Hearts Alive Children’s Church
by David Sanford, Hearts Alive Writer
I had the privilege of interviewing a fairly large group of third to sixth graders at my church. Each child sat on a “hot seat” and answered five questions. The first four answers were easy: name, grade, number of siblings, and how many years they’ve gone to church.
The final answer was a little tougher: talk about when it’s hard for you to trust God. I was amazed at their responses. First, they had a much shorter list of reasons than adults usually do. Second, several of the children honestly and sincerely told me, “It’s always been easy for me to trust God.” You should have seen the smiles on their faces.
What could possibly ruin such wonderful, child-like trust in God?
Sadly, it’s very possible for a child to grow up in a faith community, learn lots of Bible stories, sing lots of songs, memorize plenty of Scripture verses, say all the right things, look good—very good—and yet lose his or her faith.
Sometimes, it’s the individual’s own choice.
Sometimes, however, it’s because of the sinful, terrible choices of adults the child should have been able to trust.
Scripture couldn’t be clearer that anyone who repeatedly or severely harms a boy or girl or young adult by sinning against them—physically, psychologically, socially, sexually, or spiritually—is in grave danger of God’s judgment. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 18, verses 5 and 6.
Anyone who welcomes a little child like this one in my name welcomes me. What if someone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin? If they do, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned at the bottom of the sea. (NIRV)
Believe me, ancient Jewish men feared drowning above all else. Even experienced fishermen like Peter and Andrew, James and John, were scared to death of drowning. Sure, some like Peter could swim, but that wasn’t a given. There certainly was no Michael ben Phelps back then. Even if there were, imagine a judge ordering a crew of Roman sailors to take you 10 miles out into the Mediterranean Sea, tie a 100-pound milestone around your neck, and send you to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker.
Peter and his fellow disciples shuddered at the thought. It should make us shudder too. Why? Because Jesus warns each and every one of us that such a fate would be much better than causing a child to lose his or her faith in Jesus Christ.
The point Jesus is making is crystal clear: Don’t let your attitudes, your words, and/or your actions soil or steal the God-given faith of a child.
But perhaps Jesus’ warning should also cause us to think of other smaller ways we can cause children to begin to lose faith—by our critical attitudes, hypocrisy, self-centered living—anything that doesn’t truly reflect Christ-like, child-like kingdom living.
I’m not talking about being perfect. Instead, I’m saying that a child’s faith grows, not diminishes, when an adult apologizes to the child for, say, losing his or her temper.
When it comes to sharing the love of Jesus, let’s always make sure it includes children. And then let’s do all we can to guard their trust in Jesus.
Some claim a small child’s belief in God doesn’t really count. But that’s not the case. The apostle Paul could say to Timothy, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15 NIV).
True, children can’t understand everything they’re taught. So? There is nothing wrong about a child’s inadequate concept of God or of the Christian faith. After all, 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV) says: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” The Bible doesn’t criticize a child’s way of thinking. The One who made us knows us.
By: Lindsey Goetz
“…May God give you ears to hear His loving voice, his loving voice speaking all around you, all around you, and deep inside.”
Every night, a lump forms in my throat and I blink back tears as I finish singing “The Song of Blessing” to my three daughters. It strikes me anew every night that I’m praying that the God of the universe would open the ears of my children to his voice, that they would hear him. As a parent and as a children’s minister I feel very keenly my responsibility to help children learn that God is speaking–by his world, by his Word, by his Spirit– and that they can hear him. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” the Lord said to Samuel when he went looking for a King; “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” And I wonder if a vague memory floated through Samuel’s mind–of a young boy, lying on the temple floor, who heard the voice of God at a time when the word of the Lord was rare. Scripture says that this was before Samuel knew the Lord, and it was Eli who helped Samuel recognize the voice of God. Hebrews 1 tells us that God has spoken, once and for all, by his Son. How are we, as those who love, serve, and worship with children, helping them to listen for God’s voice?
We Let Them Hear God’s Voice in Scripture:
We refuse merely to entertain children when they come to worship with the gathered people of God. Whether we remove them from the worship service or not, our primary aim is not to entertain them or even to teach them character traits or moral values; our goal is to declare God’s word to them. He has promised that his word will not return without accomplishing its purpose. Are we equipping children and giving them the opportunity to hear and to study God’s Word?
