I would like to examine the typical bus ministry in a local church. My desire is to get a “biblical” philosophy on how to use a bus in a local church and to attack some unbiblical things that I see greatly abusing God’s work in relationship to this. What we want to do is to develop a general ministry philosophy on how to do a bus ministry. In my defense, I will say that I have never had my own bus ministry, but I was placed in charge of one that had about 200 children coming in, and I oversaw what was already set up.
Clarification: I do not believe it is a sin to use a bus, van, or individual cars to pick up people and bring them to church. This is not the issue here. Many churches have buses that run to pick up whole families, and individual adults (elderly, or poor) and in these, children are brought in with these adults. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of thing. I think it is the healthy, wholesome kind of ministry that any church that can do it, and needs to do it, should do it. That ministry is not what I am directing this article against. I think that kind of bus use is tremendous, and I would encourage churches to take that option if they feel lead of the Lord to do so.
Philosophy Point: Is it right to target children?
Matt 19:13 Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. Matt 19:14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Matt 19:15 And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.
Mark 10:14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Mark 10:15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.Mark 10:16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
The context of these two verses is very simply, the disciples didn’t think that children were able to understand the preaching and teaching of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven, i.e. salvation and all that goes with it. Jesus debunks that and accepts them.
We begin here because most bus ministries are targeting children in their bus work. Is targeting children biblical? Jesus said not to prevent the children from coming to him (Mat 19:14; Mark 10:14). What was happening in this passage? The disciples were purposefully keeping the children away and apart from Jesus’ preaching thinking that a child cannot understand the gospel. But let’s be very, very clear here.
To me, if you think about it, the disciples wanted a segregated church service with the children someplace else, out of the main preaching service where the adults were. This is the evil that Jesus addressed here. Children can understand the gospel just as easily as an adult, and in Mark 10:15, he goes beyond that to make the point that the real hidden problem they touched on is not children have problems understanding the gospel, but adults do. If an adult doesn’t become like a child (somehow), he will never see heaven.
So exactly how does that work with our real history? I mean, think about the entire Sunday School movements that started with Raike back several hundred years ago? Is it wrong to separate out children from our adult church services?
First of all, I think that there is a keen point of getting the children out of the service (to do nothing with them) and to separate the children for services that are directly adapted for them. To just get “rid of them” for an hour or so would be wrong, though many churches practice this. They have nurseries which have no spiritual teaching, just keep them quiet. The alternative is often unpleasant, small children in the worship service making a scandal. I think babies are different from small children. A baby, well, you are not going to do anything spiritually with a baby except pray for it.
Small children should be trained to sit still and listen. (No electronic devices either!) Some say “you cannot do that. It is impossible, and you do not understand children.” I am 50+ pushing 60, and in my childhood, my parents did exactly that. The fact that I spent many a Sunday morning in the worship service bored to tears, and daydreaming is true. But I also heard many a sermon and some of them did get through to me over time. I don’t recall any Sunday School class that really moved me. What did move me spiritually (discussions that shaped and formed me spiritually) were in Sunday AM sermons. My mom and dad regularly rebuked us and made us sit still and “listen”, at least not appear to be distracted. We could bring no toys, and if I remember correctly, any toy that we brought to church was thrown in the trash on coming back home. I didn’t want to lose my toys, so I left them at home.
I think that at different stages and ages, different children “become aware” of the spiritual things of life. Often this is a little here, a little there. In the process, a lot of teaching and preaching falls on deaf ears. Yes, this is true. But at the same time, I see nothing different between this situation with children and what happens regularly with fully grown adults. They are distracted and “not there” in the sermon, and it is only when they insist on being in services every Sunday that eventually “some stuff” gets through to them spiritually, and they begin to grow and mature as a Christian.
Bribes and Coercion
I think the main thing that I have against the Jack-Hyles style of working with children is that that approach is totally wrong. Instead of trying to reach a family by reaching the parents, specifically the dad, they go backward. If you get the dad, usually you also get the mom and children as an extra thing. If you get the children, you rarely get the mom, and almost never get the dad. It is curious that many times when you do get the dad and mom, they pull their children out of the bus ministry altogether. Not just riding the bus, but also not participating in the bribery that goes on there.
The fact of the matter is that there is no real conversion going on in these bus ministries. I worked in such a ministry for a while, and what I saw was the same kids “getting saved” sometimes two dozen times in a single year. If they are saved, then why would they come forward again? It is because the workers push for decisions, and when the kids “get saved” (raise their hands or whatever), the workers don’t really explain the gospel very well. The kids understand this favorable treatment by the workers that they have done something good, and that goes along with getting candy and things. They do it again. There is no understanding in the majority of these kids as to what they did when they accepted Christ, and this is in spite of belabored exhortations to do so.
Children can be saved, even at a young age. But they are fragile in their understanding, and coercion to get them to “do things” (like bribery or threats) often destroy the very spiritual act we are seeking in them. When you mix the two (coercion and the gospel), the gospel is always the one that suffers.
What should church workers do then? Understand that it is not a good thing “to just get them in the door at any cost”. When the children expect a bribe every Sunday, then you can prostitute your ministry using worldly methods. Instead of doing that, use any kind of treat as an unknown surprise that is occasionally done, and usually not according to what would be expected (i.e. Easter, Christmas, etc).
Using programs that compete is also not good.
2Co 10:12 For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.
