Feature

Fertile Ground

AWANA changes young lives in Ecuador

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Isn’t it interesting how God gently moves our desires into alignment with His? For several years I saw myself winning Ecuadorian adults to His Kingdom through discipleship and church planting. Children’s ministry held about the same appeal as officiating at funerals.

But God gave me a new vision that was so exciting, my former interests were painlessly displaced. Today, my focus is on a partnership with two ministries to reach Ecuador for Christ—through children.

Refocused Efforts

I had always wanted to minister to adults because I saw them as potential leaders. I reasoned, They’re the ones who have the resources to finance ministries, pastors’ salaries and church building projects. In short, I sought quick results.

The number of Ecuadorians who were cold to the gospel was disconcerting, but there were enough interested people to keep me busy. I was excited to see new churches opened and people baptized. By God’s grace and power, my wife, Joy, and I observed a church growth rate of more than 20 percent for several successive years.

To our frustration, many children of the adults we ministered to were not following the Lord. A whole generation that had grown up in the church left when they became teens because the church wasn’t meeting the challenges of modern education, cultural issues and an anti-Christian educational system.

Ecuadorian pastors commonly delegate youth ministry to someone else. One Sunday morning at our church, La Luz, my pastor surprised the congregation—and me—by introducing me as the new youth pastor. What? I thought. Alliance missionaries work with adults. We don’t do youth ministry.

A high school program was already established; my task would be to reach early adolescents. I had heard of Awana Clubs but had no information about how to start a club until I visited one through the Alliance Academy. What an exciting ministry! I received training via cassette tapes, and Joy and I opened a club with 35 children.

Before long, we observed that the kids in the program were applying God’s Word to their lives. One five-year-old became so excited about the Bible verses she had memorized for her lessons that she taught them to her kindergarten classmates. Surprisingly, the school allowed this. We also found that the children who did Bible memory work raised their school grades.

Overlooked Disciples

A few years later Joy and I were assigned to the pastoral team at New Jerusalem Alliance Church in Quito, and once again I was named youth pastor. We started an Awana program and watched it grow from 35 to more than 180 children and from 8 to 40 leaders.

At an adult Bible study one evening, the parents protested that their children knew the Bible better than they did. These kids could recite many of the verses called for in the lesson. God was reaching parents and family members through these children, and His Word was being cemented in their lives.

One couple had separated, and their daughter spent time in each home. She started going to Awana and sharing her memory verses about salvation and Christian living with each parent. Before long, the couple came to church seeking spiritual and marital reconciliation, thanks to their daughter’s ministry to them.

Other C&MA churches began to express interest in starting Awana clubs. What started out as a children’s ministry in a local church spread throughout Ecuador. Joy and I had dedicated a corner of our home office to Awana supplies, and the materials quickly outgrew the space. Our time requirements increased from a weekly Awana meeting to daily activities.

I realized I had underestimated God’s love for children. I’d also overlooked the fact that when young people grow up, they serve in the church. The Lord showed me His vision for children. I discovered that in a typical established church, 85 percent of the adults made their commitment to Christ before they turned 18. One study showed that missionaries had received their call to missions by the time they were 16.

In Ecuador about 45 percent of the 12 million population is under age 18; 55 percent is under age 25. This is an Unreached People Group of more than 5 million children. We must not overlook the abundant young harvest as we seek future pastors and missionaries. Truly, childhood and teen years are the most fertile ground for God’s work. It is much more difficult for an adult to enter full-time ministry than for a child or youth to prepare and enter before becoming entangled in other commitments and interests. It is easier and more efficient to form rather than reform lives.

Studies show that a strong youth program is the key to keeping young people in the church. I wondered, What would happen if pastors were recruited as children and then carefully discipled throughout their youth?

Big Vision

Joy and I prayed the prayer of Jabez (1 Chron. 4:10), asking God to “enlarge our spiritual territory.” Soon after, the Alliance and Awana Clubs International formed a strategic partnership. We were assigned to Awana Clubs of Ecuador to help churches reach children. Today, nearly 130 Ecuadorian churches have seen the value of children’s ministries. Many of the children who attended our first clubs several years ago are now church leaders—some are Awana leaders.

Then Compassion International asked us to help provide Christian education for the 30,000 Ecuadorian children that ministry sponsors. Most of these children are nonbelievers. We started an Awana pilot project with about 1,500 Compassion children, and within six months half of the young people had become Christians. Churches are now ministering to more than 6,000 young people through Awana, and we expect to reach another 6,000 this year through the partnership.

God is not in favor of inward-focused ministry that’s limited to small circles. His vision is bigger than any individual ministry vision. He desires that we work with other believers, regardless of their denomination or doctrinal bent, in order to expand His Kingdom.

When God started to change my vision, I had no idea where He would lead. Through this strategic partnership of the C&MA, Awana Clubs International and Compassion International, we can reach thousands for His Kingdom and for future ministry.

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