But I Can’t Swim: Man’s Total Inability and God’s Relentless Grace

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The following is an illustration and brief lesson I’ve taught to children in various settings and occasions. I am posting it here for two reasons. First, I hope it will serve as an encouragement in the gospel for those of you still depending on your own moral effort for your standing with God. Second, I hope this short article will serve as an example for children’s pastors and volunteers who teach children the gospel, as well as parents who teach their children the gospel in the home.

Imagine you are at a swimming pool this summer. Your mom has told you to stay near the shallow end of the pool, but you really want to jump in the deep end of the pool. When your mom is reading her book, you get out of the shallow end and tip-toe down the side of the pool toward the deep end. You glance over your shoulder to make sure your mom isn’t looking, so you can do an awesome cannonball in the deep end. But as you turn around, you slip and fall in the deep end.

You try to swim to the top, but you can’t. You can’t see. It is dark. You are alone. And you are afraid. You just spin around waving your arms and kicking your legs trying to get back to the surface of the water. But on your own, you can’t make it. The next thing you know, you feel someone wrap their arms around you. They pull you as they swim hard. Before you can think you are above the water taking a deep breathe. When you are able to open your eyes, you see that your mom is holding you. When you were nearly dead, your mom saved you. You did nothing. She did everything.

The same is true of our salvation from sin and spiritual death. We have seen this week that without Christ we are dead in sin and doomed under God’s wrath. Since we are dead, we can’t do anything about our condition. But then we saw the good news of the gospel; that God stepped in to make us alive by sending Jesus to die for our sins. Salvation is a gift that is only God’s to give. We are drowning in the pool of our sin. In Jesus, God jumps in to save us.

This salvation is all of grace. Grace is a word that means God gives us what we do not deserve (v. 8). Salvation is a gift, not a reward. We are not given eternal life because we deserve it. We are not allowed into the joyful presence of God because we are awesome people. We are saved from the penalty of sin because of God’s grace. We are saved by grace to live with God forever. All we must do is receive it as a gift. This is what we call “faith.” Faith is receiving God’s grace in Jesus. Faith and grace are gifts from God.

Many people think if they just obey God enough, they will earn salvation. Even though they are drowning, they think if they just swim harder (go to church more, pray more, give more, serve more) they will come to the top of the water and save themselves. But just like a boy or girl drowning in the deep end, we all need a Savior. We can’t earn God’s salvation and forgiveness. It must be given to us. Because of God’s grace and love, he gives us this gift in sending Jesus to stand in our place as our sacrifice.

If your mom saved you from drowning, you would hug and kiss her. When God saves us in Christ, our only response must be worship and rejoice in him. Our salvation is not a result of our works, so let’s never brag about ourselves, but only about him!

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.


3 Tips for Effective Teaching in Children’s Ministry


Children’s ministry can be one of the most frustrating ministries in the church. If you serve in children’s ministry there will be times when you will feel unappreciated. It is likely you are overworked. And people probably see your role as little more than glorified babysitting. On top of all of this mostly negative reaction from adults in the church, teaching and leading children is a monster all on its own. Children can be frustrating. Some weeks it doesn’t seem like they understand anything you are saying. Some weeks it seems their primary goal is to disobey you, or just get under your skin. The goal of children’s ministry is for the church to come alongside parents and complement them in the discipleship of their children. Children’s ministers and ministry volunteers are not the primary disciple-makers in the children’s lives. But their role is crucial to the spiritual development and growth of children in the local church. So, I find it terribly sad that so many in children’s ministry feel unappreciated, overworked, and undervalued.

What makes all of this worse is when children’s ministry volunteers also feel ill-equipped to teach children in the church. With that in mind, I want to offer three crucial, fundamental tips for effective teaching in children’s ministry.

1. Show the Kids You Love Them

Man, this is crucial. Ask any teacher in a public or private school and they will tell you that until you show children that you truly care about them they will not listen to you. You have to earn their ears. Show the kids you aren’t just there to pass along information. Talk to them about their lives. Ask questions about family and school. By asking questions and getting to know them better, your prayers for them will be much more personal and intimate. And when you teach them the Bible your words will have weight behind them.

2. Show the Kids You Love the Bible

I want to be very specific here. The kids in your ministry need to see you run to the Bible for guidance, answers, and instruction for doctrine and godliness. When kids ask questions of a theological nature, let them hear you say, “Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this,” rather than “Well, here’s what I think about this.” They need to see not only the supremacy of the Bible, but also the sufficiency of the Bible in your life. Augustine once said, “Where the Bible speaks, God speaks.” Teach this. But let it also be true, “Where the Bible speaks, I speak” in the sense that when it comes to thinking through things about God, salvation, and life in general the Bible is our guide. We speak where the Bible speaks.

