Mission-minded kids are tomorrow’s hope
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
Children and teens swarmed around First United Presbyterian’s churchyard, their laughter and chatter almost as loud as the buzzing of the summer mosquitoes that swarmed along with them. Poles were scattered on the grass, as were piles of shapeless pieces of neon orange nylon, black tarp and Army green canvas.
“Does this belong to your tent or mine?” one girl asked.
“I don’t know,” shrugged a boy who didn’t even look up to see which pole she was holding.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” she muttered as she went ahead pitching a tent that would clearly be lopsided due to the wrong pole holding up one end of the canvas.
The kids of Salem, New York, a rural village on the Vermont border, were excited about the church campout. Not because it meant a night filled with hot dogs and hide-in-the-dark games. They were excited because they were camping out to raise awareness — and money — to buy a ShelterBox.
The Salem Rotary had told the children about how Rotary International provides shelter to families displaced by political conflicts and natural disasters. They learned that for $1,000, one box — containing items such as a family-sized tent, cooking utensils, blankets and solar-powered lights — would provide the basic comforts for a family who had lost their home. One child thought it would be “cool” to buy a box. Another thought it would be even cooler to camp out on the church lawn to raise money for a box. And so, a campout was planned.
The kids didn’t just pitch their tents, though. They also helped representatives from ShelterBox, who came to the campout and set up an actual tent that a family would be living in. Once the tent was up, participants ages 5 to 16 stepped inside and got a firsthand look at how they would be helping others.
“Is that a cookstove?” one child asked. “Where are the pots?” asked another child, which led to the pressing question of the night: “Where is the macaroni and cheese?”
By the time the last tent came tumbling down the following morning, the kids had raised $520. The $20 was given by a girl who had been saving her birthday money to buy something special for herself. After the campout, though, she told her mom that others needed the money more. Her new American Girl doll could wait.
While the money raised was not enough to cover the cost of one ShelterBox, it was still enough to give the children of First United a sense of helping a world in need, even in some small way.
Christian educators can’t stress enough the importance of hands-on mission projects when teaching children about being the hands and feet of Christ. And while taking a collection of loose change at vacation Bible school or asking for cans of food to be brought in on a Sunday morning is a valuable exercise for children, they agree it is beneficial to physically connect the children inside the church to the hurting world outside.
“Jesus taught us to love one another. How did he teach his disciples that? By showing them. It’s really that simple,” said Amy Thetford, vacation Bible school coordinator and former Christian education director at First United. “When we raised money for ShelterBox, the children got to see the tent. Some even got to experience a night in the ShelterBox tent. That experience will stay with them for a lifetime.”
Brett Eaton agrees with Thetford about the impact that hands-on mission projects can have on children. Eaton remembers the different volunteer opportunities offered by his childhood church, South Presbyterian in Bergenfield, New Jersey. From serving at soup kitchens to helping build a Habitat for Humanity home, children were included in mission projects, he remembers.
“As a child or teen, the impact of seeing how some people are forced to live with much less than ourselves will last so much longer than just donating a few shirts or pants that don’t fit anymore,” Eaton said.
While Eaton doesn’t discount the value of donating clothes, food or money — “many times these are very important for foundations and charities to exist,” he says — he believes the best type of donation children can learn to give is their time.
Time, though, is a stumbling block in raising mission-minded kids. With children’s schedules just as packed as adults’ schedules, children have little time to participate in mission projects.
“Still, for younger generations, giving their time is the most important way we can teach gratitude and perspective,” said Eaton.
Mindful of missions
Traditional Sunday school is just one step in Christian education for children and teens, experts say.
“What we also need is to connect abstract ideas to real life,” Thetford said.
That’s easier said than done. Most churches are small, and getting volunteers to model servanthood for children is not always easy. Add to that the growing trend toward pastoral transitions and increasing money woes, and the focus and means to raise up mission-minded kids are pushed aside.
“It feels like we’ve kind of lost a generation of kids that have a heart for service. They just haven’t been exposed to missions,” said Jenifer Rabenaldt, director of children’s education and interim coordinator of youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church, in San Luis Obispo, California. But that is beginning to change.
“We’re now talking more to the younger children about real world needs and problems,” she said.
For example, the church has adopted a school in Haiti, and the children of First United recently raised funds to buy the Haitian children portable soccer fields and soccer balls.
“Our kids were so excited to learn about the kids in Haiti,” Rabenaldt said. “They asked the best questions and really gave us a chance to have an honest conversation.”
The First United children also wrote cards with their pictures on the front. The cards were then hand-delivered by the church’s mission team, which visited the school in Haiti. Rabenaldt also had the children make a short video for the mission team to show the schoolchildren in Haiti.
The children of San Luis Obispo are also learning to be the hands and feet of Christ in their own backyard by making blessing bags for families who spend a night in the church’s makeshift homeless shelter. The children have collected things like socks, healthy snacks and water to put in the bags along with a verse of Scripture.
“The kids love putting the bags together and are learning how important the little things can be,” Rabenaldt said.
The makeshift shelter, however, raises an important reminder to those leading children in mission. That is, to respect the privacy of those being helped and to respect the comfort level of the children doing the helping.
“Unfortunately, we can’t allow the kids to visit the families when they are at the church’s shelter because there may be some kids staying that go to school with our children. That creates an uncomfortable situation,” Rabenaldt said.
While the children don’t visit when families are there, Rabenaldt does take them on a tour of the shelter when all of the cots are set up.
“This intentional learning will hopefully follow them throughout their lives,” Rabenaldt said, adding that she hopes when the children get older their hearts for mission will continue to grow.
