Make kids feel needed
Even these days, most kids probably grow up helping their parents or their siblings in certain ways. But probably not to the same extent that was true of their parents or grandparents. We no longer have a dozen kids per family, needing the older ones to care for the younger ones while we tend to the babies, as my dad’s parents did. The same tends to be true at church. Grown-ups do everything. So how do we develop our kids’ sense of who they are and their importance in the body of Christ? How do we make kids feel needed in the church?
Needs in tiny churches
The tiny church I grew up in–a church plant–was so little that they needed to rely on kids for important roles. I was eleven when I heard my parents discussing the need for a teacher for our first-, second-, and third-grade Sunday school class. I’m sure my dad was trying to persuade my already heavily committed mom to add that to her list. But since I loved that age group and planned to train to be a teacher, that position sounded great to me. So, I volunteered.
My parents were startled. They first responded with the obvious, “Oh, you’re not old enough. And you have to have made profession of faith publicly in the church to be a Sunday school teacher.”
Not allowing kids to feel pushed aside
“What does that involve? Can’t I do that?”
“It would mean going to the church council and telling them that you are ready to go public for Jesus and make your membership official. You’d have to tell them that you understand the teachings of the church and believe they’re biblical. Then you’d be an adult member.”
“Sure. I can do that. How? When?”
Although I thought my parents were startled, their reaction was nothing compared to that of the church elders and deacons. Stunned is more like it. They asked me all the questions that were typical in that day. The creeds, the catechism, and what Jesus meant to me personally. They also asked me what made me decide to make profession of faith right at that time. Then they sort of looked at each other as though they didn’t know what to do next.
“How old did you say you were?” one asked.
On hearing I was only eleven, they asked how many months till my birthday. They agreed that I could make my public profession as soon as I turned twelve. Though I thought the waiting was silly, I was happy to be accepted. I felt validated in my faith and very adult because they were going to let me teach Sunday school.
The blessings of feeling needed
Teaching that class was much harder than I had expected. First-graders can hardly read, and third-graders are already good readers. Teaching to that range of kids stretched my creativity. Ten to thirteen kids that age at once can be a handful. But I was so energetic and eager to prove myself up for the job that I figured it out.
I remember having so much fun doing things like big cut-outs for the walls to encourage attendance. One season each child put up a squirrel and got to add a nut for each Sunday of attendance. I was so eager to share Jesus with these little kids that each Saturday I even pedaled my bike to the house of any child who had missed class the week before to tell them we had missed them.
God’s mission moving forward
Not surprisingly, the class prospered. And I prospered. The class grew in size and in unity, and I grew in motivation to learn the Bible better and to learn better ways of teaching. My most important takeaway was my intense sense of belonging that I gained from being needed by the church. 1 Corinthians 12 gives us a detailed description of the body of Christ and each of us needing to use our gifts. As adults, we know how important using our gifts is. But what about our kids?
Kids who are needed in the church feel motivated to stay in the church.
When I hear people lament about the difficulty of so many young people leaving the church, I often think back to the time the church allowed me to become its youngest Sunday school teacher. The church’s accepting and enfolding me early actually gave me protection against negative peer pressure during my teen years. I had found my place. I was a Christ follower–a part of the body of Christ. No one could convince me otherwise.
When my kids were that age, we encouraged them to help with nursery, the church library, Vacation Bible School, playing instruments for church. Those were encouraging experiences for them as they felt needed and got to know godly adults they were working with. Just think how much better it would be if we as church bodies could make it a priority to incorporate young people into as many different ministries as possible.
How to make kids feel needed? Find ways to use their gifts.
Stay awake and pray for the baby!
One of my most memorable experiences from childhood is thinking that my baby sister was going to die. It was Sunday afternoon, an afternoon my parents usually rested. My two little sisters were also napping. But I was not sleepy. I was scared. That afternoon, when I told them I wasn’t sleepy, my parents told me, “Stay awake and pray for the baby while we try to sleep.” So I did.
