Equipping Children to be Missional Minded

Beth Guckenberger

Beth Guckenberger shares about God’s love as a Father to orphans on Father’s Day.

By Beth Guckenberger

We were brainstorming how they could take the work God was doing in their own lives and share it with others who need encouragement. We were fighting the notion they needed to travel somewhere to do it, or that they needed training or a class, in reality, they didn’t need anything other than a friendship with someone and some intentionality. When we look outside of ourselves, when we seek to meet the needs of others, when we share what God is doing in our hearts, we connect what has been broken.
That’s the simplest definition of missions I can think of.

I could have been having this conversation in a living room in the Midwest, or in any other country. We adults long for children to see how God wants to use them in a world lost.

I sat in on a call to a children’s magazine with other contributing editors and we spent two hours thinking of ways and articles and contests and blog posts we could write to encourage adults to invite children into the Great Commission. We brainstormed and networked and fought the easy path of a program or a plan. We knew God’s way was relational and invitational, but our default button wanted steps to follow.

I had coffee with a friend, whose ten-year daughter is curious about how her family’s faith can be shared with others, and her mother is afraid if she shares openly about God, she will experience rejection. She asked for help in how to prepare her for this kind of evangelism, the kind that sticks around long after the hands go up (or don’t).

Wherever we Christians are gathered, this topic of missional living eventually arises. And if we take seriously the raising of the next generation, then missional living for our children is close to our hearts. In reality, it shouldn’t look like a mini-version or a toned down version, or a watered down version of ours, because Jesus was continually telling us to live as children, not children to live like us. To look honestly at a how to teach children to share their faith is to look honestly at how we are doing ourselves.

If we believe this is true, that how God loves us and came to us should be in our conversations with others, believers and skeptics alike, how should it/could it spill over into our relationships and priorities? When and how and where do we engage our children?

As a sixteen year overseas missionary and a mother to nine, this is a subject I have deeply wrestled with. I have been all over the board, some seasons insisting my children want to be nine years old, they don’t want to be missionaries, and I feed them full of fruit snacks and video games, making sure they don’t ‘pay the price’ for my following a call. Other seasons, I swing with the pendulum, and think they need to be mini-me’s and I have hauled them to squatters’ villages and orphanages, asking them to offer themselves and often extrinsically motivating them, rather than cultivating a heart that overflows.

In this messy world of parenting, I am learning a better rhythm. A rhythm of listening and responding, of relationships and conversations not easily wrapped up in a sound byte or a craft. I have decided that the process of working out my faith in front of my children (and that means the sacrifice, the unknown, the rejection) is important. With that in mind, here are some principles I am adopting in this missional-Great-Commission-living-and-parenting-lifestyle.

Invite children into the ‘sufferings of Christ.’ It’s our instinctive nature to put a protective shield around our children. But to cultivate empathy, our children need to see how much love can cost us. Love cost Christ everything and he invites us into that lifestyle, knowing we cannot out give him. The more we pour out on his behalf, the more he will fill us up. The Greek word, agape in the Bible has a great big long definition in the Greek, but my favorite phrase is ‘compelled to action’. It was agape love that compelled Christ to the cross and agape love that children innocently give voice to when they offer their snack to a friend, or want to sacrificially give a new toy away. We do them a disservice when we silence them, or tell them what they want to do/offer/give is not necessary.

I was speaking recently at a chapel in an orphanage in Mexico, and I told the kids about another orphanage in Haiti. The Haitian orphanage was struggling to provide protein in their meals and fresh vegetables, they were simply too costly. I asked the Mexican orphans to consider what could we do about it? What options did we have? How could we respond? These are kids who have no money. After some discussion, one nine-year-old boy, Emi, said that they had themselves to offer. He mentioned he was strong (despite having an arm in a cast at the time.) They all listened to him and agreed, they could offer themselves, and by the end of the day, we had organized and executed a car wash, raising several hundred dollars to send to the orphanage in Haiti. It cost the kids that day a lot, it cost time, and effort, and a free Sunday afternoon… but they were so full by the day’s end, no one noticed. That’s God economy.

