My wife’s younger brother decided to come and visit us after we were married. He was young, energetic, and impetuous. He had purchased a motorcycle and was going to drive down from the Central Valley to visit.
This was in the days before smart phones, google maps and GPS. It was the dinosaur days of maps and Thomas guides. However, those were no help on a motorcycle. We talked to him before he left and he know to get off on “Culver.”
He drove for hours into the LA metropolitan area and got off the freeway when he saw “Culver” on a sign. He drove around on his motorcycle until he realized he was in an unbelievably bad area of LA. He called us from a pay phone with genuine fear in his voice realizing he was probably not in our neighborhood .
We finally figured out where he was and talked him back on to the freeway and he drove the extra forty miles to our house.
My concern today is that many children’s ministry leaders have the wrong destination in mind and are in fact heading in the wrong direction.
As we suggested in our first blog of this series, the Great Commission is not to evangelize, convert, reach of even make Christians of boys and girls. You may balk at hearing that but go back and read through our first blog.
The Great Commission is to “make disciples”! This is the destination with important elements along the way. It is to that important topic, making disciples, that we turn in this final blog of our mini-series.
The Right Destination
Countless pages have been written about discipleship, and my intent is not to try to review all that work and then apply it to children.
Instead, using the framework of the Great Commission, I will attempt to summarize the gospel teachings about discipleship.
(The term disciple is used thirty-nine times, and thirty-five of them are in the gospel accounts. Similarly, the term disciples is found 265 times. All but twenty-four of those are in the gospels.)
As a starting point in this conversation of children as disciples, let me suggest that discipling children has three important aspects:
Learning from Jesus
When we are discipling children, we can draw from all that Jesus taught and then teach boys and girls to rely on Jesus for help in understanding the truth and how they should live. Thankfully, we have a written record of what Jesus taught.
In addition, His Spirit helps boys and girls know who God is; God’s perspective on human beings; the problems in this world, including our own sin; God’s plan to remake our world, including us; and the list goes on.
But Jesus did not only teach truth; He also gave us guidelines for living. He shared practical instructions on how we should live, what we should do in various relationships, the best practices for handling money, how to serve and minister to others, and so much more.
Finally, we also have a church community that can help children understand and see real-life examples of people doing what Jesus said, of people living out Jesus’ teachings.
Closely related to learning from Jesus is following Him. After all, discipleship is not solely about knowledge.
Genuine disciples put into practice the truth they learn, and that’s the essence of following Jesus. Our Lord and Savior always lived and acted in complete harmony with everything He taught. What He said, He did; His actions lined up with what He taught.
Boys and girls can choose to follow Jesus and then do things the way He does. Children can act with kindness, grace, and a servant heart just as Jesus acted, and children can speak truthfully, respectfully, and patiently just as He spoke.
Children really can learn to imitate Him more (Matthew 12:50, 16:24, 20:25-28; Mark 8:34; John 10:27, 12:26, 14:23-24).
Becoming Like Jesus
Closely related to following Jesus is becoming like Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit and as we imitate Jesus—as we do things His way, think His way, act His way, talk His way, listen His way, etc.—these Christlike actions become habits, and soon we reflect Jesus more clearly, and we even become more like Him.
When children learn from Jesus and obey Him, they are cooperating with the Spirit who transforms their heart and aligns their character to Christ’s. Each day we become more like Jesus, experiencing more of His peace, abiding presence, and the new life He intends for us (Matthew 10:24-25; Luke 6:40).
Discipleship is a Lifelong Adventure
Of course, children—like us adults—are not perfect. That’s why discipleship is a lifelong adventure. Let me share a scene from my adventure….
Our daughter’s birth was an incredibly significant event. I had wanted children for some time. At long last, the children’s pastor—me!!!—finally had his own child.
Like most fathers, I invested myself heavily in trying to be a godly father. (Looking back, I realize that the early part of my fathering years was an important season in my own discipleship process.) I loved my daughter, yet I knew that doting on her could cause problems. So, from the start my wife and I were committed to being good disciplinarians.
When our daughter was about two years old, I was driving her in my car. It was an old Toyota—one of my favorite cars ever—and I kept it pretty pristine. You also need to know that in those days, the law required children to sit in the front seat in a forward-facing car seat.
When we got underway, my sweet little daughter kicked the glove compartment door. I told her not to do that again because she could break it. She looked right at me with pure defiance in her eyes and kicked it again. This time it did break.
I was shocked to see my sweet little girl with that look in her eyes. I also knew this was my first test, and I resolved to meet it head on. I calmly explained that she should not kick the door again and that if she did, I would stop the car and swat her not for kicking the door but for her defiance.
With no hesitation whatsoever, she kicked the door again. I could not believe it! I pulled over into a parking lot, got out, walked around the car, took her out of the car seat, and swatted her bottom once. She had on a super, heavy-duty diaper, and I don’t think she even felt it. She had gotten the message, though, and she started crying. I put her back in the car seat and was shaking myself.
I walked around the car and sat down in the driver's seat. It had been difficult, but I knew I had done the right thing. When I looked over, she had little tears running down her face. But then I saw it, the defiant face—now doubled down!
@!~@&^! I thought to myself—and sure enough! She kicked the door again!
Deep in the heart of even the sweetest child is our fallen human nature, and this part of us needs God’s transforming work if we are to be more and more like Jesus.
Discipleship is the name we give to the process of an individual being transformed into greater Christlikeness, of that person moving from not even knowing Jesus to becoming increasingly like Him.
God will do this transformational work as He chooses—and it is our choice—to respond to His invitation. To be more specific, God will use someone—or several someone’s—to help this transformation happen.
