As I am involved in youth and children's ministry in my church, I am always learning biblical principles to apply, looking for ways in which I must change the way I carry out my ministry most effectively. This is often a difficult task, both because of my natural aversion to change and the Church culture’s love of ease that comes with complacency. However, through the study of Scripture, the mentorship of others, and my own experiences, I have come to see several necessary principles for youth and children’s ministry. In this article, I will first share a recent experience and then briefly explore the principles I have learned.
Recently, I had the opportunity to serve at an overnight camp for kids 10-13 years of age. The camp had a rigorous schedule, consisting of two chapels a day, each followed by time spent in our cabins further discussing the contents of the chapel; the children also had memory verses to learn, and time was allotted for evening devotionals. Certainly, this was not the whole of the schedule since there was plenty of time for games and fun, but spending time in Scripture was the priority of the week.
I started with six guys in my cabin, all in the 10-11 age range, and somewhat familiar with each other. It was, however, their first time at overnight camp, and the first night away from home proved too much for one of the boys. He left for home before we went to bed.
His closest friend in the cabin, with whom he had made plans to further spend time together after camp was over, was certain that he would stay for the whole week. However, in the night, I was awoken by him at my bedside. He couldn’t sleep and wanted to call home, not so much for his parents to pick him up, but simply for the comfort that everything would be alright. Since it was the middle of the night, I did not want to take that route, and I was able to convince him to try his best to make it through the night.
An hour later, I was awoken by him again, but this time he only wanted to go home. So we sat at my bedside, my arm around him, and I consoled him with the certainty that his parents believed he could make it through the night (otherwise they would not have sent him to overnight camp). His crying subsided after a time, and he made his way back to his bunk bed.
Our conversation woke the others, and so as he was heading back to bed, one of them said to him, “I have something for you.” He had his headlamp on with his Bible open, and he started to read: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas. 1:2-3 NKJV). My smile grew wider as he continued, explaining how this was a time for this troubled camper to be joyful.
One of the other campers quickly got his flashlight and Bible, and for the next half hour, the two of them took turns reading promise after promise, and psalm after psalm. As they were reading, it was as though the smile of God beamed upon our cabin, and though it seemed to be the worst of times, it was truly the best of times.
The rest of the night was uneventful, but the next day that camper also went home. So with four guys in my cabin, we set off to finish the rest of the week together.
Throughout the week, Lloyd Janzen taught the attributes of God to us. From my experience sitting under his teaching at my church, he did not "dumb down" the message of Scripture for the age group he addressed. Instead, he preached as he would to an adult congregation, the only difference being his attentiveness to large words that needed defining and quickness to paint a picture for the children to understand the theological point.
Furthermore, the attributes he spoke on were the sovereignty of God, His holiness, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability, and the outpouring of wrath and grace. These are not light topics, especially not for children. However, the children understood them. I often heard comments from the other leaders how the kids in their cabins listened intently, hanging on every word, and how they later asked deep questions, many of which the leaders were not expecting nor prepared for.
My cabin was no different. By the end of the week, their prayers consisted of praising God for His unmerited favor upon unworthy sinners such as them (they used those very words). For instance, the one boy prayed, “Thank you God that you are immutable, omniscient, and omnipresent. These give me great comfort because I know that it doesn’t matter where I am, you will still hear me.” Another time, I was asked the question, “Mr. Daniel (that is how they addressed me), can you do the evening devotional on faith?” After I asked what he meant by that, he responded, “I would like to know what faith is and how we get it.”
The examples of God at work in the lives of these children are too numerable to continue listing here so I will move on to the principles for youth ministry learned and reinforced over the past few years.
1. Children can grasp more than we think.
As was evident in my week as a cabin leader and the years I have spent ministering to youth in my church, children can grasp a lot more than we think they can. The things they can grasp are not merely the moral lessons of the Bible, but deep theological doctrine.
2. Teach the language of Scripture.
There are many words in Scripture that we do not use in our common daily speech – and I’m not talking about KJV words either. Words like sovereign, righteous, holy, justification, etc., need defining and explaining, which, however, does not mean they are too much for children to grasp.
3. We don’t need fun Christianity, we need serious Christianity.
I shared my testimony the first evening at camp and inserted into it the fact that when I was their age, I thought Christianity was for grown-ups, not children, and that my mentality was to only take it seriously when I was older. One of the boys put up his hand, and I motioned to him, indicating he could share. He said, “What you are saying very much encourages me because I often think that way too, that I will only think about [the Christian faith] when I’m older.”
I think the reason this way of thinking is prevalent in Christian communities is that a ‘fun Christianity’ is marketed to those who teach kids as the best way to learn about God. We do not need ‘fun Christianity’ to get kids to believe in Jesus, for such a belief, sooner or later, results in a watered down version of Christianity, resulting in no Christianity at all.
Being serious about faith may look boring at the onset, but the result is, more often than not, steadfast faith in young believers. ‘Serious Christianity’ produces teenagers and young adults who can articulate the teachings of Scripture with ease in the hostile worlds of the university and workforce.
4. Drill for oil, don’t rake leaves.
The analogy of the difference between drilling deep and scratching the surface has been portrayed in numerous ways. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter remains, especially in the case of teaching children, that drilling deep into the doctrines of Scripture is much more fruitful than simply scratching the surface.
Furthermore, the idea of drilling deep denotes spending a considerable amount of time in one place. Applied to children and youth, prolonged exposure to Scripture will cause them to make the truth their own much more quickly than when it is sprinkled into the fun events. Moses commanded the Israelites to diligently teach the Scripture to their children “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). Just like any other kind of discipleship, teaching children and youth takes consistency and time.
The Next Generation Belongs to Us
How we teach the next generation will determine where they end up. Either we will teach poorly to their detriment, or we will teach well for their success. May we strive to teach well enough that the next generation will teach the successive generation the whole counsel of God, and so further the kingdom of God.