When we ask our children to not just give their leftovers to God (broken toys, outgrown clothes), we model for them Christ’s teaching. It is in Malachi, God warns about giving our blemished lambs and expecting them to pass as acceptable. The Israelites knew what their best was and held that back. God sent them a warning and it’s one we can still hear echoed today. We need to teach our children from the start that God wants our very best. We have the chance to invite them to pay a bit of the cost, (sacrificing a birthday gift, giving up an afternoon) believing the short term ‘pain’ will reap in their character a long-term benefit.
I was talking to a group of moms the other day about the temptation to make our children the center of our kingdoms. To manipulate and educate and control and reward and then hope at the end of all our efforts, pops out a kid who is others-centered. It’s not possible. When we live missionally as a family, there are costs and benefits. It is natural to want them to experience all the benefits and minimize their costs, but that doesn’t serve them in the end. To see the character I want developed in my children, I have to ask him or her to pick up heavy things, that’s how those muscles are exercised.

Service is a three-step process: look, listen and offer.
We can teach our children to see what they have in their hands (what resources? What are their gifts? Who are their relationships?) Then we teach them and model for them how to listen for whom God is putting on their heart (is it a neighbor? A cousin? Someone from school? Someone they have never met?)

Then we simply bridge the two, what we have and who we have a heart for.

When I talk to children about missions, I explain my heart for orphans as a ‘burr under my saddle’. I can’t sit still or comfortable when I think about parentless children. It compels me to act. The first time I felt the burr was when I saw children that were hungry and hiding the food I brought to them under their mattresses. After that, I was never the same.

The children in your life might have ‘burrs in their saddles’ for kids on their soccer team, or people they see in their school who are lonely, or new or have special needs. Burrs can develop for people we know and for people we see on TV who are victims of violence or natural disaster. All burrs start with a cry and God tunes us each into a cry that reflects the heart and story He is developing for each of us.

Once I took my children all horse back riding on some trails in the mountains. Trail rides are where horses go to retire, they all know how to go out to the destination and then return home. They don’t need to be steered, it’s second nature to them. When the horse handler saw I wasn’t paying much attention to his class before the ride (because I was filling out a lot of release forms and had put I had some riding experience), I think he decided this city slicker needed to learn a lesson. He gave all my children these old horses (which I was glad for them), but for me, he brought out this 16-hand high horse that literally looked like she was dancing. I swung up on her back and we rode for a while and I felt like I was getting my money’s worth for this adventure, my horse wasn’t tired or old like others, she was fun! However, after awhile, this crazy horse wasn’t settling down and we were coming up to a difficult part in the path on the side of a mountain. I wanted her footing to be sure on the rocky path, so I humbled myself and shouted to the horse wrangler, “What do you think is going on with my horse?”

After watching us for a couple of moments, he said, “It looks like she must have a little burr in her saddle, but…” he looks down at his watch, “… give her another minute or two, we’ve been out here long enough, I bet whatever is bothering her will rub itself callous and numb and she should calm down in a minute.”

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. When we got to the part of the trail I was worried about, my horse had calmed down significantly and whatever had been bothering her wasn’t any longer. She spent the rest of the ride looking like the other horses, head bent down, following the rear in front of her. I spent the rest of the ride thinking to myself what happens when we ignore the burrs under our saddles? They eventually rub to the point of a callous and then grow numb. As a result, the rest of the trail ride of life, we don’t get a much better view then the rear end of the horse in front of us.
But, we have a choice!

We can listen to the cry that represents the burr in our saddles and respond to it, it’s our insurance policy against growing numb. When we hear our children raise questions, offer insights, or sound unsatisfied with how someone is living, it’s our chance to listen with them to the burr in their own saddles and walk with them as we help them know what their next steps can be.