We Minister to the Whole Child.
Effective children’s ministry applies the truth of the gospel to situations that matter to children now. By treating children as people who belong in God’s family now, who are being joined to Christ now, and who have the ability to hear God now, we honor the image of God in them, help them to see how the gospel applies to all of life, and train them to listen for God’s voice every moment of every day.
We Show Them Jesus.
I’ve already mentioned the Hebrews passage that reminds us that God has spoken to us by his Son–and what a beautiful, true Word he is! The author of Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. So if we really want to hear God, we listen to Jesus–his words, his silences, who he listened to, and who he loved. The best thing we can do for the children we minister to is to be an arrow that points daily, hourly to the ultimate authority on who God is and what he does– his beautiful Son.
We Create Space for Them.
Children’s ministry programming must offer space for children to hear from God as he speaks to them by his word. We should be wary of always dictating the form a response should take, of minimizing concerns children raise, and of hurrying children along from one activity to the next. Instead, we should create space for children to hear God’s voice in his word and help them to become comfortable resting in that place through prayer, singing, or creating something that helps them give attention to what they have heard. We must provide ways in which they can be reminded of what they have heard throughout the week. (The Live it All Week sheets from Hearts Alive equip parents excellently to create this space in their homes.)
If we hope to raise and to serve children who are aware of God’s voice and listening to it, we must be people who do those things as well. And maybe that’s why I feel the lump form in my throat each night as my heart aches for my children to know the loving voice of God, to be people whose lives say “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Maybe it’s because as I pray this prayer for my children, I’m also praying it for myself.
Lindsey Goetz is a mom to three fierce and lovely daughters, and she and her husband David serve as Directors of Family Discipleship at First Presbyterian Church of Aurora IL, where they are enjoying Hearts Alive with their Sunday School classes. Lindsey and David also host The New City Families Podcast, creating space for conversations about family discipleship, to the glory of God for the good of our city. Lindsey currently loves cold brew coffee, neighborhood walks, and reading to her daughters.
Hearts Alive Writer, Michelle Van Loon is our guest blogger this week. She explains to us the connection between Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Jewish feast of Shavuot.
He told them to wait.
Wait for who?
Every time I read the account of the first Pentecost, I’m struck by the fact that Jesus’ followers had no clear picture of exactly who or what they were waiting for. But the risen Messiah told them to wait, so that’s exactly what they did.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)
There was context for his words. They were smack-dab in the middle of counting the Omer, numbering in prayer each day between the pilgrim feasts of Passover and Shavuot. Those feasts were two of the three times each year the Chosen People needed to present themselves as one in Jerusalem at the Temple. (The third was the fall feast of Sukkot.) Jesus’ words to them reflected the fact that they were going to be in Jerusalem for the Shavuot. I’ll be covering Shavuot in more detail next month, as it will begin this year at sunset on June 11th.
However, the Western Church will be celebrating the event that happened on the first Shavuot after Jesus’ resurrection this Sunday, May 15th. The Eastern (Orthodox) Church will be marking Pentecost this year on June 19th.
The Jewish festal cycle and the Christian calendar each offer holidays that are meant to serve as an on-ramp into the intersection of time and eternity. These moments and days point us beyond our own everyday agendas and connect us with our place in a bigger, more beautiful story. I’ve been blogging a 5-minute intro to each major holiday and season in both the Hebrew and Christian calendars. Today, I’m offering an overview of the feast day of Pentecost. This celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church ends the Easter seasonand inaugurates the long calendar period of Ordinary Time. (I’ll be covering Ordinary Time in a subsequent post.)
Before his arrest, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would be sent to his followers. Fifty days after Jesus was crucified, God immersed them in the resurrection life of Jesus, filling them as he’d once filled the Holy of Holies in the Temple and supernaturally empowering them to proclaim his glorious grace.
Pentecost is drawn from the Greek word pentekostos, which means fifty. It references the fifty day period between Passover and Shavuot.
