Want to Learn About God? Volunteer to Help Kids.
I am convinced that, to grow up, every young adult needs to spend some time volunteering with, tutoring, or coaching young kids. I recommend this whether the young adult is married with kids or single. No matter your athletic or artistic ability, no matter your income level or family background, every college kid or 20-something needs to take the opportunity to give back. They spent the majority of their growing up years on the receiving end of some level of investment by parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, directors, counselors, and possibly a number of church folk. It’s time they step into a role that helped make them who they are.
Our oldest daughter spends two hours every Tuesday afternoon at a church-turned-neighborhood ministry center in Joplin doing art projects with ‘latch-key’ elementary kids. Just about every time I hear someone talk about an experience like that, they normally say something like, “I learn as much from the kids as they learn from me.” There is a mutual benefit.
At an obvious level, the child’s life is enriched by an adult who knows their name, looks forward to seeing him or her each week, and has one more meaningful human connection in their life. But at a more subtle level, the young adult’s heart is expanded to realize their world doesn’t just revolve around their own schedule, homework, games, or activities. It’s a humbling thought that all they’ve received has been preparation for a life of service to the next generation. They start seeing themselves in the kids they help, and a growing sense of purpose and responsibility emerges.
“The young adult’s heart is expanded to realize their world doesn’t just revolve around their own schedule, homework, games, or activities.”
One huge reason this encouragement makes sense (at least in my own experience) is that, after the young adult spends some time in these roles, he or she begins to reconcile the actions and decisions of the adults of her childhood through the increasingly mature lens of their own adult experience. In other words, light bulb moments start to happen. Startling realizations occur.
- “Oh, this is why my parents did this or that when I was a kid.”
- “This is why my coach made that decision to bench me.”
- “I remember when a youth leader made me feel seen or valued, and now I get to do that for others.”
And, when that young adult has had a foundation of faith in Christ, it’s also possible for this to help them mature in their walk with God. They can begin to have more understanding of the compassion of God, the love of Christ, and the leading of the Spirit, as they have these consistent encounters with kids on the soccer team, baseball field, basketball court, dance studio, art class, or after-school math tutoring.
One reason I’m even writing about this (thanks for making it this far!) is because of an eye-opening experience of my own at the age of 30. I share this story because it illustrates how interacting with children taught me a lot about God.
“One reason I’m even writing about this is because of an eye-opening experience of my own at the age of 30.”
If you know me at all, you would never describe me as athletic. I tried little league baseball in 5th grade, was put in right field where nothing ever happened, and got one hit all season (I shut my eyes and just swung as hard as I could). I was on the C team for 7th grade basketball and didn’t make the team my 8th grade year. I didn’t letter in anything during high school, got decent grades, and was glad to turn my tassel and walk away from the whole thing.
Fast forward a dozen years. I’m married and have a young son who loves to run, play soccer, and wants to play coach-pitch baseball. A couple dads at our church ask if I’d like to help, and all I can think is how awkward organized sports have always been. But I say yes. I mean, how hard could this be? These kids are 8 years old. I can tie shoes. I can encourage. I own a baseball glove and am capable of using it.
Game time. Our team is in the field. The other team’s coach is pitching to his kids. I am stationed near 2nd base and shortstop. My job is to keep our kids focused and help them know where to throw the ball (the pitcher’s circle) if, by any snowball’s chance, some kid actually gets a hit. But you’re aware of the attention span of an 8-year-old. Dandelions are there to pick. Dirt is fun to kick. Moms are behind the fence with the camera.
“Dandelions are there to pick. Dirt is fun to kick.”
And here’s the pitch. Swing and a miss. I notice this kid actually has some coordination. I try to get my 2nd baseman to stop eating dirt and pay attention.
Another pitch. Foul tip, as the catcher falls over getting hit in the helmet with the ball. He scrambles to get up, find the ball, and return it to the coach. One more attempt to get said baseman to look up from his glove.
