Rural Church Does Outreach through Children’s Ministry

What’s your congregation’s focus and form of outreach? As a small congregation – average weekly attendance of around 95 – in a rural setting (“at the intersection of beans and corn”), Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Hudson (Stroh), Indiana focuses its outreach efforts on the public elementary school in its community. Its form of outreach is KIDZ KLUB, a Tuesday after-school program for elementary-aged kids. In the fall 2016 session, Pastor Jim Elsner taught the fourth- and fifth-grade students about the life of Abraham. Through this lesson, the children learned about their identity with God, sex and abuse, and covenants.

In order to build a “team”, Elsner played a game with the kids. Each child took a turn to share his or her name and the hospital where he or she was born. To Elsner’s surprise, four of the eight kids did not know the name of the hospital, or even the community, where they were born. These same four kids live not with a parent but with another relative. It was a great opportunity to talk about Abram and how God knew him and called him to follow Him.

The second week, Elsner and the children read from Isaiah 43. Each child made a big poster, and the posters went up on the classroom wall. The message was this: “I have called you by name, [child’s name], and you are mine,” says the Lord.”

It was important for these kids to know that God knows them better than they know themselves. He knows where they were born. And He calls them to be His own dear child!

Sex and Abuse
If you read the story of Abraham in Genesis 12-22, you can’t escape talking about sex and abuse! The words were right there in the Bibles that the students used, and the kids caught it quickly. They realized that, even though God called Abraham and made him His own, Abraham and Sarah made bad choices in life.

Elsner introduced the kids to the “canyon” diagram. On one side is God and on the other is us (people). In the “canyon” between God and us are Sin, Faults, and Errors. How do we get over them and to God?

Genesis 15:6 says, “Abram believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Faith, believing, and trust are the bridge across the canyon. Despite the bad choices we each make, God restores us and forgives us because we believe. Elsner added the cross of Jesus as the bridge, explaining that Abraham didn’t know Jesus and His work as we do and that we believe and trust in Jesus.

Reading about Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 16) brought an interesting story from one of the kids. He told us his cousin was going to a church but she became pregnant, even though she wasn’t married. Her pastor was angry and kicked her out of the church. He told her that her baby was a mistake!

It was a touching moment followed by a tough discussion. All the kids were very tuned in! Elsner spoke about sin and grace, about God’s love and forgiveness for our bad choices when we trust in God. He encouraged the student to tell his cousin about Abraham and God’s love. For this group of kids who didn’t know where they came into this world, it was important to reaffirm God’s words from Isaiah 43: “I have called you by name… you are mine.” That baby isn’t a mistake. That baby is known by God and loved by God, and God calls that baby to be His!

As the class finished its discussion that day and began moving to its next activity, one of the girls who was pretty quiet came to Elsner and said, “Pastor Jim, I was abused. When I was in foster care, I was abused. My grandparents got me out of there. And that’s why I live with them.” And the boy who told us about his cousin turned to her and said, “I was abused, too!”

One of the more dramatic moments in the story of Abraham is the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15. It’s kind of bloody, but the kids really understood that God laid his life on the line for Abraham! He made a promise and commitment to Abraham – a very serious one – a “cross my heart and hope to die” kind of one.

When Isaac was eight days old, he entered into that covenant with God, too. Circumcision it was called. (That took some smooth talking on Elsner’s part!) The point for the kids is that God put Himself on the line for us in Jesus. God sacrificed His Son so we could be in a covenant commitment, too! And today, God asks us to be baptized. That’s His covenant for us.

The last session covered baptism. None of those kids are baptized. Elsner’s prayer is that everyone on the “Green Team” (the group’s name) is baptized the same day. The seed has been planted; Elsner looks forward to seeing how it sprouts and grows in the next 8-weeks of KIDZ KLUB.

Growth and Blessings
During the fall 2016 session of KIDZ KLUB, Prince of Peace saw a 50% increase in enrollment and attendance – from 25 kids to 37. Why the growth? Part of the reason is that KIDZ KLUB is not the church’s only involvement with the local elementary school. Other involvement includes:

  • A deaconess, who directs the Children’s Ministry and KIDZ KLUB, spends one to two hours each week as a volunteer recess and lunch supervisor at the school. The kids love to see her! And it gives the opening to talk about KIDZ KLUB and answer questions about life issues, church, and God.
  • Every year, the church provides lunch for the faculty and staff during one of their in-service days. It’s the church’s way of saying thanks for their care for the kids of the community!
  • Several Prince of Peace members volunteer at the school as mentors. They read to the kids, listen to kids read, or help them with other studies and lessons.
  • Church members try to be visible at school events such as concerts and plays.