Man wants to be approved and rewarded on the basis of how much better he or she does something than somebody else. This goes all the way down to the most basic human nature, and here we talk about kids. Instead of rewarding one kid for inviting 3 friends to church, why not place the moral burden that if we are saved, we should be reaching other people for Christ. There is a world of difference between the two. In the one, as long as there is a reward, the kids will work. But they are not doing the work of God, they are working for more candy. When they leave that situation, they will immediately stop inviting anybody to church. If they graduate into adulthood, they don’t continue in this practice normally.
But if you teach saved kids to reach their friends for Christ, inviting them to church is only a step. Praying seriously for them, speaking to them about spiritual things, and also actually knowing Scripture verses to witness directly to them are all going to happen along with inviting. These activities are spiritual, and they are going to continue for all of the person’s life if implemented early (especially).
To me as a missionary and pastor, a lot of the silly things ministries do for children is off-base. We need to be training them in the things of God. The process cannot be altered without gutting it of the spiritual power inherent in it. We must actually read Scripture and explain it in a convincing way to motivate our people. That must be the principle motivation for change and for action in our people. We do what we do because it pleases God. If we miss that central, key point and start making other motivations (physical rewards, fame, public recognition, etc) as our primary motivation, then we prostitute the ministry, and it becomes something it isn’t supposed to be.
How to Correct a Misguided Bus Ministry
If you stop giving candy and prizes to these kids, a 400 kid bus ministry will be reduced to 20 or so in no time. Yes, that is true. But understand that this is exactly the complaint. These kids are not listening to anything you say (as evidenced by their dropping off when there are no tangible, eatable rewards). A few will still come because they get no attention at home, and the bus worker is the only person in their life except their school teacher that actually listens to them and shows some kind of “care” and “interest” in them really. Parents are just placeholders for a real mom and dad in their life.
So this is what needs to be understood. Instead of having 400 and actually doing nothing with them spiritually, it is better to have 50 and really make an impression on them, with them really getting saved. So many times in these types of ministries, the parents stay in bed on Sunday AM and the kids go to church. The church can press the parents to come to Sunday School with their kids. That is what we want. But most bus ministries pass over this completely. When the kids memorize verses, take part in Bible verse drills, or do something more spiritually oriented, and then they have a recognition day with a meal after it, the parents are more obligated to come (not to church, but to hear what their kids are doing), and then you present the gospel forcefully to the parents. If you use the kids as a point of contact, dragging the parents, then you get a different result.
I think that witnessing to the parents is the number one goal in a children’s ministry. You have a foot in the door, but you are not pressing the parents to get involved in church, and that is a failure.
Rather than focusing on pure numbers present, and pressuring for decisions, we need to focus on real salvation experiences that result in people’s lives being changed.
Bus Ministry versus Foreign Missionaries
I was in a bus workers conference this year. I am a missionary, and a pastor invited me to a “Pastor’s Conference” to meet new pastors which turned out to just be a bus workers conference. What I heard there was very disturbing to me. Two different speakers, one a bus worker, and the other a very well known pastor, both took pot shots at foreign missionaries.
The gist of what they were saying was to berate any church that sends money to foreign missionaries at all until they had at least several buses and bus ministry in place. Things like “foreign missionaries waste a lot of money and get nothing done“, etc. were thrown about rather freely. My thought was why don’t you go door to door witnessing to entire families instead of focusing so much on bus ministries? I have been a foreign missionary for 30+ years now, and we have a nearby church that has a huge bus ministry. They go out canvassing kids to pick them up for the bus routes, and we go out every Saturday telling people how to go to heaven, both kids and parents, and anybody that will listen. I cannot understand how somehow what I am doing is lesser, or the worst expenditure of church money that there is.
The fact of the matter is that it is a total cop out on the Great Commission to focus your external activities on “joining our bus route” “come to church on the bus and we will give you candy”, instead of Jesus died on the cross for your soul, and you need to trust in him. Our “gospel” is the first thing out of our mouth when we interact with unknown people in society and life. A Jehovah’s Witness will talk about coming judgment but never get to Jesus as Saviour. A Calvinist will press election, but not offer Salvation to the person so that they can become saved.
The bus ministry gospel is a different gospel from what Christ and the apostles gave us in the New Testament. Every bus worker will be held accountable in eternity for having made a contact on Saturday with a home, and then not clearly presented as the most important thing the gospel given to us. The focus of this bus ministry mentality is not on taking that often single opportunity to share the Gospel directly, and instead, the workers cop out, just inviting these people kids essentially to a party. You misrepresent what you are doing. When the kids start bringing spiritual things back home, the parents get mad because you invited them to a glorified weekly Sunday morning party with other kids.
Truth is the flag that flies over God’s church. Being direct and to the point is what is characteristic of God’s army. Deception is Satan’s trick, and his army uses it often. What do we want from these parents? Do we want them (the parents) to accept Christ and come to our church? Yes. That should be the primary goal. If they come, they will bring their kids. You do not need to go to the kids at all. In fact, you are doing them a disservice by taking the kids to church on a bus instead of giving them a way to “get their kids religion” while they stay in bed and be good pagans. You are facilitating their sinful resistance of Christ.
The complaint is that “well, we do get at least the kids”. But in so doing, you lose most opportunities with their parents. Why not shift all the focus off of a bus ministry for kids, and focus it on reaching the parents of each home with the gospel. Have a bus service of picking up anybody that wants to come. Specifically, require at least one adult on the bus for every child that comes on the bus. Why not? Because you are looking for numbers to brag to others about, and you are not really committed to really getting people saved!