Helping kids look beyond themselves
Joey is a real kid. He does okay in school, he likes hanging out with his friends … and he loves anything about sports. Joey is a typical 12-year-old. Well, in most ways he’s typical, but there is one way he is atypical. Joey willingly does what he can to help people. He works at a food bank, he opens doors for older people, and he willingly shovels the driveways of the widow who lives next door—even though no one tells him to do so, and she doesn’t pay him.
Joey is missions-minded, often thinking of the needs of others before himself.
When I asked about shoveling for the neighbor (without pay or recognition), he shrugged, “I do it just because.” He paused. “She lives alone and doesn’t have anyone to help her.”
I knew in this world of book-length Christmas wish lists, get-what-you-can-gratification and take-care-of-yourself-first mindset, there had to be something behind Joey’s willingness to shovel a neighbor’s (rather long) driveway or to spend part of his school vacation stacking shelves at the food pantry.
I probed and I found the answer. From the time Joey was old enough to hold a toy shovel, he helped his dad do yard work for people in need. No matter how tired they were, they finished the job. His dad modeled for him that “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5) means helping others even when you don’t want to, you’re tired, or you’re hurting. The same with the food bank. His parents regularly help in the community food pantry and they took Joey along from the time he could put a box of macaroni on a shelf.
Watching the missions-minded attitude of this 12-year-old, I knew that his parents’ lessons had left an impression. His spiritual growth includes a passionate awareness of helping others. But nurturing such a mindset in our kids is difficult. We live in a world that goes contrary to such an attitude. Kids are surrounded by the message that it’s all about “me.”
Most of us can at least paraphrase what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-4: “… but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
But how do we do this?
Here are some thoughts I’ve put together from talking to Joey’s dad, plus other parents and children’s ministry volunteers who are doing a good job encouraging children to have an outward rather than inward perspective.
A missions-minded life is modeled.
We influence our kids not only by what we say, but also by what we do. We’ve heard that, but do we believe it?
When our church made the decision to sponsor a refugee family, we knew it would take a lot of time and effort. Several people volunteered. But when the refugees arrived, it was one family who sacrificially gave of their time by teaching the refugees to grocery shop, apply for a job, and to drive a car. As the teacher of the preschool Sunday school class, I had both the volunteers’ daughter (Samantha) and the refugees’ daughter in my class. I had the privilege of watching Samantha willingly care for the refugees’ daughter. She taught the little girl how to color, how to cut, and gently led her to the chairs when it was time for the lesson. She was modeling her parents’ care.
A fourth grade class in another church was led by a lady who consistently sent emails and cards to the church-supported missionaries. She gave her students opportunity to do so too. A portion of class time was dedicated to reading the missionaries’ answers or sending them newsy notes. Because of their teacher, the kids learned to be interested in missions and care about those serving.
Our kids observe our mission-mindedness. Joey saw his dad caring about the neighbors and now Joey cares about the neighbors. Samantha saw her parents care for the refugees and so she cared, too. The class followed their teacher’s example of caring for missionaries.
Whether as a teacher or a parent, we cannot expect our kids to think about others when we are consumed by our own wants, comforts, and desires.
A missions-minded life is a lifestyle, not a one-time event.
Every Thanksgiving your children’s ministry has a food drive and the kids bring in a couple non-perishable items that Mom found in the pantry. But what about the rest of the year? Homeless shelters need food in August, too. Yet many kids think that because they donated two cans of soup in November, their duty is complete.
To counteract that, one church collected a different item each month. Children were encouraged to bring paper products one month, cleaning supplies another, and new packages of children’s underwear on a third. Helping the community shelter was an ongoing process, not just a yearly or one-time event.
Missions trips can also feed into the “moment-in-time” mindset of being missions-minded. Kids often experience memorable adventures in other cities or countries, but a true missions mindset will flow into everyday life at home and not stop when the last picture is downloaded. Being kind to the kids in the faraway orphanage is good, but so is kindness to the unlikeable kid at school. Sharing the Gospel with the little boy in South America is great, but so is having a Christ-like attitude toward siblings.
Kids can be missions-minded and make a difference in the lives of others. In Proverbs we read, “The righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26). The very way we (the righteous) live influences those around us and that goes further than a one-time event or even a monthly event. Being missions-minded is a lifestyle.
A missions-minded life is mundane and doesn’t always yield results.
We often hear Matthew 25:37-40 quoted that we are to feed those who need food and clothe those who need clothes. Interestingly, those verses don’t talk about results.
Look at Christ’s own ministry. When He healed the ten lepers only one came back to thank Him. But we don’t like to address this reality. We like to see results. (Maybe a part of our instant gratification society?) Our kids are used to buying something with a click of a cursor, of being entertained by pushing the power button, by instantly communicating with their friends by a text. But life isn’t always like that.
Missionaries serve in countries for months (even years) without anyone responding to the Gospel. That child in your group who offers kindness to the new kid won’t always be offered kindness in return. Joey doesn’t get paid for shoveling the neighbor’s walk. He’s not even sure whether or not the widow appreciates it (but he hopes she does).
Being missions-minded takes sacrifice and effort and is not always celebrated. Discipling our kids towards missions-mindedness includes being realistic about the disappointments and sometimes blatant rudeness that they might encounter. We need to help them handle the discouragement and remind them that God knows our hearts.
A missions-minded life is right here and right now.
Do we encourage our kids to be influencers by picking up trash, by not arguing over a game, by sharing the markers?
Do we do class service projects and make cards for the church shut-ins, make cookies together for a visiting missionary, collect Bibles for people who have none?
Sometimes kids think about missions as an exotic overseas adventure, but missions is:
… helping the kid who trips on the church steps.
… putting together a scrapbook of jokes, messages, and coloring pages for a child in the hospital.
… collecting money/food for an area hit by a tornado, flood, or hurricane.
We need to model mission-mindedness.
We need to nurture our kids to understand that:
… missions-mindedness is a lifestyle, not a one-time event.
… a missions-minded life is often mundane with little result.
… missions-mindedness is focusing on the “right here and right now.”