Jesus Loves Kids
Becky Olmstead is the Women and Kids pastor at the Vineyard Church of the Rockies. She and her husband Rick are members of the Vineyard Executive Team and are advocates for kids and teens in the church. We talked to her about her passion for kids’ ministry.
Why do you find yourself to be so passionate about kids’ ministry right now?
I think it started because I was a kid that came to know Jesus at a young age, so I grew up always having a heart for God. Then, when I was 5, my sister had shared with me how she had invited Jesus into her heart. It was something I knew I wanted to do.
We went to a really small church, where we attended service at morning and nighttime. One Sunday night I was sitting in church, and the pastor said, “If you want to ask Jesus into your heart, raise your hand.” So I did, and nobody responded to me. I’m sure they thought I wasn’t listening to the talk and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I prayed and I knew. I can still remember to this day a warmth that came through my whole body. I knew something had happened.
So my heart is that kids would know him like I did. Over the years, since I have started leading our kids’ ministry, God started revealing to me more and more about his heart for kids, that he has a special place for them. They are the marginalized, the poor and the broken. And the parable about the lost sheep in Matthew 18 makes reference to not wanting children to fall away from him.
I started noticing all the stories in the Bible about God’s interaction with kids. In the last few years I’ve seen more books that have the same passion: Wess Stafford’s Too Small to Ignore and Future Impact by Dan Brewster. So I think my passion has just grown inside of me.
Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean when you say kids are part of the marginalized? That’s a really interesting statement.
Well, you read a lot in Proverbs and Psalms about the poor and people who are the set-aside people of society, people that are overlooked and how important they are to God. He sees them as his responsibility to take care of them, and he needs us to reach out to them for him. So I’d read those verses and think about how kids fit into that category, because society doesn’t always value them. They get overlooked.
These verses in Proverbs talk about reaching out to the poor and the downtrodden, the widow and the orphan and how that’s so important to God’s heart. Because when we do that, we are representing Jesus. We’re actually lending to the Lord. We’re doing something that he sees is his job, so he pays us back for doing that, and I really feel like kids fall into that category because they are overlooked; they don’t have a voice. They’re not valued because they’re not contributors to society.
I believe one of the reasons they are marginalized in churches is because they don’t pay the bills. There’s a subconscious thought that the people that pay the bills are more important than the people that just take. But those people are who God has a special heart for – the children that other people overlook and marginalize.
What things have you seen, both in your congregation and then maybe around the Vineyard and even other churches, that are going really well with people ministering to kids?
In our church, our leaders are really catching the vision that God wants to use kids and that God wants to raise kids up to the same value as adults. Especially in our church, our young adults are realizing that they can make an impact in the life of a kid. It can be a big impact, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it really can pay off, and they’re excited about doing that. Our young adults for a long time have been excited about any kind of a social justice issue, and I’m really glad that it’s transcended going far away and overseas to also be, “Hey, we can make a difference in the life of the kids in our own city and in our own church.”
We have a lot of college students, and they have caught the vision of impacting the life of a kid. And young adults that aren’t married yet or don’t have kids of their own wouldn’t normally even think about reaching out to a kid. But now they are getting the vision for reaching out. That really excites me.
Are there certain programs or strategies you’ve done to be a more welcoming place for kids?
We’re trying to be more holistic in how we reach out to kids in our church. We’ve developed a quality age-appropriate ministry to kids on Sunday morning, which is when we get the largest amount of kids in one place.
I really believe that kids need small groups, that they need to have a place where they can speak up and be heard and be known and have support from others just like adults do. So we’ve established small groups in our church for kids on Sunday mornings. But lately I’ve been really thinking about how we still need to be more holistic, especially after we went to Ethiopia. I just felt like we need to minister to all areas and all the needs of the kids.
So we’ve started a reading program in the summer, to resource kids, to help them and tutor them in reading. We’re continuing to think about what other needs kids have. In what areas can we reach out to them holistically?
In Luke 2:52 it talks about how Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men. His intellect, his physical needs, his social needs and his spiritual needs were all important to develop. So we’re trying to develop those things in kids as well.
We offer divorce care for kids, because there are a lot of emotional needs kids have when their parents divorce. We want to be able to support them and help them find healing and growth through that process. When we do our homeless outreach we also put focus on the homeless kids.
It sounds to me like some of your vision is carried out within programming but it’s also simply about seeing kids – noticing their needs, noticing where they’re at emotionally, and helping others to do that too.
It is. It’s seeing the kids around us and giving people the vision to reach out to them.
