‘Risky’ Business

Want to change your community? Start by ministering to at-risk kids

Charles Schulz once said, “No problem is too big to run away from.” Clever wisdom for Charlie Brown, for sure. But challenges need solutions; ignoring or fleeing them rarely helps anyone.

Every community faces challenges they can’t and shouldn’t run away from (sorry, Charlie). For local churches, this provides significant opportunities to engage neighbors. Demonstrate the relevance of your ministry to the people you seek to reach by joining the discussions about issues they believe are important. And while you’re there, offer a solution.

For example, many churches focus on data that shows youth walking away from church after high school. This is an important issue—but not a matter that people outside your church care much about. On the other hand, the high school dropout rate is an issue that commands public interest. One in four students doesn’t finish high school, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. Yes, this is a big public problem, but one that any church can help address.

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As president of Kids Hope USA, I see hundreds of churches providing a solution. Ironically, it’s a program I never knew existed during my tenure as children’s ministry director for a large church. At the heart of this solution lies the power of a child-adult relationship, which wasn’t a new concept for me. The “ah-ha” moment came when I saw how a child-mentor relationship will positively influence the academic performance, attitude and behavior of at-risk elementary school children.

Churches partnering with schools? Yes. And this solution turns into pure community excitement when the connection is made to the challenge of keeping students in school.

Let’s visit Allegan, Mich. Several years ago, 16 at-risk children at North Ward Elementary School received a Kids Hope USA mentor from Allegan United Methodist Church. All of these children recently graduated from high school. The mentoring program can’t claim sole credit, but it does get a portion of it. And such credit endears a church to its community.

Poverty, unstable families and a host of other social and emotional issues make it difficult for some children to learn. What they need is an I-believe-in-you relationship with a caring adult who is, in the words of renowned psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, “Crazy about that kid.” By going to the school to see that child one hour each week, a mentor affirms the child’s value, gives him the confidence to try and invites him to dream.

Hope College’s Frost Research Center compiled data that explains what the 16 students experienced. The center surveyed teachers who reported that in programs like the school-church partnership, 99.3 percent of children benefited in academics, behavior, attitude and motivation to learn.

No wonder schools asking for such programs outnumber the churches available to help. That reality will change as churches understand the heart impact they make when they help struggling kids turn their lives around. That impact, in turn, changes families, school staffs and entire communities.

Schulz also said: “A whole stack of memories never equal one little hope.” Unfortunately, swelling numbers of at-risk kids today—unlikely to attend church—experience a childhood that provides undesirable memories. Churches have an opportunity to provide a solution to this issue: hope.

Trust me, your community will love you for it.

David Staal is the president of Kids Hope USA and author of Words Kids Need to Hear. He previously served as the director of the children’s ministry of Willow Creek Community Church. Learn more at kidshopeusa.org.

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