3. Show the Kids You Love the Gospel

Most importantly, show the gospel to kids through your words and actions. Let your words be seasoned with grace. Take sin seriously. Extend grace extravagantly. Teach forgiveness. Ask forgiveness when necessary. All roads in the Bible lead to Jesus. The key is learning how to navigate through the historical and literary contexts without abandoning the original intent of the biblical authors. But it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see Jesus all over Scripture. It only takes eyes to see. See the gospel throughout Scripture and show the kids the multifaceted wonder of God’s saving grace. Show the gospel in your actions. Show that it isn’t just a message of empty words, but a message of power from a holy and gracious God.

Effective teaching in children’s ministry is not limited to these three tips, but they are foundational. Without them, you can use as many methods as you like, but you will not capture their minds or pierce their hearts. To accomplish this, we need to show them these three loves: kids, the Bible, and the gospel.

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor of Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. They have one son, Jude Adoniram. You can follow Mathew on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

Simple Devotion: 3 Keys to Vibrant Family Devotions

FamilyDevotions1-1024x733There is a gap between the desire most Christian parents have to disciple their children and practically carrying out this desire. Timothy Paul Jones has extensively written on this gap and how we can close it. I have not spoken with one parent who has said they do not want to disciple their children. Every parent, without fail, has a desire to disciple their children. But when I ask these same parents how they are carrying out discipleship in the home, they, without fail, begin their answer with a sigh and say, “Well…”
Why is it that we are unable to put our desires for family discipleship into practice? Why do we struggle to initiate family devotions? Why is it so hard for us to discuss a Person who we claim we are staking our lives on? Why is talking about the gospel so awkward for many families?

Family discipleship is not legalistic, nor flippant. We don’t want to go through the motions and we don’t want to be insignificant or irrelevant. Children and teens can quickly determine whether you truly believe what you are talking about. They have a sixth sense for identifying sincerity. We are not after check-list Christianity in implementing discipleship in the home. We are after biblical obedience through a vibrant and gospel-centered discipleship culture in the home. We want our children to see us as their parents as their primary disciple-makers.

But how can we bridge this gap between desire and practice? How can we implement such vibrant family devotions in the home? I believe bridging the gap between desire and practice in family devotions is found in initiative, simplicity, and discipline.

1. Vibrant family devotions require initiative

Simply put, in order for family discipleship to exist there has to come a breaking point in your desires when you finally say, “Enough is enough. Let’s do this.” Fathers, let’s resolve to no longer let our families be spiritually bankrupt and lacking in the home. We can do this by simply sitting with our families, opening the Bible, and reading. You have no idea how much your wife and children will appreciate your initiative to lead them in Christ. Just turn off the TV, open the Bible, and read. It doesn’t matter where you begin. You could begin with one of the gospels, such as Mark or John. Read one chapter each night. Read five verses! The length could not matter less. What matters is that you take the bull by the horns and end the spiritual hunger by feeding your family the sufficient and satisfying Word of God. Without your initiative, family discipleship will remain a waning desire in your heart.

2. Vibrant family devotions require simplicity

This is where the family discipleship train begins to derail. Dads think they need seminary degrees in order to disciple their families. When dads think of family devotions or family worship, they think of children sitting attentively at their feet or in mom’s lap by the fireplace. Dad will read a chapter of the Bible and then give a robust three point devotion. Then spontaneously the children will start singing a glorious hymn. Dad will close with a theologically rich prayer and the Cleavers will then head to bed.

This fanciful and New Earthy idea of family devotions is what leads to a hit and miss family devotion time in the home. When dads realize how impossible a perfect family devotion time really is, many become discouraged and fail to follow through with the initiative they began. But the good news for dads is that there is no such thing as a perfect family devotion time. Jesus died for all your failed family devotions. And he is sufficient in them as well.

One way to move forward through messy family devotions is simplicity in practice. Dads, you don’t need a seminary degree to disciple your families. No one is more qualified to train your children in the fear of God than you because you have been entrusted as the primary disciple-maker in their lives. So, keep your devotions simple. There is no need to complicate things. Read a passage. Read a verse. Make a brief comment about the text and explain the gospel. Pray for your family. If your family devotion time barely lasts five minutes, good! Family devotions do not require 30 minutes of exegetical expertise. By all means, if your family is suited to go deep and far, don’t hold back. But if formality and time are issues that are keeping you from leading a family devotion, just keep it simple. Read. Comment. Explain the gospel. Pray.