What are specific ways that churches might marginalize kids, even unintentionally, and what would it look like for churches to take the next step in noticing them?
I do think one of the ways churches often marginalize kids is to give them their leftovers. They figure, “They’re just kids, so it doesn’t matter,” so they give them the leftover space and small parts of the budget. Even when churches think of people who could lead the children’s ministry, they’re not looking for a high-level leader. They’re just looking for a volunteer who’s willing to coordinate it, and then hopefully there won’t be any more trouble – they’ll take care of it. So that the other leaders will never have to hear from them again, so to speak.
Often pastors forget to bring a children’s person truly on their team at a level where they’re considered equal with everybody else on the team. That can affect what happens with kids, even down to the level of them feeling unimportant too.
A great next step for churches would be to think strategically about how they want to reach kids inside and outside the church and not just leave it up to the children’s ministry volunteer. But it would be something that a senior leader would be involved in thinking about strategically on a continuum level, not just week by week or a quarter at a time. Instead they would think of kids from the time they’re babies up till adults and their spiritual needs at different points. How can we help them make transitions at crucial times in their lives so we don’t lose them? In between elementary and middle school we see a lot of kids drop out. Middle school to high school is another time of dropping out, and then when kids go to college it’s even a bigger dropout level. Sometimes it’s just a dropping out of church, but a lot of the time they drop out from a relationship with God.
I also think one of the big things churches also do is to teach kids information but don’t give them as many opportunities to be used of God, to give them training in how to be used. Our Vineyard value of kingdom, theology and practice is that everybody gets to play. And that means kids too. Kids can say, “Can I pray for you right now?” the same as an adult. What really affects kids’ lives is when they actually see God using them. I’m happy if both kids and parents can win, but that’s not my end game. I want to see kids valued just because God value them for who they are.
Say there’s been someone reading this who feels conviction about these things – a ministry coordinator or pastor or church planter. Can you give them sort of a next step? What would be some of the first things to do in order to move in the direction of valuing kids more?
A first step could be to teach their congregations about God’s heart for kids. Sometimes pastors will have their children’s leaders do it – but if they would teach on it themselves, it would speak volumes to the people in their church.
Then another step fairly easy to do to raise kids’ value in church is to bring the kids in front of the congregation. I don’t mean just having them sit there, but instead sharing stories about what God is doing in the lives of kids in their church.
Ask some children’s ministry people for stories. Honor people who volunteer with the kids in front of the whole congregation. Or find ways for the kids to use their gifts to participate in adult service, like singing a song or reading from the Bible.
One week we had the kids come in during ministry time and pray for the adults. They were part of the team with the adults, and that’s had a huge impact on our church and our adults to have a child praying for them. It was really cool. And the kids loved it; they were excited about doing that.
A great start is also to create a safe and secure environment for their kids – being diligent about making sure child workers have applications, are interviewed, have background checks; that the kids’ equipment and facilities are all safe for the kids.
What responsibility do we have to the kids who are in our church, and how should we relate to both kids whose families come to church and kids in the community who might be participating without their parents’ involvement?
I think that we have a responsibility to the kids in our church and the kids in our community because they’re part of our parish. God has given us the kids in our surrounding community, too, and we need to reach out and care about them. I really believe that you don’t just evangelize out in your community, even though they need to have opportunities to come to know Jesus. But you can’t assume the kids inside your church have relationships with Jesus, either, just because they have Christian parents.
So we try to reach out to both. One strategy we have with both sets of kids right now is what we call the “four R’s.” We want to reach kids for Jesus in our church and outside our church. Then we want to root them. We want to disciple them. We want to release them into ministry, and then we want to rescue kids that are in crisis.
Can you talk a little bit more about kids in your church? How can we do a better job of making sure that even our youngest kids have opportunity to meet Jesus?
You know, what happened with us several years ago is that we had a big influx of people coming to Jesus in our adult services, and we started praying for God to do that with the kids too. We want to see kids come to Jesus, and we realized the only way they would do that is if we shared with them strategically and prepared times that we told them how to start a relationship with Jesus. So we began to incorporate that in directly to what we were teaching. And we found that kids would respond.
Sometimes they were the visitor kids that were there that Sunday. You could see on their faces that they were responding to what we were saying. So that year we kept a paper chain of all the kids that came to Jesus. At a leadership meeting at the end of the year, we held it up to show our church how many kids had given their hearts to Jesus.
We found that when we did it strategically like that, we’d have kids there that had never had an opportunity to come to Christ. Plus, since we would do it more often than just once a year, our kids were learning how to share their faith with their friends. We started hearing stories about how they would be at school or at a sleepover and they would share Jesus with their friends and pray with their friends to come to know Jesus. So that was a pretty cool byproduct that we didn’t realize would come of giving our kids more opportunities, equipping them to share with their friends.