My till-then healthy baby sister had recently enjoyed supplemental bottles of juice, which she liked better than nursing. She had decided she preferred this easier way of feeding and refused my mother’s breast. I remember vividly the scary time of my mom trying formula after formula with her, trying to end my sister’s hunger strike. She seemed to be allergic to everything. And she refused to return to the breast. Allergies have become so much more understood now, but they were unknown territory for my parents.
This was fifty-five years ago, and my baby sister was dying of constant diarrhea.
She was dehydrating. Finally, the doctors told my parents they needed to keep her alive by feeding her rice water until her little system calmed down. Rice water. The rest of the family seemed to eat endlessly the rice this water had boiled.
I remember having permission to sit in the living room, normally off limits for me and saved for guests. Because of its big clock, I was allowed to sit there. I needed to pray until the clock registered the appointed time for my family to wake up.
I watched the hands of the clock continuously, and they never seemed to move.
Though I saw that the hands somehow moved to a different place on the clock, I could not catch them moving. It was perplexing. And fascinating. I moved closer and closer to the clock, studying it. I needed to see the hand move. In later years those minutes that seemed everlasting during that hour or two have reminded me of my adult prayer life. How often doesn’t it feel that God is taking forever to answer a prayer? And since we can’t know at first if he’s saying no or saying to wait, the waiting feels the same.
That day when my parents told me to stay awake and pray for the baby, I’m sure they were needing to occupy their five-year-old. But whether I was able to pray effectively or not, my parents taught me the importance of prayer to them. My staying awake and praying had no huge significance like the disciples who were asked to stay awake and pray with Jesus. But it did have the significance of reinforcing the truth that God is sovereign. Only he could heal my baby sister. The doctors’ earlier attempts had not been successful, and my parents knew God was in charge. That day I watched the clock more than anything else, but I did stay awake and pray for the baby.
My baby sister did recover, and I never forgot the day I was the only one in the house awake praying for her.
Making Conversations Matter with Kids
As parents, we have countless very brief conversations with kids, because our lives are busy, busy, busy. And if they’re older kids, they’re very busy too. So casual conversations may rarely touch on matters of faith. Does it have to be that way?
One Young Mom’s Plea
Recently one busy, young mom with an unusually hectic schedule listened with interest when I told her about my blog. She sounded excited about the topic: talking to kids about who Jesus actually is. But then she stunned me. She said my blog would probably be most effective for grandparents. “Because parents just have no time to talk to their kids. We’re too busy.” Ouch!! She did not seem to see my shock. I’m glad I was able to prevent it from showing, as we each moved to our next segment of the event. And I wish ours had not been such a brief encounter. But I haven’t been able to forget it.
Obviously, this young mother talks regularly to her kids about everyday things. But she’s too busy to figure out how to talk to her kids about the person who matters most: Jesus. So she hopes the grandparents will do it for her.
Making little moments matter
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that faith conversations need to be significant in length or at an important moment. What we forget is that just as our faith informs our lives, it can season our conversations. Even brief conversations. In fact, a conversation we have with a child while in the middle of another activity may come through more memorably to them than something set up specifically to talk about our faith in Jesus.
Driving in the car together
Whether we are taking a walk or driving somewhere with a child, we can talk meaningfully about anything we choose to. We have a captive audience. Sometimes it’s even possible with multiple children at a time. We might comment on a cool thing that they just told us about and say how fun it is to see God working. Or if they express a concern, we might ask them how they’d like us to pray for them in it.
Asking how we can pray for them
Even without hearing a child express a concern, we can easily ask about specific areas in their lives and how we can pray for them. They might need to take a bit of time to think about it, but that’s okay. As parents or grandparents, we know enough about their lives to have some helpful guesses about areas they might appreciate prayer for. Even a simple “How’s such-and-such going?” can open up the possibility of meaning conversation.