I often ask children what it makes them feel uncomfortable (a lonely child in their classroom, hungry people they know or see on TV, a neighbor’s story) and then share how that is a piece of God’s heart, deposited in them. All they need to do is offer what they have (reminding them they have more than just objects, they have time, they have a smile, they have ideas, they have prayers, etc…) to those they see. Andy Stanley says, “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” Kids don’t need to understand causes or evangelistic campaigns, they don’t and won’t see things at the macro level, and they will however see stories, and friends, and names. Keeping their next steps personal will drive engagement and set them up for a lifestyle of reaching out to others in His name.

Teach children about the exchange. Service is not a one-way street, in the end, that kind of giving creates dependency with those we want to reach and gives a false sense of accomplishment for children. We have so much more to offer than our money and goods. The gospel is about what has already been done, we are the testifiers to His good news! Sharing about how the gospel is changing our lives and shaping our decisions means a conversation, a relationship. Does your lifestyle allow for time to have relationships? Are you talking as a family about what you can receive from those you are sharing your life with? As Paul says, “I was delighted to share not only the gospel, but my life as well.” The Great Commission is not something to be checked off a list, it’s a lifestyle of inviting others into the stories God is writing for your family. It’s pointing them not to you, not to liking you, but to Jesus.

One of the biggest barriers to adult serving is the disbelief they have something to offer. We have a chance to model for our children everyone has a listening ear, a smile, counsel, company, education, and the list goes on and on. Dropping off toys or sending in checks is one step, but alone it won’t cultivate a missions’ heart in your child (or in you!) What happens when we don’t exchange is we develop an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude. We have so much, they have so little. We are so great, we know Jesus, and they are so lost, they don’t. On the other side of that equation are still people. People who don’t know better, who formed their own worldviews from their own experiences and we, as a representative of the gospel, would serve them well by listening more than talking and exchanging with them more than handing off.

There is a tremendous movement in missions to not create dependency, and we have the torch to pass onto the next generation. They can learn from the mistakes we have made, even well intentioned efforts can do more harm. There is a large missions organization that encouraged children to send in jars of peanut butter with two quarters taped to the lid to an address in Miami, Florida following the earthquake in Haiti. Thousands of jars arrived to be shipped over, the quarters representing the cost of that jar’s freight. The children felt good, the parents felt better and all seemed well.
However, one of the only viable crops in Haiti is peanuts! When jars and jars of free peanut butter arrived in the port of Haiti, that harmed the local economy more than it helped the recipients. We can be smart about how we help these days, we have the chance to teach our children to be the same.

Model for them your own relationship with the lost world. Show them the world is bigger than your family. When we make all our efforts, resources, and time be about the maintaining and growing up of our own world, we miss out on how God might want to enrich our life with mission storylines.

A friend of mine told me about how he was walking with his oldest son in their neighborhood and they saw some trash along the sidewalk. He pointed it out to his son and asked him to pick it up, mentioning how we need to keep our neighborhood clean, etc… it was a typical parenting opportunity and he felt good he had seized it to share that message. Later that month, he heard his middle son complaining to his mom that when he was in the neighborhood earlier with the big brother riding bikes, his brother made him pick up some trash on the side of the road. The father realized his oldest son heard the message, we need to keep our neighborhood clean, but he also heard inadvertently, when you see trash, tell someone younger/weaker to take care of it. It didn’t matter what he, the father, had said, it mattered what the boy had witnessed. It was what he saw that he turned around and modeled. If the father had simply picked up the trash, maybe using words, or maybe not, a different message might have been absorbed. We need to model for our children what missional living looks like. Just telling them to have a mission’s heart will not produce fruit. Crafts involving maps won’t do it.

It will be when they witness your desire to share your faith that the message will be heard, loud and clear.
Do they see you talk to the clerk in the store? Do they see you offer your help to a neighbor? Do they see you take time to reach out to those you work with? Process with them after they overhear a conversation, let them know what you were thinking, how you were hoping it might go, how you are excited about a response or discouraged and know more prayer is needed. Make those kinds of conversation a regular part of your family.