Pitch #3. The next few events took about four seconds, but I can still see every frame in my memory in slow-motion. I look to my left, and our 2nd baseman is staring intently at his glove, pondering the mysteries of leather laces, wondering when the game will be over and he can have a Juicy Juice box. I look at the pitch as it approaches the batter—an 8-year-old who looks 14 and has the beginnings of a mustache. He swings hard, makes contact, and I hear that unmistakable sound of baseball on metal. The crowd cheers! Miracle of miracles…it’s a fair ball. Even more incredible, it is not a grounder. In a split second of horror, I realize this line drive is going straight toward my very oblivious 2nd baseman.
“I realize this line drive is going straight toward my very oblivious 2nd baseman.”
I have a decision to make—and quickly.
Using all my geeky math and spatial skills (I did get decent grades), I calculate that the trajectory of this ball will likely do damage to this kid if he doesn’t wake up. What should I do?
- With two quick steps, I could move forward, put my glove in between the ball and the child’s head, and prevent pain and suffering. Easy out. I would be a hero. The kid would learn nothing.
- I could call out his name, but then he would just raise his head and get the ball in the face. Bad idea.
- I could do nothing, let the kid learn a lesson in preparedness, and possibly be asked to resign my position as The One Who Ties Shoestrings.
I opt for choice #3.
BAM! Ball hits boy in the head. Boy yelps and hits the ground. Boy begins to sob for his mother.
What happens next is kind of a blur in my mind. I feel awful. Our coach and the boy’s mother come out and carry him off the field. He may have never played baseball again for all I can recall. The runner gets stopped at 2nd base.
Okay, so I’ve kept you this long. What’s the point?
All of us have had to wrestle with the fact that pain happens. In life, people get clobbered seemingly out of nowhere, and then we get angry about it and ask God, “Why didn’t you keep that from happening?”
“Why didn’t you keep that from happening?”
To some degree (certainly not all pain in life can be explained this way), pain and consequences could be avoided if we were more watchful. The kid was playing a baseball game. There is the chance the ball could come his way. He wasn’t watching, wasn’t prepared, didn’t care. Had he been paying attention, he could have had his glove ready to attempt to catch that ball.
1 Peter 5:8-9 implores us as Christians, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (ESV).
The enemy never stops looking for the vulnerable, the isolated, and the unaware. And sometimes, I wonder if God allows the pain to teach us to get back to paying attention. And when it’s game time but we checked out—letting our guard down and getting whacked—our reaction can tell us a lot about how we view God. Some folks just quit the game, call God names, and walk away.
“Our reaction can tell us a lot about how we view God. Some folks just quit the game, call God names, and walk away.”
My heart hurt for that kid. My decision was one of the reasons he was injured. But I was also the first one to be beside him when he fell in pain to the ground. I felt the icy stares of his mom as she carried her boy off the field. Her kid was hurt, and her Mama Bear came out. She certainly wasn’t going to use that opportunity to explain to her boy how he should have been paying more attention. She needed someone to blame and decided my lack of intervention was the source.
Here’s something I learned about God through this sad experience. I wonder if God feels some of the same from us when we get hurt. Perhaps there are times that all the preparedness in the world wouldn’t have helped. On the field, people run into each other. People get hit by the ball. That kid could have had eyes on the ball, squared up for the catch, and it still could have bonked him on the nose. And I would have been there all the same.
This is why I’m saying young adults need to get involved, mentor, coach, help, or volunteer while they’re young—when they need maturing most and while they have relatively more time and energy. It’s a great way to learn to handle loss and pain, conflict or adversity, on a smaller level. As you minister to the boy who missed what would have been the game-winning shot, as you wipe the tears from the face of the girl who fell trying to nail that backflip, as you speak truth to the discouraged kid who believes all the lies about himself that you also struggled with, you learn the heart of God for them—and for you.
“You learn the heart of God for them—and for you.”
For example, you’ll learn that God isn’t just watching and laughing when you get hurt. He is close. He cares. It probably could have been worse. But you might never really know that if you don’t put yourself in a situation where you can identify with the pain of child.
If you are a young person, would you consider donating some time to investing in young kids? Or, if you have a teenager, college student, or 20-something in your house or your extended family, would you please personally share this article with them, perhaps over dinner? Create some conversation without starting an argument. I really think that taking some time to invest in younger kids could be some of the best life education and spiritual maturing they ever receive.