A child shall lead us
Adults often grapple with the question of how best to prepare children to be future advocates for justice, whether the subject is poverty, the racial divide or another complex issue.
Christian educators say that a good starting point is talking about pressing issues with children. That’s not easy, though, when adults themselves find it difficult to have honest conversations. It is also important to be sensitive to where children and teens are in their emotions, fears and understanding of what’s happening in the world.
Thetford believes tough conversations happen by first laying the groundwork of kindness and caring for others at a young age, “then you have something to build on as the children become teens,” she says.
At Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, race is an important topic, says Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, coordinator of children’s ministry and congregational life. The church, she explains, is in a metro area while the congregation is mostly made up of “white kids from the ’burbs.”
The children know all about the church’s tutoring program at two of the city schools, D’Angelo-Veitch says. They even participate in book drives for these schools, she adds. But she also recognizes there needs to be more — more awareness about the community and more engagement with it.
“I don’t think we are as good at talking about it [race] as we should be,” said D’Angelo-Veitch, echoing the sentiment of many white Presbyterian congregations.
To foster a dialogue, last fall Third Presbyterian brought in Nikole Hannah-Jones, a nationally recognized investigative journalist who covers civil rights for The New York Times magazine. She was there to speak to the greater Rochester community on race and the education system.
“She was a challenging speaker,” D’Angelo-Veitch said. The audience that night included teens from Third Presbyterian.
Young and old together
Perhaps the best way to start grooming the next generation of advocates is to begin with young and old learning, serving, exploring and grappling with issues together. Rocky River Presbyterian Church in Rocky River, Ohio, is doing just that.
Lisa Watts, Rocky River’s director of Christian education, recently offered a series of intergenerational evenings called “Bridges.” Each evening had a topic that needed to be bridged — racism, religious diversity, care of God’s creation and care for God’s children. The night began with a shared meal and a guest speaker who encouraged conversation around the topic of the evening.
“Adults and teens then shared thoughts and worked through questions and issues together,” Watts said.
In addition to “Bridges,” Watts has been working with the church’s middle and high school youth groups on social justice issues and asking the groups what they can do to make the world a better place.
“We started two years ago with David LaMotte, a singer, author and peace activist, offering a workshop for all teens in our presbytery,” Watts said. “We then followed up by using our group time and our retreats to study LaMotte’s book Worldchanging 101. We even had a Skype session with him a year after he was here.”
Watts says the conversations among the teens have left her hopeful.
Samuel heard God calling him when he was just a boy. David was young when he picked up his five stones out of the creek to take on Goliath. Jeremiah also was a youth when God called him to become a prophet. The Bible has a long record of calling children to be the change needed in the world. But how young is too young? Is there such a thing as age-appropriate missions?
D’Angelo-Veitch offers this advice when gauging age-appropriate missions: “Listen to the children. Take your cues from what they are talking about, what interests them. Listen to the things they share with you that they have seen in school, in the news, on the street or in the church.”
D’Angelo-Veitch recalls that Third Presbyterian fifth-graders were once having a “cheeky conversation” about what would be the perfect classroom pet. After a lot of silliness, the fifth-graders began talking about animals available through Heifer International. Before long, the kids came up with the idea of having an auction to raise money to buy Heifer International animals.
“If you listen to the children, they will show you what excites them,” she said.
Other tips Christian educators have when it comes to engaging the littlest of future advocates is to show them what serving looks like — and take them along to help. Little hands can stock food on food pantry shelves and carry a bag of clothes to a shelter. Again, the important thing is for the children to see the world beyond a church school classroom.
Last year for vacation Bible school, First United in Salem created comfort bears for the local rescue squad. It was a project that captured the attention of the pre-K group, Thetford says.
“Our littlest ones were thrilled to be creating something for someone else,” Thetford said. “Every day for five days straight they were excited to make more bears. It never became ‘Oh, I have to make another one.’ They would tell me of the ideas they had for how they were going to decorate their bears that day. Each day was different. At the end of the week, our rescue squad came with the ambulance to pick up the bears. The kids were so excited.”
At Culver City Presbyterian Church in Culver City, California, children look forward to participating in the Big Sunday Lemonade Brigade, an event that raises money for a community emergency fund. The event was started by Big Sunday, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that promotes service and volunteerism at every age, says the Rev. Dr. Frances Wattman Rosenau, pastor of Culver City Presbyterian.
At one Big Sunday Lemonade Brigade, Wattman Rosenau says, a dozen volunteers from the church’s family fellowship set up a table on the main street to sell lemonade. To the delight of the children, firefighters from the firehouse across the street joined them for a cup of lemonade and a chat.
Culver City Presbyterian hosts a service opportunity like the lemonade stand for its children a few times a year, Wattman Rosenau says, noting that it helps the children feel connected to the community.
“They are full of questions about who we are raising money for and why do they need it,” Wattman Rosenau said. “Our littlest Christians make a big difference to our neighbors.”
Whether it’s stuffed bears, lemonade stands, pitching tents or creating blessing bags, when it comes to raising the next generation of advocates, Thetford observes that “all the hands-on tools that can be used, should be used.”
“We are creating a sense of empathy in our kids, teaching kindness and compassion for others. Memories of these mission moments they experience are seeds being planted,” she said. “And we all know what can happen when seeds are planted.”
Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today and a rural ministry network pastor in Washington County, New York.
Tips on raising mission-minded kids
► Listen to what children and teens are talking about.
► Invest energy in projects where kids’ interests are.
► Don’t laugh off silly conversations; they can lead to a mission project.
► Recognize mission moments in the mundane. For example, grocery shopping can open a conversation on hunger.
► Engage in intergenerational mission projects. Modeling one’s faith in action is the best way to raise future advocates.
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