Feature

Bring Them to Jesus

Christ's mandate for children's ministry

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We met in the pastor’s office while the adults were in prayer meeting. She was only nine years old, with dark, curly hair and sparkling black eyes. Her name was Belen. We were already friends since she was in the Sunday school class I taught in our Alliance church in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were meeting because her mother had insisted on it.

“You have to do something about Belen!” she had said to me, sounding desperate. “She fights with her little sister so much she is driving us crazy! Can you talk with her?”

I had no idea what the problem could be, but I decided to help Belen talk about what was troubling her by using some pictures I had collected. Drawn by the artist who illustrated the Sunday school materials my husband and I were developing, they were designed to help teachers lead children in applying biblical truth to their daily lives.

“Belen,” I said, “your mom told me you are having a hard time. Since I don’t know what you are struggling with, I thought we could look at these pictures. If you see something that reminds you of your problem, you can point to it, and maybe I can help.”

She was intrigued and pointed to a picture of a mother lying in bed with her children standing by and crying. “Is your mom sick?” I asked, surprised. “No,” she responded quietly, “but sometimes she is so sad she doesn’t want to get out of bed.”

FACING FEELINGS

None of us were aware that her mother was in deep depression, but before I made any comment, I pointed to a poster of emotions faces and asked her how this situation made her feel. Belen quickly pointed to “anger” and “guilt.” She explained how upset she got when nothing she did to help her mother made a difference. But when I asked her about the guilt, she started to cry. “My mother says it’s my fault she is this way,” she sobbed, “and I don’t know what to do.”

We talked about how adults have problems that children can’t do anything about, and I assured her that the pastor’s wife and I were going to try to help her mother, whose sadness was an adult problem her daughter couldn’t “fix.” I also made sure she knew that the depression was not her fault. Gradually her expression changed, and we prayed together.

PASTORAL CARE

We said good-bye, and I started to put the pictures away. Then I realized Belen wasn’t leaving. “There’s something else, Señora Betty,” she said.

I looked at her, surprised, and asked her what other problem she wanted to talk about. I will never forget her answer because the Lord used it to convince me that certain simple techniques can facilitate the relationships needed for the pastoral care of children. “Show me the pictures again,” she said, “so I can tell you.” It was almost as though she was saying: “I can’t tell you if I can’t show you.”

The picture she chose of a man slumped in his chair with his hands over his face helped her tell me her dad had lost his job. The emotion she selected was “worry” so I knew that, once again, she felt responsible for the situation. I told her about a businessman in the church who often helped unemployed people find work and explained that the church had a food pantry for people with financial difficulties. Then we prayed again.

Belen walked away looking as though the burdens of the world had been lifted from her shoulders—and in a sense they had. Her mother later told me her behavior changed almost immediately. Her family also found the support they needed.

A NEW WAY OF MINISTRY

This encounter with Belen is symbolic of dozens of similar situations with children in Argentina and elsewhere. Children everywhere are burdened by emotional pain caused by many different factors. Some deal with intense loneliness as they try to function in a world where no one really listens to them. Others live in fear in the midst of societal violence and abuse. Still others rage as they struggle to understand the injustices of abandonment, indifference, mistreatment and rejection by parents. Many carry heavy burdens of grief as they confront overwhelming losses no one helps them understand.

The most common outlet children find for expressing their emotional pain is through aggressive behavior. Those of us who work with children need to learn new ways of connecting with their pain and of helping them know Jesus as the Healer. This process is what I call “pastoral care of children.”

Our first ministry assignment in Argentina as teachers in the Buenos Aires Bible Institute gave me ample opportunity to train people in Christian education. But it wasn’t until we were assigned to a church plant in southern Argentina that I began to see the real heart of the problem—how emotional pain develops in children due to fragile, broken families.

Since it was impossible to find adequate teaching materials for them, at my husband’s insistence I began to write Bible lessons contextualized to the needs of our fledgling church. The lessons themselves were often oriented toward the children, giving teachers specific helps for dealing with painful issues such as separation of parents, poverty, illness, dysfunctional family life or difficult school situations.

During this process I became convinced of the need to minister to children and their families through pastoral care. I began to understand that the important element in this context was respect for the children and their pain, expressed through willingness to take time to be with them, listen to them and then to help them express their struggles. The most important thing was that, as the children experienced this caring from their teachers, they began to understand God in a different way, as being more involved with their personal lives. I also saw a deeper level of commitment and compassion on the part of the teachers as they observed God at work.

TEACHING THE TEACHERS

The lessons learned in that church-planting experience have had unexpected results. In 1990 my husband founded a publishing house in Argentina called Publicaciones Alianza, which initially published the Old and New Testament lessons I was writing. Since then, gifted writers have continued to produce new materials for different age groups as well as resources for pastors and leaders. These materials are presently being distributed and sold in 13 countries.

The popularity of the published curriculum has given me many opportunities to connect with teachers and leaders. During the last five years my husband and I have traveled throughout Latin America holding workshops organized by those who distribute the materials. It has been a privilege to work with thousands of teachers who represent most of the evangelical denominations in each country.

Judging by the number of people attending these workshops, church leaders and teachers are deeply concerned about the needs of today’s children. The most requested workshop is about the pastoral care process in ministry to children and is based on a resource I wrote called Más que Maestros—Ayudas para el cuidado pastoral del niño (More Than Teachers—Helps for the Pastoral Care of Children). In this workshop I show teachers how to facilitate dialogue with children by using the pictures, emotions faces and interactive games included in this resource. As in the case of Belen, teachers learn that the pastoral care of a child involves taking the time to be present to their lives, helping them talk about their problems, listening to what they have to say and helping them find possible solutions through faith in Jesus and prayer. The testimonies of the teachers who have used this resource have blessed us over and over again.

In these seminars we also deal with the effect of grief on the behavior of children, on the development of the child’s concept of God and on the importance of the father in the child’s spiritual formation. We are often asked to give a seminar about sexual abuse of children or on the effects of separation and divorce in the life of a child, topics that are especially vital today. More than anything, we have found that these seminars provide a forum where difficult topics can be talked about and where people can open their minds to new ways of thinking about how to deal with them.

My life has been challenged repeatedly by the scene in Mark 9 in which Jesus faces disciples and leaders who had failed in their attempts to help a demon-possessed child. His scathing comments to them help me to understand the frustration He feels when ministry to hurting children is superficial and ineffective. I hear the authority in His voice when He commands, “Bring the boy to me!” I am convinced we cannot truly bring children to Christ until we make it possible for the light of His love to penetrate the darkest levels of their pain, where Satan has done his most destructive work. For that to happen, we must go beyond innovative programs and equip ourselves for a new dimension of ministry: pastoral care of children.

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