Even the Least of Them . . . Children, A Mission Field
The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 extends some of the clearest criteria for doing the mission of the church. Matthew 25:37-40 provides criteria no less clear, however: Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘ Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’1
The “least of them” includes the multitudes of children who desperately need to be recipients of our ministry also. Not only do children need to hear about the love of Jesus; they also need the tender, caring touch of Christ’s followers. In the United States as well as numerous countries around the globe, the numbers of children who are in crisis circumstances are increasing exponentially. Today in America, a child is born into poverty every 38 seconds; one in six children lives in poverty.2
The faces of starving children in Africa haunt us long after the evening news reports filled with stark pictures. As we continue our lives, we pray, “Dear Lord, help that little crying baby. Please provide some milk and someone to comfort that little one. And, dear Father, that little boy whose skin covered only bones desperately needs special nutrition so he can survive. Lord Jesus, there was another little boy whose skin was pealing away because he was so undernourished. Please, Lord, let someone get there before it is too late.”
We are startled by the pictures of child soldiers who are pushed to kill and destroy in an evil atmosphere that would be uncomfortable even for most adults. In quiet but crushing magnitude, young children are being sold into the slavery of human trafficking and prostitution. During disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurri- canes, the news media bring us stories and pictures of children separated from their parents by death or destruc- tion. After the powerful tsunami in southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, parents were so anxious to be reunited with their children that several families claimed the same baby. Eventually “Baby #81” was united with his family through the miracle of DNA testing. In Rio de Janeiro and other large cities, the number of children living on the streets is growing. These children must fight to eat and survive; they must rush into adult roles, and they are robbed of that precious, important stage of life called childhood.
Poverty and HIV-Aids are claiming more and more children as victims. Through no fault of their own, many precious little ones face seemingly insurmountable obstacles for happiness and normal growth and develop- ment. Will we give them a chance to make it to adulthood? Will we find a way to help them know that God is real?
Children Needing Medical Care
Today countless short-term mission volunteers join career medical missionaries to give excellent medical and dental care to people of all ages and to share with them the love of Christ. In addition, a multitude of charities have arisen to give much-needed medical care to infants, children, and women. Because the needs are overwhelm- ing in our world today, charities and religious organizations sometimes work together. When Christian doctors and nurses give their time and energy to give medical care in secular settings, they still are ambassadors for Christ, representing the Great Physician.
• Healing the Children is an American-based nonprofit organization which specializes in medical treatment and surgical care for children whose families cannot afford it, in the United States and nearly 60 countries.
• Victims of HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS, a virus that attacks people’s immune systems, is one of the most devastating crises the world has ever experienced. Globally, around 38 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.3 In some countries in Africa, up to 40 percent of adults have the disease. HIV/AIDS hits everyone in the family hard, but especially women and children. Worldwide, over 14 million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.4 Some as young as seven or eight have become the heads of their households and must support their younger siblings. Many poor countries need resources for prevention, treatment, and HIV/AIDS education.
• Children of Chernobyl. Even though the terrible nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, occurred almost twenty years ago, children in that region still suffer serious health problems today. Doctors who care for these children say that simply spending their summer holiday in a country where they can breathe clean air and avoid the harmful effects of nuclear pollution for a few weeks can greatly improve their health. European Baptist Federation leaders have asked their Baptist families and churches to invite children from Chernobyl to come and enjoy a holiday in other countries. Children need clean air, a comfortable bed, loving care, and several weeks of time. Often the families who help are poor families who have little to offer except love and time, but they are willing to share their food and fresh air. If the host family or church does not speak Russian, translators accompany the children and stay with them throughout the holiday.
Historically, schools and children’s homes have played a large role in Baptists’ missions and ministry to children. In 1946, immediately following World War II, the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention launched extensive projects to meet humanitarian needs in China, Japan, and Europe. The board also restored churches and rebuilt schools and hospitals. By 1947 the George B. Taylor Home in Rome enabled Italian Baptists and Southern Baptists to minister to families and orphaned children in postwar Europe.5
The hopeless situation of orphaned, abandoned or mal- treated children has become a global problem of unbeliev- able dimensions. Many mission agencies provide educa- tion, medical care, games and clubs, as well as homes in which these fragile children are reintegrated into normal family life.
