written by Nathan Lenstra, M.Div., pastor at Connexion Church in Danville, Urbana Theological Seminary Alumnus
My name is Nathan Lenstra and I’m a 2009 M.Div. graduate from Urbana Seminary. My education at Urbana Seminary helped me develop a solid biblical framework and foundation for thinking about ministry, especially God’s mission in the world and how I could be a part of it. In what follows, I describe how my church and I have put into practice in our community what we’ve learned about God’s mission.
Children matter to God! Remember the gospel story about people bringing children to Jesus to have him bless them (Matthew 19:13-14; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)? The disciples tried to keep the children from Jesus, perhaps thinking that the Messiah was too busy or too important to spend time with children, but Jesus welcomed the children and then turned the disciples’ thinking on its head when he said that everyone needed to receive the kingdom of God like a child in order to enter it.
So God loves children and thinks that children are important. The Cape Town Commitment from The Lausanne Movement says, “Children and young people are the Church of today, not merely of tomorrow. Young people have great potential as active agents in God’s mission. They represent an enormous under-used pool of influencers with sensitivity to the voice of God and a willingness to respond to him.” About one-fourth of the world’s population is under 15 and research has shown that most people who make a commitment to Christ do so between the ages of 4 and 14, so what are we doing to invest in this key demographic to develop the leaders of today and tomorrow? And what are we doing to ensure that all children encounter God’s love?
For the last six years, my church has had a ministry with children, youth, and families in the Fair Oaks neighborhood in Danville, IL. Fair Oaks is part of public housing in Danville and is more than 90% African-American while my church used to be almost exclusively Caucasian. If you live in east central Illinois, periodically you may hear a news report about a shooting or some other criminal activity in Fair Oaks (in Danville the reputation of Fair Oaks is entirely negative and often condescending), but I’m here to tell you that God is present and at work in Fair Oaks.
Almost every Friday during the school year, we have an after school Bible Club for elementary students and for the past several years, we have done a weeklong Vacation Bible School in the summer for children. We do these (and other) activities in the Fair Oaks neighborhood where the people live for a few reasons. It’s easier for the children to attend (no transportation logistics to figure out), it eases the parents’ minds (Who are these people, where are they taking my children, and what are they doing with them?), and we think it’s biblical (Jesus didn’t just stay in the temple or in Jerusalem and ask people to come to him. He traveled throughout Palestine with the message of the kingdom of God.).
Through my ministry involvement in Fair Oaks, I have grown and have learned a lot, perhaps especially that children are children, regardless of the color of their skin or their socioeconomic background or any other way we might class people. They are energetic, curious, playful, and they often have a desire to learn about God and to follow him.
Some find it hard to believe that there are people in America (or at least the Midwest) who don’t know anything from the Bible, but I have interacted with several children who don’t know about Jesus, the 10 Commandments, Adam and Eve, etc. – stories that I think many Christians assume everyone in America knows about. I’ve found that these children as well as those who go to church regularly both want to know God. I’ve almost cried at times when children call out, “I want Jesus to be my king!” or they ask, “What are we going to learn about Jesus this week?”
I think about some of the children (and youth) I know and how God is at work in their lives, and then I think, “Where would they be if I wasn’t obedient? Would they have known about God and Jesus if my church and I didn’t go to Fair Oaks?” I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that I’m grateful for what God has done. Things have been challenging and difficult at times and I’ve thought that I was in the midst of a wasteland at times, but God has proven faithful (cf. Isaiah 35; 41:17-20; Isaiah 43:16-21; Luke 4:18-19) to bring healing, hope, and life to those who may be overlooked by others.
Let me conclude by saying, “I love children!” I am a single, white, balding 32 year old man who is not especially energetic, enthusiastic, or dynamic. If you were going to pick someone to be involved in children’s ministry (especially ministry among minorities), I wouldn’t be the first choice, but a few years back when I was in a small church on a Native American reservation in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota, a pastor’s wife challenged me to lead a children’s ministry. I had no idea what I was doing and I often still don’t know what I’m doing. But I have come to love children and I especially love teaching them the Bible and talking with them about God and how God loves them.
If God can use me, he can use anybody. I encourage you to pray and ask God if he wants you to get involved in children’s ministry in some way, especially consider children that may be overlooked in some way in your community. Jesus loves them and he may want you and your church to be the ones who go to them with the message of his love.
If you want to learn more about our ministry or about how you could go about starting a similar ministry in your community, I’d love to talk with you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at Lenstra80 at yahoo.com or 474 1293. Thanks for reading!