3. Vibrant family devotions require discipline

Like sticking to a diet, implementing vibrant family devotions requires discipline. Like a prize fighter who spends countless hours sweating and bleeding in the ring, dads must gather their families around the table or in the living room or bedroom to fight the good fight of the faith through simple devotions. But we must show up for the fight every single morning or night. Set a time to lead a devotion and meet that time every day. If you have to miss your morning devotion, do it in the evening. But don’t unintentionally miss a day. I encourage the families I minister to to lead family devotions five days per week, leaving the weekends off. As necessary as breakfast and dinner are in your home, make family devotions just as necessary. Let your attitude be: No matter what we do, we are going to read the Bible, pray, and discuss the gospel today. Even when you blow it; even when the kids aren’t paying attention; even when your toddler is playing in his food or pulling his sister’s hair, the practice of devoting time and energy to read the Bible, pray, and proclaim the gospel to your family with discipline will speak volumes to your kids. Even if they don’t understand everything, they will understand that this Jesus guy is super important and must be pretty awesome!

11751958_1209158262442953_3486622930933138849_nMathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor of Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. They have one son, Jude Adoniram.

Four Imbalanced Frameworks for Children’s Ministry: The Game-Time Framework

knowledge_insurance_frameworkThis post is part 4 in a five part series on four imbalanced children’s ministry frameworks. In children’s ministry, balance is crucial. An imbalanced children’s ministry will lead to collapse. What is the purpose of children’s ministry? Much of what we will look at this week flows from thoughts on that very question. The next imbalanced framework often employed in children’s ministry we will examine is what I will call “The Game-Time Framework.”
This framework views children’s ministry like recess. Volunteers lead children through various games and create an atmosphere that is vibrant and exciting. This framework is more common in more modern churches. Typically, leaders and volunteers are most concerned with the environment and the primary goal is fun. Attract them with things they like, and the kids will come; that is the motto.

The Game-Time Framework

Picture in your mind a dark room with streaming lights, multi-colored walls creatively painted with loud music blasting from the speakers. Imagine an energetic and loudly dressed leader standing on a stage in front of a group of kids. Within minutes, a few games are played, followed by a short message, which leads into the group of kids dividing into small groups to play more games. After about 30 minutes, the kids gather back together and play even more games. By the time the parents pick the kids up at the end of the service, their kids are excited and exhausted.

If you have ever been to a summer camp for kids, you have a good idea what I mean by the “Game-Time Framework.” I almost called this the “Show-Time Framework” because the end of this framework is fun and the means is energizing lights, sounds, music, and games. If you are a part of a smaller church, this framework will seem foreign to you. But for those in bigger churches, the game-time or show-time framework is all but expected. This framework is appealing to me. I am very competitive and love games. I am also all for anything in children’s ministry that keeps kids’ attention, and these elements do that.

As you have probably noticed in each installment of this series: if the things we are discussing, like childcare, stories, and games, are used as elements they can be helpful. But, when any one of those individual elements roots out the others and becomes a framework on which the whole ministry is based, we have a problem that often leaves out the gospel.

In this framework, your children’s ministry better have a creative name, theme, and way to attract kids. In fact, I believe this framework is one of the crucial reasons why churches grow. Big churches grow bigger when they have an energetic and fun children’s ministry. This reality can play out in two ways. It can be an element within a balanced children’s ministry. Or, and this is the danger, it can be the framework on which the children’s ministry is built in which a children’s ministry can grow without Jesus.

The danger in focusing primarily on games, music, and excitement in children’s ministry is that kids love games, music, and excitement. It sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. If you put your primary energies and focus on things like games, music, fun, and excitement, you will be attracting kids with those things, to those things. They are not just means, they are an end. When God is not the grand end of our ministry efforts, we will not be leading kids into true and lasting satisfaction. We will be offering them fleeting joys—salt water in a glass mug.

In the introduction to his book Gospel Wakefulness, author Jared Wilson writes,

“Have you ever heard the statement ‘what you win them with is what you win them to’? I think quality music, powerful videos, strategic lighting, well-performed dramas, and interesting set pieces and architecture can be helpful tools in service to reaching for Christ people who are dying and going to hell. But if these things are what we are winning people with, we are only distracting them from their numbness for a while, entertaining them in a break from their restlessness, before they stall out spiritually or move on to other ‘experiences’” (16-17).

This perfectly communicates my concerns with the Game-Time Framework. The elements employed are in and of themselves helpful, and can be used to help better communicate the gospel. But when these things are what we are using to attract people, kids included, we are using these things as ultimate ends rather than helpful means.

The fear in churches and children’s ministries who employ the Game-Time Framework is that kids will be bored, that the ministry will stall and fizzle out because kids are just not as easily entertained. Like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if we build an energetic and entertaining children’s ministry, they will come. But what I fear is that they are right. It is possible to grow a large children’s ministry without the gospel. When we attract kids with the festivities or with events, we are attracting them to festivities and events. We had better keep them coming. The Game-Time Framework is unashamed of this. It spends its resources, energies, and monies to have more games and skits, and better lights and sound.

But there is a better way. We should deeply care about the passions and desires of kids. We should even use games, engaging music, and create a fun and exciting environment in children’s ministry. But we should use them as a means to point children to the greatest End. We should attract kids with the gospel, to the God of the gospel!

