By Anna Sargent
This is the last part of a 3-part series on what makes gospel-centered ministry: gospel-centered teaching, gospel-centered values, and gospel-centered interactions. I covered gospel-centered teaching and values in Parts 1 and 2, which you can find here and here.
In these posts, we discovered that a gospel-centered ministry is a mindset more than anything else, and the third thing that shapes that mindset is gospel-centered interactions. By this, I mean demonstrating the spirit of the gospel for the kids in your relationships. There are dozens of ways to do this, but I will share seven that became clearest to me during my time in ministry:
Our gospel is an incarnate gospel. It’s about a God who came to earth and genuinely liked being with people. He brought children into His lap. He gathered around tables, hillsides, and shorelines with folks from every walk of life. He answered questions—even ridiculous ones, like who would be most significant in the kingdom of God. And He enjoyed asking questions, even though He already knew the answers. Why? Because asking questions produces conversation, and conversation draws out people’s hearts.
Therefore, to show our kids this incarnate gospel, we have to ask questions and then listen to them. Doing so reflects the heart of Christ. It shows them how much we see them, love them, and want to know them, which is exactly what God does with each of us.
Adults rarely apologize to children. This is probably because apologizing is a humbling experience, and we don’t want to look weak. But when you say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,” you are showing kids your need for the gospel. After all, as a sinner saved by grace, you are humbled at the foot of the cross, and you are weak in God’s sight. Apologizing models confession and repentance to kids and models your own need for the gospel.
Here’s a great litmus test for apologizing: if you would apologize to your mother, spouse, or best friend for doing whatever it was you did, then apologize to the child in your class for doing it.
3. Model preaching the gospel to yourself.
Use moments of sadness, frustration, disappointment, and more to help kids understand how the gospel message applies to their entire life.
For example, let’s say a child runs away from you when you’re trying to correct them. Perhaps they are running away out of shame or fear. When they finally sit down with you, you can explain that running away is something all humans like to do; even Adam ran away in the garden after sinning against God. But the great thing about the gospel is that we never have to run from God again. It doesn’t matter how many times we sin; we do not have to be ashamed because Jesus paid for our sin in full when He died on the cross.
4. Talk openly about your relationship with God.
These kids see you on Sundays and maybe one other day of the week. So talk about what your faith looks like the rest of the time! Talk about the prayers God has answered and the ones you’re still waiting on. Share what God is teaching through your personal Bible readings and how you are growing closer to Him. Ask the kids how their weeks with God went. Did they hear a new Bible story? Did they start praying something new?
The point here is to talk about Jesus normally and casually like He is an integrated part of your everyday life . . . because He is! This shows the kids your daily need for the gospel.
5. Do not show favoritism.
We do not show favoritism because God does not show favoritism. This is a massive aspect of the gospel. The gospel is offered to everyone, no matter where you are from, what you look like, how much money you have, etc. The gospel also affirms the dignity of every human being, declaring that all have been made in God’s image, fall short of the glory of God, and need His grace. All are equal in the sight of God.
To reject favoritism shows our kids that God does not prefer certain kinds of children over others, which is a message they might not hear anywhere else. If you sense yourself discriminating against a child in your ministry, address the issue right away through confession, repentance, and potentially asking for help from other leaders with that child.
6. Do not give up on them.
Children can be a challenge sometimes. They can act up and act out. I know all too well what it’s like to see “that kid” walk through the door and groan a bit internally.
Without the power of the gospel, we are just gritting our teeth and getting through the lesson. But because of the gospel, we know we are fully loved even in our sin. So by God’s grace, we don’t give up on our kids because they keep making the same mistakes. We ask Him for patience and perspective, and we trust that just as God is not finished with us, He is not finished with them.
7. Use personal illustrations when teaching the Bible.
This final idea is for teachers preparing a large-group lesson. Use personal illustrations in teaching. I suggest this for two reasons:
1) We want children to start empathizing with the people in the text.
2) We want kids to learn that none of us have “graduated from the gospel.”
By empathizing with people in the text, I mean instead of thinking of Jacob’s life as a historical lesson to learn from, we want the kids to think of Jacob as a real person, someone they can relate to, and someone who needed God too. Present Scripture less like a history book and more like a family-of-God story.
Consider a lesson on King Saul wanting to kill David. You could just tell the kids what happened and talk about how Jesus was a better king than Saul. You could also add something like this:
“King Saul is not the only one who struggled with jealousy. Just this week, I became jealous as I was scrolling through social media. My friend just got a new house, and I want one!
Did you get jealous of someone this week? The gospel reminds us that God does not withhold good things from us, and if He does, it’s because He knows that the good thing isn’t the best thing. Whenever you are jealous, remember that we can trust God to give us what we need because He is so good, He already gave us Jesus!”
Using personal, age-appropriate examples of how you still need the gospel as an adult shows that Christians never “graduate” from it.
In the end, a children’s ministry that prioritizes gospel-centered interactions is honest about our collective, desperate need for God. In such a ministry, the gospel is not stagnant. It is not something to simply learn or memorize. It is not a final point in a lesson or a formula for success. Instead, it’s our driving motivation for showing up in ministry. We want to give these kids the gospel just as we, ourselves, have encountered it.
For more on gospel-centered interactions, check out the following books:
Show them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids by Jack Klumpenhower
Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp
Give them Grace: Dazzling your Kids with the Love of Jesus by Elyse Fitzpatrick
Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus into the Everyday Stuff of Life by Jeff Vanderstelt