• Buckner Orphan Care International. Buckner International developed out of the Buckner Orphans Home, a children’s home in Dallas, which opened in 1879. In 1961 the home’s charter was changed to Buckner Baptist Benevolences to reflect its expanding network of services. Buckner provides more than forty programs, including Buckner Orphan Care International, International Adoption Services, partnerships in Dallas and nine foreign countries as well as a partnership with Shoes for Orphan Souls.6
• Children at Risk: Partnership with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Buckner began a major partnership early in March 2005 with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship “to expand ministry to children at risk around the world” and “to demonstrate God’s love for widows and orphans around the world.”7 Central to the agreement is the commitment of both organizations to provide ministry in sub-Saharan Africa at the request of African Baptists. A major goal of the plan is to work with existing ministries and develop programs that can be sustained by nationals.
Douglas Waruta, a professor at Nairobi University and a member of the initial planning team for the project, said it is time “to take seriously our mission to children. When children receive love and are given an opportunity, you cannot go wrong.”8
• KidsHeart–Children in Poverty: Partnership with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The “Children at Risk” partnership evolved from a previous two-year partnership signed in 2003 for CBF and Buckner to work together in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas through “KidsHeart,” a project designed to improve the lives of children and families living in poverty. For three years, the two organizations have worked together in Kenya through the Baptist Children’s Center of Nairobi.
• Street Children. Street children may include a wide range of children who: are homeless; work on the streets but sleep at home; either do or do not have family contact; work in open-air markets; live on the streets with their families; live in day or night shelters; spend a lot of time in institutions (e.g.prison).
Many street children are: orphans because of disease and political conflict; separated from families because of domestic violence and abuse; ill through HIV/Aids, malnutrition or disease; uneducated, they have no schooling; abused–they are treated as a nuisance, beaten by those in authority; anonymous—they have no registration documents, no cards, no identity. But many street children are: ambitious–they have inspirations to do well; tough- they survive in harsh environments; resilient–they have to be strong to survive on their own.
There are street children in both rich and poor countries all around the world. The majority, however, are on the streets in developing countries, mainly as a direct result of poverty. Street children survive on the edge of society. Nobody knows how many street children there are, but we do know that they exist wherever there is urban poverty.9 Globally there are an estimated 100 million street children.10 Most are teenagers, but some are as young as seven or eight.
Child Slavery and Prostitution
After seeing a special program on British Broadcast- ing Corporation (BBC) about the horrible evil of human trafficking, child slavery, and prostitution, I was haunted by the pictures of tiny girls crawling out of attics, crevices, and horrible hiding places as the bright lights of television recorded their living conditions. Fear was written on their faces as they feared an unwanted sexual encounter or even death itself. What a relief when the commentator ex- plained that those small children were removed from those horrid conditions!
During the Centenary Congress of Baptist World Alliance in Birmingham, England, former US President Jimmy Carter presented the Human Rights Award to Lauren Bethell for her outstanding work rescuing women and children from human trafficking and prostitution in Eastern Europe. Speaking earlier that day at the Women’s Conference of the BWA Centenary Congress, Bethell said that women in developed countries appear to choose this life-style, but most were abused as children. Some young mothers even engage in prostitution in order to have money to buy food for their children. Bethell pleaded with Baptists to see these women and girls through God’s eyes, as beloved daughters of God, who want to know His love.
Children: Catalysts for Mission Application
Ministry to children brings opportunities to minister to their families and help them meet Christ and know God personally.
• Weekday Ministries. Every Thursday morning at 9:00 am. at Stukeley Baptist Church near Huntingdon, England, a young mother named Julia Whitham quickly pulls toys from an outside storage building and a preschool class- room down the hall. With her three-year-old son Nathan trailing along, she carefully arranges the toys on the gray carpet of the fellowship hall. Suddenly the empty room is transformed into an inviting playroom for toddlers.
Through this special ministry, called Mums and Tots, the church offers a play time for young preschoolers in the community and extends hospitality, support, and friendship to their mothers. For this little church in a small English village, this weekday ministry is a sign of life and hope for the future. Since the visitors feel comfortable and wel- come in the church building, perhaps someday they will come for Sunday worship.
• Vacation Bible School/Backyard Bible Clubs. Even in cultures where people ignore the church and personal invitations to attend, they may allow their children to attend Vacation Bible School. They may even give permission for their children to go to Backyard Bible Club in a neighbor’s yard down the street. In either setting, children have the opportunity to hear stories about Jesus, learn Bible verses, and play games with friends. The entire family may become a part of the church because of the impact of special Bible-learning experiences for the children.