When we show excitement and joy over games and activities, and then seem bored with the gospel, it should not surprise us when our kids follow suit. Our presentation of the gospel should be engaging. It should be thrilling. It should show that the cross of Christ is not just the most important new in the world, but the most exciting news in the world. In your presentation of the gospel, communicate with your words and demeanor that it actually is good news.

Wilson says,

“But! Oh man. If we are regularly and excitedly engaging people in the good news of the finished saving work of the sacrificing, dying, rising, exalted, sovereign Jesus Christ who is the death-proof, fail-proof King of kings before all things and in all things and holding all things together as he sustains the world by the mere word of his power, the ones whose hearts are opened by the Spirit to be won to Christ will be irrevocably changed. Numbness will be the exception, rather than the norm. We will not have to lead them through hoops of creative entertainment, constantly hamstrung by the limits of our artistic brainstorming sessions, seeking to keep their attentions stirred by a well-composed aesthetic this or that” (17).

Wow. Wilson nails it. The Game-Time Framework communicates that other things are more exciting than Jesus, and we need them to attract kids and families to him. Friends, Jesus doesn’t need our creativities to draw people to himself. And when we show that games are more thrilling than the gospel of Jesus, we shoot ourselves and our ministry efforts in the foot. Games can be useful. But they must not be ultimate in children’s ministry. Attract kids with Jesus to Jesus. And then trust in the power of the gospel and Spirit of God to resurrect little hearts, so that they may be forever changed and ushered in to a joyous experience that will never end.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.

Four Imbalanced Frameworks for Children’s Ministry: The Story-Time Framework

knowledge_insurance_frameworkThis post is part 3 in a five part series on four imbalanced children’s ministry frameworks. In children’s ministry, balance is crucial. An imbalanced children’s ministry will lead to collapse. What is the purpose of children’s ministry? Much of what we will look at this week flows from thoughts on that very question. One imbalanced framework often employed in children’s ministry is what I will call “The Story-Time Framework.” This framework views children’s ministry like a family reading night at a local library. Volunteers read children various stories from the Bible. This is one of the most common frameworks used in children’s ministry, and one of the most detrimental for a child’s understanding of the Big Story of Scripture.
The Story-Time Framework

I can see it now. The teacher gathers the kids around the storyboard and begins by saying, “A long time ago, people were doing really bad things on the earth. God decided to send a big flood to destroy the earth. But he chose one righteous man to save. This man’s name was Noah and God told him to build a really, really big boat…” And then out come the story characters. A big boat. An awkwardly smiling man with a beard. And of course, all those creepy smiling giraffes, elephants, tigers, and bears waving from inside the ark as if they are going on the cruise of a lifetime.

There is an appropriate time and place for storytelling in children’s ministry. I would even say that storytelling should be a common element in children’s ministry, particularly in ministry to preschoolers. The Bible is in fact one big story. Gospel-centered storytelling is a healthy way to teach the Bible. In fact, I use The Jesus Storybook Bible with the preschoolers on Sunday nights in the children’s ministry I lead. Capturing the imaginations of children through stories is a way I truly look forward to using with my son as I teach him the Christian faith. However, storytelling in children’s ministry that is devoid of the gospel is dangerous and can damage a child’s understanding of and confidence in the Bible for years.

The Story-time Framework is particularly dangerous for the biblical literacy of children. Typically, this framework flows from the idea that children have shorter attention spans and love stories. Because of these facts, the Story-time Framework limits biblical teaching to the reading of stories. Storybook Bibles are usually employed. And while some storybook Bibles are absolutely fantastic at weaving together the main stories of Scripture within the Big Story of God’s redemption, many of them present disconnected stories designed to entertain children.

In the Story-time Framework, most of the time the actual account from Scripture is chopped down to the point that you may not even be able to find it in an actual Bible. Contextualization is necessary in children’s ministry, but when the message of Scripture is lost in the process, we are missing the point of discipleship. Stories are told in ways that overemphasize certain details while the overall message of the story or how the story fits in the metanarrative of Scripture is overlooked.

When children’s ministry is viewed as story time, leaders will take a few stories from the Bible and read them to the kids. There are three big problems with this method when it is employed on its own.

1. Children view the Bible as a book of disconnected stories with moralistic lessons

The problem here is kids begin to view the Bible as just a book of disconnected stories, like Aesop’s Fables. Under the Story-time Framework, children’s ministry leaders teach moral lessons from Bible stories to help kids make better choices or better follow the rules at home and in school.

2. Children view the Bible as a source for “hero worship”

Under this pitfall we find the danger of “hero worship.” When we only teach our children stories in a random and disconnected manner, we typically over-glorify a biblical character. Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, Ruth, Esther, and others are put forward as heroes we should emulate. We see how they responded in certain situations and then place them on a pedestal for kids to look to when they live their lives. This misses the gospel. There is only one true Hero of the Bible, and all of the characters in all of the stories are in need of his work on the cross.

