Fairy tales are truly underrated. These subtle and time-honored tales are rich with meaning and wisdom. I have recently gleaned from one of these old stories how very important it is for adults who love children to provide authentic guidance and clear alternatives to a life apart from God. Read and be encouraged.
How well do you remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? In this, one of the darkest of fairy tale stories, the parents of two young siblings put them out into the dark and dangerous forest with nothing but a piece of bread. They do this to have more food for themselves during a famine. The result is that the children wander through the woods lost and hungry until they encounter a house made of gingerbread and the wicked woman who lives there.
She lures them in with delicious food and smooth assurances that she will care for them. Her lies are so appealing that the two children are easily captured, enslaved, and tortured by the evil witch who owns the gingerbread house. Only by killing their captor are they finally freed. All of this is because the parents put themselves before their children.
This is a story for children? Yikes! Perhaps we should tell it to parents. Or to ourselves. When I was told this story as a child, the takeaway was, essentially, "Don't take candy from strangers!" Rereading it as an adult who is passionate about protecting and educating children, my takeaway is that adults have to provide authentic, positive leadership for children rather than setting them into the world unprepared for the evil that lurks. There are gingerbread cottages everywhere. The witch inside still wants to enslave our children.
The best way to keep our children away from the gingerbread house is to give them somewhere better to go. Simply telling children to avoid the gingerbread houses of our time is not enough. They need positive alternatives that keep them moving forward spiritually, physically, and mentally. Without these positive alternatives, we are leaving our children deep in the woods with no compass or landmarks. They are easily lost and, therefore, tempted by cheap substitutes for a life of joy and rich relationships.
What are the takeaways for Christian educators? Here are a few thoughts:
Win the heart first. Christian educators often fall into one of two categories: those who befriend children and set very few boundaries, and those who set boundaries filled with stress and devoid of hospitality. Neither one of these approaches works. Connect with the heart of each child, and you will find that positive behavior follows. You will occasionally need your teacher's voice, but harsh tones are unnecessary. You can be firm while remaining kind. Children are loud and energetic. Give them outlets for that. Sunday school or children's programs need whole-body activities built into them. Lead with love. Our vocation calls us to love children to Christ. There is no other way than the way of love. Win their hearts and the rest will follow as surely as night follows day.
Provide a place that is more appealing than the Gingerbread House. Go beyond telling the children to avoid the Gingerbread House. Give them a place that is so full of love and understanding that they have no desire to go seeking a Gingerbread House filled with danger. The ancient poet Homer wrote in his epic poem "Argonotica" about Jason, a wise leader. Jason had to take his crew by boat past the Sirens, who lured sailors onto the rocks with beautiful songs filled with wisdom. Rather than restricting the sailors to keep them away from the sirens, Jason had Orpheus, a great musician, sing a more beautiful song for them. This more positive alternative kept the sailors safe from certain death at the hands of the wicked Sirens. Model your ministry programming after this concept. Provide an atmosphere and activities that are better than the Christ-denying programs of the world. Children who are genuinely loved for who they are do not need to go looking for acceptance among the evils of the world.
Be clear about evil. It is popular in our culture to say that all belief systems are of equal value. This is a concept that is refuted by scripture as well as by common sense. There is wickedness in the world and children should be warned about it. Tell them that some will seek them out on the internet to lure them away from safety and into great harm. Insist that, instead of engaging strangers in cyberspace, they form friendships with those who lift them. State strongly that evil will always demand a payoff. Humans pay for choosing poor relationships. The payoff is often decades of unhappiness. Teach a better way. Remind the children frequently and with clarity that there are good paths and bad paths. All paths are not created equal. There is evil and it should be avoided for the sake of their souls.
Find joy for yourself. Children's ministry is a serious business. It is a work for those who are tenacious, creative, and patient. However, it is also filled with joy. Laughter and fun is built into the concept of sharing Christ with children. Teaching children about Jesus is the greatest project ever. It is worth doing and the benefits are endless. Dive into it with your whole heart. Children's ministry is a high calling for all who dare to change the world. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.
Earlier this week I received an email from a young woman who had been a child in a youth group I served 10 years ago. She was from a troubled and tumultuous home in which the most stable influence was the elderly grandmother. This precious child was essential to me and I poured a lot of myself into helping her see how beautiful and precious she was. As can happen in itinerant ministries, my husband and I were moved to serve a new church over a hundred miles away just a few years later.
All these years I have wondered and prayed about her. She found me through my website and it has been wonderful to connect the adult to the child. She is functioning well in the community and fondly remembers the children's ministries in which she participated. This connection, and others, has reminded me of how glad I am that I have spent myself in this aspect of ministry. If you have a heart and a passion for children, you will never regret responding to this.
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will go with you wherever you go." Joshua 1:9