While serving in missions in Europe, we discovered quickly that it was important for us to adjust our terminol- ogy to fit and be understood in the culture. We also wanted to be sensitive to the culture. Therefore, our Christian Education Committee of European Baptist Convention agreed to use terms which we hoped would have meaning for Europeans and internationals, terms such as Holiday Bible Time, Summer Bible Week, Garden Bible Club.
Children Doing the Mission of the Church
An intriguing model for children’s involvement springs forth from one of the notable New Testament passages: “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?” (John 6:9). Apparently with a glad spirit and a sincere desire to help with a big problem, the young boy who shared his loaves and fishes with Jesus shared what he had in order to help others. Although his gift was tiny compared to the huge number of hungry people, it became more than enough in the hands of the Master (John 6:1-14).
• Giving Their Money The faith of children is pure, sincere, and deep. They want to put their faith into action; they want to help. Frequently in the work of the Kingdom and the crises of our world, children respond quickly and generously with the money they have.
• Offering to Baptist World Aid for Asian Tsunami. Following the Asian tsunami of December 2005, second and third grade boys in Royal Ambassadors at First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas, emptied their piggy banks to help the children left homeless and hurt by the catastrophe. The boys were delighted to personally present their sizable gift for Baptist World Aid to Dr. Denton Lotz, General Secre- tary of Baptist World Alliance immediately after Dr. Lotz told the children about his visit to the disaster area only a few days earlier.
• Offering to CBF for Albanian Children. Only a few months before the visit of Dr. Lotz, Girls in Action and Royal Ambassadors at First Baptist Church, Abilene, listened as Arville and Sheila Earl, missionaries to Albania with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, told about a project to purchase books and school supplies for Muslim children in Albania. The boys and girls gave money they had earned to help provide school supplies for children thousands of miles away.
• Helping with Local Needs When children help people far away, their global perspective about the vastness of God’s Kingdom expands. On the other hand, helping people in their own city gives children firsthand experi- ences, opportunities to touch hurting people, and the added joy of seeing the happy responses of recipients. Positive experiences in missions increase the desire to serve Christ. Helping people in their city and community increases the potential for children to understand the work of the church and to feel that they have a special place in the church family. At First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas, boys and girls help with local needs in many ways, such as:
• Adopt elderly church members as “grandparents.” Girls in Action at First Baptist-Abilene adopt “grandpar- ents” among the elderly of the church who can no longer attend church regularly. Some of the grandparents live in their own homes, and others live in assisted living, retirement centers, or nursing homes. The girls write personal letters, send cards and pictures, make gifts, and make personal visits with their families to see adopted grandparents.
• Prepare hygiene kits for homeless people. Girls in Action gather shampoo, soap, and other toiletries and prepare hygiene kits for homeless people who come regularly to the church’s City Light Ministries center for meals.
• Deliver baskets of fruit to elderly members and others with special needs. To help our entire church grow in our understanding of our community of faith and to draw closer together as family, children and their families deliver baskets of fruit to elderly members and others with special needs at Christmas and other occasions during the year.
• Prepare and deliver boxes of food to needy families. With donated canned goods and with items purchased with money they earned, Royal Ambassadors decorate, pack, and deliver boxes of food at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The boys go in small groups so that everyone can enter the home and present the food.
• Host parties for Big A Club. Since Big A Clubs meet in another part of the church on the same evening as Girls in Action and Royal Ambassadors, the schedule works well to do some special things for children in Big A clubs. GA groups plan activities and refreshments and make gifts for children in Big A. The interaction gives both groups opportunities to be with children from different back- grounds, races, and socioeconomic levels and is a reminder that God loves everyone.
• Vacation Bible School. Vacation Bible School is a great setting each summer for children to learn about missions, to give for specific missions needs, and to help with special projects. “Under Construction,” a VBS curriculum by Smyth and Helwys, teaches children to be sensitive to families who do not have enough food and clothing or a house to protect them from heat and cold. Throughout the week, the children make special items and give them to needy families rather than keeping what they make for themselves. This study works especially well in a church that is building a Habitat for Humanity house.
• Children and the Mission of the Church: Critical Issues. Parents and churches need to place a high priority on mission education. Children and youth today are pulled in multiple directions at once with the demands of school, sports, special lessons such as piano or martial arts, and social events. Mission education must be a priority with parents and church leaders in order for it to become a part of the lives of today’s children and youth. If missions classes and projects are important for parents, they will guide their children to choose schedules which include mission education.
