Everyone who goes to seminary gets asked the same question on repeat: “Well, what are you going to do with that degree?” My canned answer sounded like this: “I’m not sure. Anything but children’s ministry.”
Now I’d acknowledge that children’s ministry is important, but I’ll be honest, I thought I was too smart for it. I was all about thick theology books and long exegetical papers, and children’s ministry didn’t sound like it required quite enough thought.
Ironically, in the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I ended up with a job as the Elementary Coordinator at a local church. I needed a job. I had experience working with kids and, for a woman, it was one of the easiest places to find a part-time job in ministry. It was only supposed to give me some experience and pay my rent—not thrust me into a crash course on what it means to quietly serve the Lord in the ways that won’t get you a book deal.
Something Better Than a Book Deal
There’s no better classroom for humility than a literal classroom of children. But that’s hard to recognize during the innumerable hours of mundane preparation: copying coloring sheets, sending a million emails to volunteers, making endless phone calls because you need just one more teacher for tomorrow morning.
I’ve spent entire weekends cutting out tiny little crosses to find them stained with jelly and crumpled on the floor. There’s something so frustrating about the whole thing.
But there’s something so honest about it too.
The children don’t care what grade you got in that Teaching Processes class, and they have no qualms about telling you that the game you spent hours planning is actually really boring. You can’t hide behind vague theological phrases or multisyllabic words when they ask the questions their parents are too afraid to ask.
On any given Sunday, you’ll get asked about the Trinity, the gender of angels, and if Jesus went to hell after dying on the cross. Often with adults you can squirm your way out of those with some form of piety, but you can’t fool a second grader—she knows when you’re avoiding a juicy question.
Perhaps even more importantly, you can’t impress them. They really don’t care if you know what the Greek says or how Augustine interpreted that verse. The truth is no one in the congregation does, but the kids won’t lie to you about it. They want what every person in “big church” wants—to know that you love them, that you care deeply about their relationship with the Lord, and that you know him yourself.
Obscurity for the Gospel’s Sake
The kids probably won’t remember you, even if your work greatly contributed to their spiritual journey. Nevertheless, the profundity isn’t in the recognition that you’ve set a brick on the path toward Christ; it’s in the laying of the brick itself.
The very act of serving children cultivates the patient hope we proclaim in a culture that prizes short-term rewards and recognition. Tear-jerking viral videos teach us that the service that matters most is the kind that feels and looks good, but the church thrives when its members are quietly and patiently obedient, often behind the scenes.
While there are no “easy” or foolproof ministries, there are definitely more glamorous or applauded ones. Children’s ministry teaches all sorts of lessons that benefit the whole church—that obedience doesn’t always come with a warm fuzzy feeling, that true service often requires getting your hands dirty. And most importantly, that your most valuable work probably won’t get public recognition.
Jesus’ upside down kingdom is found in the nursery.
There are moments of beauty. Like when one of your most precocious third graders recites a Bible verse unsolicited. Or you catch a glimpse of earnest, unabashed worship from a normally disinterested child.
It’s in these moments when I realize that sometimes I’ve been brought closer to Christ by the sincere and simple prayer of a third grader than the theologically inscrutable prayers of a seminary student.
But teaching children communicates perhaps the most radical ideas Jesus came to proclaim: the last will be the first, the meek with inherit the earth, the profound and wise must learn from the faith of children.
There are so many lies we believe about church: that we come to be “fulfilled,” that we should serve only where we’re gifted or interested, that our knowledge is more important than our character. Children’s ministry obliterates each and every one of them.
You’ll work hard for little glimpses of future fruit that you may never see in full. You’ll fumble through a conversation with an awkward fourth grader. You’ll memorize every detail of the Bible story and impress absolutely no one.
At its heart, serving in children’s ministry teaches our hearts to love the church wholeheartedly, by seeking her good instead of our own.
Cover image by Carlo Navarro.