3. Children view the Bible as an unrealistic fairy tale

The more we emphasize the story-time framework, the more kids will associate Bible stories with other fairy tales they hear. Most of them are being taught at home that Santa Claus is real, so the lines between reality and fantasy in their education and upbringing are blurred enough as things are. When we show unrealistic images and present chopped up stories, over time kids begin to view the world of the Bible like the world of Narnia–maybe just too good to be true.

When we forget that every story whispers his name we fall into the Story-time Framework for children’s ministry. Under this framework, we tell stories for entertainment as we unintentionally distort the reality of the biblical accounts. We tell stories for emulation as we set biblical heroes up on pedestals. And we tell stories for moral education as we aim at the actions while shooting past the heart.

May our storytelling be more balanced. May our storytelling be more about Christ. May our storytelling always point to the reality of the greatest story ever told. Children love stories. So, let’s take care how we tell them.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.

Four Imbalanced Frameworks for Children’s Ministry: The Babysitting Framework

This post is part 2 in a five part series on four imbalanced children’s ministry frameworks. In children’s ministry, balance is crucial. An imbalanced children’s ministry will lead to collapse. What is the purpose of children’s ministry? Much of what we will look at this week flows from thoughts on that very question. One imbalanced framework often employed in children’s ministry is what I will call “The Babysitting Framework.” This framework views children’s ministry like daycare. Volunteers supervise children while their parents worship. As you will see, there are many dangerous pitfalls in this imbalanced approach.

The Babysitting Framework

The problem with the history of children’s ministry is that it has often been viewed as a glorified babysitting service. And while this may simply be a disingenuous description of nursery ministry, many children’s ministries can aptly be described as little more than babysitting.

But before I begin, I want to say that there is indeed an element of “babysitting” involved in children’s ministry. In fact, when this aspect is belittled, safety is not prioritized. It is difficult or downright impossible for parents to enjoy the community of small group if they must bring their children with them. Even small groups in the home work best when the children are not calling, “Mommy, mommy!” every five minutes. Babysitting is incredibly important. It is the care and protection of a child. And this can never be taken lightly. My wife and I cherish anyone willing to care for our son so we can spend the occasional night out to ourselves. But we don’t let just anyone babysit. This is one reason why background checks should be encouraged or mandatory for volunteers in children’s ministry.

But, even though the babysitting element should not be ignored or belittled in children’s ministry for the sake of safety and service to parents, if this is all we offer, we are doing our children and volunteers a disservice. In a babysitting framework, volunteers are simply charged with the task of supervising a group of kids for an hour or so. These volunteers are often not equipped with resources or plans. They are usually left to fill the time on their own. This almost always leads to a chaotic and truly miserable hour. In my opinion, this is the chief reason most children’s ministries are devoid of volunteers. No one wants to provide free babysitting for an hour or more. No one.

I guarantee, if you use a babysitting framework in your children’s ministry, you will have a small group of frustrated volunteers who view service in the church as a begrudging duty–something to get through. But what’s worse, there are three damaging effects of the babysitting framework.

1. Most likely, your volunteers will develop a legalistic attitude toward service in the church.

They will view service as a way to earn favor with God. They will view service as a painful means to an end–like lying back in the dentist’s chair. They will not enjoy serving in children’s ministry, but they will most likely never admit it. The babysitting framework is detrimental for the spiritual health of your volunteers.

2. Definitely, your kids will miss the gospel.

In the babysitting framework, kids may be given a snack, they may play a game, and they may hear general things like, “Jesus loves you,” but they will most likely not hear the gospel and they will definitely not see the gospel displayed. Your only hope for kids being exposed to the gospel is a phenomenal volunteer pouring his or her life into the kids. But the system is set up against a gospel-soaked environment. In the babysitting framework, children’s ministry soon becomes the lazy parent who loves to say, “Here…” as he hands over the iPad. “Anything to keep them occupied,” is the motto of the babysitting framework. Volunteers are in survival mode. When this happens, I guarantee that the kids will miss the gospel. We should definitely provide childcare, but not at the expense of missing the gospel.

3. Probably, parents will be lazy with gospel teaching at home.

The goal of children’s ministry is to come alongside parents and aid them in their God-given responsibility to train their children in the way of the Lord. When the children’s ministry in a church is built around the idea of babysitting, parents will receive the subtle message that the gospel is not for kids. And beyond maybe getting their kids to repeat a “prayer of salvation,” parents in this framework will follow the cues of the church–occupy their kids with churchy things, but refrain from teaching the gospel to their little hearts.

The Babysitting Framework is detrimental on a churchwide scale. It damages volunteers, kids, and parents. If you want to see families cherishing the gospel and living their lives by it, we must do better than merely babysit their children. We must provide a safe environment where we do allow parents to worship or participate in small groups. But in the process, blow their kids away with the amazing truth of the gospel.

