understand the different skills that God can use on the mission field is also important. Otherwise, they might believe that only those who learn languages easily and/or enjoy evangelism can serve. If this is their belief, their teaching about missionaries will be narrow.
One of the most fascinating missionaries I’ve been privileged to meet is a woman with an advanced degree in musicology. She studies tribal drum patterns in West Africa so she can teach new Christians how to use different rhythms and melodies during church services. We wouldn’t want converted drummers beating the same patterns they had used to try to drive away evil spirits or curse the neighboring tribe, would we?! Try sharing this example the next time a music-loving child looks at you and declares, “I could never be a missionary. There’s nothing I could do!”
An integrated approach and not a one-time program will engage children in missions. Sharing Jesus’ plan for their lives and not a plan we come up with will increase their hearts for God and His kingdom. Watch out world . . . here they come!