In all my professional life I have been working with small babies, literally from the moment of birth, and even while still in the mother’s womb! Everything around these babies can affect them, from stimulation to their senses, to oxygen levels, to nutrition, to a host of other influences. Many even brief influences have long-term impact, sometimes for life. We talk about how, at certain times in our lives, “minutes count:” this is one of those times. One could even say, “Sometimes, seconds count!” The very early phases in life are truly critically important, hence my many decades of research, papers and grants, focused around this phase of life, at the same time giving intensive care for these infants when they were sick.
DL Moody of Chicago had a keen sense of the critical importance of childhood influences. He went around his neighborhood and literally grabbed and herded children into his Sunday schools, to hear the word of God. These kids were highly vulnerable to the dangers and temptations of the big city, but he taught them well, to bring up many of them as responsible citizens, becoming the beginning of his church congregation, which grew and grew. Moody ultimately ministered to tens of thousands of people, and started Moody Bible Institute, which has sent tens of thousands of young ministers and missionaries all over the world. In turn, many of these missionaries, recognizing acutely the importance of children’s work, began their ministries with a strong emphasis on children, an excellent model that is effective in diverse cultures and lands.
In Hong Kong, my wife (to be) and I grew up in the Swatow Christian church, a strong evangelical church with an effective Sunday school program for children and youth. We even became “childhood sweethearts,” under the nurture, and I sometimes suspect, the blessing (!) of excellent Sunday school teachers, whom I remember vividly and fondly, even to their old age. One of my most admired teachers, Charles, lived to the very ripe age of 90, and yet was able to still quote his childhood memorized Bible verses, even when he had dementia in his final years.
Photo 1: God-fearing dedicated Sunday School teacher Charles, shown with lovely family, who lived till age 90 years, faithfully teaching all his life. A living walking role model for my future wife and me, for years.
Our Sunday School teachers were undoubtedly great role models who had tremendous impact on our young lives. Even as the church children grew up, and migrated to Australia and North America, we could see the impact of their childhood Sunday School. Many of these continued to serve the Lord, and became deacons, elders, ministers and leaders of their churches. We heard enough stories from all over the world to remind us that, even when it seemed that some had veered from the straight and narrow, later on we heard, to our great encouragement, that many returned to church to serve faithfully.
Alan grew up as a child in the church, but when he left high school, he moved overseas. He became extremely successful and well-off in his new country, and drifted away from church. He spent every weekend basically playing mahjong with his friends, with little meaningful purpose in life. One weekend he was doing the same thing, but as he drove home, he noticed their 2 precious daughters sleeping in the backseat, because he and his wife had dragged them along for their usual mahjong night.
As it was way past midnight, he turned to his wife and said, “What are we doing with our children? What kind of life are we leading? Maybe we should go back to church.” To which, his wife agreed, they abruptly withdrew from their mahjong “4-legged” group, “returned” to church, and after a while began to serve the Lord. In my view, there was little question that his childhood Sunday school had impacted his life forever, even in a far-away foreign place. And that his faithful mother’s daily prayer for him from childhood, had been finally answered.
When we work in children’s ministries, today there are lots of very fine books to help us, so there is no need to repeat what they say. I just like to emphasize that children’s ministry is so important that it is definitely needs a big team effort, requiring a lot of people working together, joyfully, with one great goal. Never attempt to do this with a few people only, or we will burn out quickly and fail. Find good people, inspire them, gather them together, pray together for the kids, and off we go. We can all learn and grow together.
Most people, probably especially Asians, are hesitant to volunteer themselves for most church work, from a combination of shyness, humility, and inertia, so don’t wait for them to volunteer. Just help “volunteer them,” with a smile and warmth. If they are scared at first, especially about language issues with American born children, they can come in as observers and assistants. They can also help first in Vacation Bible School work, which is an excellent training ground, see Reggietales.org: “Lord, Bring us 100 Children.” Teen age volunteers especially will be likely inspired by Vacation Bible School; keep encouraging them, to join as fresh Sunday School teacher assistants, and watch them grow into great teachers.