Asking them to pray for us
Or we may choose to ask a child to pray for us in something specific. The more transparent we can be with our children in needing prayer for ourselves, the more they will see the reality of our faith. They will see Jesus as central in how we live our lives. Too often we want our children to see us as having it all together. Unfortunately, they probably are quite aware that we don’t anyway. Besides, it would be dangerous if they did think we had it all together and could live without the help of our God. We need to model dependence on Jesus if we want our children to learn it.
Responding to positive events by seeing God’s hand in them
Also, even if a child has not brought up to us a positive event that we see God’s hand in, we can help them see him as sovereign in their lives by calling their attention to specifics. Perhaps God gave one the ability to participate better than he had thought possible in a sporting event. Perhaps someone did really well on a test or a project. Especially helpful is anything we see God doing in shaping their character. If we can tell them we really see God growing them or shaping them in some way, they will likely remember it in a powerful way.
Whether our moments together are short or long, making conversations matter with our kids is totally worth the effort.
One-Time Comments Have Lasting Impact.
Telling kids that only sticks and stones can hurt them–not words–may make speakers feel better. But both kids and adults know it’s a lie. Fortunately, positive one-time comments have lasting impact too. In this world of physical bullying and cyber bullying, it’s more important than ever for adults to speak words of hope to the kids in our lives.
Girl dancing in church expresses her praise.
Parents have lots of opportunities, but any adult can bless a child with words of lasting impact.
Even our brief conversations with children at church during greeting times can affect them powerfully. Negatively or positively. I mentioned before my twelve-year-old daughter’s horrid reaction when an older woman told her to enjoy her childhood, since these were the best years of her life. The well-meaning elderly woman had no idea of the negative impact her words conveyed and that my daughter would never forget that one comment.
At the same time, a sincere question to a child about to start a new school can be powerful. It affirms the child’s importance and the significance of that time in life, because the grown up acknowledges it. Hearing that an adult they don’t know well is going to pray for them in this time validates their membership in the body of Christ. It points to the fact that they are valuable human beings and not simply partially formed adults. We can help our church children to feel embraced by the Body of Christ, so that they can open themselves up fully to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
One woman I know overheard a nine-year-old say something to her mom about the sermon reminding her of her recent nightmares.
She told the girl she had overheard and remembered her own children experiencing nightmares. Her children had been blessed by having her come in and pray with them. She had simply prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, Satan, to leave this child alone! Lord Jesus protect this child from further attack and give your peace.” Instantly, the child had experienced the peace of Christ and freedom from nightmares.
This woman asked the girl if she could pray with her right there. She eagerly accepted. After praying for her, she reminded the girl of 1 John 4:4 “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” She also reminded her of the power of the name of Christ.
The next week the girl initiated conversation. She told how she had needed to pray that on her own one night. But since then, she had been nightmare free. The woman now tells of how this girl she didn’t really know, and still doesn’t really know, has a special bond with her. Because one-time comments have lasting impact, they share a special greeting each time they see each other at church. She knows the girl feels the certainty of being a part of the Body of Christ with her.
Sunday School teachers have special opportunities.
In talking to friends lately about our faith journeys, I’ve realized how many of us remember something an adult said to us decades ago. Just once. I remember being struck by my Sunday School teacher telling her fifth graders that God had no grandchildren. To adults, that may seem obvious. But to me as a young child, it was striking. She challenged us that we were not automatically part of God’s family just because our parents were. We needed to make our own choices.
Though I’m sure my parents tried to convey this same idea many times, no memory of it stands out. But Mrs. Bruizeman’s fervent conversation with us struck a chord. I’ll never forget the earnestness in her voice. I knew it was important to her personally that we each take God seriously and accept Jesus as personal Savior. It changed me.
A friend has a similar experience. She remembers her Sunday School teacher telling a class of eleven-year-olds that each person had to make a personal decision to accept Christ, not just assume it because of parents. And she told them they were old enough to do that for themselves. She also challenged them that they were old enough to read their Bibles daily on their own. My friend felt surprise. She also felt the challenge and a sense of responsibility she never forgot.
I pray each of us seeks these opportunities and remembers that one-time comments have lasting impact.