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Did You Have A Relationship With Jesus as a Child?

We asked this question to our Hearts Alive writing team.   Their answers inspired and amazed us.  We hope that their testimonies remind you of the awesome responsibility we all have as Children’s Directors and Sunday School teachers.  Thank you to David Sanford for sharing his story with us today.

Q: Did you have a relationship with Jesus as a child?

A: Unlike most other Hearts Alive writers, I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. Just the opposite. My father is still an atheist. His lectures were always the same: “There are no rules. Don’t obey anyone. Don’t even obey me.” When I fully committed my life to Jesus Christ at age 13, however, I found out my family had a rule: You can’t be a Christian. So, I was kicked out of my dad’s side of the family for 37 years. It was pretty surreal.

Then again, I was old enough to vividly remember reading the Bible cover to cover the first time. Imagine not knowing even the most famous Scripture stories. When I got to the beginning of Genesis 45, I wept at Joseph’s heartfelt love for and forgiveness of his brothers. When I got to the story of David and Goliath, I cheered. When I got to the story of David and Bathsheba, I felt so ashamed to bear his name. When I got to the end of Revelation, I put my Bible down and thought, Wow, I didn’t get all of that. So, I picked it back up and started over. Nobody had told me to read only three Bible chapters a day, so I read it cover to cover in as fast as 27 days. Except for one stretch, I’ve continued reading it avidly all of these years.

Q: How did that affect your childhood or teen years?

A: Coming to faith in Jesus Christ changed the whole trajectory of my life. I have a lot of cousins about my age. So, I know how my life would have turned out without Christ. Thankfully, the Lord has won one family member after another to Himself. I only wish we all would have done so as children.

Q: How did you get to know Jesus?

A: A friend in my neighborhood invited me to attend his Sunday school class. He stopped going after a while, but I’ve been in the church ever since. That’s the difference between hearing the truth and really listening to it. That’s why I’m so jazzed about the Hearts Alive curriculum. It brings Scripture stories to life for children. And not just as great literature, but as life-changing gospel truth. One of our core objectives is to see children fall in love with Jesus. I’m so thankful for Mrs. Rosemary Phillips, my first Sunday school teacher, who helped me do just that. Again, it literally changed the whole trajectory of my life.

Helping Children Find Themselves in God’s Story

By Lindsey Goetz

Before he dies, Moses speaks to the people of God gathered in the wilderness.  It’s been 40 years since they rebelled against God, and most of the generation that disobeyed has given up the ghost.  

And yet, when Moses speaks to God’s people, he recounts the stories of their rebellion and wandering in the wilderness as though they actually had been there.  Perhaps one of the places we see this most clearly is in Deuteronomy 5:3-4:

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.  The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire…”

In Reformed traditions, when we baptize infants, we are marking them as a part of the people of God before they have the ability to make that choice for themselves.  Indeed, we baptize them because we believe that they don’t make that choice for themselves; God is the one who has moved towards them in grace.  I love that the baptismal liturgy we use at our church rehearses the whole gospel, prefaced with the words, “For you, little child.”  

Other traditions have a similar aim in mind when they dedicate babies—they are saying to a family and to a child, “We are here for you, praying for you as you grow, and your story is bigger than you are.”

Let’s explore four principles for parents, children’s ministers, and those who worship in communities of faith with children as we seek to help children grow up into this identity as part of God’s people, as participants in what Michael Goheen calls “The True Story of the Whole World.”  

We teach the Bible as one big story.

How can a child see herself as a part of God’s story if she doesn’t know it?  As those who love, serve, and parent children, we must faithfully work to build Bible literacy in the children we shepherd.  This includes teaching specific stories from the Bible, certainly, but it also includes connecting each of those stories to the bigger story.  Children’s Ministers and Sunday School teachers do well to find curriculum that is gospel-centered, that helps teachers and parents point to Jesus in every story and strive for God-centered biblical application, rather than distilling each passage to a few moralistic talking points.  

We regard them as a part of God’s people now

It seems straightforward, but we help children grow up understanding themselves as a part of God’s people when we treat them like a part of God’s people. When we make space for them to serve, and give, and participate alongside the rest of God’s people in the work of the people, we help children understand that they belong to the people of God now. In our church, each time we take the eucharist, the children are welcomed forward with the rest of the congregation to receive a blessing.  No matter how shy my daughters seem at that moment, the wonder in their eyes gives away the profound impact the simple act of having a cross traced on their forehead and words of blessing spoken over them. It is an act and experience that they carry with them into their playtime throughout the week. Such a welcome opens a child’s eyes to the possibility that she could even see herself in the greatest story of all time.

We preach the gospel to one another in our households.

Once, I was in a group of church leaders when someone pointed out that I continually brought up the gospel.  This was profoundly encouraging to me as someone who misunderstood the gospel for many years, to have come to a place where it so resonated in my heart that it came out my mouth frequently enough that someone else commented on it.  This should be what our households are like—gospel-saturated places where every member of the household daily lives in and drinks in the Gospel. As adults, we must pray and train our eyes by regular study of the Word of God to see the gospel played out around us.  As we do this, we must grow daily in our ability to recognize the movements of the grand narrative of the gospel (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) in our day-to-day lives and point them out to our children and the young people around us. When we do this, we help the young people among us to see God’s story in real-time; we give them the wonderful gift of understanding that the greatest story of all the world is still being told. And it involves them.  

We invest in intergenerational relationships.

One of the key factors that determines whether or not a child will remain faithful to the Lord as they grow into adulthood is the presence of quality relationships with adults other than their parents who know and love the Lord. We help children see themselves as a part of God’s big story as they get to know people at different points in their faith journey who can testify to the work of God in the world and in their lives. These kind of relationships take intentional work, but the payout is worth the work.  In her book Children Matter, Scottie May writes that the simple but intentional act of looking into a child’s eyes and saying, “I’m glad you’re here today.” is a great investment in the sorts of relationships that will form a child’s identity as one of God’s people.  

Any parent, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, or grandparent who has had a child approach them with an armload of books can testify that children naturally love story. As those who love and serve children, then, let’s make it our aim to lovingly and graciously teach children the Word of God, by which they may come to know him and to see themselves as a part of his wonderfully big story.  

 

Guarding Child-like Trust in Jesus

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.

The Faith of a Child

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.

Helping Children Hear the Voice of God

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.

 

Be a Chopstick to a Pepper

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).

Meet the Hearts Alive Writers: Jill Turner

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.

 

Cultivating Children’s Love for Jesus

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.

The Servant Life Hearts Alive Palm Sunday Reflections

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

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