The church is not a babysitting service. It is a bastion and pillar of truth. It is an earthly outpost of a heavenly kingdom. We can do better than the local childcare service. We can do better than daycares. We have the truth that sets sinners free, even little sinners. For the sake of our volunteers, kids, parents, and the glory of Christ in the church, let’s not be content to supervise and be intentional about the propagation of the gospel to the next generation.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.

Teaching Big Truths to Young Minds

For the past two months the kids ministry at my local church has adopted a discipleship ministry that has been on my heart for over a year. Since the beginning of August, I have been standing in front of a group of kids to teach them deep doctrinal truths for the purpose of seeing them grow in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ. I have learned a lot and been surprised by many things. However, there is one thing that has not surprised me and is in fact the motivation for this new teaching ministry: Kids can and do understand deep theological truths. And kids in Christ love these truths!

With regard to teaching children, Charles Spurgeon once said,

If there be any doctrine too difficult for a child, it is rather the fault of the teacher’s conception of it than of the child’s power to receive it, provided that child be really converted to God (Come Ye Children: Practical Help Telling Children About Jesus, 10).

For anyone involved in kids ministry, these words from Spurgeon are like a punch in the gut, especially for those who have resorted to teaching kids no more than a running list of morals or children friendly versions of Bible stories. I never have understood how Noah and all of those animals could look like they were taking a walk on the beach when an earth-destroying flood was on the way. But I totally agree with the heart of Spurgeon’s thought here. Kids can understand deep theological truths and the onus is on the teachers to communicate these deep doctrinal truths in ways that are accessible to kids.

I am both humbled and encouraged by these words from Spurgeon. I am humbled because I look at my life and my abilities and clearly see that I am inadequate for the massive task of teaching deep truths to young minds that can so easily be manipulated. How am I to plainly teach some of the most important and deep realities to kids? How am I to employ kid friendly illustrations in a way that kids can understand without straying from the essential message of the Bible? These thoughts and more enter my mind on a weekly basis as I prepare to stand before 20-40 kids on any given Wednesday night and teach the Word.

Although the task of teaching deep truths to young and hungry hearts is massive and even a bit frightening, there is reason for encouragement in taking up the task of teaching theological truths to kids. There is no age requirement or intellectual test a person must pass in order to be saved. Kids and adults alike are saved by the pleasure of God’s glorious grace. It is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone that a person is saved. Kids come to Christ because Christ bids them, “Come!” In the words of Spurgeon,

He is the receiver of all who come to Him…All His life might be drawn as a shepherd with a lamb in His bosom: never as a cruel shepherd setting his dogs upon the lambs and driving them and their mothers away (Come Ye Children, 18-19).

Jesus receives children and never pushes them away. We must do the same in our teaching in kids ministry. We must not push kids away from deep truths that their hearts crave–care, love, leadership, instruction, and satisfaction. In my experience leading kids, it is abundantly clear to me that kids desire satisfaction above all else. This is manifested in various ways in various kids, but every kid, no matter where they come from want to be satisfied in one way or another. When we teach big truths like the doctrine of God, the Trinity, original sin, substitutionary atonement, biblical inerrancy, etc. we offer to their hungry hearts the food that will satisfy like nothing else.

Every week I have the greatest opportunity in life. I teach the Bible and preach the gospel to kids every single Wednesday night. I am humbled by this responsibility, but encouraged by the opportunity. God saves sinners. Children included. He saves through the message of the gospel. The capacity of a kid to understand and communicate big doctrinal truths once amazed me and is now (gladly) becoming a glorious normality. And when a child trusts Christ and actually understands what is going on, I am immensely delighted. Young minds need big truths. May we never stop teaching!

It is ours to make doctrine simple; this is to be a main part of our work. Teach the little ones the whole truth and nothing but the truth; for instruction is the great want of the child’s nature…Children in grace have to grow, rising to greater capacity in knowing, being, doing, and feeling, and to greater power from God; therefore above all things they must be fed (Come Ye Children, 10).

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

How Should Kids Approach the Bible?

bible-lessons-for-kidsLast night I taught a group of about 20 kids about the supremacy of the word of God. We have been talking about the purpose of man in all of life as glorifying God by enjoying him forever. And we have learned that there is only one way to know how to glorify God by enjoying him forever–the word of God. God has chosen to reveal himself most clearly in a book and in a person, both of which we call the Word.
After teaching primarily that the Bible is our only rule, guide, instruction, and authority for Christian living, doctrine, holiness, and faithfulness, I moved to call the kids, the adults, and myself to one particular thing in relation to the word of God. I called everyone in attendance to treasure, cherish, value, love, and adore the word of God as the one thing in life that will never fade. As the prophet Isaiah declared, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). Similarly, one psalmist wrote, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89).

