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Exit Strategy

Peter Christian Olsen

We want kids to follow Jesus -- here's how to show them the door to helping others.

"Daddy, what are you doing?"

"Oh, just trying to fix Mommy's car."

There's silence for a while.

"Daddy, can I help you?"

"Well, there isn't much you can do."

Again there's silence.

"I can get the tools for you," my daughter says as she reaches for the toolbox.

Suddenly, all my nuts and bolts scatter across the garage floor.

"Please, Kimberly," I say. "Just leave things alone."

More silence.

"Daddy, please can I help you?"

"Well, watching is helping," I reply.

She stands in silence for a while, watching, but soon leaves. Like all children, mine were inquisitive. No matter what I was doing, they usually wanted to help. But I thought adult work was too complicated and beyond their present capabilities, so I'd often respond, "Well, watching is helping." It all came back to haunt me as they entered their adolescent years. Their inquisitiveness and natural inclination for helping began to wane. They grew more self-absorbed. I wondered, Had I set a precedent that discouraged volunteering and wanting to help? Had I inhibited or otherwise squashed a natural tendency to be generous in my own children?

Almost from infancy, children exhibit a strong sense of generosity, of wanting to do something significant to help others. Children, sometimes unconsciously, want to make a difference -- but because of years of adults inflicting on them the "watching is helping" syndrome, they're rendered immobilized and atrophied. Kids encounter many obstacles and strong resistance to their slightest efforts at being generous due to adults' "protective" gene -- when really we ought to be exposing them to opportunities to express their budding generosity.

Watching is not helping. We often discourage children's natural generosity by redirecting their offers to help with lame excuses such as "you're not mature enough" or "you're too young." Perhaps we don't realize that by restraining kids' inclination to help, we can arrest their growth of generosity. As a consequence, far too many children-turned-adults remain on the sidelines while offering little in the way of care and concern for others and for a hurting world.

Looking for the Exit

Jesus was onto something when he spent so much of his time and resources trying to convince us to care about what happens to other people, especially people we don't know or don't like (the Samaritan, lepers, the woman at the well, the possessed, the poor). Jesus clearly believed that helping others isn't just a responsibility we have by virtue of our knowing a loving and caring God. It's more than that. Our humanity in Jesus, by its very nature, harbors a spiritual need to feel benevolent. Generosity is a spiritual intuition. It's in our DNA as created by God. We glorify God by how we show generosity to others (Matthew 25:31-46).

One Sunday while sharing the Kid's Connection -- our children's sermon time -- I asked the group what they thought was the most important door of the church. I hoped I was encouraging them to think about coming to church more often. Without hesitation, one young girl eagerly waved her hand.

"The exit," she said. My suspicion was she was probably expressing her annoyance at having to sit through one too many long sermons.

"Why," I asked, "is the exit important?"

"Because," she replied as if she'd been waiting for just this question for a very long time, "only after we leave can we do what Jesus asks us to do: help other people."

We invite children, even entire families, into our ministries and churches promising a prescription for purpose in life, a focus for the future, and a connection with God. We keep them in the church with a preoccupation with the church's agenda. To understand the gospel mandate, however, is to have an "exit minded" philosophy; to see the exit as the threshold to the world, outside where Christians are meant to serve. Expressing generosity toward others is at the foundation of the Christian community's life and faith (Matthew 25); it needs to also be at the center of our mission to children.

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