It’s not uncommon to see a child joyfully bubble at the thought of going to the local swimming pool for a day of splashing and playing. We expect children to anticipate Grandma’s visit and the gift that she always has tucked in her suitcase. Are these the only things that make our children happy though? Does it ever cross our minds that children are capable of experiencing the joy that comes when you help someone in need? Or do we believe their pleasure is limited to being the recipient?
How does a child learn to wash a car? Dad puts a soapy rag in those little hands, and the child does what he or she sees Daddy doing. What’s the best way for a child to learn how to care for a garden? They till the soil and water the rows of seedlings alongside an adult who has harvested vegetables season after season. At first glance, what we see in these experiences is a child learning to perform a new task. But it’s easy to overlook another major thing that is happening: the child longs to enter the adult world and be part of something of value. They want to be involved in something that stretches who they are and to be part of something that causes a change for the better. And, if they are a follower of Christ, they want to know how they can act that out in their world.
Sometimes, a little review lesson reminds us to use what we already know. So, as we begin, let’s review some of Edgar Dale’s research on how well people remember the information they take in. As Christian educators, it is critical to recognize the limited amount of time we have and utilize it in ways that will best relate to our children. Dale found that when people were presented with new material solely by reading it, they retained about 10% of the text. When they only heard the new information, they remembered about 20%. The percentage increased when the information was seen. Combine both seeing and hearing, the information and the retention rate increases significantly to 50%. The goal of teaching is for students to actually retain new information, and that takes a humongous leap to 90% when the student performs a task related to what they are learning. Did you catch the difference there? The student performs the task. Although we tend to teach kids about giving by talking about our experiences and pouring our knowledge into them (20% retention), “to educate” actually means to lead out or draw out, which means mobilizing the student in some way (90% retention).
After conducting research on the topic of adults who actively serve, public education now recognizes that giving young people opportunities to become engaged in civic activities increases the likelihood that they will become healthy, active citizens. Why should this be such a revolutionary statement? After all, it reinforces Dale’s research that more is learned when it is experienced. When this finding is paired with Barna’s research that revealed a person’s spiritual and value-based foundation is firmly laid in childhood, not adulthood, a great lesson is learned about the importance of teaching children to serve. Public schools are responding to their research by providing special days off from regular class work for students to have community service experiences. How will the church respond? After all, this is supposed to be our “thing.” Jesus commanded His followers to serve one another.
Traditionally, the church teaches children to serve in a hands-off, within-these-walls, very unintentional way. Serving takes the form of making “thank you” or “praying for you” cards that are sent to people within the church. In an hour lesson, this kind of service project occasionally finds its way into a lesson that is also trying to teach a Bible story, the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer, and incorporating a time of worship. It gets lost in the mix. If a church is so brave to arrange for their children to leave the building to serve, it is almost always that annual trek to the nursing home to sing Christmas carols.
Today, I am challenging you to think about teaching your kids to serve in a more intentional, more hands-on manner. There will be life change. I know because I’ve done it over and over again. In a period as short as five weeks of concentrating on serving as Jesus would have us serve one another, children will have their minds renewed and their hearts reshaped. Intentionally teaching a servant lifestyle will leave children convinced that it’s not just an adult activity, but they are also old enough to make an investment in their world in the name of Christ. It satisfies that longing to enter the adult world and be part of something of value. So how do we intentionally teach servanthood?
First of all, make it clear to the children that the reason we serve is because Jesus told us to. It’s part of our Christian walk. No matter what the project, it should be obvious that it’s being done in the name of Jesus. Then, get started by setting aside five or six weeks where serving others is the only topic dealt with. It can be an alternative curriculum to part of your normal programming, or it can be set up as an independent program. For instance, get a commitment from the kids to meet every Saturday morning from 10:00–12:00 for six weeks.
Some of the most important learning takes place as the children plan their own projects. Remember, educate does not mean to pour into, but to draw out of. So we need to provide the resources where the kids can discover what needs are out there. They can’t provide help if they don’t recognize the needs. This is the biggest issue in learning to serve, because they just don’t see the needs. Our kids are growing up in such a me-centered world and have never been taught to look around to see what other people are going through. Once this hurdle is crossed and the kids open the eyes of their hearts to identify people who could use help, they really are anxious to do something about it. As the facilitator in this student-led project planning, it is important to guide the children to choose appropriate projects. Their goals need to be realistic, so they can experience success—their positive reinforcement.