In Ecuador, an amazing: 27.5 percent of the population is under age 15. This percentage represents almost 5 million people—a lot of young lives to reach for Jesus. If you were to include Ecuadoran teens ages 15 to19, that’s more than 1 in 3 people across the country under age 20.
It’s no surprise, then, that the largest-attendance church in Ecuador has a thriving ministry to children and youth. What is surprising, though, is that their approach is quite simple, something any church of any size might try.
Start With a Nursery
Janice Smith gave birth to the last of her four children in 1986. The family had just moved to Ecuador as missionaries, and her husband, Jerry, became pastor of what was to be known as Guayaquil Christian Center, an Assembly of God church in Ecuador’s biggest city.
When the Smiths came to the church, attendance was about 50, but the church didn’t have a nursery for the children. So Janice built one. “When we got started, I literally baked and sold cakes to buy cribs for the nursery,” she recalls.
“God was moving here,” she adds. Every Sunday people were getting saved. The Smiths’ young children were soon joined in the new nursery by many more. And the children’s ministry quickly expanded beyond the nursery level.
From day one, Janice’s vision was never to babysit the children but to help them meet Jesus and grow spiritually. She had grown up as a pastor’s kid in a little church that called children to Christ. “I believe children can give their hearts to the Lord when they’re as young as 4 or 5, because I know I did,” she says.
She was not alone in her desire to minister to children. “My husband is very pro-children’s ministry. Too often the music and youth budgets trump children’s ministry.” Pastor Jerry Smith not only spoke passionately about reaching children, and did so regularly, but over time the church channeled an increasing amount of its budget into supporting the children’s program.
Today that budget and emphasis includes ministry to children with special needs, with trained staff to help.
Train Volunteers Well
Initially Janice handpicked volunteers for the children’s ministries and provided them with excellent training.
“We have all different social and economic classes of people in the church,” she says. “Just because you don’t get paid, it doesn’t mean you can be sloppy.”
Part of her training included having a doctor give a lecture on washing hands before taking care of a baby.
However, the biggest part of the training was spiritual and vision driven. As she recruited volunteers she’d affirm, “This is important work. If you want to be part of something that will transform lives, this ministry is vital to the kingdom of God.”
Expect something from volunteers, and they will live up to your expectations.
Another angle worked well for inviting adults to support and lead the children’s ministry. Janice would ask, “How many of you came to the Lord as children?” The usual response was only a few positives. “Wouldn’t coming [to Christ] as a child have kept you from making bad decisions?” Most people resonated with that idea.
“I just love the children,” Janice says. “I want people to see that we’re rescuing each child.”
Another recruiting angle is that the children love the ministry—and not just because they give out ice cream on occasion. When a child’s life is being changed for good, it’s natural for the parents to be willing to help out.
“Expect something from volunteers, and they will live up to your expectations,” Janice says. Like the Jim Collins book Good to Great, once you get that flywheel turning, it’s got its own momentum. People want to be part of it.
“Even if someone is living in a shack, and they want to serve the Lord, we convey: God wants to use you,” says Janice. So far, she’s had no shortage of volunteers.
Celebrate the Workers
When I visited this church, my translator and guide walked me through the Tierra Prometida (Promised Land) section of the building, with its brightly painted walls themed by various Bible stories. We also interviewed workers in an outdoor tent that housed youth ministries, since the church facility was once again stretched to the limits.
While the facilities and lively children were a definite wow, what impressed me most were the workers. I have not visited a church anywhere where the volunteers take so much personal pride in their ministry. One example their enthusiasm for the ministry: they personally purchase and proudly wear shirts with the Promised Land logo.
Their approach is quite simple, something any church of any size might try.
How have ministry leaders created a culture where volunteers rise to such a high bar of quality?
“We continually celebrate them,” Janice says. Today they have 600 volunteers and a children’s staff of a dozen. Their budget is not just for toys and curriculum (they currently are adapting the Orange curriculum), but also for celebrations. Once a month the workers have training where they celebrate that month’s birthdays. The ministries are broken down by age group: 7- and 8-year-olds, 9- and 10-year-olds, 11- and 12-year-olds, etc.
“We’ve given them the power and authority to minister to their people. We cheer them, support them, and based on their feedback, we keep continually tweaking our system,” Janice says.
What’s the future? There are a lot of children yet to be reached. “You’d have to be blind not to want to reach more of this generation,” Janice says. “People need the Lord, and we’ve got the answer!”
CENTRO CRISTIANO (GUAYAQUIL CHRISTIAN CENTER)
Senior Pastor: John Jerry Smith
Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is research director for Leadership Network and author or co-author of nearly 30 books for church leaders. Bird oversees Leadership Network’s list of global megachurches at LeadNet.org/world.