“So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” James 2:17
We live in a world of narcissism. Western children are showered with the best clothing, toys, parties and entertainment money can buy. We take our children on vacation, we make sure their comforters match their sheets and we ensure there are plenty of pretty packages under the tree on Christmas morning. Today, the word ‘parenting’ is often nearly synonymous with ‘order-taker’. We wait on our children as if they were royalty.
To what end? What are we teaching our children? Most importantly, is it Biblical? Shouldn’t we teach children to serve others?
Born to Serve….
In his letter to the Jewish believers, James was very clear about our role, as Christians, in God’s Kingdom:
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’ – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” James 3:14-16
If, then, we are to raise thinking kids, I propose we raise kids who serve. Service is not only a central, Scriptural part of loving our neighbors; it is also a wonderful way to create perspective. Children cannot possibly come in contact with raw need without beginning to understand the blessings in their life.
How do we teach service? How can we give our children the gift of a life well-spent?
Teaching Love in Action
It’s easy to spend a lot of time serving as adults and assume our children will observe and later follow in our footsteps. Instead, spend time serving with your children. Let them experience the joy of helping others. When you serve with your kids, you’re also spending time with them, teaching them. It’s a bonding experience, and it strengthens the family.
2. Make Serving a Family Lifestyle
Look for opportunities to serve on a daily basis. Pray together and ask God to open your eyes to the need. Spend time reading about other cultures, religions and about poverty. Help your kids understand the issues, so when need arrives, they’re ready. If your family is going to have a mission statement, let it be “We Serve God in Love”–whenever, wherever and however.
3. Serve Creatively
I recommend beginning service at a young age with your kids. That often requires some creativity. Many great organizations exist that allow children to help. However, it’s not necessary to serve only through non-profits. There are many wonderful and creative ways to serve in the community God placed your family in. Need some ideas?
Host a cooking evening for foreign students from your local university. Bake apple pies and present the Gospel. Invite their families–and let your kids host the kids.
Help tutor foreign refugees after school in your home. Your kids will love teaching someone else the basics.
Find an organization that distributes clothing and toys to foster children and help sort.
Gather your little (and big) garden tools and adopt a few elderly families to garden for.
Add a few rows to your vegetable garden to grow especially for your local food bank.
Volunteer in a soup kitchen–they won’t let the smaller kids in the kitchen, but often the children can help in the dining room. (This means you should be in the dining room, too!)
4. Create Variety in Your Service
Allowing your children to experience a variety of service options is a great way to encourage creativity and joy in their future life of service. It makes serving fun and exciting. They also have an opportunity to come in contact with many different types of people from different walks of life.
5. Serve Consistently
Create lots of variety in your service and experiment, but be sure to pick one or two acts of service you follow through with on a regular basis. Did you weed for the neighbors in the fall? Go back in the spring. Do you homeschool? Create a service class and serve at a particular place or in a particular way once a week. Encourage your children to think about who they are serving and the need they are filling.
6. Allow Room for the Holy Spirit in Your Service
Discuss the Holy Spirit in your home! Help your children learn to discern that still, small voice that speaks to them. If your child is uncomfortable or uneasy with a service idea, pay attention. If your child has some wild, out-of-the ballpark idea, entertain it.
At the ages of 3 and 4, our local neighbor boys served downtown under a very large bridge, washing the feet of the homeless. These precious boys decided the homeless needed houses! Their precious mother decided sleeping bags might be a possibility. Eight years later, this family has a thriving sleeping bag ministry. Imagine the impact their unique service is having on those boys–and their sisters, who now participate as well. (Not to mention the many, many homeless who now have sleeping bags). They’ve had the opportunity to share their story in Clubhouse, Clubhouse Jr., and Pockets magazines–and to expand their ministry.
7. Teach Discretion During Service
When Jesus warned us in Matthew 6:3-4 that our left hand shouldn’t know what our right hand is doing, He promised that our gifts given in private will be rewarded in Heaven. Be sure to teach that we don’t give for earthly recognition or rewards. We give because we are serving the Lord. We give because we love Jesus, and because He has commanded us to love others. Our service is to be a way of life–not a bullet point on our resumes.
8. Read about Other Children’s Service
9. Be Encouraging and FUN!
This may be the most important point! Children have fragile spirits. We want to encourage a life-long love of service. When you take your 3 year old to wash feet, or your 16 year old and his buddy to sort dirty clothes, they may not “perform” the way you hope, and that’s OK. Talk often about serving the Lord, serve often, and encourage frequently. Remember, as your kids are serving others, you are serving them. Every service opportunity is a teachable moment, and it is never the last opportunity to serve. Lecturing or correcting has a funny way of squelching the joy of the Lord.
In living for Christ, we are going to have to set aside our old priorities and pick up some new ones. As we do, we’ll find a life that is fulfilling and exciting beyond what we’ve imagined possible. How exciting that we have the opportunity to experience with the little people we’ve been entrusted with!
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~ Danika Cooley
Danika Cooley is the author of When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 2015), Wonderfully Made (CF4K, 2016), and Bible Road Trip. Her work has been featured in internationally-recognized children's magazines over 150 times.