Essential to this divine process is our acknowledgment that because we have a bent toward choosing what is wrong, unholy, and bad rather than what is right, holy, and good, we need to let Jesus reign in our life and let Him make those decisions for us.
As Rudolf Bultmann put it, discipleship is the “surrender of one’s own judgment.” (I just wanted to quote Rudolf Bultmann in a children’s ministry book!)
Making Disciples Addresses Knowing, Doing, and Being
I have found the graphic above extremely helpful for understanding how this process works.
Girls and boys need to learn the truth (KNOW), put into practice what they learn (DO), and become more like Jesus as they do so (BE).
It works something like this. A child learns that we can talk to God. We can say, “Thank You” and “I love You” to God, and we can ask Him to forgive us when we do things that are bad. We can also ask Him to help us with problems. This activity is called prayer (Luke 11:1-4) (KNOW).
Prayer remains merely head knowledge until the children themselves speak to God (DO). When children do pray, they experience the peace and joy of prayer, and they want to learn more about it (KNOW). More important, children want to try it again. As they pray and see God answer their prayers, praying at bedtime starts to become a habit (DO).
At some point that habit starts spilling other parts of the day (DO). More teaching—such as 1 Thessalonians 5:17—may come at that point, teaching that helps children learn they can constantly be in a posture of communication before God (KNOW).
After some years, the child has become a person of prayer: speaking with God, listening to God, and praying are as natural as breathing (BE).
This process, however, doesn’t always begin with knowledge, and the process doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes, for instance, children decide to do something—they give a valued toy to someone who doesn’t have any toys—without any real knowledge that they are pleasing Jesus (DO).
They later learn what God’s Word says about giving, helping others, and loving with our actions (KNOW).
The point is, making disciples addresses knowing, doing, and being. Discipleship is not just knowing the truth, it is not just doing and working, and it is not just being a “good” person.
Knowing, doing, and being all function together in the transformation of a child into Christlikeness. An effective children’s ministry therefore addresses all three areas, with the goal of making disciples of girls and boys in every nation of this world.
The Cost of Discipleship
Finally, the church in North America generally associates discipleship with growing in Christlikeness on the generally pleasant road of spiritual transformation.
When we read the New Testament, however, we find ample teaching about a disciple following in Christ’s suffering (Mark 8:34; Luke 21:12; Romans 12:14; Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 4:16). In the gospel accounts, suffering and even persecution are closely associated with being a disciple.
In many areas of the world, the cost of discipleship is significant. Although some children in the United States may be rejected or mocked because of their faith in Jesus, in many American churches the idea of persecution is quite removed from the process of boys and girls becoming Christ's disciples. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that persecution for their faith is a harsh reality for children around the world….
Susanna was the eleven-year-old daughter of an evangelical pastor in a church in Upper Egypt. Gifted by God to share Christ with Muslims, her father had led many young Muslims to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, Muslim fundamentalists in the city bitterly opposed Susanna’s father. Susanna had accepted Christ as her Savior when she was nine. Since then, she had followed Christ and even been involved in her father’s ministry.
Ministry had taken Susanna and her father to a conference in Cairo, Egypt. At the end of conference, they left Cairo for the long drive home, planning to arrive in the evening. Muslim fanatics in their hometown, however, got wind of their travel plans and set up a checkpoint on the only road into town from Cairo.
When Susanna and her father drove up to the checkpoint in the late evening, they were dragged from their car, beaten, and left on the side of the road. The beating took Susanna’s life; her father was hospitalized. Her much-too-short life of discipleship ended in martyrdom. Discipleship for girls and boys in many countries can mean literally losing their life for Jesus’ sake.
Their denying themselves and taking up their cross is a real-life experience, not a spiritual metaphor (Matthew 16:24-25).
Not Always an Easy Path
Ending a chapter on discipleship with a story like Susanna’s is a real downer especially for the many Americans who understand the Christian life as the “victorious” life.
In my years of ministry experience, however, I have found that children are not put off by the challenges of following Jesus.
Years ago, we had finished an evangelistic outreach at a church in Quilpué, Chile. After the assembly, as we were walking to the administration office, a little boy came up and tugged at my elbow. Through my translator, he told me that he had wanted to come forward and give his life to Christ but had been too nervous.
When he asked me if it was too late, I assured him—with the help of my Chilean pastor friend—that it was not. When the little boy told me there were more like him, we stepped into a small empty classroom—and were followed by over thirty children.
Our team stood in the back, and I was in front with the Chilean pastor who translated for me. In my great spiritual discernment (not!!!), I wondered if the children were there primarily for the novelty of talking to an American. I presented the simple message of salvation as I had done in the assembly. Then I decided to make clear the cost of following Jesus in Chile.
Knowing Chile to be strongly Roman Catholic, I explained to the children that friends, teachers, and even family members might challenge them about their faith. After I elaborated a bit and explained that following Jesus was not easy, I concluded by pointing out Jesus’ original followers faced countless troubles. (When I glanced at my fellow team members in the back of the room, they looked concerned!)
At that point I asked if any of the children still wanted to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and commit to following Jesus. Every child in the room shot up their hand! Thankfully, my Chilean colleague had nuanced my message and then prayed with those children.
Later, one of the EGM Board members told me that if he had heard my message when he was young, he might not have responded so positively.
Children all over the world are waiting and ready to follow Jesus, even in the face of challenges. I have seen that personally in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, India, and the Middle East. They are just waiting for someone to come and share the good news that they can have a life-changing discipleship relationship with Jesus Christ!