However, this is only good news if the thing that stands forever is greater than everything that fades. If the joys that fade are more satisfying than the word of God that will stand forever, we should weep. However, the word of God is life. It is like refreshing water for a dry and thirsty heart. The joy of the word of God surpasses all other joys. The satisfaction found in it and ultimately in its Author is enough to fill your soul with pleasure for billions and billions and billions and billions (you get the point) of years.

In our kids ministry, we reward kids for bringing their Bibles to our Wednesday night activities. This is for one reason and one reason only; that they would see the unsurpassable worth of the very word of God. Knowing the Bible is valuable, but it is a means to an end. Studying the Bible is important, but it is a means to an end. Enjoying God as he has revealed himself in his word is the ultimate end for every man. And by God’s grace he ushers many sinners into this joy.

So, how should we approach the Bible? How should kids and adults alike approach the Bible? With the adoration and desire of the psalmists…

I will also speak of your testimonies before kings
and shall not be put to shame,
for I find my delight in your commandments,
which I love.
I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love,
and I will meditate on your statutes (Ps. 119:46-48).

The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces (Ps. 119:72).

Therefore, I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold (Ps. 119:127).

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb (Ps. 19:10).

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser
than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn aside from your rules,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Ps. 119:97-103).

…and the Puritans

My Father,

In a world of created changeable things,
Christ and his Word alone remain unshaken.
O to forsake all creatures,
to rest as a stone on him the foundation,
to abide in him, be borne up by him!
For all my mercies come through Christ,
who has designed, purchased, promised,
effected them.
How sweet it is to be near him, the Lamb,
filled with holy affections!

Let me know that he is dear to me by his Word;
I am one with him by the Word on his part,
and by faith on mine;
If I oppose the Word I oppose my Lord
when he is most near;
If I receive the Word I receive my Lord
wherein he is nigh.
O thou who has the hearts of all men
in thine hand,
form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort. (“Christ the Word” in The Valley of Vision)

May all kids and adults who are in Christ pray like this and desire the word of God and the God of the word with similar blazing passion.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.

3 Keys to Create a Gospel-Centered Environment in Kids Ministry

kidsminWhen people talk about kids ministry what often gets brought up is the kind of environment that leaders create for the kids. Kids ministry can only be effective if there is a vibrant, exciting, enthusiastic, loud, and fun environment led by a charismatic and energetic leader. The environment must include loud, fast-paced music with fun games, and food. While there is nothing wrong with creating such an environment, and it can and often does enhance kids ministry, if this is the only kind of environment that is created then we as leaders have failed the kids we love so much. Creating clever themes for the classrooms has no effect for the kingdom when the message of the kingdom is absent from the room.
An engaging and fun environment is helpful, but it can only serve a valuable purpose if another kind of environment is in place. From the moment the kids arrive to the moment they leave, the most important kind of environment that leaders can create is a gospel-centered environment. Do we want the kids to have fun? Yes. Do we want them to be energetic and scream, laugh, dance, and sing? Absolutely. But more than anything else, we should desire to point them to Jesus. Our goal as kids ministry leaders must be to take the kids we lead by the hand and show them the Christ who lived, died, and rose for them. Now, I am not talking about just sharing the gospel message when we teach, though that must be present. I am referring to creating an environment that oozes gospel from every wall.

The question then becomes, How can we create a gospel-centered environment? I believe there are at least three keys to creating a gospel-centered environment.

1. A Gospel-Centered Environment Takes Sin Seriously

Most adults in the church speed out of the sanctuary like the road runner from Looney Tunes when kids ministry leaders ask for volunteers. This is mostly due to the fact that kids ministry programs often have little to no disciplinary structure. And any adult who has been around kids knows that kids + no structure = World War 3. This is because sin is not taken seriously in kids ministry. But the gospel cannot be seen if sin is passed over or ignored. When we point out sin in the lives of the kids we serve, we can meaningfully call kids to repentance and faith in the Christ who bore their sin. We are far off-base if we create an environment that either passes over sin or makes kids feel like church is a place where they cannot sin. A gospel-centered environment addresses sin. If we pressure kids to strive for perfection, we point them away from Christ and toward self-righteousness. If we overlook sin, we point kids away from Christ and toward antinomianism (obedience to God is unimportant). A gospel-centered environment takes sin seriously while avoiding both legalism and cheap grace.

2. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Grace in All Things

The gospel of God is all of grace. When we make kids feel like they must look or act a certain way in small group or Sunday School, we are not filling the room with grace, but with works. While calling Christian kids to further holiness is admirable, it must be done so with grace-empowered works. We should create an environment that gives glory to God for all good gifts in the kids’ lives. We must be aware of evidence of grace in the lives of the kids and our own as well. At times it is good to shower kids who have sinned in class with grace by giving them gifts they do not deserve. Filling kids ministries with grace will point them to Jesus. When kids memorize Bible verses or catechism questions, it is important that the leader praise God for the grace of imparting this knowledge, so that spiritual growth is seen as being granted by God. This eliminates the threat of elitism when memorization of truths are tallied. Instead of encouraging kids to brag on themselves when they grow spiritually, a gospel-centered environment causes kids to brag on God as the one who distributes grace.