Pentecost had a place on the yearly Christian calendar from the second century. Pasche, the observance of the resurrection, was the name for the entire fifty-day period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. By end of third century, Pentecost was the name given to the final feast day of the fifty days. Over time, a liturgy and an eight-day vigil leading up to Pentecost formed around the day. These holy days were second only to Easter in importance for early believers.
Because the date of Pentecost is calculated based on the date of Easter via the lunar cycle, the earliest date in the Western church for Pentecost is May 10th, and the latest date is June 13th. In these churches, Pentecost Sunday became an alternate day for baptisms for those who could not be baptized on Easter.
Pentecost is directly tied to the date in which Easter is celebrated each year. It’s considered a “moveable feast” as it is not anchored to the Julian/Gregorian calendar. Because the date of Pentecost is calculated based on the date of Easter via the lunar cycle, the earliest date in the Western church for Pentecost is May 10th, and the latest date is June 13th. In these churches, Pentecost Sunday became an alternate day for baptisms for those who could not be baptized on Easter.
Pentecost had a place on the yearly Christian calendar from the second century. Pasche, the observance of the resurrection, was the first name for the entire fifty-day period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. By end of third century, Pentecost was the name given to the final feast day of the fifty days.
Paul uses the language of Shavuot, the Jewish festival with a focus on offering of the first fruits of the new wheat crop, to speak about the resurrection of Jesus to his friends at Corinth:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:19-26)
God gave the Holy Spirit was given to the Church so we’d be empowered to do the kingdom works Jesus did: proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. Acts 2 baptism with tongues of fire – a reversal of Babel’s confusion and shattered community – that set free the community of believers to live their birthright as children of the King.
Liturgical churches use the tried-and-true order of service for Pentecost Sunday. (Here’s a link to a selection of liturgical prayers for the day.) Low-church (churches that don’t use a formal liturgy for corporate worship) Charismatics and Pentecostals seek to live in Pentecost’s reality every day, thus, they don’t tend to mark the day. Those from other low-church traditions interested in celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the big C Church may find some inspiration for service planning here.
And for all of us, Audrey Assad’s achingly lovely prayer, Spirit Of The Living God
To read more of Michelle’s writing, go to her website: Michelle Van Loon.Com
By: Sara Buffington, Hearts Alive Sunday School Curriculum Writer
This spring has brought a new hobby to our household: vegetable gardening. My seven-year-old, who prior to this was only interested in toys involving batteries, has fallen in love with growing our own food. We are only beginners, and we are learning as we go.
Last week an “accident” befell our tiny chili pepper plant. We had had a thunderstorm, and the rain and the wind had toppled the plant. “Mommy help!” my son cried. “Our plant has fallen over!” Anxiety turned to relief as we straightened the plant and applied more soil around the base. A few days (and another rainy and windy day) later, the plant toppled again. When it happened a third time, I knew we needed another solution.
Feeling like a genius, I ran to the kitchen to dig out an old chopstick and a twist tie from the junk drawer. We “staked” the plant by shoving the chopstick in the soil next to the delicate stem. We entwined chopstick and plant together with the plastic twist tie. Now the chili pepper stays erect during howling wind and rain.
Jesus was fond of the agricultural metaphor: scattering seeds, the grain of wheat, and staying connected to the vine. Like plants, we grow, we take root, we live, and we die. As I staked that little pepper plant with my son, I thought about how he had things in common with it: they are both young, they both have shallow roots, and they both need someone or something to help hold them up.
When we, as teachers or parents, care for a child and teach them about God’s love, we can be the chopstick that holds them up as they grow. As believers, should we not support one another? In time, their faith will strengthen, and their roots will deepen. May our prayers for them echo Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong” (Eph 3:17 NLT).
Jill Turner helps Hearts Alive Sunday school teachers understand the background for each week’s lesson. Many of our users have commented on the value of this component and how it leads to more meaningful discussions with students.
by David Sanford, Hearts Alive Writer
Why do children love Jesus so much? In the Gospels, it’s clear that they loved Jesus because He first loved them. Jesus wasn’t posing for future artists when He invited children to gather around Him. Actually, He didn’t have to do any coaxing. Children loved Him. So did their parents, who were eager for Jesus to bless their children.