Photos 2 & 3: Children and youth at camp. Camp implies a time away from normal school and environment, a time to focus on God, a time for teachers to bond with their children, to be even more a walking role model for them. Esther and I have loved children and youth retreats, all of our lives.
A key work of Sunday School is to find a credible experienced person as recruiter and mobilizer, one who obviously loves children, who is willing to announce, announce, announce, at big and small meetings, about the needs, challenges and results of the children’s programs, with enthusiasm and a great smile! Most church congregations barely see the children’s program, being often “out of sight, out of mind,” so it is up to us to keep the program alive and well in the minds of the adults.
One of the most important things that happens in Sunday School is teaching children great instinctive habits and principles, where indeed “the answer is always Jesus,” as we like to joke about, but which is always true. Our goal is to nurture instincts in young people to do the right thing all the time. And everywhere in their lives. In this evil and deteriorating world, hesitation when faced with temptations and wrongdoing, can be lethal. I am not kidding or joking: the reports of suicides, drug overdoses, and shootings are often only minutes away from faulty decision making. And wrong impetuous small decisions at many forks of road, lead unconsciously down terrible pathways. Principles and discipline are undoubtedly best taught in childhood, as foundational solid bases for their whole lives.
For example, even simple habits of discipline can have valuable long-term impact. Teaching children to tithe regularly from childhood, even with small amounts, gives children a foundation, of the right attitude and discipline towards God, giving, and serving others, for a lifetime. That was how my wife and I were taught faithfully as children, and it was instinctive for us all our lives, so as adults, we had little hesitation over giving in diverse situations, even when we were quite poor, such as during our pediatric training years. Amazingly, God has blessed us abundantly, throughout our entire lives, in unexpected and joyful ways, much more than we deserve, just like we were taught in Sunday School.
A story* goes that the tireless servant of God, George Mueller, was asked one time how many people accepted the Lord, after a meeting at which he had been speaking. When he responded, “2 and a half people,” people assumed he meant that there were 2 adults and one child. But he meant 2 children and one adult. Why? He explained that the 2 children had their lives to live, and the adult had only half a life! An important corollary to the story is that children’s Sunday School is definitely a great preparation for all of life, not just a half.
Overall, the astonishing thing about programs like Sunday school is that, for the children, right before their eyes, there are walking role models interacting with them, loving and inspiring them. These are not TV, video or smartphone characters. These are usually not “professional teachers,” taught and trained by professional professors, but real-life fallible coaches, just like natural parents, and older siblings, to the Sunday school kids, committed specifically and lovingly to their spiritual growth, for years and years.
Growing up in such an atmosphere of love and mission, kids instinctively carry that message all their lives. I am personally thankful always for the generations of wonderful dedicated Sunday School teachers who inspired us as children, so that we ourselves in turn can become dedicated Sunday School teachers. As they say, “life lessons are best caught, than taught,” and that is where Sunday School teachers are so wonderful. I personally feel that Sunday School teaching ranks as the “best job” in life, when we can, literally, nurture and inspire numerous others in life, naturally, and with the greatest satisfaction.
Finally, exposure to different ministry opportunities can begin really young. For my wife and me, even though we grew up as preteens in different countries, separated by a thousand miles, both sets of our parents used to entertain foreign missionaries in our homes. From these gatherings we learned, from early childhood, the importance of missions work, which helped set the stage for a lifetime meaningful commitment to serving in missions. So much so that we willingly and joyfully left a very promising academic career, to serve in medical missions in China. A perfect decision in time and place, linked clearly to childhood training and discipline. I invite you to read my book, “Coffee with Uncle Reggie,” you will see how joyful my life became, as I stepped into the “mission world.” Children are indeed foundational treasures.
*Author’s caveat: I can’t actually find the exact reference for this well-known Mueller story anymore, so if you find it, please let me know. It’s a great story with strong implications.