3. A Gospel-Centered Environment Shows Unbridled Passion for Jesus

No matter what is being taught and no matter what activities are being performed, leaders in kids ministry must demonstrate their unbridled passion for Jesus. When kids leave a ministry event, they must be blown away with how much the leaders love someone named Jesus. All leaders leave impressions on kids either for good or bad. And kids associate one or two particular things with every leader. How awesome would it be for both consistently attending kids and visiting kids alike to be amazed at how passionate their “church teachers” are about Jesus. What happens when we do this is we show the gospel to be a means to an end. That end is the enjoyment of God in Jesus.

Should we be energetic during games? Sure. Should we dance and sing with the kids when the music is blasting? No doubt. But when we are raising the roof during games and activities, yet reserved when we talk about Jesus or anything about God, we send a clear message: Jesus may be important, but he is not as enjoyable as games and activities. A gospel-centered environment points kids to a Christ who is not only the Savior of sinners, but also the Fountain that is overflowing with joy and satisfaction that surpasses all other joys. Kids ministry leaders, do not be  more excited about games than you are about God.

Kids ministry is all about environment. Create an environment that is as fun as it can be. Create an environment that is completely engaging and entertaining. Oh, but in the process do not miss the gospel! Create a gospel-centered environment by taking sin seriously, showing grace in all things, and showing unbridled passion for Jesus.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.

Encouragement for Leaders in Kids Ministry

Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “If you want big-souled, large-hearted men or women, look for them among those who are much engaged among the young, bearing with their follies, and sympathizing with their weaknesses for Jesus’ sake.”

Kids ministry is a unique thing in the life of the church. It is simultaneously one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding ministries. Nothing will leave you dead tired and rejuvenated quite like working with kids in the church. Running, crawling, jumping, shouting, whispering, laughing, crying, smiling, and frowning are all probable things you will see a kids ministry leader doing on a weekly basis. Leaders in kids ministry are caretakers, teachers, playmates, mediators, parent-figures, and role models. These roles, when fulfilled, produce tired bodies and full souls. There is nothing so tiring as ministering to kids. Yet, there is nothing so satisfying as seeing kids trust Christ or grow in deeper intimacy with Christ.

Nevertheless, the labors of kids ministry often go unnoticed and servants can feel unappreciated. It is tempting to feel like serving in kids ministry is nothing more than a glorified babysitting service while the rest of the adults go about real ministry. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Kids ministry is foundational in the spiritual and theological formation of a person. Paul encouraged Timothy,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:14-15).

John Calvin believed the teaching of children was fundamental to the future of the church. He once said, “Believe me, the Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.” Likewise, Puritan Thomas Watson once said, “To preach and not to catechize [teach] is to build without foundation.”

If you serve in kids ministry, know that your work is most valuable not only for the spiritual formation of the kids you teach, but also for the future of the church. You are not just a babysitter. You may just be the only source of love, grace, and truth some of these kids ever see. Though the labors are hard and the praise small, may your efforts in this work not be for personal accolade, but instead for the praise of the glory of the grace of God. Find satisfaction in presenting the gospel to kids. Find satisfaction in teaching small kids big truths to blow their minds and ground their feet. In a culture that is constantly shifting and in a world that is characterized by pluralism, teaching children the immovable truth of the gospel is a crucial work.

Continue serving the kids in your ministry every week to the glory of God and you will find that you will grow in faith, love, grace, and truth. Find motivation to faithfully continue in the work of kids ministry in the words of prominent Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon:

Teach the little ones the whole truth and nothing but the truth; for instruction is the great want of the child’s nature. A child has not only to live as you and I have, but also to grow; hence he has double need of food. When fathers say of their boys, ‘What appetites they have!’ they should remember that we also would have great appetites if we had not only to keep the machinery going, but to enlarge it at the same time. Children in grace have to grow, rising to greater capacity in knowing, being, doing, and feeling, and to greater power from God; therefore above all things they must be fed. They must be well fed or instructed, because they are in danger of having their cravings perversely satisfied with error. Youth is susceptible to evil doctrine. Whether we teach young Christians truth or not, the devil will be sure to teach them error. They will hear of it somehow, even if they are watched by the most careful guardians. The only way to keep chaff out of the child’s little measure is to fill it brimful with good wheat. Oh, that the Spirit of God may help us to do this! The more the young are taught the better; it will keep them from being misled (Come Ye Children: Practical Help Telling Children About Jesus, pp. 10-11).

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.