Start with the teachable moment, rather than the long devotional. World issues and injustices can creep into our every day conversations. While you are driving, or at the dinner table, have a matter of fact discussion that, for example, a billion people on the planet don’t have clean water. Make it concrete, and mix their water at dinner with a little ice tea powder, so it looks ‘dirty’. Send your kids marching around the house 10 times with a bucket on their head full of water. Share with them how far a child their age walks for water around the world. Make the conversation come alive. Introduce them to people, places and the realities of a lost world. You be the dispenser of these facts, not the TV, or school. They will learn the truth eventually. There are children who are slaves, there are natural disasters that destroy communities and families, and there is war. It’s always better to frame it, then have to later react to it. Allow them opinions and questions. Take a moment to look up something online, or to share a story you heard, or a YouTube video. Between soccer practice and homework, these conversations of substance they will repeat and remember.
It’s always worth the time it takes.

To have these teachable moments, however, we have to be plugged into each other, not other electronic devices. It means that we have to be comfortable wandering into conversations without having all the answers, to be vulnerable with our kids that maybe we don’t know why hard things happen, or why someone don’t want to hear about the gospel. We can share our disappointments; I had hoped that would go differently. By sharing the hard moments of missional living, as well as the good ones, we demonstrate the results are not ours to control. One of the common complaints I hear from my work with teenagers is that they don’t see adult Christians sharing their disappointments, so when something doesn’t go well for them, they assume they have done it wrong. We have the opportunity to model for them that our job is to listen, be open, share, offer, then allow the Lord to do the rest. We can allow them to watch us as we wrestle with our own questions and the reality it’s not our job to be responsible for others, just to them. What’s our responsibility to them?
… to share the reason for the hope we have.

1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Begin with the end in mind. When I first started out as a missionary, long before we had children of our own, I hosted missions teams and saw how picky some students were (I don’t eat strawberry jelly, I am sorry, I don’t like wheat bread, I only want creamy peanut butter, etc…) As a result of those experiences, I always switched up my kids PB&J. I knew I never wanted them to complain about their sandwiches at someone else’s house. So one week we ate wheat, the next week, white. Some days we had strawberry, other days grape. It was a plan. I knew where I wanted to end up and I was intentional in the process.

It’s a silly example, but I think the same principle applies to teaching our children about the Great Commission. If we know where we want them to end up, we should be mindful about the steps in our process. We can introduce them to missional living the same way we teach them to cheer for our college alma mater or to love the beach over the mountains. We can show them the many, creative ways to love others well. As a family, what relationships are you inviting into your life that are inconvenient? What relationships do you have with families or individuals that don’t look, talk or live like you? How do you demonstrate to your family what you value with your discretionary time and money? These questions and many more will propel your family down a path of missional living.

Author Donald Miller talks about ‘inciting incidents’, in his 2010 Jan. 1st blog entry, he writes, “Create an Inciting Incident. Characters don’t want to change. That’s why so many new-years resolutions fail. We write down that we want to lose twenty pounds and end up gaining ten. It happens every year. What we are overlooking is a principle that every good screenwriter knows: Characters don’t change without being forced to change. An inciting incident is the event in a movie that causes upheaval in the protagonist life. The protagonist, then, naturally seeks to return to stability. And in order to do that, he HAS to solve his new problem… Characters must be pressured to change, or they won’t. And a narrative context can help…inciting incidents might be signing up with friends for a marathon, joining a kick-boxing class, inviting friends to dinner every Sunday, writing an I’m Sorry letter to an old friend, buying an engagement ring, writing a check to a ministry, whatever…just something that forces you to move.”

Inciting incidents are inviting the neighbor over to the house for a meal you have been meaning to get to know, it’s signing up at church for a Saturday outreach as a family, it’s learning another language, it’s giving away more than 10%, it’s following through on any of the million prompts God has given you and waiting to see what story lies on the other side. I don’t know any better incident inciters than children. They see no boundaries, have little social fear and believe there is always hope. Listen to the children in your life and then trust alongside of them for how God might be leading.

