Years ago, comedian Mark Lowry told his story of growing up in a less-than-happy home. He was hyperactive and most adults did not know how to handle him. He was constantly in trouble at home and at school. He joked that his dad worked out a “two for one deal” with his teacher. When he got a paddling at school for misbehaving, he would get one at home as well! While Mark has many stories of the teachers who were endlessly frustrated with him, he recalled one teacher’s assistant who had a very different reaction. When Mark was fidgety or disruptive, this sweet older lady would take him for a walk. They would walk (or skip or jump or bounce) down the halls and talk. As Mark expelled his energy, the wise woman would manage clever ways to talk through the lesson that he was missing in the classroom. On a very serious note, the comedian would say that this woman changed his life. She was the first person who made him feel valued.
Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ – Luke 15:3-6
Jesus told this story in the context of salvation, but it really reveals the heartbeat of His Father. Every individual is incredibly valuable to Him. Every single one matters.
So how do we mirror the heart of the Father? First, we agree that it is worth our time to go after every child. Especially the difficult ones. Shouldn’t church be the one place that they aren’t constantly in trouble? Shouldn’t church be the one place where they feel valued? Shouldn’t church be the place where we look deeply to find the wonderful traits God has knit into them and call those to the surface? This in no way implies permitting disruptive or disrespectful behavior! It just means that we need to go out of our way to find out what triggers the unwanted behavior, give grace for what we can, and let each child know how valuable he or she is to God.
Here's a good place to start:
1. Find a way to connect with the parent outside of church to see what’s going on at home and to work together to set the child up for success. And when you see success–no matter how small–go out of your way to share it with the child and the parent. Positive reinforcement is a strong motivator (and one word of encouragement to a parent of a high-needs child can be the fuel they need to get through an entire week.)
2. Small Group leaders, talk to your co-leader and leadership team if you have one. They may see something you are missing, or may have experience with the child that can give you insight. Everyone should be on board with the plan you put in place.
3. Oftentimes the “one” will need individual attention. Find a volunteer who can be your go-to person when a child needs some space and grace. This will be a person with an abundance of patience who will take the child out of the group and pour into him or her individually. (Remember, an adult and child should never be alone in a secluded place. This one-on-one time should be done in an open, very visible space.) It may seem overwhelming to find yet another volunteer, but ask God and He will provide. There might be a gifted adult who loves a challenge, or one who prefers one-on-one discipleship. It might even be someone who was once this type of child. You never know how God will meet the need!
Of course, throughout the process, pray. Pray that these kids reject any lies that they have heard about who they are. And pray they believe the truth that they are the apple of God’s eye (Psalm 17:8), uniquely knit together to know Him, love Him and praise Him.