“Van ministry is hard work with many challenges.”
This statement would receive amens and nods from anyone who has tried to reach unchurched community children through a van ministry and mid-week church programs.
Some of the difficulties associated with van ministry include:
– Finding van drivers
– Discipline issues with some of the children
– Lack of parental support and involvement
– Disparaging remarks from uninvolved church members
– Discouragement due to the sparseness of lasting fruit
None of these maladies, however, has stopped, or slowed, a valiant 20-year children’s van outreach at New Mount Carmel Baptist Church in New Concord, located in rural Calloway County. The church, which has about 55 Sunday morning attenders, is to be commended for its prayerful and diligent effort in leading children to follow Jesus.
The children’s outreach ministry started without a precedent in 1995 when church members occasionally would use its Dodge van to pick up children within a few miles of the church for Wednesday night Royal Ambassadors, Girls in Action and Acteens programs.
In 2001, a local businessman gave the church several baked hams that were left over at Christmastime. One of the men in the church mentioned that several children he taught on Wednesday nights were often hungry when they came.
Brenda Stubblefield, a longtime member, asked permission to use the donated hams to feed the children who came on the church van. This simple donation of a few hams and some willing volunteers has multiplied into a 20-year ministry that now feeds about 50 children every Wednesday night.
The weekly outreach program involves the entire church. They send out one van three times to pick up most of the 50 children. Stubblefield prepares a meal of meat, vegetables and dessert. She says, “The children eat better here than they do at school.”
Several volunteers serve the meal to the children in a large activities building. The teachers then divide the children into six age-graded classes and Bible instruction begins. The program is funded partially by the church and partially by anonymous donors who learned of the good work and want to support it.
Stubblefield and Pastor Stephen Gannaway said that 95 percent of the children who participate come from broken homes. In some cases, there is a single mom with a man who is not the children’s father. Some children live with grandparents. Many are medicated due to ADHD or other mental and emotional issues.
The work is not easy and can be tiring. Stubblefield said she has cooked more macaroni and cheese in the past years than the church building could hold.
The church also does an admirable job of reaching out to the families of the children by hosting several events each year and including the children in special services.
New Mount Carmel has seen a few families drift into the life of the church as a result of the ministry. Over the years they have seen a good number of the children profess Christ as Savior and be baptized.
One, who is now an adult, came by recently as he was passing through the area to give Stubblefield a big hug and say, “How did y’all ever put up with us?”
The local children discover the ministry through word of mouth. Stubblefield and Pastor Gannaway agreed that the kids do the best advertising.
Recently a little boy named Jesus (pronounced Hey-suess) asked if he could ride the church van and start coming to the outreach. “It’s the kids who get the kids, and it has always been that way,” Stubblefield said.
What are some takeaways for a church that wants to reach out to children the way New Mount Carmel does?
1. Children’s outreach is not church growth ministry: When they first started ministering to the children, they were told, “If you’re expecting children’s ministry to bring new members, forget it.”
2. Children’s outreach requires a key visionary and responsible leader: While multiple volunteers are needed, a key person who has credibility in the church and who will work tirelessly and champion the cause is essential.
3. Children’s outreach requires a missions mindset: Van ministry will require sacrifice with little return to the church’s financial bottom line. The church must see the need to reach the children for Christ.
4. Children’s outreach is an opportunity to reach families: There is much a church can do throughout the year to reach out to, pray for, and minister to the unchurched or de-churched families. Children’s ministry opens the door into their homes.
5. Children’s outreach is tiring: The church must find ways to encourage and care for adult volunteers who minister to the children.
6. Children’s outreach is valuable: The children who live within a few miles of New Mount Carmel are loved in the name of Jesus by an organized team of adults. They will always remember that a local church loved them in Jesus’ name.
7. Children’s outreach is needed: Most churches will offer programs for the children of members. There must, however, be some churches that will minister and share Christ with the unreached children of the community. The reason we must reach out to children is because our Lord Himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). (WR)