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.
Meanest Mom Ever
That night my mom was the meanest, most unreasonable mom a girl ever had to put up with. She had usually been fun to talk to about boys I had crushes on or who had crushes on me. But that night she morphed into an ice monster. A generation gap threatened us.
A very cool and very cute guy had just asked me to our high-school winter dance. Not quite fourteen, I knew my parents had said I wasn’t allowed to date till sixteen. But this called for an exception. An all-school dance!
I begged and pleaded.
She only explained the rules again.
I cried. She shook her head and tried to hug me. The nerve!
I explained how special this guy was. She reminded me how young I was and said I would have more opportunities later.
I called her out as a hypocrite.
Reminding her that she herself had started dating at thirteen, I showed her how unfair she was being by denying me the fun she had experienced.
Her story was that she and her young boyfriends has been too young to even enjoy themselves properly and had even needed to be driven places by parents. Lame.
But my guy friend was 17 and had a car, so I knew we wouldn’t have those issues.
Besides, I knew I was very mature for my age and would be just fine.
After far too long, I finally admitted defeat.
Crying longer in my bedroom, I decided to write in my journal. Two long pages. How mean my mom was. That I was going to be much more understanding when I had a daughter someday. I just could not understand how a perfectly normal mom could become so unreasonable all of a sudden.
The generation gap threatened to win.
After hours of crying, I had a tough time sleeping. Waking up to hugely swollen red eyes did NOT improve my mood.
I wore my big, floppy, purple hat to school, so at least from a distance people would not be able to see what a wreck I was. But that didn’t help with talking to my guy friend. He could still see how ugly I looked.
I didn’t have to work to convince him how bad I felt at having to say no to him. He could see evidence of my tears.
What surprised me was that he told me he respected me for respecting my parents’ decision. He said he knew many girls would have just arranged a sleepover at a friend’s house.
He also told me he would come back when I was sixteen. I knew that was crazy, since he wouldn’t even be in high school then. But he did. We remained friends, and years later we went out a few times.
But the most amazing thing is how God worked through that event. Much later, when I was in college, he stopped at my parents’ house and told them how much he appreciated my leading him to Jesus. He wanted to thank them and me for what that meant to him.
My parents were surprised and called me to ask me why they had never heard. Because I had never known!
In church planting, my dad had always taught us not to share our faith across genders because of the danger of people experiencing the love of God as romantic love.
So I had certainly never set out to make a gospel presentation to him as such. But obviously God worked in that moment through my actively owning my faith and obeying my parents, even in my anger. My friend later attributed his new faith to me. Crazy.
The funny thing is that I had never even thought of trying to lie my way past my mom. Obviously, she and my dad had established a clear rationale for why we obey parents: as a means of reflecting the integrity of the God we serve.
My mom’s walking her faith with me crushed the generation gap.
And God used an event my young self temporarily thought of as one of the worst in my life to bring someone to faith in him. Amazing!
[Photo by romello-williams-385888-unsplash]
My high school years became a time of basking in God’s love. Primarily because of my Dad’s equipping me for ministry.
During my time of being bullied, Dad had encouraged me that God was growing me through my difficulties. He was right. But it was NOT fun. I had obeyed him but had not been basking in God’s love.
Dad told me so many stories of Bible characters and other Christians growing through persecution that I started to wonder if that was the main way God worked. I remember asking Dad if trials were the only times God grew his children quickly.
His answer stuck with me–Christians grow most dramatically in their relationship with Jesus Christ both 1) during great difficulties and 2) during times of intense ministry.
In junior high I experienced the first kind of growth. During high school I experienced the second. The principle is the same.
Both kinds of spiritual growth require unprecedented reliance on Jesus.
I needed to talk to Jesus regularly–telling him how needy I was–in order to grow closer to him.
Feeling persecuted or panicky inspires most of us to pray. The same panic can come from jumping into a new ministry we do not feel prepared for. It can spur us to pray moment by moment.
The ministry my dad showed me God was calling me to in my high school was simple:
Tell people about Jesus. Consistently.
Attending a public high school was a huge bonus for me in learning the practice of talking about Jesus to those who didn’t know him. Modular scheduling–which allowed students huge amounts of unscheduled “study time”–was another huge bonus in the opportunities it allowed me.
But developing that practice took time and was scary–always.
Eventually, after consistently talking to people about my faith and seeing so many new friends come to know Jesus, I began to see time alone at a table with a new acquaintance as a divine appointment. It was a time to talk to her about Jesus.
But it was still scary. Always. So I developed the habit of prayer.
Melanie Redd puts it so well: “Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with You.” She is so right. When we are in a scary situation and hoping that we choose the right words, prayer can be the only life preserver we see.
And praying for help in daily situations allows us to see that God’s love for us transcends boundaries of place and time. God answers those prayers and affirms our relationship with him. He allows us to bask in his love. I’m convinced this is the principle that allows Paul to tell us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).
Feeling completely loved and affirmed by God can make us feel as though we are floating on a lake in the sunshine on an unsinkable inner-tube.
The crazy thing is that we are always completely loved and affirmed by God. We just often don’t feel it.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38-39 NIV]