• Each Christian needs to support one impoverished child. At the Centenary Congress of Baptist World Alliance (July 2005, Birmingham, England) a visit to the exhibitions revealed that many booths addressed the needs of children and families in world poverty. There were many opportunities to make specific commitments to help families, such as contributing the price of a cow. Appeals were made through many different organizations to support a child and make a difference in their lives with a small monthly donation. One of the speakers at the congress stressed the need for Baptists to actively help children in poverty and stated, “If you are not supporting a child in poverty in a third world country, shame on you.” Learning more about the many organizations and agencies which focus on children is a challenge, but financial support for one child can make a difference in that child’s survival and life accomplishments.
• Children are not included in modern church growth plans. In most church growth and church planting models today, there is no place for children. Most plans recom- mend small groups which meet in homes at times different from the worship time. Such meetings require additional trips, and children are not mentioned in the plans. Children may be welcome to “come along,” but how much more useful the time is when that time segment is used purpose- fully to guide children in meaningful Bible learning activities and to tell them the great stories of the Bible. This may necessitate church planting teams which include children’s teachers. Even though this would require more planning, personnel, and money, I believe that the results would be well worth the cost.
Children are a vital part of a vibrant community of faith, and they should be included in the planning and early stages of a new or growing church. While we must have adults to lead Bible studies and worship as well as to give financial support, churches need to plan age appropriate classes for children that meet at the same time as classes for the adults. Preschoolers need extended teaching during worship, but school age children need to be included in the worship service. As children sit beside their parents and sing, listen to the prayers, Scripture readings, and sermon, they will learn through their thoughts and emotions.” The time to be still and quiet balances loud, active times. Children (and adults, too!) need that balance.
• Churches and families need to pray for missions. Some churches include “Missionary Moments” in their worship. Someone presents brief information about a missionary or missionary work and then prays for the missionary. By giving children or families with children the opportunity to lead these special times, we can give greater emphasis to prayer for missions as well as give children and families an opportunity to participate to in the family of faith.
Churches can distribute missionary prayer calendars and encourage members to pray daily for missionaries on their birthdays. Most calendars list only the adults who are appointed to mission service. However, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship also lists the children in missionary families.
During prayer times at church, we need to pray for hurting people around the world. During a sabbatical year in England, I was amazed at the awareness and concern of British Baptist children for needy people in other coun- tries. Their families had helped them understand the difficulties and hardships others were facing, and the British children voiced prayers that were much less selfish than most adult prayers. They talked with God less about their own requests and prayed earnestly for hurting people.
Multitudes of children are hurting and waiting for someone to care, someone to give them food, clean water, clothes, shoes, medicine, and education. Touching a child will make their future brighter and will help them to know that God is real, that he loves them. Even Samaritan’s Purse and other large Christian agencies cannot reach all the children. Each of us must do something. The masses of children and the depth of their pain urge us to act quickly. When we minister to these children, we are “ministering to Christ,” expressing care and kindness to Christ himself. We are Christ’s representative to each child. Let us put our faith into action now!
Wilma Heflin is an associate faculty member at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary. She is a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Monticello (BS), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Master of Religious Education and Ph.D. in Childhood Education), and has done postgraduate study at Cambridge University. This article first appeared The Window: Ministry Resources From Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, vol. 8, issue 2.
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture citations are from the New American Standard Bible.
2Statistics from Children’s Defense Fund, http://
www.childrensdefense.org/data/keyfacts.aspx, accessed 05 September2005.
3 “HIV/AIDS,” One Big Village, World Vision online, http://www.worldvision.com.au/onebigvillage/ content.asp?topicID=17, accessed 01 September 2005.
5 William R. Estep, Whole Gospel Whole World: The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention 1945-1995 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 267.
6 Karen O’Dell Bullock, “Buckner Baptist Benevolences,” Handbook of Texas (book online), http:// www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/BB/ ynb4.html, accessed 31 August 2005. 7 Russ Dilday and Lance Wallace, “CBF, Buckner Sign
Partnership to Expand Global Ministry Among Children,” Cooperative Baptist Fellowship News, March 3, 2005, http://www.thefellowship.info/News/o5030 signing.icm?print=y, accessed 31 August 2005.
8 Ibid. 9 Street Child Africa, Spring 2005 (newsletter online);
http://www.streetchildafrica.org.uk, accessed 01 Septem- ber 2005
10 “Programme for the Education of Children in Difficult Circumstances,” Street and Working Children, 13 Septem- ber 2004 (information online); available from http:// www.unesco.org/education/educprog/street_child/english/, accessed 01 September 2005.