When we swim in the waters of children's ministry for long enough, it can seem like we need to get bigger and better with every season. More glitz, more glam. But at the end of the day, children will want to be in our ministries for two large reasons: our willingness to be present with them and our willingness to show them Jesus.
When my daughter was young, I went with her daycare class to African Lion Safari - a large drive through experience (we did so in a school bus), with additional places to interact with and learn about animals.
We got within two metres (6 feet!) of rhinoceroses, had a lion cross in front of our bus, watched giraffes and zebras gallop across a field, viewed ornate animals like the peacock, and witnessed an ostrich run the 40 yard-dash so fast it would have made Usain Bolt turn his head.
We walked through the rest of the park and experienced some of the other attractions: parrots of paradise, birds of prey, and even a train ride around a beautiful little lake. We also came upon a cool opportunity: elephant rides. My daughter saw another kid riding the elephant and burst with excitement: “Can we ride the elephant?” she asked. I saw the price on the sign, checked the cash in my pocket, and decided, “Sure. What a cool experience for my daughter. It will be a real memory maker. She’ll love it!”
We rode the elephant. Her name was Maggie. It was surreal. I mean, elephants are graceful and gigantic creatures; the feeling one has when sitting atop it can hardly be described. We did our loop, took some pictures, and then dismounted. We wandered again, saw more animals, and then spent the last 15 minutes shivering in the splash pad area.
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My daughter and her friend splashed and giggled their way up stairs and down slides. It was a great day. When we got home that night, I asked my daughter what her favourite part of the day was – I did this, really, as a way to recap the amazing-elephant-riding-experience we had had during the day – but her answer was not expected. Her favourite part? The splash pad.
The splash pad? I couldn’t believe it. We have a splash pad three blocks from our house and go regularly in the summer. But seriously, WE RODE A STINKIN’ ELEPHANT!!
It was in that moment I realized something important. Something that I see happen every day – including Sundays! – but somehow forget about. There are parents and children’s ministry leaders all around me (and clearly I am one of them sometimes, too) who go over the top for their kids: we bend over backwards and sacrifice sleep for Pinterest-worthy decor, the biggest, flashiest crafts, and try to turn Sunday experiences into something a little more elephant-sized.
One Christmas, when I was a kid, my brothers and I got something that came in a large box. To be honest, I don’t remember what was in that box, but I remember the box: I remember my brothers and I playing with that box, decorating it, and turning it into a house, a fort, and a car. It was the experience with my brothers, the creativity, and the fun that I remember. Not the item.
I think this is true for many of us, and for the kids in our ministries and care. They don’t want (or need!) a four-tiered Minecraft building cake complete with all of the characters carefully crafted out of fondant (although, I admit, that is pretty cool). Imagine that time and energy repurposed into time and energy spent with the children and leaders that care for children.
They don’t need a freshly baked donut wall every week. They don’t need a game show to learn about Jesus. Kids need your time and attention. They need to see you exemplify the love and care of Jesus. They need you to follow Jesus and live it out so that they can know what a Christ-follower looks like in the flesh.
For our children, being well loved and seeing you follow Jesus in real life is so much better than riding an elephant. Let’s all remember that this week.
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