September 13

Five Smooth Stones for Children’s Ministry: Relationship

Then [David] took his staff in his hand [and] chose five smooth stones from the stream. (1 Samuel 17:40)

One of the Bible’s great stories for children is David and Goliath. I mean, it has a lot going for it, especially for the boys.

Once when I told the story to a group of four-year-olds, I apparently went on a little long in my description of Goliath. During the week I ran into a mom and dad in the grocery store, and they told me their four-year-old boy thought Goliath was the hero. Oops!

David, the actual hero, is a young boy whose life illustrates how God can use boys and girls to accomplish His work. In fact, some of the greatest ministry in the world is done by children.

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on the stones. David used five smooth stones in his confrontation with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:40).

Remember, the army of God was facing a giant, and these fighting men were clearly afraid of him. Each day passed, and no one was willing to step out in faith against the Philistine champion… until David volunteered (v. 17).

King Saul offered the shepherd boy the world’s tools of combat—his helmet, armor, and sword—but David turned down the offer. Instead, he took up five smooth stones and marched toward his opponent.

In the name of the Lord, he was ready to face Goliath. David vanquished the enemy with the first stone he slung, and his victory has been told to countless children for centuries.

Preparing Our Children for Battle

Not one of today’s children faces a single battle champion seeking to destroy God’s people. Instead, every one of today’s children faces a spiritual battle against the dark powers and principalities of this world.

Consumerism, social media, wars, domestic violence, disease, and a host of other issues definitely put children at risk.

To equip children for that battle, the church has turned to the world’s educational models, ministry techniques, and popular programs that are akin to the world’s armor King Saul had offered David.

I have an entire shelf of children’s ministry books that are programmatic, methodological, and educationally sound: the loose biblical proof-texting makes them all appear a viable approach to teaching kids about Jesus.

I want to propose, however, that we use instead five smooth stones that God has laid out for us.

Moses was winding down his tenure as Israel’s leader, and he knew that he would not be crossing into the promised land with God’s people (Numbers 20:12-13).

God had used Moses in spectacular ways to free His people from slavery in Egypt; to lead the people out of Egypt; to lead them in forty years of wandering after their rebellion at Sinai; and, now, to lead the next generation back to the promised land to enter and conquer it.

All that may seem far removed from teaching children about Jesus, but think about the fact that as we get older, we think more about our legacy and the future of those we love.

We find ourselves more concerned about the next generation, and Moses was no different. In his own words, we can find at least five smooth stones, if not more:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)

Arguably, this nine-verse passage is one of the Bible’s most direct and extensive teachings about ministry to children.

In fact, it is my view that Deuteronomy 6:1-9 should have a central place in the development of any children’s ministry because it contains biblical principles that are foundational to discipling children. 

First, though, we’ll pause to look at issues that surround the interpretation of this crucial passage.

These principles are our five smooth stones.

Children's Ministry Smooth Stone #1: Relationship

The first smooth stone for children’s ministry—and it is foundational to all else—is relationship.

Effective and fruitful children’s ministry is relational in nature. The love of God flows into children’s lives through our relationship with them.

The life-giving and guiding power of God’s Word—which Moses referred to as “these commandments” (v. 6)—becomes apparent to children when we are in relationship with them.

Notice that the verse 6 reference to commandments follows shortly after Moses’s restatement of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.

The word commandments is understood in much broader terms, though. Christians today would affirm that the Word of God as a whole should be upon our hearts as we minister to the children entrusted to our care. 

But what exactly does upon our hearts mean? An understanding of the word heart is essential.

Heart is translated from the Hebrew word (lēbāb) and “is not the seat of emotions and feelings–as it is in English metaphors–but rather the seat of the intellect, will, and intention.

[In Hebrew,] you think in your heart, and your heart shapes your character, choices, and decisions. It is also the center of the human being as a moral agent."

The intent of Moses was that the commandments would be present in every person’s mind, apparent in everyone’s actions, and influential in the development of every individual’s character, and the Israelite listeners understood.

Even today the commands of God are intended to initially shape and then be evident in our thinking, doing, and being.

We most effectively share with children the commands of God that are on our heart when we have a relationship with them.

We best model the love of God when we are in a relationship with children and when they are in relationship with other children. Boys and girls can know our thinking, see what we do, and experience our character when we are in relationship with them.

It is, therefore, no coincidence or surprise that being in relationship with those we minister to is the first and the foundational principle for ministry that we find in Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

The role of relationship—with children as well as with those who minister to children alongside us—has been absolutely essential in my own ministry experience.

An Effective Children's Ministry is Relational

Over the last forty years, I’ve worked with hundreds of children’s workers from many countries. They form quite a diverse group in terms of age, profession, ethnicity, gender, and theological tradition.

In an informal and unscientific survey, I have asked these dedicated workers if they grew up in churches and/or participated in Sunday school, Good News Clubs, Children’s Church, AWANAs, VBS, church-sponsored summer camps, etc.

Not surprisingly, a significant majority of those leaders had their own experience in church when they were children.

When I ask these children’s workers what they remember and what had the greatest impact on them, without exception they mention a person.

Never has anyone pointed to a killer Bible story, an amazing memory verse activity, a wild and crazy game, or an awesome lesson plan.

Instead, these people talk about the man who drove the bus that picked them up to go to Royal Rangers or the teacher who prayed with them on the steps of the church.

They rave about the leader who took them for ice cream after church or the young man who walked them home from church every Sunday. They tell about the neighbor who invited them to church or the crafts lady at VBS who helped them make a clay bowl.

Effective children’s ministry is relational (Deuteronomy 6:4-6).

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