It's not as if I disliked kids; they just weren't my thing. I didn't go gaga over babies. I didn't want to entertain or placate temperamental toddlers. And I sure as heck didn't want to translate the bizarre language of primary aged children who talked incessantly about video games, bratz dolls and Ben Ten.
Sure they're cute with their ruddy faces and sausage–like toes, but so are koalas and lions. Everything is cute behind fences or from far away distances. But up close, babies get their claws out, they hiss and they bite. Basically I saw children as feral animals or untamed house petsâ€"it was best to keep my distance.
So, this was my perspective on children. What a perfect candidate to join the children's ministry team at church!!! Well God thought so, and you know Him, He has this amazing ability to see our gifts even if we can't see them ourselves.
So after several months in the ministry, a funny thing happened. I started to enjoy it, like really enjoy it. I saw that kids were hilarious; they really do say the darnedest things. They didn't bite, unless provoked, and they were genuinely interested in learning about God. I started to see the value of this often undervalued ministry.
The obvious thing
The first thing that God demonstrated to me when I began working in this ministry was the importance of children within the church. Now while I have read the story of Jesus calling the children to him in Mark many, many times, I have often missed the significance of this story.
While the basic command to 'accept the kingdom of God as a little child accepts things' is paramount to Jesus message in these verses, I now see another meaning in this story.
In Mark 10: 14–15 Jesus said to his disciples "Let the children come to me. Don't stop them. The kingdom of God belongs to people who are like these little children. I tell you the truth. You must accept the kingdom of God as a little child accepts things, or you will never enter it".
In these verses, it seems as if the disciples were bothered by the number of children flocking to Jesus. They obviously thought that these children were a nuisance. It's not as if Jesus had plenty of time to spare, people were always at him. Everyone wanted to see Jesus. He was like a rock star. He probably had shaggy hair, bathed infrequently and had tonnes of fans. He was a God to people, literally. So you can see the attraction and fascination that people had with meeting him. He could heal, educate, inspire and transform people. Who wouldn't want a piece of him? But children, what would they want from him?
Missing the obvious
Now it's not as if the disciples were heartless child haters. The disciples wanted people to meet Jesus. They wanted his greatness to be experienced by everyone. So why did they usher the children away from Jesus?
To answer this question, I had to place myself in their shoes. If I was one of Jesus' disciples I would have seriously wondered whether a child could comprehend who and what Jesus was. To meet Jesus was to be mesmerised and challenged. But how could a child grasp the significance of meeting Jesus? What would this small encounter really mean to them? For all these kids knew, Jesus was just some weird hippy guy with a large fan base. Did they really understand the privilege that they were experiencing? Would they be transformed through an encounter with him?
I don't know? So in reality I probably would have acted in a similar way to the disciples. Adults had priority visitation rights with Jesus. If Jesus had time to spare, then maybe the kids could interact with him. I mean Jesus' time was limited. He probably should have been exercising all of his time towards adults who could learn and be challenged by his words, right? Children couldn't truly understand the significance of an encounter with Jesus, could they?
But Jesus thought they could. In the next verse Jesus "took the children in his arms. He put his hands on them and blessed them". Why did he do this? Why did he feel the need to communicate with these children, to embrace them, to bless them?
Jesus was living the example he wanted us to follow. Although the disciples certainly valued children, they couldn't grasp the truth; that sharing a spiritual moment with a child was just as valuable as sharing a spiritual encounter with an adult. In these passages Jesus spoke of the spiritual innocence and transparency that adults should try to model from children. But in these passages he also indicated that their spiritual development was a necessity. Jesus' actions demonstrated the importance of shepherding children. They were not to be dismissed because of their immaturity or youth. They were to be embraced, cared for, sheltered, and led. They were to be guided and educated about Christian values, such as love and community; the very values that Jesus demonstrated that day.
The immeasurable obvious
Since I began volunteering in Sunday school several years ago, I have come to see the immeasurable value that comes from developing children's ministries within churches. Children are searchers by nature. They crave direction, answers and peace. In a world where scripture is banned and families are falling apart, many kids don't know where to look for comfort, guidance or understanding.
This is when a children's ministry truly comes into its own. Through providing a space where children feel safe and loved, you are providing an opportunity for God to work in their lives. God won't ignore these opportunities, he wants to reach out and connect with his children. It's like the line from Field of Dreams 'if you build it, he will come'. If you build this children's ministry, I guarantee that he will be right there with you. He wants to know his children, whatever age they are. Providing a place where children can come to learn about God is essential.
Now while I still see a correlation between children and animals after several years in children's ministry, I have come to realise that they are not nearly as feral as I first thought. In fact I now advocate the development of Sunday school, kids clubs and youth groups within churches today.
Unfortunately, these ministries tend to fall by the wayside in many contemporary churches for a myriad of reasons. And it happens all too easily. Children's ministries are not nearly as visible as say a music team on a Sunday morning. When the music team is suffering, everybody notices. But when Sunday school leaders are struggling to conduct a lesson with limited resources and support staff, parents and church congregants usually remain completely unaware or unfazed.
So how do we fix it? Well we need to place an importance on children's ministries within churches today. That is a big one. If we can get that one right, then the rest will go from there. Children's ministries shouldn't be a side project; they need to be a fundamental part of our churches' direction and future.
To effectively conduct a children's ministry these days you also need to be prayerful. You need to have an unlimited supply of chocolate, a dedicated team of volunteers and financial support from your church. And an animal tamer if God permits!
Alison Barkley lives in Newcastle and is a post graduate student at Macleay College in Sydney in book editing and publishing.
Alison Barkley's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/alison-barkley.html