Children’s Ministry as the Presence of God

One writer has suggested that the strength of Jesus’s ministry was not merely his witness but in fact his ‘withness’.  He was with people.  What might that look like for us as we engage in ministry to children?

Dave Roberts is a writer and children’s ministry advocate. He also edits the Aim Lower Journal

God has chosen to act through his people, sometimes referred to as the body of Christ, to take the good news of Jesus life death and resurrection to the children of the world.  So far, so good. But how does that work out in practice?  Studying Jesus’s life would seem to suggest that he was constantly engaged with people. He told stories, he helped them with their work, he frequently eat with them, he engaged with their questions and their requests for healing. God will prepare children’s hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit, but how can we carry the presence of God into their lives. The answers are clear for those in Christian households but what of the rest from nominally religious or unbelieving homes. Let’s look at history and then look at some mission models from the present day.

Many of you will be aware of the impact of the Premier League in soccer worldwide. What you may not know is that the idea of the league came from the youth and children’s ministry of a Methodist church. Tired of friendlies against inferior local opposition and the occasional thrill of the cup, William McGregor of the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel Football Club decided to see if there was interest in a league structure. 10 of the other teams joining Villa during that first decade of the league (from 1886) were church affiliated with Methodist and Anglicans at the fore.

Many of the church teams had grown out of cricket teams. The Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel had over 300 children in their Sunday school and a significant number of young men in a Bible class especially for them. Six young men from the class ‘who scorn the very idea of class distinction, and who recognise that spiritual and social work cannot be divorced’ started a mission work in nearby Portchester Street that grew from 12 members in 1878 to nearly 1200 by 1888. One of the founders, HS Yoxall found large numbers of young men playing football on Sundays. He persuaded them to come to Bible class and provided a field for them to play on Saturdays. Then he discovered that they were using the changing rooms for drinking on non match days. Undaunted he joined the team in order to keep an eye on them but so impressed them with his skill that they eventually came to trust him, joined the bible class and gave up drinking.

The same mission started cycling, rambling and angling clubs and offered classes in arithmetic, writing, shorthand and music. They had several bands, a gymnasium, games room, lounge, library and refreshment bar. They were deeply embedded in their community.

Another club with deep roots in it’s community was Southampton FC. They saw themselves as being in a battle, with football being one of the social institutions that could build community and help the church find a voice among the local people. Basil Wilberforce, grandson of the anti-slavery campaigner, was determined to ‘plunge into Gods battle’. He started night schools, soup kitchens, clubs for young men and young mothers and gave his approval to a project of one of his curates – St Mary’s Association Football Club. The team that was to become Southampton FC were keen to aid the ‘spiritual life’ without ‘omitting the many exercises of the physical life’.

There is a much bigger story to be told about that fact that many of the clubs founded by churches, such as Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers, were deeply connected to their communities through compassion, education and places of connection. They were all involved in ‘withness’ in their communities.

How is this idea being worked out today? One of our friends in the Aim Lower community is Kids Hubs. This is how they describe their work:

KidsHubs is a global disciple-making strategy. It is a way that leaders can pass on a Godly way of living in a small group around a particular interest. KidsHubs is about discipling, mentoring and building relationships with children through:

  • teaching them relevant and purposeful skills
  • growing their faith by pointing them to discover Jesus through the Bible
  • leaders and children authentically sharing their lives with each other encouraging a sense of belonging to a faith community

The Bible talks about this in Deuteronomy 6:5-9:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Imagine walking alongside a smaller group of children discipling and mentoring them. As leaders we help fulfil the Great Commission by focusing our attention on discipling younger children in our midst.

It is using those things children are already interested in (woodwork, computers, sport, gardening, music, cooking and life skills: hygiene, nutrition, first aid and safety) as the basis for discipling with God’s Word. It is about leaders developing a closer relationship with a smaller group of children over time. Leaders are not just running a program but rather are uncovering children’s passions and using these passions as powerful learning opportunities with the Bible. The small group discovers many things together while engaging with God and His Word in those everyday activities. It is about leaders using teachable moments to pass on their faith – modelling to children what discipleship looks like in a whole life.

Teachable moments: are moments when a child is ready and receptive to learn something. The moment could be right for many reasons: they have a question, they trust you, you have a good relationship, or they are creative and in the right mood. There are two basic types of teachable moments:

  • Experiential learning initiated by the leader
  • Questions and moments initiated by the child

Find out more about Kids Hubs here

Another model of withness ministry is Ubabalo. This is a modern day incarnation of the mission ethos that birthed the Premier League. It is rooted in the idea of whole life coaching.

Ubabalo Soccer Introduction from Sports Serve on Vimeo.

The roots of Ubabalo lie in a response to conflict and loss. This how they describe it:

The vision and need for Ubabalo was birthed in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp on the borders of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 7 pastors gathered to share their story of how they ended up at the camp. The first pastor recounted how the rebel forces entered his village, lined up his 24 family members from the youngest to oldest – and starting with the youngest they used machetes to amputate and kill. Upon seeing this, the family ran to escape – many lost their lives that day but those that escaped made it to Nyarugusu. To our horror, this same experience was repeated by the 6 remaining pastors, with the only difference being the village of origin and the size of each family. What shocked us further was that the rebels and perpetrators of those atrocities consisted of young men between the ages of 18-19 years old.

We are convinced that many of Africa’s challenges are a function of fatherlessness and the deliberate destruction of the family unit. As the strategy of Ubabalo multiplies across the world to over 100 countries, we have now discovered that these challenges are not unique only to Africa. Ubabalo is our courageous attempt to transform worldviews of coaches and players, reverse the trend of fatherlessness, and to catalyze a Whole Life Coaching movement in order to redeem culture and impact nations.

Their coaching manual captures the withness element of the project:

As a coach, you are uniquely able to fill the role as mentor and role model for the players on your team. Because many players grow up without loving, present fathers, you are in a position to validate their potential, establish authority, confer identity, and provide a level of security to each of your players. Coaching for Life is designed to support you as you teach the game of football while connecting it to Biblical stories that instil the values your players will need in their daily lives. Additionally, each practice session highlights God as our Father, the Ultimate Coach in our lives. Our hope is that these sessions will be embedded into the heart of each player and will lead each player to true life.

Find out more about Ubabalo here

Take a moment and think of the ministries you are involved in. Are they all presentation based? What is the role of ‘withness’ in your projects. Read Luke 10 and reflect on the sending out of the 70. Why did Jesus say they were worthy of their hire. Was it because they had been working alongside their hosts, practicing ‘withness’, before they prayed for the people and told the Kingdom of God was near to them?

Food for thought

Dave Roberts