God has blessed the Prince of Peace outreach to the kids of the community and their families. The last evening of KIDZ KLUB included a Family Supper event, which followed a short program with kids singing, doing a skit, and receiving awards. Over 80 people – KIDZ KLUB students and staff, family members, and congregation members – attended. Two new KIDZ KLUB students are participating in the Christmas pageant this year, and their parents are beginning to worship at the church.

Outreach is challenging for a small congregation in a rural setting, but the need for the Gospel is just as great here as anywhere else. The personal issues and family tragedies one associates with the city are in rural America, too. The challenge is to shine the light of Christ’s love to those around us. By God’s grace and Spirit, Prince of Peace is able to be “a safe place and a grace place” where the seed of His Word – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is planted. Elsner and his congregation eagerly await the harvest!

Thanks to Terry Tieman for submitting this article, which was written by Pastor Jim Elsner.

Teaching Our Community to Care for Us

Ten years as an at-home mom prepared me in surprising ways to be a lead pastor. In both situations, I’ve learned that:

  • You’re part of the community but also responsible for building the community.
  • Most of the work you do is noticed only if it’s not done
    • At home, people expect dinner to appear on the table and socks to appear in their drawers.
    • At church, they expect the bulletin to be filled with important events and for a sermon to appear every Sunday morning.
  • You will have moments of resentment, and resentment is a sign that you need to share your heart.

It would be natural for my children to feel entitled, and for me to feel resentment, if I were treated as a full-time servant. One day, I decided that everyone would benefit if my kids learned to appreciate what I do for them. And so we have taught our children to say “thank you” not just because it’s nice to be thanked but also because it’s good for them to learn gratefulness.

In other words, if I were to put up with their entitlement for the 18 years they’re with me, I would end up with a lot of resentment in my own heart, and they would leave home as something less than whole and happy adults.

Now, of course, parishioners aren’t children, so I don’t want to overdo the metaphor. Still, it is important for parishioners to be grateful for their church and for their pastor. The responsibility for teaching them this often falls to the pastor when the church is small, there is little denominational oversight of these things, the congregation is young, or the community is very transitional. In my case, all four are true.

Let me share how I’m learning to navigate this.

Last year, I noticed I’d been on staff seven years and was due a sabbatical. We, like most smaller churches, don’t have a head of HR who keeps track of such things. I’m the closest thing we have to head of HR, and for any other member of staff I would say, “Time for a sabbatical!” But no one remembered this for me, so a part of me felt a little resentful.

I decided, as the head of HR, to inform everyone that the Lead Pastor was due a sabbatical. I did so partly because I believe that it’s good for a church if their Lead Pastor takes a sabbatical. In my submission to the good of the church, I raised the issue. Of course, they were happy to let me go. And the sabbatical was good both for me and the church.

I’m also navigating these questions this Christmas. The folks in my congregation are incredibly positive and encouraging. (If they weren’t, then I guess I would need to consider how to pastor them toward that.) Because we are by a university, many of them are young and always coming and going, so each Christmas it’s a different set of faces. As a result, those of us on staff don’t receive many Christmas cards or gifts.

It is important to note the following:

  • We don’t care about being lavished with expensive presents, but a heartfelt recognition of any way we have served folks is always meaningful.
  • Ultimately we find our affirmation in the Lord, but there are also healthy ways the Lord shows his affirmation through his people.
  • This is not about being treated in a special way – because pastors feel that they are above their people or lords to be spoiled – but about being part of the community.

In a very awkward moment, I raised with our elders that:

  • It’s good for the community to take a moment at Christmastime to celebrate good things.
  • It’s good also to remember the things that can be invisible, like a vibrant church community.
  • It’s my job to help them do that, even if it means teaching them to thank me.

In the past, the elders designated a member of the board to buy each staff member a gift and to sign a card on behalf of the church. It was nice, but it didn’t involve the congregation. This year, the elders are seeing that, as spiritual leaders of the congregation, part of their role is to teach people to take care of the pastors, just as we take care of the people. The elders have taken on the challenge with gusto and it’s beautiful, even if uncomfortable.

If we’re honest, it feels good to imagine we don’t have any needs. It feels very spiritual to say, “I won’t ask anything from them. I’m here for them, not the other way around.” There are certainly ways that we can’t burden our congregations with our needs, but how are we helpful if we’re not human? Won’t we serve them best by (wisely) letting them see our needs? As someone who needs words of encouragement, it is okay to let my congregation know that, not for the sake of my own ego but so that I can keep investing day after day, year after year in this place.

The scriptural metaphor of the ox treading the grain makes me think that God is okay with this approach. We have committed ourselves to our congregations. We’re taught to be servants, to sacrifice for this work. If our good and the good of the church are interwoven, perhaps there are times when we need to take care of our own good for the sake of the church.

The worker for the church community is to live off the fruits of the church community. The fruits of the orchards we tend are not limited to financial gifts. We are nurturing warmth and appreciation, spiritual maturity, and gratitude. The Lord wants us to share in those fruits, too.