Like a beloved uncle or grandfather, Jesus would put His hands on their heads and pray for them. I can imagine parents reminding their children, “Do you remember when Jesus prayed for you?” What a treasured memory.
It’s sometimes said that adults who love children at heart are really kids themselves. That is, they’ve retained the best qualities of their childhood.
While some grown-ups love to be around kids, some apparently don’t. There’s no question which when we look at Jesus.
Jesus loved to be with children. During His three and a half years of ministry as an adult, we see Jesus giving an amazing amount of priority to ministry to children. Jesus talks with children, something only parents and grandparents usually did in that culture. Jesus commends the faith of little children who, in that culture, were sometimes considered incapable and unable to truly embrace religious faith until they were almost teenagers.
Not only that, but we see Jesus blessing children. We see Him feeding them. We even see Jesus using a little boy’s sack lunch to feed the multitudes and send 12 hefty baskets full of leftovers to help feed others.
Beyond that, we see Jesus healing boys and girls who are demon-possessed and curing others who are sick and dying. He even resurrects a 12-year-old girl who had just died and an older boy who had died a few hours earlier.
In his preaching and teaching, Jesus said that children are a strategic, essential part of his kingdom in heaven and on earth. In so many words, Jesus told his disciples, “Listen, my kingdom belongs to kids.” Not only that, but Jesus goes on to say, “Unless you become like a little kid, you can’t even get into My kingdom.”
What is Jesus talking about? Well, what are kids good at doing? They’re good at receiving. When you’re a small child, your mom and dad give you some food. What do you do? You receive it. Your grandparents send you a birthday satchel with five shekels in it. What do you do? You receive it. God gives you a sunny day to go outside and play. What do you do? You receive it.
The same thing applies when it comes to God’s kingdom. Can you work really hard to get a part of God’s kingdom? No. Can you be good enough, for long enough, to get a part of God’s kingdom? Again, no. Can you pay lots of money to get a part of God’s kingdom? No. That’s what grown-ups would try to do. Jesus says, That’s not the way to get into My kingdom. My kingdom isn’t like that at all. To get into My kingdom you have to get down lower—humble yourself—and trust Me.
What do you have to do to get a part of God’s kingdom? That’s right. You have to receive something. Or, specifically, Someone.
In all we do with children, let’s be sure to cultivate their love for Jesus.
There’s a bumper sticker that some of you may have seen, it says: Salt Life. I imagine this to mean a life dedicated to spending as much time as possible at the beach: swimming, tanning, jet skiing, surfing, fishing, basically celebrating sun and sand. This coming week’s Palm Sunday lesson in our Hearts Alive curriculum for kids is about The Servant Life, and if you are reading this blog as a Sunday school teacher, congratulations! You are already immersed in Servant Life. As a servant, you know that there can be days that it is a thankless job. You sacrifice a leisurely morning in bed to the rush of preparing for class and sometimes dealing with the behavioral issues of other people’s children. There are those rewarding moments when you see the difference that knowing Christ can make in a child’s life, but most of the time, you will not witness the fruit of your labors. You won’t see the comfort that God brings to a child when he faces a small social challenge or even a full blown crisis in the future. Yet let me assure you, that seed is taking root. God’s Word never returns empty and will accomplish what HE desires (Isaiah 55:11 NIV).
The opposite of the Servant Life is the King Life, and He who is the worthiest, King of all Kings, spurned this life while He lived on earth. It is the life that many in the secular culture sing about… Greed, power, pleasure, cutting down others, being successful, demanding respect and adulation. It is a me-focused life. This week’s Heart’s Alive lesson is a great opportunity to ask ourselves and our students to reflect upon which lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves. Are we little “kings” always demanding to go first, to speak the most, never to wait, and always have our way? Or do we follow the example of our Lord who washed others feet and died a horrible death on the cross to pay a debt that He certainly didn’t owe, but gave out of love. The King Life seems more fun than the Servant Life, but this is a temporary delusion. Lasting fulfillment and happiness is always found in serving others.
“The greatest among you will be your servant.” Matthew 22:11, NIV
“My Father will honor the one who serves me.” John 12:26, NIV
“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” Acts 20:35, NIV