For the last 22 years, my husband and I have ministered to refugees and immigrants in our community. We have taught English, befriended college students from around the world, developed a refugee church, shared the gospel, and offered comfort to people hungry for a familiar face in a strange land. It's been a privilege to see God at work in the lives of these people. But even more thrilling for us as parents has been seeing our 10-year-old daughter, Michelle, become involved in this ministry as well.
We didn't necessarily set out to serve as a family. Richard and I had done plenty of volunteer work before we had children and believed it was a central part of our call as Christians. When Michelle was born, we basically had a choice to make: get a babysitter or bring her along. Sitters worked fine for a while, but eventually, it seemed natural to include Michelle in our ministry. Since that time, we have seen the incredible rewards of working together to bring God's love to people in need. Ministering as a family has given us the opportunity to help others, to learn more about one another's gifts and talents, and to figure out how to work as a team.
Every Monday evening, nearly 100 people from over a dozen countries come to the free ESL (English as a Second Language) school that Richard and I co-direct at our church. Children from infants through early elementary age are cared for while their parents learn and improve their English. Of the more than 20 volunteers who teach, drive buses, pray, coordinate, babysit, and mentor our students and their families, Michelle is the youngest.
Michelle began visiting the ministry when she was 4, playing with the other children and getting used to the late hour. As she grew, we saw that she had a gift for working with smaller children and suggested she begin helping the childcare teacher. Now, when we arrive early to set up classrooms, make copies of lessons and roll sheets, and set up registration tables, Michelle is right there with us, working as hard as anyone else.
It's been wonderful to see God use Michelle in the lives of the children. Her loving, gentle nature calms the small and sometimes very frightened children with little-to-no English language ability. As she plays games, sings songs, or just laughs with them, she helps to ease their fears while they are away from their parents.
We've also seen profound changes in Michelle. She has learned to care for all people, regardless of skin color, language, or customs. She has discovered that we can and should lean on one another and help one another in difficult times. At the age of 10, she has found that she has a place in sharing God's love with others.
We're not the only family to discover that ministering together can have a lasting impact on the way we relate to God and to each other. Every summer, Dean and Pam Rowell chaperone youth groups who travel with Volunteer Christian Builders. Their children, Eric, 14, and JoyAnna, 8, have been part of these mission trips since they were babies, even celebrating birthdays while on their "family ministry vacations."
The Rowells have gone on trips to build churches, teach Bible school, show the Jesus film, witness at fairs, lead worship services, paint churches, do park ministry, and more. Their children love these family trips. Eric says, "I like going with my family because we grow together spiritually." JoyAnna agrees and adds, "It's fun and I can meet new people and do God's mission."
Pam feels that one of the benefits of family ministry is setting an example for their children to follow. "It shows that a family can serve together. To see one of your children stretched to meet a need is such an affirmation of the way they are being taught."
Even if you can't commit to a weekly ministry, like ours, or the long-distance travel of the Rowells, there are plenty of ways your family can share God's love with others. My husband's brother and his wife, James and Selena Lay, and their sons, Brandon, 10, and Austin, 7, bring food and friendship to lonely, discouraged, and needy people at their local Night Shelter. They help where needed, whether it's setting up for the evening meal, greeting and watching the people as they come through the metal detector, praying with the women's Bible Study group, or cleaning up afterwards.
Selena says, "Before we started doing this, the kids didn't really know about homeless people and that there were people who didn't have food. This shows them that there are less fortunate people and that Jesus wants us to help others."
As much as Michelle enjoys working with the children at our ESL school, there are times when ministry is the last thing she feels like doing. When other volunteers are scarce or the children are disobedient or all wound up, she's stormed out of the childcare room, telling us she wishes we'd never do ESL again. She is still 10, after all.
Having done this for so long, we understand her frustrations. No one can serve others effectively when their own tank is empty. We've tried to take Michelle's "ministry temperature" often. We want to make sure she's serving from a real desire to share God's love, and not out of some sense of duty that could lead to resentment. In fact, we've decided that, just like overseas missionaries, our whole family is in need of a sabbatical for the sake of our health, our family life, and the ministry itself.
Not every family is able to minister together in the same way. "Daryl" was a dad with a heart for our ESL ministry. He brought his 10- and 12-year-old daughters along, wanting them to get involved in helping others. But the oldest had her own problems and after several times of disobeying my requests, complaining, and even breaking a piece of furniture, I had to speak with her father. It wasn't easy, but he understood that her presence was actually hurting the ministry.
As you pursue family ministry options, keep your child's age, personality, and emotional stage in mind. If you feel your child isn't ready for a long-term lay ministry, consider an annual activity, such as putting together care packages for children at Christmas or participating in a Vacation Bible School program.
Don Beacham began taking his children to visit his church's orphanages in Mexico when they were old enough to understand the hardships and dangers that went along with being in a different country. James and Selena's children were in elementary school when they began helping at the Night Shelter. Like Michelle, they have become more involved with the ministry as their ages and interests have changed.
Including your children in ministry can be done whether you have a lot of time to give or a little. It can be done in your neighborhood, your home, across the country, or overseas. Take some time tonight to brainstorm some ministry ideas with your family. Talk to the outreach committee at your church or the volunteer coordinator at a local social service organization to find out what the needs are in your area, and then make a commitment to give family ministry a shot.
There are times when Richard, Michelle, and I are tired, and the thought of a long Monday evening seems unbearable. Yet, we find ourselves rejuvenated when our students come to class, sharing their fears and joys, thanking us for how we've helped them. Every week we see God work in big and small ways, both in the lives of the people we serve, and in the heart of our own precious child.
Kathryn Lay and her family live and serve in Texas.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 50