No instant gratification.
We want results quickly don’t we, 3G was amazing until we experienced 4G. One drive through line seemed unbelievable (food to go in less than 5 minutes?) until we saw that two lines were more effective. It makes us efficient as a society and allows us to do much more in a day than a generation ago was able, but it can skew our perspective on God’s perfect timing. When we help children form relationships, reach out, pray for someone, engage, we need to be simultaneously helping them understand God works in ways we can’t always see and almost never can measure.

I use a scale with kids to explain that when we first are called into someone’s life, they might not even know who Jesus is, or worse, have a negative view of him. Each interaction, each prayer hopefully moves them along on a path towards salvation. God is the only one who controls the timing of those steps. We are only to be faithful. That means sometimes we might interact with someone He has been wooing to himself for a long season and we get the privilege of eye witnessing a conversion. Or we might talk to someone who not only doesn’t understand our faith, they are hostile towards it. We might not use words in those relationships, just demonstrate consistent love over a long period of time until the questions start to bubble to the surface. Teaching children to trust in God’s timing, that results aren’t our responsibility, is key to their understanding of the Great Commission. Can we say it enough? Our role is obedience and surrender. All else is in the hands of God.

If we can continue to introduce our children to people, not causes, we will awaken the relational nature God stamped into our hearts. We can then listen together as families to the Storyweaver as He writes our next chapters and uses us to share his love with others. It is our high calling and biggest privilege as a parent, teacher, mentor to children. We can model for them and show them they are a part of a tremendously large story. May we all be swept up in this truth.

2 Corinthians 9:6-13
6 Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. 7 I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. That will protect you against sob stories and arm-twisting. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving. 8 God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. 9 As one psalmist puts it, He throws caution to the winds, giving to the needy in reckless abandon. His right-living, right-giving ways never run out, never wear out. 10 This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, 11 wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God. 12 Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. 13 This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone.

Discussion Questions:

1. How are you modeling a missional life for the kids in your ministry?
2. Where have you been guilty of trying to protect them from the cost of sharing the gospel?
3. How can we teach kids about what they have to offer?
4. What are some steps in teaching and modeling the practice of listening to God?
5. What burrs have you heard under the saddles of the children you serve? What have you done or could you do to cultivate that heart?
6. What is your reaction to, “Service is not a one-way street, in the end, that kind of giving creates dependency with those we want to reach and gives a false sense of accomplishment for children. We have so much more to offer than our money and goods.”? What does it mean to give a false sense of accomplishment to children?
7. How can we be smarter about how we serve? (Ex. Peanut butter jars) Where have you found success or now look back at a poor choice?
8. How or when can you share with children your own Great Commission choices? In what context does that make the most sense?
9. What realities in the world have you tried to keep your children from? And how might you be rethinking that now?
10. When you think of beginning with the end in mind, what kind of end do you wish the most for your children or the children you serve in ministry?
11. When you think of inciting incidents, which ones can you point to in your life? Which ones come to mind as possible for the future? How can you encourage children to not be afraid of them?
12. Thinking through instant gratification, what are some biblical examples or real life stories you have that can teach this principle of sticking with God’s call for the long haul? How can we talk to kids about trusting God for results? Do you think that’s easier for kids or adults to do?
13. What are some relationships you can invite into your life? Into your ministry?
14. Where do you need to trust God more in this area?
15. What do you hear God saying to you right now about missional living?
16. What are you most afraid of when introducing this kind of lifestyle to children?
17. What can you learn about yourself? Others? The Lord? In this area?

Beth Guckenberger is the mother of a bunch of biological, a bunch of adopted and a slew of foster children. She and her husband, Todd, direct Back2Back Ministries. Beth is the author of several books on the journey of their life abroad.