A couple of months ago, my husband and I took our nine and eleven year old daughters to Ethiopia.
Instead of the usual family holiday, we spent ten days volunteering at Ebenezer Shepherding Ministries Africa (ESMA). We helped in the orphanage, tutored children, distributed equipment and shoes that we had brought with us.
We had many questions in the run up to the trip – and so did many of our friends and family. Was it safe? Would the children cope with the heat, the food and the poverty? Would they find the orphanage and the children’s physical illnesses overwhelming? The short answer is yes, and no.
It was overwhelming for all of us at times, but we coped with all of these challenges, and many more. We learned more about ourselves than I thought possible, but perhaps most importantly, we were able to go and serve God together as a family, a faith adventure in which our children were equal partners.
Our children have been in church their whole lives. But one day, they will cease to be there by dint of our involvement alone, and will have to make their own minds up about what faith means to them.
At that point, head knowledge alone will not be enough. All the great kid’s work and Bible study in the world does not make a real, living, active faith – for that they will need experience, and their own encounter with Jesus. This would be my biggest argument for encouraging us to involve our children and young people in mission – whether overseas or over the road.
There is a reason that our faith is called living and active, and that so many times in the Bible we read about God showing up and doing the miraculous when someone steps out and does something. When the rubber hits the road, we test our faith and learn that God never lets us down – not because we’ve read it in the Bible (although that is important) - but because we’ve seen it in our own life. It becomes our own story.
A better story
I once listened to a parenting talk in which a pastor recounted a worried father coming to him for advice. His teenage daughter was hanging out with a crowd he did not like, had a boyfriend and no longer wanted to come to church. The pastor’s advice? You need to give her a better story, he said. Remind her what this faith life is really all about.
He thought about what the pastor had said, and he and his wife sat their family down. They said that they were going on a family trip to Mexico, to volunteer at an orphanage where they sponsored a child. It was going to be a family project: they needed to raise money for the trip, collect supplies to take with them.
Over the coming months they planned, fundraised and prayed, and the man reported a surprising change in his daughter’s attitude. She spent more time at home, came to church, and one day, announced that she had split up with her boyfriend. "Why?" asked her Father. "Oh, he didn’t get it Dad," she told him "and I’m too busy now, anyway."
Experiencing a faith of their own
I am not suggesting that mission is the silver bullet to keeping our teens in church, but perhaps it is part of the answer. As children become teenagers, the world shouts loud for their attention. And so faith needs to be real and strong and alive – and exciting - for them. As church family, we have to make sure that the faith that we teach to our children and young people is also something that we give them the opportunity to experience, to feel and own for themselves.
On mission, we got to spend time with the most amazing people. People who had given up lives, homes and security to live sacrificially by faith. Our own faith was challenged by seeing and hearing the miraculous things that God had done for them, and for our children – well, they got to spend time with their children, hearing the same stories for themselves, from a child’s perspective.
Suddenly it’s not the children’s worker telling them that God provides, it’s another child showing them. It’s not Mummy or Daddy lecturing them about the amount of toys they own, it’s them seeing for themselves how other people live. It’s not hearing stories of God answering other people’s prayers, it’s praying together as a team and seeing God answer their prayers.
It’s a valuable lesson, applicable to anyone at any age, but let’s not exclude our children and young people from seeing, hearing and experiencing God on the mission field. It’s a story they will never forget.
Emma Fowle is a freelance writer living in sunny Cornwall with her husband and two children. Part of the leadership team at Wadebridge Christian Centre, she also writes at emmajfowle.com