How do you use kid-friendly language to help kids understand the gospel? How do you articulate to them what’s happening?
We use different language. For example, we tell them that they can be God’s “forever friend.” And that the way that they become God’s forever friend is easy as A, B, C. We say that we have to admit that we’ve sinned in our life, that the Bible says everybody’s done something wrong, and so we admit that we’ve sinned. B is to believe that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins, and then he is God’s son. C is, we choose to accept that gift and to follow him. And that’s the nugget of what we say.
We talk about a lot of other stuff too, but that is the foundation for talking to these kids. And so when we talk with them about A, B, Cs, they know what it means.
What I found is, when I would teach the Bible to kids week after week, I would ask them, “How do you become friends with God?” And they would always say, “Be good. Go to church.” Because so much of what we teach them is behavioral things. It would break my heart. So we tried to focus instead on the relationship with God, the ways they could believe that they could be God’s forever friend no matter what they did.
Those seem like such simple concepts, but those are hopeful things. It’s hopeful to just know that God’s here. I also know you’ve gotten to know Wess Stafford more, and you’ve been around people who are global advocates for children. How does loving kids where you are, here in the States, connect to loving and advocating for kids all over the world – especially the ones in crisis?
I do feel really strongly there is a connection. If we care about kids, we don’t limit that to our own children. God has a heart for kids all over the world and he wants our own kids to have that same heart.
I was sitting at my desk at church one day, and I was going through my mail. I had a letter from Compassion International, just one of those cold-call-type things asking if I wanted to sponsor a kid.
I thought, “Wow. I say I’m an advocate for kids, but if I really was, I would do something like this.” So I signed up.
That’s when I first got in touch with Compassion. They sent me a video guide, and when I watched it, I cried. It so lined up with my heart for kids. So that was the beginning of my being aware of the plight of kids around the world.
There’s also a website called Holistic Child Development Alliance that I’ve gotten with through the 4/14 Window Movement. They have a great paper about the reasons to reach kids. You know, 26,000 children under 5 die every day, mostly from preventable diseases. 10 to 100 million kids and youth live on the streets because there are no adults that will provide and care for and nurture them and give them a safe haven. 1.2 million are being exploited from child labor or bonded labor or prostitution or trafficking.
We can’t stick our heads in the sand. God cares about those kids, and they are our neighbors, just like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In our globally connected, technological world, we can know what’s going on in other parts of it now. So we’re responsible. They’re our neighbors. We need to step up and speak for them, because they can’t speak up for themselves. And we also need to empower our own kids to care and to speak up and to do something for those kids, too.
What are some ways you guys have done that specifically with your kids?
400 children are sponsored through Compassion in our church. Our teenagers have reached out and gotten connected with Invisible Children, the organization that fights the Ugandan child soldier epidemic. Now I think Somalia is where some problems are, but they’re connecting to that too. We have families who have adopted kids from Ethiopia and other African countries. We have a lot of adults working to combat trafficking, too. Those are just the things off the top of my head.
Realistically thinking, part of the reason that people want to have really good kids’ programming is that it gets parents to come, and parents pay the bills, right? Maybe from a pragmatic perspective that’s not a bad way to think, but it seems like there could be some danger there.
I see that all the time. I was reading an article in our newspaper once about a church that was doing a Vacation Bible School. They interviewed the pastor, and he said it was such a great outreach because it gets new people into the church.
It makes my heart sad when I hear that, because children’s programs do help get people into the church, but when you say something like that it becomes obvious that you’re looking at an end goal instead of just reaching out to kids for the kids’ sake, for the goal of seeing the kids grow. I don’t think it’s good to just consider kids’ programs in light of how to get the parents involved.
Because then you can do the hand-me-down thing and the lousy volunteer thing, because as long as it seems like the kids are having a decent time, then the parents will be happy.
Right. The problem is that maybe then you’re just focusing on the things that the parents see. But there’s a lot behind the scenes that the kids actually need that people just watching the parents’ reactions would never realize.
I’m happy if both kids and parents can win, but that’s not my end game. I want to see kids valued just because God values them for who they are.
That’s a really important point. It’s a paradigm shift to change your thinking from, “Here are some tips to make kids’ ministry better,” to something really crucial: “These kids matter just because they’re children.”
I think if a pastor just ministered to kids and didn’t do anything with adults or parents, it could still be a great church and God would be pleased.